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The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments Paperback – August 9, 2005

ISBN-13: 978-1400077229 ISBN-10: 1400077222 Edition: Reprint

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Himmelfarb, a leading neoconservative historian of ideas (One Nation, Two Cultures, etc.), takes on the ambitious project of reclaiming the Enlightenment from what she sees as delusionary French thinkers and restoring it to the (apparently) virtuous moderation of the English. The French Enlightenment, she claims, was excessively preoccupied with reason and insufficiently concerned with individual liberty; the philosophes idealized Man in the abstract but despised the common man. In contrast, a distinctively humane British Enlightenment was underpinned by ideals of social virtue: compassion, benevolence and sympathy. These thinkers were tolerant and pragmatic, convinced that private self-interest and public welfare were ultimately compatible. Their legacy, Himmelfarb argues, exerts a major influence on contemporary U.S. culture. Himmelfarb's book is both sophisticated and accessible, and makes some valuable revelations: Adam Smith's hostility to the "business class"; Burke's antipathy to British rule in India. One wonders about the value of the term "Enlightenment" when it is so broad as to encompass John Wesley, and the author's exaltation of the English-speaking philosophical tradition appears particularly problematic in her treatment of the American Enlightenment. Was the American Civil War, allegedly fought in defense of liberty, any less terrible than the infamous Terror? Nonetheless, this is a book with important ideological implications that deserves to be read and debated across the political spectrum.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Reclaiming the Enlightenment would be an ambitious challenge for any historian, but it is perhaps even more daunting for one so closely identified with a particular brand of politics (neoconservatism). No one questions Himmelfarb’s credentials for tackling the job: she is professor emeritus at the City University of New York and the author of nine books. But she takes some hard lumps for attempting to link the Enlightenment to the current American political scene (one reviewer dubbed her "an apologist for the Bush administration"; another accused her of knowingly "reading her own political agenda into the text of the past"). Is it any wonder that the more conservative critics provided raves and liberals gave sharp critique? Detractors felt Himmelfarb ignored historical facts inconvenient to her viewpoint. Ultimately, as its mixed reviews illustrate, The Roads to Modernity succeeds in at least one area: inspiring impassioned debate about a controversial new idea.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (August 9, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400077222
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400077229
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #807,569 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

I have never read any other book by the acclaimed author, but I will do so now.
A. F. Donovan
A large part of the answer comes at the end of the book when she starts to draw comparisons between the Enlightenment and contemporary political ideas.
R. Albin
Dr. Himmelfarb writes this book on this period of time to discuss the Enlightenment as it happened in England, France and America.
John Matlock

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Ralph Blumenau TOP 1000 REVIEWER on June 16, 2008
Format: Paperback
This superb, lucid and perhaps somewhat partisan book is primarily concerned with the British Enlightenment and with the differences between it and the Enlightenment in France and in America. The author points out that the mainstream of the British Enlightenment did not give absolute priority to Reason, which can easily lead people astray, but to innate moral sentiments and feelings of compassion and benevolence, which Reason and self-interest may support but can also pervert. Where the mainstream French Enlightenment aimed to regenerate mankind, the British wanted to improve it. Where the French were revolutionary, the British were evolutionary. Where the French were militantly anti-clerical, the British, even if they were Theists or Deists, had no intention to attack the Church as such - indeed men like Thomas Woolston, Conyers Middleton and Matthew Tindal were actually in Holy Orders. And the French philosophes generally had little sentiment to spare for the despised canaille, to whom they allowed `neither a moral sense nor a common sense that might approximate reason'. Education, important as it was in the writings of Helvétius and Holbach, would simply be wasted on them. They wanted enlightened reform, of course; but for the most part they pinned their hopes for this on the very unBritish notion of Enlightened Despotism, unreliable as their experience of actual Enlightened Despots turned out to be.

I have used the word `mainstream', which Himmelfarb does not use.
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53 of 65 people found the following review helpful By John Zxerce on September 24, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I had mixed feelings about this book. Himmelfarb cannot be discarded as merely an undistinguished poorly reasoned historian (as some critics seem to want to suggest). On the contrary she's a redactionist of importance in the area of historical movements and measures. And this work proves it again.

What Himmelfarb tries to do is reclaim the Enlightenment from what she sees as misguided French thinkers. It's difficult not to see her connections between a decline of religion, and the cultural outflowing resulting from aspects of the French Enlightenment.

In contrast she presents the British Enlightenment as connected with social affections, based on a more solid moral foundation than that of the French with it's naked "ideology of reason" - a term I wish she would have explained in further detail.

With that said, I found her claims regarding the French Enlightenment to be over-simplified. She claims, a preoccupation with reason as the primary fault of the French Enlightenment. However, I don't find this convincing in that the English movement was also very much focused on rationality, logic, and reason. My guess is her reaction here is too strong and too generalized. Furthermore, does she miss the need for societies to be built on the ideal of rigorous intellectualism?

On the whole, her work is both sophisticated and easy to get at, and certainly makes credible contributions to this field with her more conservative approach. Any honest evaluator cannot write this book off as a docile and unenthusiastic romanticizing of the events. - rather, it's a worthy read, worthy of evaluation.
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21 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Zecon on February 20, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Leveraging the concept of "American Exceptionalism" coined by de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, Lipset noted that exceptional in this sense is to be interpreted as qualitatively different from all other countries. The concept of American Exceptionalism as expressed by Lipset has broad academic acceptance and credibility. While there are those who might challenge this concept, it is fair to say that Americans continue to see themselves as different or unique from the rest of the world. This is not to say that America is better than the rest of the world, but that America is what it is because of its unique balance of public and private interests governed by constitutional ideals that are focused on personal and economic freedom.

It is through the lens of American Exceptionalism that we can best comprehend what Himmelfarb has put forward in The Roads to Modernity. Her comparison of the French, British and American Enlightenments yields some interesting differences providing greater context to the concept of American Exceptionalism. Himmelfarb completes this comparison with alacrity and evenhandedness. She does not end up being an apologist for the neo-conservative movement even though her eye is on present-day politics nor is this book a paean to Libertarians. On some level it is fair to criticize her for lightly brushing aside the Scottish Enlightenment and all but ignoring the Italian Renaissance as well as great Enlightenment thinkers outside of France, Britain and America. However, her point about the uniqueness of the American Enlightenment might have been lost if the comparison went to far a field intellectually.
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