A review of The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments, by Gertrude Himmelfarb

Gertrude Himmelfarb wishes to redeem the Enlightenment. She succeeds at two agendas, one broad and scholarly, the other narrower and more political. In her broader agenda she replies to the now fashionable activity of "Enlightenment-bashing" carried on by thinkers like Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno, who attack it as totalitarian, or Alasdair MacIntyre, who writes with a barely concealed sneer for "the Enlightenment project." Himmelfarb's narrower and more political concern is to explain and legitimize the contemporary American exceptionalism Europeans find so puzzling and objectionable. Although her book was written well before the last presidential election, it speaks very much to the kinds of issues raised by the Bush campaign's fusion of moralism, religion, and a commitment to liberty, all summed up in the slogan "compassionate conservatism." In this respect, Himmelfarb also supplies a brief for a certain version of neoconservatism.

The "Enlightenment Project," buffeted from every side by waves of romanticism, historicism, collectivism, existentialism, multiculturalism, postmodernism, religious revivals, and who knows what else, stands in some disrepute today. It is criticized as too individualistic, rationalistic, radical, conservative, ahistorical, doctrinaire, universalistic, and irreligious. Himmelfarb seeks to redeem it by reconfiguring our sense of what it really was, replacing the standard image of the French Enlightenment and its cadre of philosophes with the British Enlightenment and its core of moral philosophers. She admits that we hardly think of the British as having had an Enlightenment at all. But since 1900 or so, scholars have spoken easily of a Scottish Enlightenment. Himmelfarb insists, rightly I think, that it is artificial and indeed false to recognize a Scottish Enlightenment as separate from intellectual developments to the south. The forerunners of this Enlightenment (as she sees them) were Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, and they were both English. They set the stage for the broader British Enlightenment but also for the two other Enlightenments she considers more briefly, the French and the American.

The originator of the British Enlightenment was, by her account, the third Earl of Shaftesbury, who, as a young man, was tutored by John Locke, and later repaid the favor by penning a potent critique of his tutor in Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions and Times. Her emphasis on a Shaftesbury-led British Enlightenment breaks the link between the idea of Enlightenment and the doctrines of the French philosophes. She attempts, in other words, to supplant Peter Gay's Francocentered history. Gay's two-volume study The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (Vol. I, The Rise of Modern Paganism, 1967; Vol. II, The Science of Freedom, 1970) influenced a generation of scholars. The French Enlightenment, says Himmelfarb, made a religion of reason; thought nothing of turning against every institution, practice, or belief prevalent in society; had an obsession with liberty, understood in a very abstract and individualistic manner; and ultimately led to the French Revolution's illfated attempt to regenerate or remake the species "man." Although she does not spend much space criticizing the philosophe worldview, it is quite clear that this is not the Enlightenment she seeks to redeem.

* * *

The center of her efforts is a presentation of an alternative British Enlightenment with quite different themes and emphases. The British Enlightenment from its origin in Shaftesbury to its peak expressions in moral philosophers like Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith, and in cultural enlighteners like the artist William Hogarth or the novelists Laurence Sterne and Henry Fielding made virtue, especially social virtue, its central theme. The opening salvo was Shaftesbury's discovery of an innate moral sense, sometimes thought to be a sense like sight or hearing, which could perceive moral qualities as the eye could perceive visual qualities. Not all the thinkers of the British Enlightenment clung to such a naïve view. Hume and Smith chose to speak instead of moral sentiment, but all had in mind the affirmation of an innate moral capacity, an innate and natural directedness of human beings to life with others, to society and morality.

This version of moral philosophy was consciously understood to be directed against the doctrines of Hobbes and Locke and their closer English followers, like Bernard Mandeville, as well as the French philosophes, who, for the most part, were also closer to Hobbes and Locke. While Locke denied any "innate practical principles," Himmelfarb's moral philosophers insisted on the innateness, or at least naturalness, of morality. Hobbes and Mandeville adhered to what Hume called "the selfish system"; the British moralists affirmed "the social system." The difference between the two broad schools lay in the relation they saw between morality and self-interest. The Hobbes-Mandeville position found that egoism was natural and primary, and that moral rules, especially rules of justice, were secondary, derivative, artificial, and ultimately in the service of individual pleasure or preservation. As Hobbes had it, morality consists in the rules that reason reckons as serviceable to self-preservation. Hutcheson, Hume, and the others denied that morality could be reduced to an epiphenomenon of egoism or calculation.

