October 24, 2004
'The Roads to Modernity': Freedom Philosophers

The British, French, and American Enlightenments.
By Gertrude Himmelfarb.
284 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $25.
N 1995, William Kristol published a manifesto-like essay called ''The Politics of Liberty, the Sociology of Virtue'' -- reprinted, the following year, as the final chapter of ''The Essential Neoconservative Reader.'' It was a heady time for the American right. There was the defeat of the Soviet Union, of course, and the containment (until further notice) of Saddam Hussein -- not to mention the '94 midterm elections, a k a the Gingrich revolution. Drawing up his ideological balance sheet, Kristol resisted the distractions of triumph. For the moment of victory seemed to present neoconservatives with an especially urgent and demanding task.

It was not enough to foster the politics of liberty by turning as many functions as possible over to the free market's wise discipline. You also had to get people to behave themselves -- to maintain two-parent households, to defer to authority and to police their own unruly impulses. And you needed them to feel appropriate levels of shame and disgust when they did not. How was social order to be restored in a culture that was suffering the depredations of postwar liberalism? Especially when so many people claimed not to be suffering at all, but having a good time?

To answer questions like these, neoconservative intellectuals required a ''sociology of virtue.'' Demanding it was one thing; producing it, another. Geopolitics remains the field over which the neocons send their fastest and heaviest think tanks rolling. But with ''The Roads to Modernity,'' by Gertrude Himmelfarb (who, as it happens, is Kristol's mother), we now have a historical and philosophical prologue to the sociology of virtue.

In recent years, Himmelfarb has moved from studying the Victorian mind in her role as intellectual historian to championing the Victorian moral sensibility as a partisan in the culture wars. Here she shifts the focus of both her research and her polemic back a century, to the Enlightenment -- an era she wants to annex (with certain caveats) for cultural conservatism. The very idea once would have been unthinkable. It was the left that proclaimed itself the legitimate heir of the 18th century's faith in progress. Those days are long gone. The philosophes spoke of Man and of subjecting the world to Reason, abstractions under assault by a host of neo-Marxist, post-structuralist and anticolonialist critics, who suspect that the Enlightenment's rhetoric of emancipation conceals a lust for domination.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Himmelfarb spends little time arguing with the academic left -- and none with the strain of conservative thought best exemplified by Russell Kirk, for which the Enlightenment was, almost literally, the devil's own doing. Instead, she plunges directly into the 18th century, quickly and neatly distinguishing between two opposed sets of thinkers -- the British (who are the good guys) and the French (who are, well, French).

The scheme makes for exciting intellectual pugilism. The thinkers of the Parisian Enlightenment (she focuses on Voltaire, Diderot, Helvetius, Holbach and a few lesser figures) are rationalists, hostile to religion and adherents of a universalism that Himmelfarb finds disingenuous. For all their talk of progress and brotherhood, they remained elitists. She quotes Diderot: ''The general mass of men are not so made that they can either promote or understand this forward march of the human spirit.'' Since the rational powers of the downtrodden have been stultified, not least by religious superstition, it's best that the power to make decisions for the good of all rest in the hands of an enlightened sovereign (or, failing that, in a state run by an aristocracy of the really smart). Here were the makings, she writes, of liberal paternalism and the welfare state.

The thinkers of the British Enlightenment and their American cousins, Himmelfarb says, present a countertradition that has been neglected, indeed almost written out of history. At first glance, this claim is puzzling. Voltaire's ''Lettres Philosophiques'' (one of the really avant-garde books of the 1730's) is devoted to describing how advanced a society England is, compared to poor backward France. True, the notion of a British Age of Reason never really caught on in the history books. But how significant is that omission measured against the actual influence of Locke, Newton and Hume on Enlightenment thought?

Himmelfarb's claim that the British Enlightenment has gone unrecognized seems driven by something other than historiographic concerns. And so it is. She finds in some English and Scottish thinkers of the 18th century (Adam Smith, the Earl of Shaftesbury and Francis Hutcheson, for example) something like the first effort to create a sociology of virtue. The French savants exalted a bloodless notion of Reason to bloody effect. The British philosophers emphasized the moral sentiments, the spontaneous capacity to recognize another person's suffering and to feel it as one's own.

This power need not be delegated to the state. Himmelfarb mounts a vigorous argument that the British philosophy was ''reformist rather than subversive, respectful of the past and present even while looking forward to a more egalitarian future.'' It was also egalitarian in a practical and spontaneous (rather than ruthlessly Jacobin) sense -- for the moral sense was common to everyone, ''not merely the educated and well-born.'' Nor was this Enlightenment necessarily at war with religion, as such. Himmelfarb quotes the jibes of Edward Gibbon (no orthodox religious believer by any stretch) against those French thinkers who ''preached the tenets of atheism with the bigotry of dogmatists.''

Her list of British Enlightenment figures extends to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who preached among the poor not only to stiffen the common people's spines against the temptations of gin, but also to educate them in science, literature and philosophy. As a result of this early instance of a faith-based initiative, England ''was able to survive the economic revolution of the 18th century without succumbing to a political revolution.''

When Himmelfarb's attention turns to colonial America and the early United States the results are less persuasive, and indeed reveal far more than she may intend about the limits of moral sentiment she extols. ''For economic if for no other reasons,'' she writes, ''the displacement of the Indians was the precondition for the very existence of the settlers.'' As for slavery, Himmelfarb acknowledges it as an evil, but is curiously silent about its cumulative effect, over 400 years, on the nation's stock of moral capital.

I was reminded of something the ''elitist'' Diderot wrote, in a moment of bitter hatred for the slave trade: the Africans ''are tyrannized, mutilated, burnt and put to death, and yet we listen to these accounts coolly and without emotion. The torments of a people to whom we owe our luxuries are never able to reach our hearts.'' A more robust sociology of virtue might begin with the realization that the power of moral sentiment so often fails us. Yet when it does, our moral obligations remain. Meeting them is, arguably, one function of the state. But in the eyes of the neocons, I suppose, such thoughts smack of John Rawls -- or even, worse, Le Monde.

Scott McLemee is a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company | Home | Privacy Policy | Search | Corrections | RSS | Help | Back to Top