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.

Montesquieu said of the English that they were "the people in the world who have best known how to take advantage of each of these three great things at the same time: religion, commerce, and liberty." Himmelfarb quotes this passage, and, like Montesquieu, she seeks to understand how they did it--and particularly how religion fit into the combination. Where the French attitude toward religion can be summed up in a sentence (Voltaire's "Ecrasez l'infâme"), it requires a number of chapters to sketch the contours of the British Enlightenment's more welcoming stance. Himmelfarb offers a fascinating tour of the moral philosophers' views on the utility of religious belief and the compatibility of "social affections and religious dispositions."

Complementing that presentation is an equally fascinating examination of Methodism, especially the social effects of its "gospel of charity and good works." The range of Methodism's benevolent activities (hospitals, schools, libraries, mutual aid societies, poor relief, antislavery work) constituted "an Enlightenment for the common man." Together, "secular philosophers and religious enthusiasts" articulated a social ethos "that found practical expression in the reform movements and philanthropic enterprises that flourished during the century, culminating in what the Evangelical writer Hannah More described...as 'the Age of Benevolence,' and what a later historian called 'the new humanitarianism.'" There were, of course, some outliers. Himmelfarb devotes a chapter to the radical dissenters: Paine, Price, Priestley, and Godwin; but just as the moderate Montesquieu gets to swim the Channel to England, the English radicals are, in effect, ostracized: "It might even be said that these radicals belong more to the history of the French and American Enlightenments than to the British."

IN THE BOOK'S EPILOGUE, Himmelfarb briefly traces the subsequent fate of the three Enlightenments. While scholarly interest in the French Enlightenment remains high, Himmelfarb finds that it has no popular resonance except as a "cautionary tale." The British Enlightenment, too, has suffered a slide into public irrelevance: Adam Smith, the central figure in that Enlightenment, is not a folk hero or a reference point in many political debates.

America's Enlightenment tradition, however, is flourishing. The institutions established by the Founding Fathers still shape the American character; the documents they penned are the objects of our political reasoning and our partisan debates; and their personal example is still found worthy of study and often of emulation (as attested to by the spate of best-selling biographies read by ordinary citizens). According to Himmelfarb, not only has America kept alive its own politics of liberty, but it has imported the sociology of virtue as well. She says that America, with its combination of religious faith, capitalism, and morality, "has inherited and preserved aspects of the British Enlightenment that the British themselves have discarded and that other countries (France, most notably) have never adopted."

I find this an intriguing but not altogether persuasive claim. I wish she had said more both about the British renunciation of the sociology of virtue and about the American embrace of it. According to Shaftesbury and his followers, man has an inborn moral sense and natural compassion. This teaching about the moral sense is compatible with religious belief but not dependent on it. The foundation of virtue is not love of God. Neither is it reason or self-interest.

But, if the British moral philosophers were right about human nature, how are we to understand Britain's "de-moralization"? It appears that even if the moral sense is innate, it requires rigorous cultivation to actualize it. How do you get from sympathy (which is merely passive) to charity? How do you get from benevolence to beneficence, from good will to good works?

Rousseau, who also recognized the existence of natural compassion, was very aware of the problem. He tells of the tyrant who sheds ready tears at the sight of suffering (when uncaused by himself). Perhaps the social success that seemed to attend the British Enlightenment was more dependent on religion (and other forms of inherited moral capital) than it thought itself to be.

IN SPEAKING OF the fate of religion in liberty-loving England, Montesquieu predicts that "what would happen is either that everyone would be very indifferent to all sorts of religion of whatever kind, in which case everyone would tend to embrace the dominant religion, or that one would be zealous for religion in general, in which case sects would multiply." British liberty followed the former course, with indifference eventually triumphing over zeal, followed by a drying-up of the wellsprings of benevolence. By contrast, religious liberty in America resulted in an enthusiastic multiplicity of sects.

There is another possible explanation for America's healthier civil society that Himmelfarb alludes to but does not pursue. In her final paragraphs, she mentions what Alexis de Tocqueville said about "self-interest properly understood"--that it was "of all philosophic theories the most appropriate to the needs of men in our time." She suggests, however, that we substitute "the moral sense" of the British Enlightenment for "self-interest properly understood." A social ethic grounded in compassion was, she writes, "most appropriate to the needs of men" in eighteenth-century Britain and twenty-first-century America.

And yet, by reminding us of Tocqueville's analysis of self-interest rightly understood, Himmelfarb perhaps undercuts her own argument. Tocqueville shows that you don't need Shaftesbury and company to understand or foster virtue in America. The American approach to civic virtue is traceable to Locke, not Shaftesbury. According to the doctrine of self-interest properly understood, it is in one's self-interest both to do the right thing (like tell the truth) and to do good things for others (like be kind and helpful).

This enlightened selfishness does not require altruism or compassion or humanitarian zeal to produce neighborly behavior and public-spirited action. What it requires is instruction in the coincidence of public and private good. Citizens must be taught the utility of virtue: "Honesty is the best policy," as James Madison liked to say.

In fact, America seems a compound of Locke and Christianity. Despite the presence of other streams of thought, these remain the dominant ones. Our virtue is usually grounded either in the calculations of self-interest or the love of God. (These can even be conflated, as Tocqueville shows, in a chapter revealingly entitled "How the Americans Apply the Doctrine of Self-Interest Well Understood in the Matter of Religion.")

BOTH OF THESE FOUNDATIONS of morality seem to me more efficacious than the sentiment of compassion, but then I may just be particularly unsentimental. Gertrude Himmelfarb is certainly right in The Roads to Modernity that the "politics of compassion," which used to be a left-wing specialty, is now (with the advent of "compassionate conservatism") bipartisan. A variety of public policy choices can bear the imprimatur of compassion. And if the rhetoric of compassion is now mandatory, it is incumbent on us to understand its intellectual genealogy.

But the hard work of instilling virtue doesn't take place on the political hustings; it takes place in families and churches and schools. And I suspect that the folks on the front lines will continue to rely on appeals to self-interest and salvation.

Diana Schaub teaches political science at Loyola College in Maryland.