The British, French, and American Enlightenments

By Gertrude Himmelfarb. Knopf. 284 pp. $25

Why should Gertrude Himmelfarb have bothered to write a study of the Enlightenment ? A leading neo-conservative intellectual, author of nine books that mostly hail the virtues of Victorianism, she is passionately worried about the decline of religion and the cultural corruption of modern American life. Her sensibilities seemingly have little in common with a movement so entangled with scientific rationalism, an emerging liberal political philosophy, and critical confrontation with inherited dogma. It would also be surprising if, as she states, Himmelfarb were concerned merely with the esoteric task of distinguishing different national "enlightenments" or, for the historical record, "restoring" the standing of even a supposedly temperate British tradition. Something more has to be at stake. There is.

The Roads to Modernity is an exceptionally well written and clever attempt -- all the more clever since its political aims are never made explicit -- to employ a redefined Enlightenment both as a bulwark for neoconservatism and as a device for explaining current conflicts between supposed allies. In Himmelfarb's proudly revisionist history, the English and American variants of the Enlightenment thus confront the French one while, incredibly, she identifies the Enlightenment's best aspects with an attachment to "religious dispositions," a morally upright capitalism and a "benign imperialism." Making these arguments, however, cuts the Enlightenment off from its rich historical roots and corrals it inside the 18th century. It also requires partitioning a genuinely cosmopolitan movement into three relatively isolated parts and connecting each with one essential idea: The British Enlightenment is consequently associated with "social affections," the French with the "ideology of reason" and the American with the "politics of liberty."

Of course, historians should seek to recover the particular truths obscured by easy generalizations. But Himmelfarb loses the forest for the trees. She spends little time on the international scientific revolution started by Descartes, Sir Francis Bacon and Galileo or the burgeoning secular political outlook of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, whose influence on the continent was probably as great as that of any intellectual other than Sir Isaac Newton. These trends in England helped undermine the public power of religious institutions and turn faith into a matter of individual choice. They also inspired what is usually associated with the British Enlightenment: the radical skepticism of David Hume, the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and social reformism later embraced by John Stuart Mill and the Fabians.

Himmelfarb has no use for any of this. She instead emphasizes the concern with empathy highlighted by Lord Shaftesbury, the small-scale capitalism with a moral conscience preached by Adam Smith, and the traditionalism of Edmund Burke. She is, after all, "engaged in a doubly revisionist exercise, making the Enlightenment more British and making the British Enlightenment more inclusive." Yet how Himmelfarb's version of the British Enlightenment paves the road to modernity remains an open question. Her concern is not with how the Enlightenment contested traditional religious prejudices or feudal institutions. Nor is she concerned with how the new mathematical logic of profit and loss undermined the various flowery moral justifications employed by advocates of the new capitalist society. Such matters would only get in the way of transforming the Enlightenment -- by sleight of hand -- into a tame and tepid romanticism.

Fear of critique fuels Himmelfarb's book. She attacks the French Enlightenment, in particular, for a supposed over-reliance on "reason" that generated the guillotine. But this idea is not new. Virtually every 19th-century reactionary pounced upon it, just as reactionary romantics invoked the stereotype of the Enlightenment intellectual as a superficial rationalist throughout the 20th century. Himmelfarb ignores the French legacy of the "engaged intellectual" intent upon opposing political injustice and furthering social change. She likewise seems blissfully unaware that not French philosophy but German idealism was most obsessed with "reason," "speculation" and "critique," or that this tradition developed through a creative engagement with the thinking of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Hume.

As for the American Enlightenment, without forgetting the impact of European ideas, the historian Henry Steele Commager already argued that it incarnated "the blessings of liberty." Himmelfarb adds little by looking back to Jonathan Edwards, quoting the founders or noting that the treatment of Native Americans -- rather than merely of slavery and its consequences -- poses a "problem." Her institutional discussion is old hat.

It is important to understand that no national expression of the Enlightenment has a unique claim to "social affection," "reason" or "political liberty." In suggesting otherwise, Himmelfarb conceals key reasons why reactionaries in all three nations condemned the new movement. Contempt for the way inherited prejudices inhibit personal liberty, a preoccupation with the liberal rule of law and the call for responsive political institutions marked the new international "republic of letters." But Himmelfarb devotes hardly a word to common Enlightenment ideals like progress, rights, institutional accountability, popular sovereignty, the scientific revolution and the critique of feudal tradition. She has even less to say about the intolerance of the religious establishment, the barbarism of the aristocracy and the power of superstition.

She also tosses aside the Enlightenment's injunction to question authority -- including, in principle, the shallow prejudices held by many of its most illustrious representatives. Nor does she take on modern thinkers who chastise the Enlightenment for its supposedly white, male and Eurocentric biases. More pressing matters are at stake. Himmelfarb wishes to show that President Bush's "coalition of the willing" has intellectual roots in the past. She depicts a libertarian Anglo-American philosophy with "social affections" that has bravely opposed the cynical and latently authoritarian hyper-rationalism of the French since the birth of modernity. Similarly, given the author's uncritical admiration for Smith and Burke, it becomes possible to legitimate the president's "compassionate conservatism" in terms of the Enlightenment.

The problem lies not in reinterpreting the past with an eye on contemporary politics. That can be refreshing and daring. The trouble is Himmelfarb's limited sense of the intellectual bravado exhibited by the philosophical revolutionaries of the Enlightenment, the valor of their assault on inherited dogma, the reformist social movements they inspired, and their influence on a host of non-European leaders ranging from Simon Bolivar to Nelson Mandela. What remains from her book is a pallid warning, stemming from a provincial and debilitating "common sense," built upon hidden political aims: The failings of the Enlightenment -- oh, dear! -- lie in its excesses. Thinking of this sort represents not what the Enlightenment offers, but what it challenges us to overcome. *

Stephen Eric Bronner is a professor of political science at Rutgers University and author of "Reclaiming the Enlightenment."