Monday, May 12, 2008

Runciman, David. "Review of Gertrude Himmelfarb's THE ROADS TO MODERNITY." TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT May 2, 2008.

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. The Roads to Modernity: the British, French and American Enlightenments. New York: Vintage, 2004. Rpt. 2008. The case Himmelfarb wants to make depends on separating out three different 'Enlightenments' — the British, the French and the American. All three were founded on the principle of reason, but only one — the French — turned reason into its own religion, crushing everything else in its path. In Britain, by contrast, reason was “humanised” through the philosophy of, among others, Adam Smith, who made it clear that self-interest was compatible with moral sentiment. This “sentimental” Enlightenment produced a society of tolerant, sceptical individualists, by contrast to the dogmatic and intolerant French. Meanwhile, in America, both rationality and sympathy had to take a back seat to the pressing demands of achieving liberty from the British Crown, and building a new kind of state that could sustain that freedom. The story Himmelfarb tells is a familiar one, and it contains its own share of clichés (she portrays the French philosophes as unfeeling snobs with a weakness for enlightened despotism) but she writes with real grace and her effortless prose brings the history of ideas to life. Gordon Brown, however, is less successful in trying to explain what this story might have to teach people living in Britain today. He says in his introduction that the social virtues of sympathy and benevolence that Himmelfarb identifies at the heart of British Enlightenment thinking “have remained a dominant theme of Britishness ever since”. But this entirely glosses over the lesson Himmelfarb herself draws, which is that the only society in which these virtues are now on prominent display is America. She argues that it was the American experiment with liberty that in the end allowed room for the religious impulses needed to underpin “the passion for compassion”. The Victorians may have had this passion, but during the 20th-century the British people lost it, and though Himmelfarb does not spell it out, it is clear that much of the blame in her eyes lies with the architects of the welfare state. . . . Read the rest here:

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