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HALL OF FAMEon February 6, 2010
In this well-argued work Himmelfarb compares the British (Scottish-English), French and American Enlightenments. The bulk of the book deals with the British Enlightenment with reference to amongst others, Adam Smith, Godwin, Hume, Hobbes, Locke, Newton and Lord Shaftesbury plus, unusually, John Wesley and Edmund Burke. She assigns a significant role to the social movement of Methodism. Thomas Paine and the Founding Fathers represent the American, whilst Diderot and Voltaire are considered the main characters in the French Enlightenment.

In every case there were exceptions, e.g. Locke and Newton had more in common with the revolutionary French whilst Montesquieu was closer to the evolutionary British. Roads to Modernity's history of the Western political tradition explains the enduring chasm between the Right and Left. From the start they embraced different philosophical assumptions and disparate notions of the human condition. It's plain to see why one yielded stability and growth while the other spawned genocidal secular salvationist movements or at best, stagnation.

The British "moral philosophers" differed from the French "philosophes'. What made them moral philosophers was their belief in a moral sense of empathy/compassion thought to be so deeply entrenched in the human soul as to have the same compelling power as innate ideas. The author views Lord Shaftesbury's Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit as the spark of the British Enlightenment. Shaftesbury credited humanity with this innate moral sense. Adam Smith's laissez-faire economics and belief in natural equality expressed in On The Wealth Of Nations mirrors Shaftesbury's concept of social affection. Smith believed that sympathy and benevolence were virtues inherent to the human condition.

Although formidable figures, Locke, Hobbes and Newton had little lasting influence on the issues that defined the British Enlightenment. According to Locke things could be judged good or evil only by reference to pleasure or pain, which themselves resulted from sensation. Shaftesbury disagreed - virtue did not derive from reason, religion, sensation or self-interest. These were methods for promoting or suppressing it but the moral sense was the real source of virtue. This moral conscience is the guide to distinguishing right from wrong. Shaftesbury did not shy away from discussing the baleful passions that torment mankind. He even warned of excessive virtue, since an immoderate degree of e.g. altruism could destroy the "effect of love," whilst excessive pity rendered a man incapable of remedial action.

For Shaftesbury, the sense of compassion was rooted in nature and instinct, preceding instruction and reason that serve to determine the best way of promoting the good. Thus the innate impulse to the good was the basis of the social ethic that informed British philosophical and moral discourse throughout the eighteenth century. Subsequent philosophers that followed Shaftesbury agreed on the moral conscience as universal attribute and viewed it as a corollary of reason and interest, but independent of and existing before them.

Burke unfairly gained a Counter-Enlightenment reputation owing to his revulsion in the atrocities of the French Revolution but he was a supporter of American independence who urged the government to respect the rights and freedoms of both Americans and Englishmen during the war of independence. Himmelfarb shows that his views never deviated from the notions about moral virtue that characterized the mainstream British Enlightenment.

John Wesley believed in improving social conditions in this life. He argued that to renounce reason was to renounce religion, that religion & reason go hand in hand, and that irrational religion is harmful. A combination of the two were needed to improve society. The Methodists produced a vast corpus of educational material on medicine, literature, grammar, science, natural history and more. Himmelfarb shows that the endeavor succeeded in uplifting the common people. Christians distributed food, clothes and money to the poor, visited the sick and imprisoned, ameliorated the plight of the unemployed and contributed to the abolition of slavery.

The French Enlightenment deified reason so the French Revolution turned against religion. Most of the leaders of the French thinkers were militant atheists and materialists. Their worship of rationality betrays a snobbish elitism and contempt for common people that contributed to the excesses of the revolution and later led to the dictatorship of Napoleon. Philosophes like Diderot and Voltaire despised the ordinary people for their faith and ignorance but there were noble exceptions like Montesquieu.

The Enlightenment in the American colonies was inspired by the moral and social philosophy of Smith, Hume and Burke with its humane and realistic social ethic. Himmelfarb claims that America has inherited and guarded aspects of the British Enlightenment that the British themselves have discarded and that continental Europe never adopted. This blend of virtue and freedom produced a strange paradox: the USA is the most capitalistic and simultaneously the most moralistic of nations. American liberty owes much to a virtue that was put into practice by British Methodists and Evangelicals whose traditions were adopted by Americans.

