Sunday, 4 April 2010

The Roads to Modernity-Gertrude Himmelfarb Vintage £8.99, pp304


It would seem that the introduction by the current British prime minister would tend to make this book more a political treatise than a history book. Brown states it is important “to reclaim the enlightenment from those who deny or disparage it as an intellectual movement”. While agreeing with this I have a feeling that Brown is defending the enlightenment from a nationalistic standpoint. While defending the enlightenment it seems to the detriment of European thinkers.

If there was nothing more than “bringing the British enlightenment onto the stage of history” it would be alright but when Brown counterpoises” French reason” to that of British “social virtues then this is straight out of New Labours right wing mantra. He seeks to downplay the revolutionary impact of the main players of the British enlightenment. Brown opposes the concept that they wanted “revolutionary change “The British enlightenment in contrast did not seek the overthrow of anything

From David North “The greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment, however, were, in the general direction of their thought and uncompromising honesty, revolutionists. Ruthless in their criticism of the world as it was, they sought to reveal the means by which the inalienable rights of man could be secured and the moral level of society elevated”.

“There has been endless debate on the ideological influences that shaped the political and philosophical outlooks of those who led the revolutionary movement for independence. Generally, those who have sought to downplay the radical character of the independence movement have placed the main emphasis on the English influence, interpreting the Declaration of Independence as essentially a restatement of Locke's theory of natural rights”.

In this essay I am not against an examination of the influence of the British enlightenment. But this has to be done within the context of at least a component of the European enlightenment.

Brown argues explicitly for a British way of thinking. For a man that has a PHD on this subject to stoop to the level of point scoring is cheap. His waving of the union jack flies in the face of the international character of the enlightenment. Brown says that the pursuit of liberty courses through the veins of British history but in fact much of Browns defence is a justification for the defence of empire. I am not the only one who has recognised this even a Labour friendly newspaper such as the Guardian- in its review article. “The roads to modernity is an intelligent history of the Enlightenments in Britain, France and America that masks a contemporary political manifesto. Gertrude Himmelfarb emphasises the importance of the British Enlightenment and the 'Britishness' of its virtues: decency, humanitarianism and sympathy.

She praises the British 'age of benevolence' over the French 'age of reason' and sets the philosophes against Burke and Hume and the French Encyclopédie against the British Sunday School Movement and the sentimental novel. But her purpose is not purely historical and it is no accident the book comes vigorously endorsed by Gordon Brown. As a neoconservative political theorist, she is advocating a return to the paternalistic morality of the Enlightenment in Britain and providing an intellectual framework to endorse the Bush and Blair-Brown governments”.

While it admirable for an octogenarian to take on the postmodernists as Himmelfarb claims to do she does so from a national standpoint. Also the main thrust of her book is to downplay the role of reason in the development of mankind. Her replacement of reason for that of a defence of ‘social ethics’ fits into the new labour way of doing things. In doing so she brings to the fore figures such as Edmund Burke who was an opponent of revolution. In Nationality, ethnicity and culture: the Guardian hosts the racist ideas of David Goodhart by Ann Talbot 8 April 2004

“All the ideas that Edmund Burke expressed in his Reflections on the French Revolution can be seen in his earlier writings. He said nothing new. The difference lay not in Burke but in the times. During the American Revolution, it was still possible for his conservative brand of Whiggism to support the revolution, since many Americans thought of themselves as Englishmen fighting to preserve their rights under the ancient constitution dating back to Magna Carta and enshrined in common law. Burke stood for a set of historically defined political rights that were specific to a certain group of people, but the Declaration of Independence had set out an entirely different perspective—the universal rights of man. The two perspectives were incompatible, but that was not immediately evident. It only became evident to Burke under the impact of the French revolution and the emergence of the working class in Britain”.

Himmelfarb constant refrain that Britain development was different from the rest of Europe is a constant throughout the book. While making the point that the American Revolution was different from the French she does so emptying the profound connection between the two revolutions and their connection with Britain’s historical development. From David North “The French Revolution was incomparably more radical than the American. But this is not to be explained by references to the more prudent and constitutionally-minded Puritan temper of the American colonists. