[Paleopsych] New Criterion: Which Enlightenment? by Keith Windschuttle

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Enlightenment? by Keith Windschuttle

    Gertrude Himmelfarb
    The Roads to Modernity:
    The British, French, and American Enlightenments.
    Knopf, 284 pages, $25

    Although it has already attracted a series of reverent reviews
    befitting a work by one of today's most eminent practitioners of
    history, this book is still more important than it looks. Gertrude
    Himmelfarb has called her latest volume Roads to Modernity: The
    British, French and American Enlightenments. It can be read as a
    provocative and persuasive revision not only of the intellectual era
    that made the modern world, but also of the concepts that still
    largely determine how we think about human affairs today.

    In particular, it explains the source of the fundamental division
    that, despite several predictions of its imminent demise, still
    doggedly grips Western political life: that between the left and the
    right. From the outset, each side had its own philosophical
    assumptions and its own view of the human condition. Roads to
    Modernity shows why one of these sides has generated a steady progeny
    of historical successes while its rival has consistently lurched from
    one disaster to the next.

    Most historians have accepted for several years now that the
    Enlightenment, once popularly characterized as the Age of Reason, came
    in two versions, the radical and the skeptical. The former is now
    generally identified with France, the latter with Scotland. It has
    also been acknowledged that the anti-clericalism that obsessed the
    French philosophes was not reciprocated in Britain or America. Indeed,
    in both these countries many Enlightenment concepts--human rights,
    liberty, equality, tolerance, science, progress--complemented rather
    than opposed church thinking.

    Himmelfarb has joined this revisionist process and accelerated its
    pace dramatically. She argues that, central though many
    mid-eighteenth-century Scots were to the movement, there were also so
    many original English contributors that a more accurate term than
    Scottish would be British Enlightenment.

    Moreover, unlike the French who elevated reason to the primary role in
    human affairs, British thinkers gave reason a secondary, instrumental
    role. In Britain it was virtue that trumped all other qualities. This
    was not personal virtue but the "social virtues"--compassion,
    benevolence, sympathy--which the British philosophers believed
    naturally, instinctively, and habitually bound people to one another.
    In the abstract, this difference might seem merely one of degree but,
    as it worked itself out in the subsequent history of the Continent and
    the British Isles, it was profound.

    In making her case, Himmelfarb defines the British Enlightenment in
    terms that some might find surprising. She includes people who in the
    past have usually been labeled part of the Counter-Enlightenment,
    especially John Wesley and Edmund Burke. She assigns prominent roles
    to the social movements of Methodism and Evangelical philanthropy.
    Despite the fact that the American colonies rebelled from Britain to
    found a republic, Himmelfarb demonstrates how very close they were to
    the British Enlightenment and how distant from French republicans.

    These differences have remained to this day, and over much the same
    issues. On the one hand, in France, the ideology of reason challenged
    not only religion and the church but all the institutions dependent
    upon them. Reason was inherently subversive. On the other hand,
    British moral philosophy was reformist rather than radical, respectful
    of both the past and present, even while looking forward to a more
    enlightened future. It was optimistic and had no quarrel with
    religion, which was why, in both Britain and the United States, the
    church itself could become a principal source for the spread of
    enlightened ideas.

    In Britain, the elevation of the social virtues derived from both
    academic philosophy and religious practice. In the eighteenth century,
    the professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow University, Adam Smith,
    was more celebrated for his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) than his
    later thesis on the wealth of nations. He argued that sympathy and
    benevolence were moral virtues that sprang directly from the human
    condition. In being virtuous, especially towards those who could not
    help themselves, man rewarded himself by fulfilling his human nature.

    Edmund Burke began public life as a disciple of Smith. He wrote an
    early pamphlet on scarcity which endorsed Smith's laissez faire
    approach as the best way to serve both economic activity in general
    and the lower orders in particular. His Counter- Enlightenment status
    is usually assigned for his critique of the French Revolution, but
    Burke was at the same time a supporter of American independence. While
    his own government was pursuing its military campaign in America (and,
    at the same time, suspending habeas corpus at home), Burke was urging
    it to respect the liberty of both Americans and Englishmen.

