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

That the Enlightenment remains the source of controversy 200 years on should surprise no one, as almost every aspect of our modern world was defined either by or in reaction to this singularly central movement. The irony, of course, is that the Enlightenment itself is perpetually difficult to define in direct proportion to its continued relevance. There were so many movements and counter-movements, in so many countries spread over a hundred and fifty years, that it is possible for any industrious historian to explicate the period through any number of assumed prejudices simply by choosing what parts to emphasize over others. By choosing to redefine the Enlightenment as an essentially conservative social movement, this is exactly what Himmelfarb has done.

The problem is that, while Himmelfarb makes many cogent and powerful arguments in favor of her thesis, it flies in the face of accepted wisdom to an almost untenable degree. While the Enlightenment’s borders are certainly porous, most scholars can agree that the conservative evangelical movements, which partly characterized the 19th century in Great Britain, do not belong. To argue that the social moralists and political philosophers of the British Enlightenment represented anything more than a small part of the overall movement is, quite simply, to misrepresent the entire notion. Indeed, this is an intractable obstacle which Himmelfarb tangentially acknowledges in her prologue, when she states that “[to] bring the British Enlightenment onto the stage of history, indeed, the center stage, is to redefine the very idea of Enlightenment”.

The argument carries a great deal of persuasiveness, however, for the very simple reason that the British Enlightenment was indeed far more influential than its slight position in the philosophical record would indicate. To put it simply, is there a single individual alive today who does not experience the visceral reality of Adam Smith’s theories every day, far more than the abstractions of Voltaire, Montesquieu and all the other usual suspects? Indeed, Himmelfarb approaches a profound truth when she notes that the eminently practical thinkers of the American Enlightenment / Revolution “… managed to produce works, The Federalist, most notably, which were far less voluminous than the [French] Encyclopédie, but more influential and enduring”. But is it wise to reorient our entire notion of history based solely on its utility?

The French philosphes who serve as the focus of most conventional histories are routinely criticized. Many of the criticisms are familiar and, more to the point, true: the French were slavish to the notion of absolute monarchy, and often virulently anti-Semitic. Himmelfarb’s major contention — that the French Enlightenment was intrinsically flawed because of the exaltation of pure reason above any conception of morality, and therefore laid the groundwork for later atrocities — is also significant, but it carries the slight imprecation of dismissal. That they failed to anticipate the eventuality of the French Revolution is very true, but moral indignation on the part of the historian is unbecoming: the inevitable tragedy adds a piquancy to the French experience essential to any understanding of the period. To dismiss the philosphes based on the simple fact that they were inarguably naïve is to wholly misunderstand their significance.

Any traditional notion of the Enlightenment begins in the 17th century, with the rise of Bacon, Newton, Hobbes, Descartes, Kant and their ilk. The main conflict that powered the early Enlightenment was between the scientifically-inclined empiricists and the deductive rationalists — and although these divisions would continually, especially accentuated by the gap between continental and British schools of thought, the overall effect would be a synthetic harmony that carried enough momentum to last until the dawn of the 19th century. The scientific aspects of the Enlightenment is all but ignored by Himmelfarb, as are many others. According to the index, Newton receives six mentions, Bacon and Kant two apiece, and poor Descartes none. In their place, Himmelfarb accentuates the historical contributions of such luminaries as Edmund Burke and John Wesley — the latter example being, even she admits, a rather audacious example of historical carpet bagging.

There is a part of me that wonders whether or not a book like this represents a canny attempt to disarm traditional notions of left and right by appropriating the linguistic obfuscation of the postmodernist academician for conservative purposes. This would be, of course, deeply ironic and more than slightly devious on the part of Himmelfarb. But redefining the lexicon is one of the oldest tricks of partisan warfare, and Himmelfarb tips her hand in the book’s epilogue when she connects the “sociology of virtue” found in the British Enlightenments to the specific notion of “compassionate conservatism” as propounded by America’s “reigning party of conservatives”. The coy stealth with which Himmelfarb employs this particularly loaded set of linguistic signifiers underscores the precarious nature of the conceit: any concept of Enlightenment that can attempt with a straight face to trace a direct genealogy to George W. Bush is predicated on a reading of history so attenuated and abused as to be rendered comically unrecognizable.

With that said, it would be foolhardy to dismiss Himmelfarb’s efforts on the basis of her misguided epilogue. Anyone can employ an X-Acto knife to divest their reading copy of the offending pages, and with such an emendation the book would make a valuable addition to any general study or college overview of the period. By choosing to accentuate, through a readable and lucid narrative, the historical contributions of traditionally underserved corners of the Enlightenment and related movements through a generally conservative prism, Himmelfarb has made an important contribution to any layman’s historical library. To mistake this for anything resembling the radical reappraisal that is presented, however, would be a grave mistake indeed. Caveat emptor and all that.