The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments
by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Knopf. 284 pp. $25.00
When I was in graduate school in the early 1960’s, a fellow student amused the rest of us by circulating a course description he had run across in the catalog of an obscure Bible college in the South. The course was a standard yearlong introduction to Western civilization; according to the description, the first semester would cover European history from Greek and Roman origins “up to the so-called Enlightenment.”
At the time, the phrase “so-called Enlightenment” elicited from us knowing laughter and utter condescension. Today, although the terminology might differ, the idea behind that “so-called” has become commonplace. Skepticism about the “Enlightenment project” is now as widespread on the fashionable Left as it is on the anti-intellectual Right.
Gertrude Himmelfarb, the distinguished intellectual historian and social critic, is no Enlightenment-basher; she might rather be labeled an Enlightenment-redefiner. She wants, as she says at the outset of her masterful and elegant new book, “to reclaim the Enlightenment—from critics who decry it and defenders who acclaim it uncritically, from postmodernists who deny its existence and historians who belittle or disparage it, above all, from the French who have dominated and usurped it.” As her title suggests, the 18th century produced more than one proposed route to modernity, and she argues that the French version, though it is the most commonly credited, was actually the least satisfactory.
The three Enlightenments under discussion had areas of overlap as well as internal differences and disagreements, but Himmelfarb argues persuasively that they were clearly distinct—especially the British and American from the French—and that each was substantially coherent as a body of thought. She gives a capsule description to each that, in her view, captures its essence: for the British, “the sociology of virtue”; for the French, “the ideology of reason”; for the American, “the politics of liberty.”
Of the three Enlightenments, Himmelfarb devotes herself most fully to the British, conceding that, in this volume, the other two serve as foils to it. This in itself is audaciously revisionist. As she notes, “To bring the British Enlightenment onto the stage of history, indeed, the center stage, is to redefine the very idea of Enlightenment.” The concept that there was a British Enlightenment is itself relatively recent, an expansion from the more familiar notion of a Scottish Enlightenment. But Himmelfarb contends that British thinkers contributed something different to the usual traits associated with the Enlightenment—“reason, rights, nature, liberty, equality, tolerance, science, progress.” That something was the idea of virtue.
Virtue—not so much personal virtue as the social virtues of compassion, benevolence, and sympathy—was as central to the British Enlightenment as reason was to the French; and here, in Himmelfarb’s estimation, lay the British advantage. Although they did not deny reason, for the British it was the moral sense, the essentially innate grasp of right and wrong, that was antecedent and superior. In the thought of Adam Smith and others, belief in this moral sense generated a belief in natural human equality that significantly transcended political, social, and economic distinctions.
By placing virtue at the heart of the British Enlightenment, Himmelfarb expands the circle of Enlightenment figures to include people normally thought irrelevant or even opposed to it, including Edmund Burke and John Wesley. Nor was the emphasis these moral philosophers placed on virtue merely theoretical or abstract. It created a social ethos that spawned an “age of benevolence” in Britain—and one that, in Himmelfarb’s view, had far more salutary effects in practice than were traceable to the climate of thought encouraged by the philosophes across the Channel. Tocqueville was wrong, she says, in identifying voluntary associations and civil society as unique products of 19th-century American society. A century earlier, Britain had established an astonishing range of private reform movements and philanthropic enterprises, both secular and religious. The spirit animating them was one of reform, not revolution; it produced a significant amelioration of a host of social problems. Nothing similar occurred in France.
The dream of the philosophes, of course, was not an “age of benevolence” but an “age of reason.” Reason’s enemy was religion, especially as embodied in a Catholic Church oppressive in itself and doubly so as ally to an oppressive state. Thus, the logic of Diderot’s proposal to “strangle the last king with the entrails of the last priest.”
But, writes Himmelfarb, reason was not just a weapon to undermine superstition. For the philosophes, it was a counter-dogma to religion. As the great Encyclopédie edited by Diderot and D’Alembert declared, “Reason is to the philosopher what grace is to the Christian. Grace moves the Christian to act, reason moves the philosopher.” It was not only the Catholic Church but Christianity itself (indeed all dogmatic religion) that was anathema to most of the philosophes, a sentiment expressed in Diderot’s acclamation of Voltaire as the “sublime, honorable, and dear Antichrist.”
The philosophes‘ radical commitment to abstract reason and their concomitant hostility to religion made it difficult for them to find an equivalent to the bridge across class divisions that British thinkers found in the idea of a universal moral sense prior to reason. The problem with the poor, said Diderot, was that they were “imbeciles” when it came to religion. The philosophes could work for the people but could not imagine the people doing much for themselves. Himmelfarb pithily sums up their skepticism toward popular education:
The people were uneducable because they were unenlightened. They were unenlightened because they were incapable of the kind of reason that the philosophes took to be the essence of enlightenment. And they were incapable of reason because they were mired in the prejudices and superstitions, the miracles and barbarities, of religion.
