The Magazine

What Is Enlightenment?

From the November 29, 2004 issue: Gertrude Himmelfarb explores three paths to modern times.

Nov 29, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 11 • By DIANA SCHAUB
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The Roads to Modernity

The British, French, and American Enlightenments

by Gertrude Himmelfarb

Knopf, 284 pp., $25

WE MUST STILL NOT BE ENLIGHTENED--given how little we agree about the answer to the question, "What is Enlightenment?" We seem not to agree even when the question is purely historical: The phenomenon that used to be called "the Age of Enlightenment" has become contested terrain, and the dissenters from the Enlightenment project have grown in number. No one, apparently, wants to be thoroughly modern anymore.

No one, that is, except Gertrude Himmelfarb. While most of the critics of modernity take their bearings from either the postmodern or the premodern, the eminent intellectual historian sets out in the latest of her many elegant and masterly books to reclaim the Enlightenment.

Her avowedly "ambitious attempt"--The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments--receives an assist from recent scholarship on the multiplicity of the Enlightenment. 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.

Perhaps that metaphor suggests too much impartiality on the part of the author. Himmelfarb admits to being a partisan of the British as against the French, but, in the current state of historiography and public opinion, hers is a partisanship that brings some balance and so furthers the cause of a fair accounting. Not that The Roads to Modernity will settle the question of disputed borders. In fact it will fuel the debates, since Himmelfarb argues that some roads to modernity are better than others. Moreover, despite the implication of her title, she seems to argue that the roads end up at different destinations. If there are plural "Enlightenments," then aren't there plural "modernities" as well?

INTERESTED IN THE GENERAL SPIRIT of each nation's Enlightenment, Himmelfarb is engaged in what might be called a Montesquieuan enterprise. She would not take offense at the comparison. Indeed, because of Montesquieu's prudence and Anglophilia, Himmelfarb pretty much excises the philosopher from the French Enlightenment. (While I don't at all quarrel with her presentation of the differences between Montesquieu and the Encyclopédistes, I must say that it makes it easier to criticize the French when you strip them of their philosophers, Montesquieu and Rousseau, and leave them only with the philosophes and poseurs.)

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.