    While some historians have been led by this apparent paradox to claim
    that at different stages of his life there were two Edmund Burkes, one
    liberal and the other conservative, Himmelfarb disagrees. She argues
    that his views were always consistent with the ideas about moral
    virtue that permeated the whole of the British Enlightenment. Indeed,
    Burke took this philosophy a step further by making the "sentiments,
    manners and moral opinion" of men the basis not only of social
    relations but also of politics.

    Apart from the different philosophical status they assigned to reason
    and virtue, the one issue where the division between the British and
    Continental Enlightenments was most sharply contrasted was their
    attitude to the lower orders. This is a distinction that has
    reverberated through politics ever since. The radical heirs of the
    Jacobin tradition have always insisted that it is they who speak for
    the wretched of the earth. In eighteenth-century France they claimed
    to speak for the people and the general will. In the nineteenth
    century they said they represented the working classes against their
    capitalist exploiters. In our own time, they have claimed to be on the
    side of blacks, women, gays, indigenes, refugees, and anyone else they
    define as the victims of discrimination and oppression. Himmelfarb's
    study demonstrates what a façade these claims actually are.

    The French philosophes thought the social classes were divided by the
    chasm of poverty and, more crucially, of superstition and ignorance.
    They despised the lower orders because they were in thrall to
    Christianity. The editor of the Encyclopédie, Denis Diderot, declared
    the common people had no role in the Age of Reason. "The general mass
    of men are not so made that they can either promote or understand this
    forward march of the human spirit." Indeed, "the common people are
    incredibly stupid," he said, and were little more than beasts: "too
    idiotic--bestial--too miserable, and too busy" to enlighten
    themselves. Voltaire agreed. The lower orders lacked the intellect
    required to reason and so must be left to wallow in superstition. They
    could be controlled and pacified only by the sanctions and strictures
    of religion which, Voltaire proclaimed, "must be destroyed among
    respectable people and left to the canaille large and small, for whom
    it was made."

    In Britain and America, by contrast, the chasm between rich and poor
    was bridged by the moral sense and common sense the Enlightenment
    attributed to all individuals. Everyone, including the members of the
    lower orders, had a common humanity and a common fund of moral and
    social obligations. It was this social ethos, Himmelfarb argues, that
    in the English-speaking world was the common denominator between Adam
    Smith, Edmund Burke, secular philosophers, religious enthusiasts,
    Church of England bishops, and Wesleyan preachers.

    "Man is by constitution a religious animal," Edmund Burke famously
    wrote in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. For Burke,
    religion itself--religious dissent in particular--was the very basis
    of liberty. The Wesleyans went one step further and also made it the
    basis of social reform.

    John Wesley's great mission was intended to be not only the spiritual
    salvation of the poor but also their intellectual and moral
    edification. There was no conflict between reason and religion. "It is
    a fundamental principle with us," Wesley argued, "that to renounce
    reason is to renounce religion, that religion and reason go hand in
    hand, and that all irrational religion is false religion." It was only
    by "religion and reason joined" that "passion and prejudice" and
    "wickedness and bigotry" could be overcome.

    In pursuit of their mission, the Methodists produced a huge volume of
    literature not just on Christianity but on grammar, medicine,
    electricity, natural history, Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, Locke, and
    other classics. Himmelfarb observes: "The whole of this quite
    extraordinary publication industry, comprising books, pamphlets, and
    tracts on a variety of subjects and directed to different levels of
    literacy and interest, constituted something like an Enlightenment for
    the common man."

    Methodists also took the initiative in the distribution of food,
    clothing, and money to the needy, paid visits to the sick and to
    prisoners in jail, and set up loan funds and work projects for the
    unemployed. By the end of the eighteenth century, the example of
    Wesleyanism had spawned an Evangelical movement within the Church of
    England that appealed largely to the middle and upper classes. As well
    as movements for prison reform, education and poor relief, the
    Evangelicals led the campaign that eventually lobbied successfully for
    the abolition of the slave trade.

