The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments , by Gertrude Himmelfarb. Alfred A. Knopf, 272 pages, $25.
Europe and North America in the second half of the 18th century thought of themselves as enlightened. Images of light and enlightenment sparkle through the philosophy, the sermons, the journalism, even the commercial prospectuses of the age.
Historians have largely taken the 18th century at its own estimation. The Enlightenment (with definite article) was to the 20th century a sort of mental sea change that swept away the dilapidated superstitions and tyrannies of the Christian West before coming to grief in the atrocities of the French Revolution.
More recently, the postmodernists have attacked the very notion of enlightenment. They question whether 18th-century notions of liberty or natural law or the rights of man had any meaning in the age of Bedlam and Newgate, the slave trade and overseas empires. Traditional historians have sought to dismantle the old intellectual monoliths and distinguish different species of “enlightenment” in different cities and social milieus.
For example, to develop an idea of the late British historian Roy Porter, those who think atheism and the cult of reason are the chief components of Western modernity would naturally look to the slogans (if not the actual practice) of the French philosophes, such as Denis Diderot and the circle that produced the monumental Encyclopèdie.
If, on the other hand, sentiment or economics are more your line, then you would head for Edinburgh; if political liberty and lightning conductors, Philadelphia; if pots, canals and steam engines, Birmingham; and if metaphysics, Königsberg.
Gertrude Himmelfarb, a historian of ideas who made her name with a study of Victorian England, is the doyenne of the intellectual right. Wife of Irving Kristol and mother of William Kristol, Ms. Himmelfarb was never going to write a paean to Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, the scourge of Paris in the later stages of the Revolution.
Yet she has nothing good to say even about such French philosophers as Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, detecting in them intellectual premonitions of the Terror. She launches her short, elegant and partial essay with a vow to reclaim the Enlightenment not just from the postmodernists but “above all, from the French who have dominated and usurped it.” French philosophers, like French-fried potatoes, are off the neocon menu.
What we have is a sort of Freedom Philosophy-mostly Scots, with a dash of Irish and English and a very little American. The hero is Adam Smith, both in his moral philosophy and his political economy, supported by David Hume (when not too skeptical), Edmund Burke, the Methodist John Wesley and the three American authors of The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay.
The Frenchified Enlightenment that Ms. Himmelfarb disdains is a straw man, a fictional, theoretical orthodoxy erected solely for the purpose of absorbing rocks from the hand of the author. In reality, it’s British philosophy of the 18th century that has of late been overpromoted. (I’m as guilty as the next guy.) The French have every right to feel aggrieved.
Porter or his publishers entitled his last book The Creation of the Modern World: The Untold Story of the British Enlightenment (2000). Arthur Herman went one or two better with his How the Scots Invented the Modern World in 2001. Two years ago, Jenny Uglow published her sumptuous 600-page group portrait of the philosophers and industrialists of the British Midlands, The Lunar Men. Voltaire who? Quel Encyclopèdie?
Ms. Himmelfarb’s argument is this: England and Scotland, having in the 17th century cut church and king down to size (literally, in the case of poor Charles I), were much better equipped to reconcile new currents of thought and conduct without violence than absolutist and unreformed France. The attempt by evangelical churchmen in 1750’s Edinburgh to excommunicate David Hume did not cause him to sign his letters, like Voltaire, with the anti-church slogan Ecrasez l’infâme (“Crush the beast”). Hume remained on the best of terms with progressive ministers of the Scottish Kirk.
The Scottish moral philosophers, following the Englishman Lord Shaftesbury in the previous generation, thought people acted out of sensation and feeling far more than from the promptings of their reasoning natures. Smith and Hume and Thomas Reid had a high (and in the case of Smith’s predecessor as professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow, Francis Hutcheson, rapturous) belief in the good sense and good nature of humanity, from Edinburgh street porters to the Iroquois.
They hoped and believed that benevolence would keep the world from going to the moral dogs now that both religion and reason had been dethroned. Hume, in short essays, and Smith, in the Wealth of Nations in 1776, saw a starring role for free commerce in fostering diverse interests and preventing faction and monopoly.
This British benevolence was accompanied by that private philanthropy so beloved of American conservatives, such as the great charity hospitals still operating in London and Edinburgh, as well as schools, workhouses, and temperance and relief societies.
Ms. Himmelfarb passes over the coercive nature of this philanthropy. The 18th-century bourgeoisie was scared to death of the city poor, with good reason. With her vivid sense of the moral uses of religion, Ms. Himmelfarb includes John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists, among the pioneers of British enlightenment. Here she’s following Montesquieu, who passionately admired the British because they “know better than any other people upon earth how to value, at the same time, these three great advantages-religion, commerce and liberty.” That’s no longer true of Britain, but it just might be of the United States.
In contrast, the French can’t do anything right and get far fewer pages in which to do it. The philosophes, according to Ms. Himmelfarb, were quite wrong to make of reason the fundamental principle of politics and society. From that, she claims, all manner of evils flowed: contempt for the unreasoning masses (Voltaire’s canaille), absolutism, a preference for some abstract common good over the welfare of individuals. She applauds the Irish writer Edmund Burke for foreseeing in 1790 how the “conquering empire of light and reason” in Paris would lead to catastrophe.
In a third and last section, on the early United States, Ms. Himmelfarb applauds the Founding Fathers for preferring the British commercial state of squabbling interests to some austere French republic of reason and virtue. Hamilton closed the last number of The Federalist Papers with a quotation from Hume that summed up the whole Federalist enterprise. Reason and genius could never produce a perfect Constitution, Hume had written: “The judgments of many must unite in the work; experience … time … and the feeling of inconveniences must correct the mistakes which they inevitably fall into in their first trials and experiments.”
Seen in that light, plantation slavery or the invasion of Iraq do not necessarily disbar the United States from a claim to enlightenment. They are mistakes that are to be corrected.
James Buchan is the author of Crowded with Genius: Edinburgh’s Moment of the Mind (HarperCollins).