Where’s the Light?


Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity:

The British, French and American Enlightenments


[Introductory Note: This commentary is another which I first wrote in in 2009, also based on a book I pulled off the shelf at my favorite used book shop in Washington, D.C. that year, while on leave from my mission in Bulgaria.  I’ve since come to the conclusion that “The Roads to Modernity,” published in 2004, is an important work because it challenges accepted notions of the 18th century Enlightenment.  I’ve always found the terms “Enlightenment” and “Enlightenment values” to be slippery ones, used loosely, without single governing definitions (I am faced with a similar situation in my day job, where the term “rule of law” dominates the agenda, but without a single or accepted definition — and few in my field consider this a problem).  Gertrude Himmelfarb is therefore to be lauded for her effort to bring some precision to the historical notion we term the Enlightenment. 


Himmelfarb is closely associated with the neo-conservative movement, which I wrote about in reviews in mid-2012.  She is the wife of the late Irving Kristol, one of the founding fathers of neo-conservatism, and the mother of William Kristol, a well-known American conservative commentator.  Some of her scholarship can be seen as having a partisan edge, and the closer her subject approaches the present, the more tendentious I find her writing to be.  But her views of the Enlightenment deserve serious attention, even from those who do not share her political outlook.] 


In “The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments,” Gertrude Himmelfarb details three distinctive forms of the “forward march of the human spirit” – Denis Diderot’s definition of the Enlightenment — in the 18th century in the three countries most frequently associated with modern democracy, Great Britain, France and the United States.  Himmelfarb makes her purpose clear at the outset: she seeks to “reclaim” the Enlightenment “from the French who have dominated and usurped it” (p.3).  For Himmelfarb, the French Enlightenment elevated reason and saw it as diametrically opposed to religion, with insidious side effects. 


In Great Britain and the United States, by contrast, reason did not have that preeminent role and religion was not the paramount enemy.  The driving force of the British Enlightenment was not reason but “social virtues,” whereas in America it was “political liberty.”  For both, reason was an “instrument for the attainment of the larger social end, not an end in itself,” with religion an “ally, not an enemy” (p.19).  In Himmelfarb’s view, the contributions of 18th century American and British thought to modernity and modern democracy far surpass those of France.  Indeed, to Himmelfarb, France’s contributions are antithetical to democracy.  


In her brutal dissection of the French Enlightenment, Himmelfarb contends that  esteemed philosphes Diderot and Voltaire were elitists who were contemptuous of  common people.  Voltaire’s contempt led him to a cynical espousal of religion for the lower classes, as a means of keeping them in line, with the more enlightened elements of the population eschewing backward religious practices (Himmelfarb excuses a similar tendency of some of the American founding fathers, p.211).  Disdaining Christianity, Voltaire was even more disparaging of Judaism.  To associate the French Enlightenment with democracy, moreover, is to ignore the historical record.  The philosophes favored enlightened despotism and embraced Rousseau’s collective notion of the general will, which Himmelfarb considers inherently hostile to individual liberty (p.167).   


            Himmelfarb also seeks to establish that there was in fact a distinctive 18th century British Enlightenment, a point at odds with conventional academic wisdom.  In addition to Adam Smith and David Hume (whom some scholars see as representatives of a distinctly Scottish Enlightenment), she finds both Edmund Burke and John Wesley central to the English Enlightenment.  A host of sentiments, which Himmelfarb summarizes by “social virtues” or “moral sense” – benevolence, compassion, sympathy, “fellow-feeling,” a natural affection for others– comprised the “social ethic that informed British philosophical and moral discourse” in 18th century Britain” (p.33). 


18th century Britain was also characterized by a “conspicuous absence of the kind of animus to religion – certainly nothing like the warfare between reason and religion – that played so large a part in the French Enlightenment” (p.38). In contrast to France, British moral philosophy was “reformist rather than subversive, respectful of the past and present even while looking forward to a more enlightened future” (p.51).  Himmelfarb quotes de Tocqueville’s observation that he found in England what he had been deprived of in France, a “union between the religious and political world, between public and private virtue, between Christianity and liberty” (p.52). 