    In the American colonies, the first Great Awakening, the religious
    revival of the 1730s and early 1740s, paralleled the Methodist revival
    in Britain. The contrast with France was dramatic. In seeking respite
    from the religious passions of the Old World, Himmelfarb writes, the
    Americans did not, like the French, turn against religion itself.
    Instead, they incorporated religion into the mores of society. They
    "moralized" and "socialized" religion, turning its energies into
    movements for voluntary association, local organization and,
    ultimately, the politics of liberty.

    In Britain and America, those who wrote about social reform and those
    in government who could do something about it were either the same
    people or else people cooperating closely with one another. In France,
    however, the philosophes were unconstrained by practical
    considerations about how their ideas might be translated into reality.
    They were all the more free to theorize and generalize precisely
    because they were less free to consult and advise.

    This profoundly affected the political consequences of their ideas.
    The philosophes initially decided that enlightened despotism would be
    their political instrument of choice. "Enlightened despotism,"
    Himmelfarb argues, "was an attempt to realize--to enthrone as it
    were--reason as embodied in the person of an enlightened monarch, a
    Frederick enlightened by Voltaire, a Catherine by Diderot." The
    failure of these attempts subsequently produced the theory of the
    "general will" that legitimized the terror of the French Revolution.
    The people, in whose name the revolution purportedly acted, was a
    singular abstraction, represented by an appropriately singular and
    abstract general will. "In effect, the theory of the general will was
    a surrogate for the enlightened despot. It had the same moral and
    political authority as the despot because it, too, was grounded in
    reason, a reason that was the source of all legitimate authority."

    Within England itself, there were supporters of the French
    Enlightenment whose theory and practice ended up little different to
    that of the philosophes they emulated. Himmelfarb has a chapter on
    British radical dissenters, much of which is devoted to the pathetic
    case of William Godwin, whose writings denigrated emotions and
    sexuality as irrational but whose personal life was a tangle of both.
    As in France, the English radicals devised theories about the
    education of children, but their only contribution to education reform
    involved the schooling of the middle and upper classes. Godwin's wife,
    Mary Wollstonecraft, wanted girls to be educated with boys, but her
    thoughts were confined to those who could afford to go to boarding

    Meanwhile, education for the poor became an important cause for
    Methodism and Evangelicalism. The eighteenth-century essayists and
    politicians Joseph Addison and Richard Steele thought the founding of
    charity schools for the children of the poor were "the glory of the
    age," the "greatest instance of public spirit the age has produced."
    They were followed by Sunday Schools which, until the mass education
    movements of the nineteenth century, were the main source of
    instruction for the lower orders in reading, writing and arithmetic.

    These education reforms reflected the same sensibility and ethos that
    inspired the other British philanthropic movements. They derived from
    the Christian principle, reaffirmed by British moral philosophy, of
    the natural equality of all people. In his treatise on the wealth of
    nations, the subject of Adam Smith's title was not the modern nation
    state. He meant the people who composed the nation, especially the
    "lower ranks." It was their well-being, their "wealth" that would be
    promoted by a progressive political economy. Smith wrote:

      No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the
      greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but
      equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe, and lodge the whole
      body of the people should have such a share of the produce of their
      own labor as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed, and

    In Britain and America, the Enlightenment was both a theoretical and a
    practical expression of this outlook. Religion, moral philosophy, and
    their egalitarian assumptions shaped the era. They worked together for
    the common cause: the material as well as the "moral reformation" of
    the people. Roads to Modernity reveals more clearly than any previous
    book on the subject the environment in which these ideas and practices
    were born and how firmly they still mold the moral sense and common
    sense of the English-speaking world today.

    Keith Windschuttle's latest book is The Fabrication of Aboriginal
    History, Volume One, Van Diemen's Land 1803-1847 (Macleay Press).


              From The New Criterion Vol. 23, No. 7, March 2005


    1. http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/23/mar05/keith.htm
    2. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1400042364/thenewcriterio
    3. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1400042364/thenewcriterio

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