The American Enlightenment regarded spirituality as positive, as the source of morality. Although church and state were separated, church and society were intertwined; the author claims the role of religion guaranteed to the success and endurance of American institutions. The Founding Fathers recognized the ability of religion to unite society even though two of them - Franklin and Jefferson - were Deists.

In conclusion, Himmelfarb claims that the American Enlightenment is thriving today whilst the British and French versions have petered out. There is some truth in this as in the late 20th century France became the breeding ground of irrational pseudo-philosophies like postmodernism and deconstruction but these have spread to, and to a large extent taken over, the humanities on American campuses.

Yet France also preserved the evolutionary strain in the person of moral intellectuals like Jean-François Revel, Alain Besançon, Andre Glucksmann and Chantal Delsol. Having pondered Himmelfarb's informative analysis, it might perhaps make sense to divide the Enlightenment into Anglo-Saxon and Continental traditions which represent the evolutionary versus the revolutionary strains. The text is served by copious notes and this informative book concludes with an index.
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on September 17, 2005
I started reading this book with some apprehension, raised by the opening sentence in which Himmelfarb purports to do to the Enlightenment what the US Congress cafeteria not so long ago did for potato fries: reclaiming it from the French. In fact, Himmelfarb's book is not so much an attack on French 'philosophes' as it is an attempt to make the Enlightenment more inclusive, broadening its scope beyond a narrow focus on reason in order to include the "sociology of virtue" of British moral philosophers and the "politics of liberty" of America's Founding Fathers. As noted by other reviewers, the chapter devoted to the French 'Siecle des Lumieres' is short and rather superficial. Himmelfarb is more convincing when she shows that the Enlightenment, at least in its Anglo-american versions, was not always inimical to religion. The chapter on Methodism makes a valid claim that religious revivals such as Wesleyanism in England and the Great Awakening in America can be seen as an extension of the Enlightenment's phenomenon, and that their ideals of social virtue and moral compassion are still very much alive today.

But did she have to reject anything French to make that point?
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on July 12, 2014
This book is geared more for academics than the public. Lots of statistics and high brow discussion.
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on September 24, 2004
There are periods in time when the situation in the world, or at least in some countries appear to be right for fundamental changes in thinking to occur. One such period was the Renaissance in Italy that ended the dark ages. Another happened in the 18th century. This period is called the Period of Enlightenment. It began in the early to mid 1700's and ended with the revolutions in America and France at the end of the century.

This was the period of time that gave us much of the philosophical underpenning of our time: Adam Smith and the Wealth of Nations; John Wesley and Methodism; Jefferson, Adams, John Licke and Edmund Burke.

Dr. Himmelfarb writes this book on this period of time to discuss the Enlightenment as it happened in England, France and America. Her view is that while the Enlightenment has been considered as primarily a French happening, the American and particuarily the British contributions were probably more significant. After all, the French revolution was a disaster that led the guillotine, to Napoleon and a war that covered the western world.
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on August 18, 2015
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on October 13, 2005
Try as I might, I was barely able to finish reading this book without a rising feeling of exasperation, not to say ennui, on several levels.

I can agree with the author's thesis that the Enlightenment originated not so much in France as it did in Britain, with the French and American experiences "serving as foils for the British" (pg. 20). As a non-historian, I can't say whether she is making a significant statement. After all, most non-academic people would probably think of the "Renaissance" as an Italian phenomenon, but would have no problem if someone suddenly "proved" that in fact Italy was only one of several countries in which the Renaissance took root and developed. It all seems to me so much a tempest in a teapot.

But it was Himmelfarb's turgid prose and style that gave me the most headaches. On page x of the Preface, the author calls her 284-page book a "short book". At 284 pages, a Dicken's novel might well be considered short, but by page 22 in this book, that is, by the end of the Preface and the Prologue, Himmelfarb had really said all she had to say on her subject. The rest seemed to me to be so much over-icing on a cake. The book isn't "short": it's 242 pages too *long*.

I first became discouraged when on inspecting the book, I found that it contained not only a Preface, but also a Prologue and an Epilogue. This may seem a mean-spirited thing to criticize, I suppose, but still, a book that needs so much explanation before the author gets to the heart of the matter and that needs a 10 page commentary beyond its ending, leaves me a little disconcerted.

