Top positive review
35 people found this helpful
on June 16, 2008
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. She does of course recognize that there were two distinct varieties of the British Enlightenment - that associated with Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume and Adam Smith and which she seems to regard as `mainstream'; and that associated with Radicals like Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, Tom Paine and William Godwin. These had more in common with mainstream French philosophy. In so far as evolutionary thought and practice has played a bigger role in British history than has revolution, the implication that the Shaftesbury-Smith tradition was in the British mainstream appears to be justified. Similarly, there are some Enlightenment thinkers in France - she discusses Montesquieu and Rousseau - who do not fit into the French mainstream as Himmelfarb has described it.
She challenges some ideas which, until fairly recently, were widely taught and accepted: that Adam Smith's fame rests on his work as an economist (The Wealth of Nations, 1776), whereas it had been established as a moral philosopher (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759) and that, moreover, the latter book had the same moral foundation as the former. I cannot personally agree with this argument. She does make a case for the latter also being based on moral principles (freedom, the fundamental equality of human beings, and self-interest); but I don't think they include the basic notion in the former that morality flows from innate benevolence.
Himmelfarb includes Edmund Burke among the figures of the British Enlightenment. The causes he championed in his earlier career (Ireland, the American colonies, India, the rights of John Wilkes) clearly qualify him as Enlightened; and Himmelfarb argues that his opposition to the French Revolution, which has made him appear to many, both at the time and since, as an opponent of the Enlightenment, cannot be read as such. His opposition was to the FRENCH conception of the Enlightenment (shared by the British Radicals), but it was quite consonant with the British Enlightenment ideas which descended from Shaftesbury.
The author includes even John Wesley in the mainstream of the British Enlightenment. There is a widespread view that Methodism was anti-intellectual and anti-rational, that it encouraged only the minimum of educational attainments in its schools (in order, it is argued, to make the poor more docile), and that therefore it could not be part of the Enlightenment. Himmelfarb effectively demolishes these accusations with quotations from Wesley himself and with showing what syllabuses his schools actually taught and what a broad range of educational material he published: in the best Enlightenment tradition, Wesley was as interested in the intellectual as he was in the moral edification of the people. And, being in the British mainstream, he was not hostile to the Establishment (although the Establishment was scornful of him), and the wide scope of Methodist philanthropic, humanitarian and charitable enterprises joined those of many other 18th century groups which put the notion of benevolence into practice. Most of the French philosophes, on the other hand, were suspicious of charitable works - in part because they were mostly run by the hated Church, but also because they thought that they would encourage indolence among the poor!
120 pages of praise for the British Enlightenment are followed by just under 40 pages of criticisms of the French Enlightenment before we get 35 pages on the American Enlightenment. The political institutions of America, with the pride it took in the very practical achievements of republican liberty, was of course more `enlightened' than the institutions of Britain and would be an inspiration for the early phases of French republicanism. Even more so than in the British Enlightenment, there was in the American one no antagonism towards religion. Indeed, it was thought the source of morality; and, although church and state were separated, church and society were not. Unlike in the British Enlightenment, philanthropy played a much smaller part in the American one, partly because at the time there was little poverty among white Americans. The great blot on the American Enlightenment was of course the treatment of the Indians and of the slaves. The Founders, well aware that it violated the notion that all men were created equal, had a bad conscience about it and hoped that both problems would eventually disappear.
The Epilogue is, in my opinion, the weakest part of the book. It claims that the American Enlightenment is alive and well today, while that cannot be said of either the British or the French Enlightenment. The arguments here seem to me to be very weak, and an otherwise splendid book would have been better without this Epilogue.