If social virtues were at the forefront of philosophical speculation and social policy in 18th century Britain, in America these virtues constitute a backdrop to “political liberty,” the principles and institutions appropriate to a new republic.  “As it was liberty that was the driving force of the American Enlightenment, so it was political theory that inspired the Constitution, designed to sustain the new republic” (p.191-92).  Like the  British, and in contrast to the French, Americans did not turn against religion itself.  “Instead, they incorporated religion, of almost every degree and variety, into the mores of society” (p.207).  The Founders in America “did not look upon religion as the enemy of liberty” and American churches did not “look upon liberty as the enemy of religion” (p.211). 


Himmelfarb raises many points worthy of a good academic debate.  Should we really speak of three (or more) Enlightenments?  Peter Gay, a towering authority on the Enlightenment, considers it a single phenomenon radiating out from France, as Himmelfarb acknowledges.  Was the French Enlightenment as unenlightened as Himmelfarb contends?  One of my most memorable college teachers was a leading authority on Diderot who taught his clueless undergraduates to revere not only Diderot but also Voltaire and the other 18th century French philosophes.  Several decades later, I am not ready to discard this deeply inculcated reverence.  Further, I wonder whether Burke, seminal theorist though he was, should be considered an Enlightenment thinker.  One can answer these questions differently from Himmelfarb, yet be impressed by the cogency and readability of her – dare I say “enlightening”? — work. 


Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

January 13, 2013



Filed under English History, French History, United States History

13 responses to “Where’s the Light?

  1. Dirk Ehlert

    Gold star for this one, Tom. Excellent … thank you … Dirk

    • thanks Dirk — very good to hear from you, Dirk, I hope all is well with you and your family

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  2. Dwight

    Very timely, Tom, thank you. It is timely because I blathered the following on a political site, just last night. I was responding to a column blasting the prayer at the inaugural for not explicitly mentioning God:

    The humanist men of the Enlightenment, and our Founders perceived (new) human rights and “chose” to call them God-given. Natural rights or human rights is what they are, but such terms do not work as well, rhetorically. I cannot recall many of these “God-given” rights which are enumerated in the Constitution and the Amendments as being particularly or consistently Biblical. Basically, God says, “I made you, I love you? Do what I say…or else.” Or do the Ten Commandments posit human rights by implication? One has the right not to have things done to him or herself which the Ten Commandments forbid? It works for not killing, but is it a God-given right not to have your neighbor covet your stuff? Jesus softens it and preaches loving thy neighbor (one would assume, even if he is a liberal). Is this loving the neighbor what Christians see as the “God-given rights” or some other rights? If so, these rights were pretty much lost from the time of Jesus up until the Enlightenment.
    Doesn’t God, especially the Old Testament one, see human rights as basically a stiff-necked, most likely fallen, evil thing, which is likely to get the fiery serpents sent into the humans’ midst? Isn’t the idea to give up your human INDIVIDUALITY to do what God says? What do rights have to do with it? Didn’t the rights finally come from men perceiving a need for freedom and then having them SAY they were God-given, because that was the rhetorical coin of the realm, as Jefferson and Lincoln knew so well. Use King James language and cadence and it carries a lot more weight. They did not do this because they were (particularly) duplicitous, but simply because they knew it worked. Four score and ten years ago…etc. I suppose that one could argue that a new God came to Lincoln about the time of Antetiem. There had to be some power out there to make this mass slaughter somehow worthwhile.
    Anyway, one could deduct less than a score of style points from Ms. whoever-she is, but in terms of politics and governance, it seems to me that the way she puts it is about right. Oops, then she throws in Jesus name, which makes our essayist even more outraged.