By all accounts I have read, Professor Himmelfarb is one of the paragons of contemporary debate on the American intellectual arena. I'm sure the accolades are well deserved. Still, when an author informs me in the Prologue to her work that she is going to "reclaim" a subject and then that she is going to "redefine" (twice) and "restore" (thrice) it, that she is "unapologetic and unironic" of her approach and that she is "engaged in a doubly revisionist exercise" (pg 6), then it seems to me she portrays a combative demeanor off-putting to the general public (like me).

After all, it's usually reviewers, readers and the posterity of a book that proclaim and establish a book as "revisionist" or declare that an author has redefined or reclaimed a certain field of study. For an author to do so, seems to me, is somewhat indelicate.

I could "forgive" all of this, I imagine, were it not for the turgid, repetitious and frankly, pretentious prose in which the book is written. On page 16, for example, in the first paragraph, we are treated to a veritable bestiary of 17 Enlightenment illuminati in such quick succession that the point of the paragraph is totally lost. The feeling one is left with after plodding through this absurd presentation is that the author wants to impress the reader with the fact that she is very familiar with all these notables, and you better be too. Something like that. On pages 11-12, a mini-dissertation on the etymology of the word "Enlightenment" is given. This is interesting but unnecessary. The book is notable for this type of thing: inflated and beside the point stances and wordy explanations that lose the reader, at least this reader.

The book ends with an Epilogue, as I said. The first sentence in this chapter reads: "In America today, the Enlightenment is alive and well." Really? I thought a "culture war" has been going on in America for the last 3 decades, in which the Enlightenment is fighting for its survival and not doing well at all. George Washington's Farewell Address may be read annually in the US Senate, as Himmelfarb goes on to say, but that's about the only place it is read, certainly not without denouncing speeches, threatened lawsuits, anti-Farewell Address marches and so on taking place trying to *prevent* the speech from being given.

I have never read any other book by the acclaimed author, but I will do so now. It just can't be that her other books resemble this one in any important way.
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on September 2, 2004
For centuries Anglo-American conservatives have contrasted the happy fate of their country under the empirical, conservative moderation of their best thinkers with the ruinous fate of France under the disastrous theories of the Enlightenment. Over the past few decades scholars have pointed out this is a rather simplistic version of events. Now Gertrude Himmelfarb, leading conservative historian and Distinguished Professor of History at New York University has come up with a volume that is almost exactly the same as the old conservative version. There is just one slight difference. The good Anglo-Americans are the followers of a Good Enlightenment, while France is the follower of a Bad Enlightenment. Actually a majority of the book discusses the Enlightenment in England. The term is appropriate, because although many of her subjects are actually Scots (Smith, Hume and the moral philosophers), Wales is ignored and Ireland only appears in a footnote. We get a chapter on those moral philosphers who saw an innate moral sense in people. We get discussions of Hume and Smith, while Burke gets a whole chapter, as a model of Enlightenment moderation and decency. The more radical group around Paine get a less appreciative chapter, while John Wesley and Methodism get a chapter that also gets them placed in the Enlightenment. Finally, there is a discussion of the glorious age of moderate philanthropy that followed the Enlightenment ideas. There is also a concluding chapter on the wisdom of the American Enlightenment. Notwithstanding the violent war that broke out between the two the two are basically in agreement on everything, with special emphasis placed on their high opinion of religion. By contrast, the French get everything wrong. They are dogmatically opposed to religion, contemptuous of the public, opposed to philanthropy, supportive to Enlightened Despotism while their emphasis on reason over all leads directly to the Terror of the French Revolution. The book concludes with a paean to compassionate conservatism.

This is a middlebrow history. Instead of serious analysis, we get quotations from Tocqueville. We have an admiring chapter on Burke that is as admiring and uncritical as dozens of other conservative tributes. We also have a surfeit of double standards. Himmelfarb mocks Price and Priestly's millenial speculations, while John Wesley's opposition to Copernicus and belief in witchcraft go unmentioned. Voltaire's anti-semitism is condemned, while Hume's racism goes unmentioned. (Himmelfarb also says that the philosophes hated Judaism more than Christianity, but provides nothing to support this.) The Anglo-American Enlightenment is viewed as pro-education largely because of Smith's plans for public education in The Wealth of Nations. They were not implemented in Britian for decades to come, yet she dismisses Condorcet's plans for public education because they were not implemented quickly either. One theme of Himmelfarb is that the Anglo-American Enlightenment was genuinely democratic while the philosophes were snottily elitist. But this is simply playing with words: Himmelfarb obviously knows that Hume was not a democrat, that Burke vociferiously opposed them, and that the intensely hierarchical and fiercely authoritarian Methodists did not care for universal suffrage. And if the French philosophes were so anti-democratic and anti-semitic, why did France become a democracy and French Jews full citizens before England? The discussion of philanthropy is completely uncritical. It is odd that one seeking to defend the Enlightenment Project would discuss prison reform as if Michel Foucault never existed. It is clearly unconscionable to discuss poverty without mentioning K.D.M. Snell and praise the anti-slavery as if David Brion Davis never existed.

