Saturday, September 4, 2004


By Gertrude Himmelfarb

Knopf, $25, 284 pages


Decades ago, when this reviewer entered graduate school to study history, a senior professor addressed students new to the program. This man had earned a minor reputation as a historian of early modern Europe, and he was to talk about the kinds of history that were being written in those days 35 years ago.

Instead he chose to indulge a pet peeve. He declared that he couldn’t understand why any intelligent student would be the least bit interested in what happened in America or anywhere else in the late 18th century. Only in France had things occurred that were of any significance, he averred. It was only by understanding the revolution in France that we could understand the modern world.

Such a breathtakingly narrow view of history wasn’t unusual among professional historians in those days, and it isn’t today, either. But it is an attitude for which Gertrude Himmelfarb’s wonderfully argued new book, “The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments,” serves as a welcome antidote.

Miss Himmelfarb, our foremost historian of Victorian England, takes up the century prior to the one she’s often worked on. But she is clearly at ease in this foray into new territory, and the thesis she presents is an important one.

It is Miss Himmelfarb’s view that historians have erred by placing a tremendous emphasis on the need to understand the French Enlightenment and the revolution that followed it in order to understand modernity. This emphasis on things French, she argues, renders us incapable of comprehending the significant role played by the enlightenments in Great Britain and America in creating the modern world.

Miss Himmelfarb writes that there were several Enlightenments — not just the French — and that each of these produced different “habits of mind” and “habits of heart” in the countries where they took place. For the French, reason was the leading Enlightenment idea. The philosophes — men such as Voltaire and Denis Diderot — thought that the proper use of reason would solve all of mankind’s problems.

Among the British and American Enlightenment thinkers, however, reason played a much less prominent role and was tempered always by other considerations. For Miss Himmelfarb, the main characteristic of the British Enlightenment was its deep concern for “social virtues” — compassion, benevolence, sympathy — and how those virtues were to be implemented in society.

And in America the primary Enlightenment interest was, in Miss Himmelfarb’s words, “the politics of liberty,” or how to make “the principles and institutions appropriate to the new republic” a reality in the new nation’s everyday life. In both America and Great Britain, she shows, common sense and experience were more valued than in France, where reason reigned supreme.

Another major distinction that divided the American and British Enlightenments from the French was their attitude toward religion. As Miss Himmelfarb shows, the philosophes endlessly congratulated themselves on their liberation from traditional religion, most particularly from the Roman Catholic Church.

In Great Britain and America, Enlightenment thinkers never abandoned religion. Quoting the historian Roy Porter, Miss Himmelfarb notes that the British Enlightenment flourished “within piety,” within the bounds of traditional religious faith. As for the Americans, she writes, they “did not, like the French, turn against religion itself. Instead, they incorporated religion, of almost every degree and variety, into the mores of society.”

Miss Himmelfarb traces the British Enlightenment’s emphasis on the social virtues to the third earl of Shaftesbury’s 1699 essay “An Inquiry Concerning Virtue, or Merit.” In that very influential piece, Shaftesbury argued that man’s deepest sense was “the moral sense,” the “sense of right and wrong.” In the essay, Shaftesbury also argued that mankind’s most “natural affection” was the “social affection,” an affection for other people and a concern for their well-being.

Other significant thinkers — Thomas Hutcheson, for example, and Adam Smith — added their own spin to Shaftesbury’s thought. “Man naturally desires not only to be loved, but to be lovely,” Smith wrote. But more importantly, the British concern for the social virtues became a part of everyday life, rather than merely the kind thoughts of its greatest writers.

“England was the first country — and for a long time the only country — to have a public, secular, national (though locally administered) system of poor relief,” Miss Himmelfarb notes. This need to act on the social virtues ushered in “an age of benevolence” marked by “the campaign against cruelty to animals, for the abolition of slavery, for prison and legal reforms.”

Miss Himmelfarb takes the unusual step of including the Methodists within the British Enlightenment. John Wesley and his followers stood for religious toleration, an important element of British Enlightenment thought, she writes.

But more to the point, the Methodists showed by their hard work for education and the betterment of the poor that they shared the Enlightenment’s concern for the social virtues, for compassion and benevolence. In describing the impressive publishing network established by the Methodists, Miss Himmelfarb memorably writes: “The whole of this quite extraordinary publication industry, comprising books, pamphlets, and tracts on a variety of subjects and directed to different levels of literacy and interest, constituted something like an Enlightenment for the common man.”

The common man. Here again, Miss Himmelfarb underlines the vast gulf that separates the Enlightenments of America and Great Britain from the one that took place in France. Time and again, the philosophes displayed an enormous contempt for the common man.

Diderot, for example, celebrated in a well-known essay “the philosophical age” that had come to France. But the common man could play no role in that new age because the voice of the common man was that of “wickedness, stupidity, inhumanity, unreason, and prejudice.”

What about the Enlightenment in America? The British emphasis on the social virtues deeply influenced the Enlightenment here, notes Miss Himmelfarb. But for the Americans, there were additional concerns that made their Enlightenment unique and those concerns centered on how to create a new government and society.

The Founding Fathers, educated men and at the same time men of great practical experience, endlessly debated these questions and out of this debate came “a body of literature that had no equivalent in either France or Britain.” And the principal document of that body of literature was “The Federalist,” the collection of essays by James Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, which have never gone out of print and have proved enormously influential wherever men and women have been interested in the problems of democratic society.

In an epilogue, Miss Himmelfarb notes that the concern for the social virtues broached by British Enlightenment thinkers three centuries ago “has more resonance in the United States today than in Britain.” She finds it manifested in George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” for example.

But she thinks that concern for the social virtues, for sympathy, benevolence, and compassion, has had wide influence. “Revived in the United States today, this ethic has crossed political lines,” Miss Himmelfarb writes. Compassion “has been embraced not only by many conservatives … but by many liberals as well, who seek to strengthen civil society and thus reduce the role of the state by channeling the sentiment of compassion into voluntary and communal endeavors.”

“The Roads to Modernity” is a relatively short book and a potent one. As the author notes early on, “To bring the British Enlightenment onto the stage of history, indeed, the center stage, is to redefine the very idea of Enlightenment.” This difficult redefinition she has accomplished. Miss Himmelfarb defuses the unrelenting centrality the French Enlightenment and Revolution have held for centuries. And she brings a healthy sense of balance and proportion to our understanding of the 18th century, an era whose influence is still potent in our own times.

“We are, in fact,” she observes at the end of her book, “still floundering in the verities and fallacies, the assumptions and convictions, about human nature, society, and the polity that exercise the British moral philosophers, the French philosophes, and the American Founders.”

Stephen Goode is a Washington writer.

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