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March 26, 2006

The Roads to Modernity

(The British, French and American Enlightenments)
Gertrude Himmelfarb – ISBN - 1400077222

This is truly a wonderful book. It explores the three Enlightenments in scholarly detail, while defining their considerable differences well beyond that which has been done before. It is an expository review of the history of ideas formulated in the era of “enlightenment.”

She separates the French enlightenment, founded in the principle that reason ought to be supreme: that overturning the past, history, custom, and societal norms was desirable and hence required. Unfortunately, the end was not quite as planned inasmuch as the “intellectuals” ended up being guillotined along with the crown. The present, in my opinion isn’t much better.

While the French intellects were dogmatic about the hypothetical “idealized” man, while the genuine common man was despised. Emile, as it were, does not and cannot exist, and civilization, I’d add, does not keep man “everywhere in chains.” Nor is religion the opiate of the masses, though that is not a French concept, per se.

The English, in contrast, were far more interested in the development of individual liberty. Burke, Smith, Hume and even Wesley and Calvin, are discussed in reviewing the tolerant, pragmatic attitudes of the Brits, along with their concerns over the business community—at the time an extension of the crown—the community at large, the concept of empire, etc.. Important were historic institutions and societal mores: experiential notions developed over centuries, including religious attitudes widely accepted by the common man. These were incorporated in the pursuit of social virtue, compassion, benevolence and public welfare.

She argues that the American enlightenment, while firmly based (as the English) in moral philosophy, was, even more than the British, about individual liberty and personal rather than governmental involvement in, and responsibility for virtues like compassion and public welfare. She clearly favors the American enlightenment over the other two, and in my opinion backs her position with reason and scholarly excellence.

Others commenting upon her work are astonished that she attaches the American attitudes to “religious dispositions” and “morally upright capitalism,” thus attacking the French socialist and anti-religious attitudes—indeed, they foreswear the religious. One compares the American Civil War to the French Terror, even though the former was fought in defense of liberty. Kirkus Reviews comments that the book is: “all in all, a piffling and pet-peevish book, but sure to provoke merriment in cafes up and down the Champs Elysees.”

That, I would observe, is the “merry” culture about which, as recently as a year or two ago, Dominique DeVillepin (the current Prime Minister of France) commented seems unable to achieve the smallest of change without a revolution.

She concludes that the moral and social philosophy—humane, compassionate, and realistic (and religious), still resonates strongly in the America of today . . . far more than in Europe.

Posted by respeto at March 26, 2006 12:07 PM