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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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.