Slavery, indeed, is a bit of a blind spot for Himmelfarb. The American dilemna over slavery and the treatment of Indians is treated with a good deal of sympathy by Himmelfarb (more certainly than she gives to the slaves and the Indians). By contrast, there is no sympathy for French revolutionary leaders who face severe financial crisis, an absolutist political culture, a haughty Catholic establishment, a treacherous King and foreign invasion. On slavery Himmelfarb lamely suggests that the writers of the constitution were somehow vaguely anti-slavery. The fact that Jefferson, Madison and others had careers beyond 1787 lasting for four or five decades is not examined. She ignores Jon Butler and Leonard Levy on religion in the American repubic. A whole host of scholarship on slavery and the American Revolution goes unmentioned, as does more critical scholarship on Indian-American relations. Her empahsis that everyone in the Anglo-American Enlightenment thought that religion was useful, blurs the fact that state Anglicanism argued that Christianity was true, that non-Anglicans should be deprived of crucial rights, and that non-Christians were damned. There is also no discussion of modern science, while critics of the whole Enlightenment Project will not be satisfied with her brief, superificial discussion of empire. One would not learn, as one would from Emma Rothschild's recent book on Smith and Condorcet, that far from being mutually appreciative of each other, Burke's Scots admirers denounced Smith's admirers as atheists, subversives and traitors. There are errors on Methodists and the American Revolution (Wesley ordered all his missionaries to leave the ungrateful rebels, and all but one of them complied), as well as the Methodist attitude towards education (Wesley's conservative successors opposed teaching Sunday School students how to write well into the 19th century). And finally, Himmelfarb is unforgiveably catty and snide towards Wolstonecraft and Condorcet. This is especially striking, since if Himmelfarb had to rely on Burke and Wesley to get women's rights she would not be the Distinguished Professor of anything.
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on July 17, 2015
Completely laughable.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon December 5, 2004
On a narrow basis of acknowledged fact, a great and rude superstructure of fable has been erected. - Edward Gibbon

This is a peculiar and confused book. Individuals considering reading and/or buying this book should look at Stephen Bronner's critical and perceptive review from the Washington Post posted above. Potential readers should look also at Amazon reader-reviewer pnotley's review, also posted on this site. Both Bronner and pnotley deliver a series of excellent criticisms of The Roads to Modernity.

In this book, Himmelfarb presents a typology of the Enlightenment by associating different national groups with different strands of Enlightenment thought. The British exhibit "virtue" (actually sympathy, which is something related but different), the French "reason", and the Americans "liberty." Himmelfarb would have us believe that these different national versions of the Enlightenment have something to do with the subsequent evolution of each nation. This is likely to be true but probably not in the ways she suggests. Himmelfarb has exagerrated the differences between national groups of Enlightenment intellectuals and obscured their common features. In the process, she presents a highly selective and often distorted view of the Enlightenment.

Lets start with "reason", which Himmelfarb identifies with the French, often to their disadvantage. To Himmelfarb, "reason" seems to be an effort to impose highly schematic and theoretical constructs on human realities, thus leading to the excesses of the French Revolution. In fact, "reason' was a preoccupation of all Enlightenment intellectuals. The ideal of reason, at base, was the notion that the unaided human intellect could discover crucial and universal, objective and regular features of the natural and social worlds and apply this knowledge to the advantage of humanity. This is the great lesson that the Enlightenment drew from Newton. David Hume believed, with considerable justice, that he was applying a Newtonian method to his studies of epistemology and moral psychology. James Madison, in the couple of years leading up to the Constitutional Convention, didn't reaffirm traditional institutions or pray for a revelation, he embarked on a systematic study of contemporary political theory (which led him to Hume, among others) and the history of other republics in an effort to develop a stable and novel polity embodying the ideals of the Founders. Its this kind of reliance on human capacity that sets the Enlightenment apart from individuals like Burke and John Wesley whom Himmelfarb would like to drag into the tent of the Enlightenment.

