December 31, 2019


Which Enlightenment?: a review of The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments by Gertrude Himmelfarb (Keith Windschuttle, March 2005, New Criterion)

[I]t explains the source of the fundamental division that, despite several predictions of its imminent demise, still doggedly grips Western political life: that between the left and the right. From the outset, each side had its own philosophical assumptions and its own view of the human condition. Roads to Modernity shows why one of these sides has generated a steady progeny of historical successes while its rival has consistently lurched from one disaster to the next.

Most historians have accepted for several years now that the Enlightenment, once popularly characterized as the Age of Reason, came in two versions, the radical and the skeptical. The former is now generally identified with France, the latter with Scotland. It has also been acknowledged that the anti-clericalism that obsessed the French philosophes was not reciprocated in Britain or America. Indeed, in both these countries many Enlightenment concepts--human rights, liberty, equality, tolerance, science, progress--complemented rather than opposed church thinking. [...]

Moreover, unlike the French who elevated reason to the primary role in human affairs, British thinkers gave reason a secondary, instrumental role. In Britain it was virtue that trumped all other qualities. This was not personal virtue but the "social virtues"--compassion, benevolence, sympathy--which the British philosophers believed naturally, instinctively, and habitually bound people to one another. In the abstract, this difference might seem merely one of degree but, as it worked itself out in the subsequent history of the Continent and the British Isles, it was profound.

In making her case, Himmelfarb defines the British Enlightenment in terms that some might find surprising. She includes people who in the past have usually been labeled part of the Counter-Enlightenment, especially John Wesley and Edmund Burke. She assigns prominent roles to the social movements of Methodism and Evangelical philanthropy. Despite the fact that the American colonies rebelled from Britain to found a republic, Himmelfarb demonstrates how very close they were to the British Enlightenment and how distant from French republicans.

These differences have remained to this day, and over much the same issues. On the one hand, in France, the ideology of reason challenged not only religion and the church but all the institutions dependent upon them. Reason was inherently subversive. On the other hand, British moral philosophy was reformist rather than radical, respectful of both the past and present, even while looking forward to a more enlightened future. It was optimistic and had no quarrel with religion, which was why, in both Britain and the United States, the church itself could become a principal source for the spread of enlightened ideas. [...]

Apart from the different philosophical status they assigned to reason and virtue, the one issue where the division between the British and Continental Enlightenments was most sharply contrasted was their attitude to the lower orders. This is a distinction that has reverberated through politics ever since. The radical heirs of the Jacobin tradition have always insisted that it is they who speak for the wretched of the earth. In eighteenth-century France they claimed to speak for the people and the general will. In the nineteenth century they said they represented the working classes against their capitalist exploiters. In our own time, they have claimed to be on the side of blacks, women, gays, indigenes, refugees, and anyone else they define as the victims of discrimination and oppression. Himmelfarb's study demonstrates what a façade these claims actually are.

The French philosophes thought the social classes were divided by the chasm of poverty and, more crucially, of superstition and ignorance. They despised the lower orders because they were in thrall to Christianity. The editor of the Encyclopédie, Denis Diderot, declared the common people had no role in the Age of Reason. "The general mass of men are not so made that they can either promote or understand this forward march of the human spirit." Indeed, "the common people are incredibly stupid," he said, and were little more than beasts: "too idiotic--bestial--too miserable, and too busy" to enlighten themselves. Voltaire agreed. The lower orders lacked the intellect required to reason and so must be left to wallow in superstition. They could be controlled and pacified only by the sanctions and strictures of religion which, Voltaire proclaimed, "must be destroyed among respectable people and left to the canaille large and small, for whom it was made."

In Britain and America, by contrast, the chasm between rich and poor was bridged by the moral sense and common sense the Enlightenment attributed to all individuals. Everyone, including the members of the lower orders, had a common humanity and a common fund of moral and social obligations. It was this social ethos, Himmelfarb argues, that in the English-speaking world was the common denominator between Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, secular philosophers, religious enthusiasts, Church of England bishops, and Wesleyan preachers.

"Man is by constitution a religious animal," Edmund Burke famously wrote in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. For Burke, religion itself--religious dissent in particular--was the very basis of liberty.

Once you appropriately disaggregate the two that way, in what sense is the British an Enlightenment rather than just the organic culmination of Christianity as it moved from purely theological matters to economics, politics, and social reform?

[originally posted: 4/12/05]

Posted by at December 31, 2019 5:59 PM


Well, Christianity had been involved in economics, politics and social reform since it was born. During the "British Enlightenment", the Church's restrictions on usury and the idea of an eternal "just price" for goods and services lost out to modern theories about supply and demand. In politics, the emphasis switched from monarchical systems to democratic - along with the idea of revoltion as a positive force. In social reform, you're right - it wasn't much different.

Posted by: Brandon at April 12, 2005 3:26 PM


But it's not until Britain that the Imago Dei gets incorporated into economics and politics fully and the notion of covenants becomes central to them.

Posted by: oj at April 12, 2005 3:31 PM

It's true that the British Enlightenment was the fulfillment of a process that dated back many centuries. The French Enlightenment, being a reactionary power-grab, didn't need to develop over time, it was as simple as ambition.

Brandon - The church's "just price" theory was laissez-faire as to pricing. It was a moral theory designed for a time when nearly all transactions were with monopolists, urging the monopolists not to over-charge. But it did not prescribe particular prices, or punishments for immoral pricing. Usury was the exception.

Posted by: pj at April 12, 2005 5:52 PM

Spanish Jesuits (and Dominicans I think)sat Salamanca in the 16th c had already "modernized" much of what had been the Church's economic thought.

My father, who's an economist, argues that the Salamancans actually had a more sophisticated -- ie accurate -- understanding of, for example, money, than the Scots who came two centuries later.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at April 12, 2005 7:32 PM

Windschuttle is one of the foremost critics of the postmodern/poststructuralist/PC trends in modern historiography. His book "The Killing of History" should be read by anyone interested in the subject. Highly recommended!

Posted by: Dale Light at April 12, 2005 7:39 PM

Jim - Yes, but Adam Smith had the benefit of living through and witnessing the rise of specialization in 18th century England. Nothing like rapid change to inspire thought.

Posted by: pj at April 12, 2005 10:26 PM

I don't think you can classify the French Enlightenment as a power grab. Along with Voltaire and Rousseau you have Montesqieu and Lafayette. If King Louis hadn't flouted the Estates General and tried to escape, it is likely the Girondins would have outlasted the Jacobins. No Reign of Terror and no Napoleon then.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at April 13, 2005 11:52 AM