French Enlightenment overrated, historian says

Reviewed by Chuck Leddy August 29, 2004
The Roads to Modernity
The British, French and American Enlightenments

By Gertrude Himmelfarb

Among neoconservatives, especially since the Iraq war, French bashing has become quite a popular sport. The French, so the sentiment goes, are appeasers, elitists, cowards and (worst of all) stridently anti-American. Now comes distinguished historian Gertrude Himmelfarb (married to Irving Kristol, widely regarded as the godfather of the neoconservative movement) to add some intellectual heft to the right's Francophobia.

Himmelfarb's basic contention, one she supports with great passion and wide-ranging scholarship, is that the great 18th century French Enlightenment has been vastly overrated and that the British and American Enlightenments have been comparatively underrated. Her goal in writing this book is to "reclaim the Enlightenment ... from the French who have dominated and usurped it" and restore it to the British and Americans.

So who stole the Enlightenment and gave credit for it to the French? Himmelfarb never says so directly, but one can venture a guess: liberals in academia. Her critique of the French Enlightenment is twofold: First, the French philosophes, from Rousseau to Voltaire to Diderot and the rest, were anti-religious, and second, they were elitists who scorned the common people. The French so worshiped reason that they denied the value of faith, thus cutting themselves off from the multitudes.

The great Voltaire, Himmelfarb points out, opposed education for the children of farmers on the grounds that they were mired in religious superstition and thus largely unredeemable. This kind of elitist thinking, Himmelfarb tells us repeatedly, pervaded the French Enlightenment. So did totalitarian impulses, impulses embodied in the French Revolution and "the Terror." Himmelfarb spends much space describing Rousseau's concept of the "general will" and how it influenced Robespierre and hence "the Terror."

Most of the book is dedicated to praising the British Enlightenment, especially those two heroes of latter-day neoconservatives, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. Unlike the "revolutionary" French intellectuals, Burke had a profound respect for established institutions. Smith, for his part, believed that religious toleration and religious freedom were essential for a coherent society and were preservative of all other freedoms. Himmelfarb shows how British philosophers such as Smith and David Hume (Scotsmen both) believed in a kind of "natural equality" between people. Both men also viewed commerce as a civilizing influence.

While French intellectuals reveled in abstractions about the perfectibility of people, the British were "reformist rather than subversive, respectful of the past and present even while looking forward to a more enlightened future," Himmelfarb says. Thus, the British Enlightenment fostered an "Age of Benevolence" whereby private philanthropists formed societies to help the poor, the sick and the very young. Moreover, the British Enlightenment deeply respected the role of religion in bettering people's lives. Himmelfarb devotes an entire chapter to the faith-based initiatives of the Methodists and how they improved the lot of the British working and middle classes. Methodism, embodied by John Wesley, preached self-help and philanthropy. It was this kind of faith-based reformism, Himmelfarb contends, that forestalled a French-style revolution in Britain.

Himmelfarb displays a deep understanding of the "moral virtues" behind the philosophies of Burke and Smith. She also devotes ample interpretive discussion to lesser-known British intellectuals such as William Godwin and Richard Price.

The final part of Himmelfarb's narrative is devoted to the American Enlightenment. Its dominating characteristic was its unique blending of philosophy and practicality. Unlike the French philosophers, who Himmelfarb views as alienated worshipers of abstraction, the American philosophers were also leaders of governments, men of action. And like the British, the American philosophers possessed a long-standing respect for the role religion played in people's lives.

Regarding religion in America, Himmelfarb favorably quotes Tocqueville: "Among us [the French] I had seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom almost always move in contrary directions. Here I found them united intimately with one another." In Himmelfarb's estimation, religion was so interwoven into 18th century American society and mores that it hardly needed to be mentioned explicitly in the Constitution. Religion thus supported the American Enlightenment, much as it did the British.

The closing pages of Himmelfarb's narrative are a paean to modern-day "compassionate" conservatism and faith-based initiatives. The author, it seems, wouldn't mind a return to the "Victorian values" (sometimes called "family values" stateside) most recently espoused by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, not to mention George W. Bush. While there's nothing particularly groundbreaking about a right-wing intellectual admiring Burke and Smith while denigrating the French, Himmelfarb has written a keenly argued and thought- provoking intellectual history of the 18th century.

Although one may certainly disagree with her conclusions (yes, there are still Francophiles among us), Himmelfarb has woven together an impressive case in support of her viewpoint. As the French so wisely put it: Vive la difference. This is worthwhile reading for anyone interested in the history of ideas.

Chuck Leddy is a writer from Quincy, Mass.