Shades of Enlightenment

Reviewed by Jonathan Marks

The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments
by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Knopf, 2004, 284 pages.

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e favored state-supported and state-administered education, so that even those destined for the lowest occupations would learn reading, writing, and arithmetic. He defended high wages on the grounds that the poor could be expected to be more, not less, industrious when they were working for more than bare necessities, and because it was “but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe and lodge the whole body of the people should have such a share of the produce of their own labor as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed and lodged.” He denounced the “mean rapacity” of merchants and manufacturers who profited at the expense of the public, especially the poor. He was not Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that well-known champion of the downtrodden, but Adam Smith, that well-known champion of the “system of natural liberty,” or capitalism. In comprehending in one system of thought concerns that would later seem necessarily opposed, Adam Smith represented the British Enlightenment.
In The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments, Gertrude Himmelfarb, professor emerita of history at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, offers “an explication—and an appreciation—of the British Enlightenment, with the French and American Enlightenments serving as foils for the British.” The French Enlightenment, however, is the more important of the two foils, so much so that Himmelfarb promises to “reclaim the Enlightenment… above all, from the French, who have dominated and usurped it.” An eminent historian of Victorian England, Himmelfarb is today best known as a cultural critic who offers the Victorian case as an aid to reflection on the moral decline of contemporary Western societies, and on a moral revival that may be under way in the United States. She now turns from the nineteenth to the eighteenth century with a view to exposing the roots of today’s culture wars in the French Enlightenment and, in the case of the British Enlightenment, the broad outline of a possible peace that would preserve the dignity of both sides. In so doing, Himmelfarb reveals what is at stake in the recovery of ideas that we have somehow forgotten even as we remain entangled in them.
Himmelfarb faults Voltaire, Diderot, D’Holbach, and other leading figures of the French Enlightenment for making reason an end in itself and “the fundamental principle of politics and society.” The French Enlightenment’s elevation of reason had at least three important consequences. First, because human beings and societies are not particularly rational, the attempt to establish the rule of reason was bound to call for a revolutionary and violent politics devoted to the regeneration of mankind. Second, because the people “were incapable of the kind of reason that the philosophes took to be the essence of enlightenment,” the French Enlightenment entailed an elitist politics. And third, rationalizing politics and society meant that reason must outrank religion and tradition. Hence the French Enlightenment was bound to call for an attack on any religion or tradition that declined to submit to reason, the God of the philosophers. Himmelfarb thus holds the French Enlightenment responsible for a “Kulturkampf… pitting the past against the present, confronting enlightened sentiment with retrograde institutions, and creating an unbridgeable divide between reason and religion.” The French Revolution, she shows, gave birth to a Western politics that is with us still, pitting the Right against the Left, and the religious against the secular.

Jonathan Marks is assistant professor of political science and philosophy at Carthage College. His book Perfection and Disharmony in the Thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

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