Blogs > Cliopatria > Gertrude Himmelfarb's The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments (Knopf)

Aug 31, 2004 8:21 pm

Gertrude Himmelfarb's The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments (Knopf)

Chuck Leddy, in the SF Chronicle (Aug. 29, 2004):

Among neoconservatives, especially since the Iraq war, French bashing has become quite a popular sport. The French, so the sentiment goes, are appeasers, elitists, cowards and (worst of all) stridently anti-American. Now comes distinguished historian Gertrude Himmelfarb (married to Irving Kristol, widely regarded as the godfather of the neoconservative movement) to add some intellectual heft to the right's Francophobia.

Himmelfarb's basic contention, one she supports with great passion and wide-ranging scholarship, is that the great 18th century French Enlightenment has been vastly overrated and that the British and American Enlightenments have been comparatively underrated. Her goal in writing this book is to"reclaim the Enlightenment ... from the French who have dominated and usurped it" and restore it to the British and Americans.

So who stole the Enlightenment and gave credit for it to the French? Himmelfarb never says so directly, but one can venture a guess: liberals in academia. Her critique of the French Enlightenment is twofold: First, the French philosophes, from Rousseau to Voltaire to Diderot and the rest, were anti-religious, and second, they were elitists who scorned the common people. The French so worshiped reason that they denied the value of faith, thus cutting themselves off from the multitudes.

The great Voltaire, Himmelfarb points out, opposed education for the children of farmers on the grounds that they were mired in religious superstition and thus largely unredeemable. This kind of elitist thinking, Himmelfarb tells us repeatedly, pervaded the French Enlightenment. So did totalitarian impulses, impulses embodied in the French Revolution and"the Terror." Himmelfarb spends much space describing Rousseau's concept of the"general will" and how it influenced Robespierre and hence"the Terror."

Most of the book is dedicated to praising the British Enlightenment, especially those two heroes of latter-day neoconservatives, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. Unlike the"revolutionary" French intellectuals, Burke had a profound respect for established institutions. Smith, for his part, believed that religious toleration and religious freedom were essential for a coherent society and were preservative of all other freedoms. Himmelfarb shows how British philosophers such as Smith and David Hume (Scotsmen both) believed in a kind of"natural equality" between people. Both men also viewed commerce as a civilizing influence....

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