THE ROADS TO MODERNITY by Gertrude Himmelfarb


The British, French, and American Enlightenments
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Put down your freedom fries, citoyens, and pause in awe as right-wing historian Himmelfarb attempts to rescue the Enlightenment from the awful French.

Mais oui, the French, “who have dominated and usurped” the Enlightenment, imagining—the nerve—that the likes of Diderot and Rousseau ever had any influence on the rest of the world. And then there are the insidious postmodernists, who, even though they’re sort of French themselves, have announced that inasmuch as slavery, war, and other evils persisted even as the philosophes converted good men and women to their cause, there is no need to pay any attention to “the Enlightenment project.” Well, stuff and nonsense, thunders Himmelfarb (One Nation, Two Cultures, 1999, etc.): the Enlightenment is enduring and just fine, and especially so if one restores it “to its progenitor: the British.” Wait a second, Angus: not the Scottish, but the British, by which Himmelfarb, through a neat bit of linguistic and geographical legerdemain, really means the English. (Yes, Hume was Scottish. Yes, Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson were Scottish. But, bending time and space, Himmelfarb proposes adding John Locke and Isaac Newton to the mix, as well as the third Earl of Shaftesbury, to say nothing of Edward Gibbon, Joseph Priestly, and Thomas Paine, whereupon the sadly outnumbered Scots recede north of the Humber.) And the contribution of these Enlightened English to the enterprise? Why, the insistence not on “reason,” a touchy subject, “but the ‘social virtues’ or ‘social affections,’ ” as well as the view that religion was an ally and not—as the awful French had it—an enemy. Combine social virtues and religion and you have “benevolence,” “a more modest virtue than Reason, but perhaps a more humane one.” Another term for benevolence? Why, compassionate conservatism, “compassion” being a word that the English had “long before the French” and, being voluntary, that fit in well in the finest moment of the Enlightenment—namely, the creation of America.

All in all, a piffling and pet-peevish book, but sure to provoke merriment in cafes up and down the Champs Elysées.

Pub Date: Aug. 27th, 2004
ISBN: 1-4000-4236-4
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2004


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