Tag Archives: English Intellectual History

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