Himmelfarb is particularly unfair towards the French philosophes. She tends to present them as snobby ideologues uninterested in actually doing anything about the lot of most people and contrasts them with the "reformism" of the British Enlightenment. She is particularly disparaging of the great Encyclopedie, which she presents primarily as an ideological document. In fact, the Encyclopedie was intended as a summary of human knowledge up to that time, covering a huge array of fields and embodying the best practices of the arts, manufacturing, and the sciences. It was intended as an educational resource, making widely and publically available knowledge that could be used by anyone to improve many aspects of daily life. This is reformism with a vengeance. Diderot and D'Alembert spent a substantial fraction of their lives on this project. None of the British intellectuals discussed admiringly by Himmelfarb accomplished anything like the Encyclopedie. The example of the Encyclopedie is yet another example of Himmelfarb missing the forest for the trees. The driving idea of the Dncyclopedie, the idea of widely disseminated useful knowledge, was not just a French preoccupation but a common theme of the Enlightenment. Benjamin Franklin, scientist, inventor, and philanthropist, exemplifies an American attachment to the idea of useful knowledge. The great French chemists Lavoisier and Berthellot, who made fundamental contributions to science and helped improve French industry, are also good examples of this Enlightenment tendency. Probably the most consequential, though indirect, product of Hume's circle in Edinburgh was James Watt, inventor of the high pressure steam engine. Watt was a mentee of Hume's close friend (and personal physician), the noted chemist Joseph Black.

Himmelfarb's treatment of Enlightenment attitudes towards religion is odd. She would like to make the British and American Enlightenments hospitable to religion, while making the French Enlightenment hostile towards religion. This requires some peculiar intellectual gymnastics. It requires, for example, the dubious step of somehow transforming John Wesley into an Enlightenment figure. Its true that Wesleyanism did have a number of admirable features, and its true as well that Wesleyanism embodied an attack and/or effort to reform the existing religous and social establishment. These common features don't make Wesleyan evangelism identical to the Enlightenment. This would be like saying Barry Goldwater and the SDS were both members of the same movement because they attacked the prevailing establishment of their day. Now, its true, as Himmelfarb states, that Hume and Gibbon weren't dogmatic atheists. But friendly to religion? Hume's writings on religon are the most searching criticism of religous belief ever published. Gibbon's Decline and Fall contains a devastating critique of Christianity. With friends like these, who needs atheistic enemies. Himmelfarb is also inconsistent. While she attempts to make Hume and Gibbon into individuals well disposed towards religion, she is disparaging in her treatment of radicals like Richard Price and Joseph Priestly, many of whom were sincerely religous and whose views were allied to several of the early leaders of the American Revolution.

This is only one of numerous inconsistencies in Himmelfarb's presentation. She attacks the French intellectuals for preferring to work through social reform by monarchial power, condemning their elitism. She fails to mention, however, that Burke was the client and mouthpiece of prominent Whig Aristocrats. She attacks the French for being "subversive" when the only group of Enlightenment intellectuals to actually work towards the overthrow of a legitimate and established government were the Americans. She, like many others contrasts the "moderation" of the American Revolution with the excesses of the French Revolution. Its true that there was no American equivalent to the Terror (though there was in Britain, only it occurred during the 17th century) but the American Rvolution, like all revolutions, was partially a civil war and the Patriots committed numerous acts of violence against the Tories. It is true also that the magnitude of unjust acts committed during the French Revolution was considerably greater than those committed during the American Revolution. But, France was a much larger country than the British Colonies. RR Palmer pointed out approximately 50 years ago that the proportion of forced emigrants from France and what became the USA was approximately the same.

How did an accomplished historian like Himmelfarb write such a poor book? Part of the answer may be that she is not an 18th century specialist. This can't be whole answer because of the outstanding secondary literature on the Enlightenment. It could also be that she became enthralled with her national typology of the Enlightenment. Simple and apparently powerful ideas often possess a power out of proportion to their true validity. 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. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this book was written partially to give contemporary conservatism a respectable historical pedigree. This is not very different from the actions of Marxist historians who cut and chop the past to make events fit into the Marxist model of historical progression. Himmelfarb should know better.
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