Himmelfarb rightly depicts the moral philosophers as committed to a social ethic. The natural ground of morality is our sympathy, our compassion, our natural benevolence. Virtues are thus understood as thoroughly social qualities, and predominantly those aspects of character that fit us to live well with others and to care for them. Thus, although Shaftesbury presented his doctrine as an effort to recapture the moral perspective of the ancients, the kind of virtue emphasized by the British Enlightenment is actually different from Aristotle's notion of virtue as self-perfection. Likewise, the British moralists much undervalued the place of reason in the moral life: morality was understood to be more natural (though in a way completely different from Aristotle's account), and therefore less rational than Hobbes or Locke had it.

* * *

Having identified the heart of the British Enlightenment with this sort of social ethic, Himmelfarb draws a rather different roster of who's in and who's out. For instance, she includes Edmund Burke, normally considered an anti- Enlightenment thinker for his tirade against the French Revolution, and for his endorsement of prejudice, religion, and the normative pull of tradition. She also includes John Wesley and the Methodist movement, while almost excluding those like Thomas Paine, William Godwin, and other "radicals" who are normally seen as the clearest representatives of the Enlightenment in Britain. Instead, she says, they are more like their French counterparts, and for that reason, marginal to the British Enlightenment.

The true British Enlightenment, with social virtues at its core, drew quite different conclusions about what an enlightened society ought to look like. Since morality is a non- or even sub-rational phenomenon, the British did not obsess so much about reason nor demand that society be remade on a rationalist plan. They did not see religion as an enemy, but, if properly cabined so as to be tolerant and socially beneficial, as a necessary and good part of society. Thus even the more personally skeptical of the British thinkers, like Hume or Gibbon, never launched the sorts of attacks on religion so common in France.

Himmelfarb also tries her hand at solving "the Adam Smith problem," i.e., the alleged incompatibility between Smith's social ethic in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and his market-oriented Wealth of Nations. She finds the solution not in any alleged development or change in Smith's views, but in a richer understanding of the latter book. Although Smith defended the market, he did so in terms that are highly critical of certain features of market economics that later enthusiasts willingly accepted. Even more to the point, she brings out how Smith's defense of the market is grounded, throughout, in the moral ends outlined in his book of moral philosophy.

The British Enlightenment culminated in what Himmelfarb calls an "Age of Benevolence," that is, of organized efforts at philanthropy and moral reform. The British, unlike the French philosophes, were concerned to educate and otherwise elevate the underclass in society. They took an active part in the anti-slavery movement, they established hospitals, planned for poor relief, and initiated the movement for public education.

The American Enlightenment gets a brief treatment in Roads to Modernity, almost as an afterthought. The Americans took for granted the social ethic but did not put it at the center of their thought. Instead, they emphasized political liberty. The central document of the American Enlightenment is The Federalist, a work which develops an improved science of politics aimed at securing political liberty. Although the American Founders did not place virtue or religion at the center, they still assumed and depended on both. But these were matters to be left to the states and the private sphere rather than developed by the central government.

* * *

One can only applaud Himmelfarb's broader agenda. She demonstrates that the Enlightenment is much more than the caricatures of it so often purveyed by its presumably more enlightened critics. Nonetheless, she also leaves many important questions unexplained or at least insufficiently answered. She never makes clear, to mention a primary failing, what she takes "Enlightenment" to be. Likewise, she never makes clear the connection between her "forerunners" (Hobbes and Locke) and the British Enlightenment proper. She concedes at the end that the British moral philosophers are shallower than Hobbes and Locke as philosophers, but, truth be told, her book does not plumb even the shallower depths of these thinkers. As she says, it is purely a study of intellectual history, but in order to commend an intellectual orientation it requires more philosophic analysis than she provides.

Finally, a brief word on Himmelfarb's narrower, more political agenda. In her Epilogue she considers the legacy of the three Enlightenments today. She finds that the Americans continue to cherish theirs, but that the British and the French no longer love theirs. She concludes, however, that the British Enlightenment "ironic[ally]… has more resonance in the United States than in Britain." America has, "in effect, superimposed" the British Enlightenment on its own "politics of liberty." The result is an amalgam that constitutes the current political culture of the U.S.—capitalistic and moralistic, individualistic and social, rational and religious. Almost her last words in the book are "compassionate conservatism." George W. Bush's political moment is thus, at the end of the day, the culmination of the best of the British and the American Enlightenments. An interesting claim, but one needing a bit more development than it receives in this elegant little book.