- Paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: Vintage; Vintage Books ed. edition (August 9, 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1400077222
- ISBN-13: 978-1400077229
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 22 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #431,715 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments Vintage Books ed. Edition
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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.
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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 Himmelfarbs 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.
Top customer reviews
This book has helped me to appreciate more the American experience of government and politics and to see how it differs from the different contributions made especially by the British experience and by the French.
Of all the books I read in 2016, this book ranks among the top in that it is well written and is on a topic which still impacts our lives and public policy today. I highly recommend it and am thankful to the friend who suggested I would enjoy it and lent me a copy to read.
So, her book provides a useful introduction for the less expert reader and you will come away much more informed, and this is the book's strength. Another feature is her willingness to look beyond the obvious candidates for inclusion, so that, for instance, William Hogarth is discussed as a contributor to the British Enlightenment. On the other hand, it is useful to be aware of that part of the political spectrum she is coming from. Her hagiographic view of John Wesley, for example, elides important information such as the secessionists who rejected some of his tenets, and her rebuttal of writers such as E P Thomson amounts to little more than saying that she is right and he is wrong. While this may be a little harsh – she is writing an overview after all and cannot be pursuing arguments everywhere they crop up, I did find her at times a little glib and superficial.
Nevertheless, as a salutary reminder of the virtues of the British Enlightenment and a thoughtful if biased examination of the period, this book is well worth reading.
Rather than dividing the Enlightenment in to radical versus conservative she divides it geographically, into British, French and American sections. Representing the British: Newton, Locke, Hume, Godwin, Wollcraftstone and others. Representing the French: Voltaire, Diderot, and the ususal gang of suspects. Representing the Americans: Paine and the Founding Fathers.
Her selections of Wesley and Hogarth are odd as "Enlightened" figures. Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church believed in witchcraft. Hogarth was a moral cartoonist, with a propensity for gory drawings.
Himmelfarb offers good scholarship, and (despite some reviews to the contrary) does tackle the problems of the treatement of Native Americans and slavery.
Her main flaw is not in ignoring the American flaws but in ignoring the French ones. The Reign of Terror is barely mentioned and Napoleon Bonapart (whose rise to power is generally considered to be the end of the Enlightenment) is skipped.
Himmelfarb is openly conservative, and much of the criticism-good and bad can be construed as having its low or high rating in the political attitudes of the reviewer.