In turning finally from the French Enlightenment to the American, Himmelfarb is back in congenial territory. Like the British, the American founders were concerned with virtue and recognized the limits of reason. In James Madison’s words, “a nation of philosophers is as little to be expected as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato.” But where the social virtues were in the forefront of British Enlightenment thought, “in America,” Himmelfarb writes, “they were in the background, the necessary but not sufficient condition.” In the foreground was liberty—first how to achieve it, and then how to sustain it.
Himmelfarb focuses—more, perhaps, than one might wish—on the latter question: how to sustain liberty. Her tightly packed discussion says little about the political thought leading to the American Revolution, instead emphasizing the ideas behind the making of the Constitution, with particular attention to the political philosophy of The Federalist. Having had their successful revolt, most of the Founders—Paine and Jefferson were exceptions—were not interested in maintaining a permanent revolutionary spirit. They saw liberty as a fragile thing that virtue alone could not be depended on to preserve. Thus they looked to political devices (checks and balances, separation of powers) and social arrangements (the multiplicity and diversity of interests that a large commercial republic would entail) to undergird virtue in securing their revolutionary gains.
As in her discussion of the British situation, Himmelfarb emphasizes the role of religion in the American Enlightenment. In both places, few of the thinkers she discusses were entirely orthodox in their religious thought, and many were skeptics to one degree or another. But the great majority—utterly unlike their counterparts in France—saw religion both as a public good in itself and as an ally in their aspirations. Just as virtue was essential to the public good, so, at least for the great mass of people, religion was essential to virtue. Himmelfarb quotes the deist Benjamin Franklin: “If men are so wicked as we now see them with religion, what would they be if without it?”
Himmelfarb notes but rejects the criticism that this view of religion finally disparages it by reducing it to a merely utilitarian function. To value religion as a social and political benefit, she says, is not to demean it. “On the contrary, it pays religion—and God—the great tribute of being essential to the welfare of mankind.”
One may pause over the interpolated phrase, “and God,” which introduces a rare note of equivocation into Himmelfarb’s argument. One can believe, as many British and American Enlightenment thinkers appear to have believed, that religion is essential to the public good without raising the question of the reality of God. If God exists, religion’s utility is a nice add-on. But if He does not, its utility does indeed become a crutch for the weak-minded.
The matter of religion also enters, at least indirectly, into the issue of why the French Enlightenment was so much more radical—in its thought and in its outcome—than its British and American counterparts. Himmelfarb is an admirably old-fashioned historian of ideas, but she is fully aware that the differences among the Enlightenments were not simply determined by ideas, independently of broader historical circumstances. Britain—and, by legacy, America—had by the mid-18th century already experienced a religious Reformation and, in 1688, a Glorious Revolution. Thus, she cites the claim of the historian Roy Porter that in Britain “there was no need to overthrow religion itself, because there was no pope, no inquisition, no Jesuits, no monopolistic priesthood.” As for France, one might apply, in reverse, Louis Hartz’s famous dictum that America had no socialism because it had had no feudalism; France had a radical revolution because it had had a reactionary ancien régime.
But, for Himmelfarb, ideas are also never mere epiphenomena of deeper historical conditions. In France, she insists, reason did wield an independent authority, an ideology with the power to incite rebellion. As employed by the philosophes, who imagined an ideal future and were utterly contemptuous of the present, reason was “inherently subversive.” Ideas had consequences, and with a vengeance.
The Roads to Modernity is a valuable book, and most valuable in its reconstruction and appreciation of the British Enlightenment. Indeed, the idea of an Enlightenment that was reformist, socially engaged, friendly to religion, and, except at the fringes, unbeguiled by utopian fantasies is bound to appeal to many who refuse to condemn modernity in its entirety but are, at the least, uneasy at signing up with the party of Voltaire and the French Revolution. This aside, one is also grateful for a work so lucid and fluent, so forcefully argued and yet so respectful of complexity.
Himmelfarb ends on an ironic note. The virtues of the British Enlightenment, she says, are little respected today in Britain or anywhere else in Europe. It is mainly in America—individualistic, religious, moralistic America—where they persist in significant form. Today, American exceptionalism consists essentially in preserving from the motherland aspects of a belief system that the motherland itself no longer holds dear. But we should, by now, be unsurprised by the ceaseless cunning of history.