One of the heroes of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The Roads to Modernity is Adam Smith, saluted every day on our masthead. This book’s design (not a surprising one for a Victorian scholar) is to honor the British Enlightenment; to do this, she splits it in thirds. She devotes the first 150 pages to the British (“The Sociology of Virtue”) and then examines more briefly the French (“The Ideology of Reason”) and, finally, the American (“The Politics of Liberty”). The book is short and lucid. Her approach uses the French as foil to the English; the Americans not only offer a third and often later perspective but give life to many of the arguments from these eighteenth century British thinkers. Needless to say, she doesn’t see that as a bad thing. She argues, toward the end, that “If America is now exceptional, it is because it has inherited and preserved aspects of the British Enlightenment that the British themselves have disarded and that other countries (France, most notably) have never adopted.” (233)
The book is charming and makes powerful arguments. Going to it to better understand American literature, I found she illuminated much of American nineteenth century literature although her focus is on the works of the Federalist period, where her heroes–Hume, Burke and Montesquieu as well as Smith–had a more direct effect. Her emphasis is on an Enlightenment pragmatic and commonsensical. It discourages any scheme in which the best is the enemy of the good. This is an enlightenment that does not see its only descendents in the “Brights”.
This vision is warmly tuned to the potential of the common man. Emphasizing the social component, she sees the Enlightenment as broadening responsibility. (Certainly, the assumptions she describes underlie Instapundit’s references to “a pack not a herd.”) She notes that this is an Enlightenment that paved the way both for the checks so central to American thinking – that man is likely to err – and for the wide spread of power. Most of all, this Enlightenment respected religion.
She made me understand how those economists on the masthead are so closely related to, say, Madison and Hamilton. All were interested in using reason to understand human nature. As is so often the sign of a generative scholar as well as great artists, her clear prose makes distinctions that help us understand our tradition and ourselves. (To help us, indeed, return to where we were when we started reading and see it as if for the first time.)
She points out that “At a critical moment in history, these three Enlightenments represented alternative approaches to modernity, alternative habits of mind and heart, of consciousness and sensibility” (5). Further on in her prologue, she sums up her argument, one that we can understand in part because our kinship is so strong to the British vision:
The driving force of the British Enlightenment was not reason but the “social virtues” or “social affections.” In America, the driving force was political liberty, the motive for the Revolution and the basis for the republic. For the British moral philosophers and for the American Founders, reason was an instrument for the attainment of the larger social end, not the end itself. And for both, religion was an ally, not an enemy. (19)
Himmelfarb’s arguments and appreciations are those we often see on the writers of this blog: a firm belief in the validity of the marketplace – of ideas, of religions, of commerce. Deeply egalitarian and respectful of the individual, it doubts that no matter how he comes to power, a despot is not likely to be benign. Indeed, Himmelfarb’s first book, in 1948, was on Lord Acton – he of the “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely” fame. While, she contends, the French seek a benign despot capable of guiding purely by reason, the British and then Americans choose to encourage reason in all.
More concerned with Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, she observes that while he is now better known for his Wealth of Nations, the two works come out of the same, unified vision, one characteristic of the British Enlightenment. Discussing Smith as well as such other writers as Hume and Newton, she observes:
In France, reason was the authority and ideology, a reason so paramount as to challenge not only religion and the church but all the institutions dependent upon them. Reason was inherently subversive, looking to an ideal future and contemptuous of the deficiencies of the present, to say nothing of the past—and disdainful also of the beliefs and practices of the uneducated and lowborn.
The British moral philosophy, on the other hand, was reformist rather than subversive, respectful of the past and present even while looking forward to a more enlightened future. It was also optimistic and in this way at least egalitarian, the moral sense and common sense being shared by all men and not merely the educated and well-born. And it had no quarrel with religion itself—with a benighted and antisocial religion, to be sure, but not with religion per se. It could even tolerate, as Shaftesbury and Hume did, enthusiastic religion, thus opening the door to the most enthusiastic religion of the day, Methodism. (51)
As she proceeds to draw these distinctions and give them life, the very idea of the Enlightenment enlarges and, indeed, bifurcates.
For many years, I have been irritated by European house guests who assumed our revolution followed the French (sometimes they implied, ah, but you didn’t carry it so far – as if that were a bad thing). Of course, I would point out that while we were thankful for Lafayette, our revolution had preceded theirs. And our long history with one government struck me as somewhat more successful than the series of regimes derived from their revolution. In short, I suspected ours was more perceptive about reality (especially human nature) and more accurate in its confidence in the universality and potential of man’s nature as well as its frailty. Of course, in each of these conversations, I knew my response was inadequate because I had insufficient context.
But, Himmelfarb makes this context clear and draws important distinctions. While it is easy to see the attraction of the purity and idealism of the French Enlightenment, Himmelfarb distinguishes the three enlightenments in a useful way. For instance, one difference lies in in Benjamin Franklin’s approach to his errata – we are often told he believed in the Enlightenment tradition of the perfectibility of man. That he honored the attempt to strive toward that perfectibility I never doubted. But I’d always found the Autobiography impossible to read in precisely that way; for one thing, what does one do with all that irony? He scratches a hole in the paper recording his inevitable falls from perfection; his clear laughter at his choice, then, of a washable slate indicate both that man should strain toward perfectibility but that he isn’t all that likely to achieve it.
This attitude, Himmelfarb might argue, is a gift from the British. As she concludes the American section, she observes:
The opening words of the preamble to the Constitution confirmed that principle: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union. . . “Not the perfect union, which might have been the aim of a “philosophical legislator,” but only a more perfect union. The British moral philosophers would have endorsed that modest sentiment. The French philosophes, aspiring to be philosophical legislators, might not have done so. (226)
By her conclusion, much American writing from that period falls into place. Man’s fallen nature is the assumption of letters between the Adams – and Himmelfarb gives Adams his due as one of her great examples of America’s Emlightenment.
She also makes clear why, barely a generation earlier, the scientists of the British Enlightenment welcomed Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards, whom we generally think of as religious figures. They joined their firm, perhaps obsessive, religious belief with a fervent desire to study science. To understand God, they would argue, they must first apply the reason God gave them to understanding God’s work – nature and human nature. The reasoned process by which understanding is reached was no less (nor more) important to them than to their contemporary Deists. Because reason was given its due as means and not as end, these men could speak to one another with respect and affection. Himmelfarb respects the religious impulse and religions themselves; she even embraces Methodism’s enthusiasm (especially because of its role as a “social religion” and its transition to Victorian benevolence).
The Brits and Americans knew, reason can be distracted, become used by the passions – both the stories of the Old Testament and Shakespeare told them that if they read them at all. In the next century, Newman notes that it is too fine a razor to quarry the granite rock of man’s pride and passion. To the English, the joy and utility of reason were always means to an end. Himmelfarb implies that reason cannot bear the weight of idolatry; it is more process than end; her (and she would argue America’s and England’s) emphasis is on man reasoning not on a man who embodies an abstract reason. There are, indeed, no benign despots of pure reason.
She concludes: “We are, in fact, still floundering in the verities and fallacies, the assumptions and convictions, about human nature, society, and the polity that exercised the British moral philosophers, the French philosophes, and the American founders” (235). And we look back at the “benign despots” the French sought and the leaders trained in France to believe in reason and themselves—and only reason and themselves. The twentieth century was not kind to such idealism, purity, idolatry. But, as happens so often when we look at our history, Himmelfarb moves us to gratitude – to gratitude for the more ordinary, measured, common sensical Enlightenment the British defined, the heritage we reshaped and redefined to become our own, to better meet our (perhaps we could argue, human nature’s) needs.