December 13, 2004


What Is Enlightenment?: Gertrude Himmelfarb explores three paths to modern times.: a review of The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments by Gertrude Himmelfarb (Diana Schaub, 11/29/2004, Weekly Standard)

By taking seriously the insight that the Enlightenment was incarnated in different ways among and within different nations, Himmelfarb is able to shift the spotlight from the French (who have traditionally monopolized it) to the British and, to a lesser extent, the Americans. Himmelfarb is forthright about her aims: "I am engaged in a doubly revisionist exercise," she writes, "making the Enlightenment more British and making the British Enlightenment more inclusive."

To reach this goal, she subsumes the Scottish Enlightenment within the British--and grants enlightened credentials to some unlikely candidates, among them Edmund Burke and John Wesley. The end result is a remapping
of the Enlightenment that scales back some of the traditional peaks (Voltaire, Diderot, and the philosophes) while raising new ones (Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Smith, and Hume). Himmelfarb discovers overlooked tributaries (Burke and Wesley) and a land bridge between the continents (Montesquieu). The territory remains recognizable as the Enlightenment, but it's like the difference between a map based on the self-aggrandizing tales of explorers and a map based on aerial reconnaissance and ground surveys. [...]

Himmelfarb's shorthand designations for the general spirits of the three national Enlightenments are: the sociology of virtue (England), the ideology of reason (France), and the politics of liberty (America). It is a mark of the basic rightness of these designations that readers can probably, without any help, match each general spirit with the appropriate nation.

Equally revealing as the substantive terms are the disciplinary qualifiers Himmelfarb chooses: sociology, ideology, and politics. Although her focus is on the ideas, she acknowledges that the national differences are in part a function of differing conditions. In Britain, where both a religious reformation and a political revolution preceded the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the focus of the moral philosophers was on the social virtues of sympathy and benevolence that would underwrite gradual social reform. In revolutionary America, politics was primary, in both thought and deed: The formulators of the new science of politics were also its implementers. In ancien régime France, by contrast, all that was available was armchair theorizing, which contributed to the ideology of reason that had disastrous effects when action--the French Revolution--finally occurred.

Sadly for Britain it has, over time, attrited the Christian basis of its values and driofted towards French-style reason.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 13, 2004 1:32 PM

There are several considerations here:

1. One must exclude Jefferson from the discussion as he is almost entirely gallicized. The Constitution is more important than the Declaration of Independence in this regard. Men like Madison and Hamilton were far more grounded in reality.

2. The French never really experienced the Reformation. They had a religious civil war in the late 16th century which was between competing groups of nobles and they did have a period of massacres of Huguenots in the mid-16th century. But they avoided the long-term, devastating bloodiness of the 14 and the 45, the Protectorate, the revolts against the Stuarts, etc. They settled their religious conflict by cutting a deal which effectively ended Protestantism in France except for a few pockets.

3. The French believed Rousseau, the English and Americans did not. Perhaps no single philosopher in the history of mankind has wrought so much disaster as Rousseau. Perhaps Marx comes close. The Rousseauian belief in the natural man and the noble savage can only occur in a hothouse like that of the French philosophes. American settlers who had to deal with real savages knew a lot about savages, but most especially that they were not noble. The very fabric of British society got ripped apart by the frenzies of religious squabbles in the 17th and 18th centuries.

4. Americans and the British can see that the mob can be wrong, the French do not. We have checks and balances, a strong judicial tradition, divided government. The French have no such thing. They let the mob run rampant. It was the same with the Terror, the Commune, even the Vichy government was a response by the French elites to the demands of the mob. Caesarmen always pop up in France, Robespierre, the Napoleons, Boulanger, Petain, DeGaulle. While we have had great men in power, it is very clear that they have significant constraints on the actions. The mildest of the French leaders above, deGaulle, had a special branch of his intelligence service, SAC, take difficult opponents out in the middle of the night and shoot them. No American or British ruler since Henry VIII has had the kind of power that even comparatively weak French post-revolutionary governments have had.

5. Britain and America had large middle classes while France had a much smaller one. This was a power center separate from the church or the nobility or the mob. At the same time as it prevented the nobles or the church from being too exploitative, as happened under the Stuarts, it prevented the mob from overturning everything in society on a whim and handing things over to a dictator. The Protectorate, an overreaction to Stuart cruelty and rapacity, fell apart of its own weight almost as soon as it took power.

6. I find Burke almost unreadable without Pepto-Bismol. He is an apologist for a failed order that belongs on the scrap heap of history. But Wesley is so obviously a product of enlightenment thought, as is his disciple Oglethorpe, that I wouldn't have even thought his being listed as one would be debatable.

Posted by: Bart at December 13, 2004 4:05 PM