    God = something larger than we are, something larger than our own individual rights. In the past, a King was substituted for God; now it is in the voting done in a democratic republic. There is a conservative impulse (or trick) here to say that because the Founders invoked God, that God had something to do with the God-given rights the Founders gave. I’ll give the imperfect Founders more credit than God, although it may have been a new God, an Enlightenment God, an American God, which spoke to them, just as an Abolitionist God spoke to Garrison and Brown. But just as that God was different from the God of the Middle Ages, one might posit that a post slavery, post New Deal God, might be a tad different as well. And apparently God has changed for BOTH sides. The God of the right is now offended by liberals, whereas before he used to be offended by evil mankind in general.
    If God works for you to make you a better person, then God bless you, but if He works to make you peevish about his name not being mentioned in government speech, then I guess he is a useful God to club someone over the head with, always a handy thing.
    Thus endeth the ramble.
    Not quite ended: the new God is not JUST ” the voting done in a democratic republic,” but also the tradition which has developed in the past votes of that republic and the way it has chosen to define and redefine itself. The Constitution obviously has plenty of power and value, but not because it came from God (which it does not mention) but because it was voted in, even if by hook and by crook, accepting slavery, etc. Supposedly, God never changes, humans change. The evidence is that BOTH change, and thank…somebody, often, if not exclusively, for the better.

    • Dwight, wow! What side of bed did you get out of in the morning? As in those halycon ’60s days, you’re not a guy to be messed with! Gordon Wood, by the way, has somewhere written a good piece about how basically irrelgious our founding fathers were, for the most part highly spkeptical of tranditional religion, notwithstanding a lot of references to God.

      • Dwight

        I was a little more mellow when I followed up the above in response to another poster’s response. He wrote (avoiding chronic name-calling for once):
        “The evidence is that BOTH change”
        There is nothing new under the sun, man is still hopelessly sinful yet still made in God’s image, and God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Hebrews 13:8

        Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

        and then I wrote:

        “I love Ecclesiastes, but I am not quite prepared to say that there is NOTHING new under the sun.
        If we see God and Jesus as kind of a magnetic force toward the good, then we can say that this (never-changing?) force works on men AS THEY ARE in each succeeding generation. For Abraham, it convinces him that he does not need to sacrifice his son, it convinces David that he can stand against Goliath, but assumedly it is not what convinces him to have his Hallelujah broken with Bathsheba. It is not hard for us (or is it just me?) to understand the God that Garrison and Brown were hearing, but what were the Southerners hearing when they thumbed their Bibles and found the justification for slavery? Are anti-abortionists also hearing God when they hear the voices of the dead foetuses crying out? It does not seem so to me, but maybe I am as blind as those southerners were, and one day the scales will fall from my eyes.
        The most hopeful thing to do, vis a vis there being a beneficent God, is to affirm that he was the force behind the positive things, and that properly understood, he never really did want human sacrifice or slavery and that those who said they were serving God by engaging in such things were misguided or duplicitous. Not everyone who cries “God, God” is apparently in touch with same, but some are, and the world overall, I think, is a better place for it.”
        I think that watching “The Abolitionists” on PBS recently has had an effect.

  3. Jay Golden

    I really enjoyed your latest review. Did not know Himmelfarb was wife and mother to both conservative Kristols. Also agree with you on the nebulous use of RoL. I am guilty myself in using the term to cover the “waterfront.” I have seen several military JAGs take a stab at defining or confining the term, but not as coherently as I would have liked to have seen. I may read this one. My curiosity or appetite for the subject was definitely whetted by the review.

  4. Many thanks, Jay, and thanks also to Dirk — very good to hear from you, Dirk, I hope all is well with you and your family. Dwight, wow! What side of bed did you get out of in the morning? As in those halycon ’60s days, you’re not a guy to be messed with!

  5. Tom Fagan

    Best one yet Tom. I plan to shamelessly steal from it for use in my “Isms” classes this semester and beyond.

    • Thanks for the nice comment, Tom. I hope you appreciated the reference to Prof. Arthur M. Wilson. Boy, would I have loved to sit in on a debate between him and Himmelfarb on Diderot. I’m sure Arthur would have been a forceful and eloquent advocate for poor Denis.

      Thomas H. Peebles
      Regional Director, Central and Eastern Europe
      1331 F Street, N.W., # 650
      Washington, D.C. 20004-1107
      Telephone: 202-514-9310
      Fax: 202-616-6770
      Mobile: 202-436-2226
      Email: thomas.peebles@usdoj.gov  

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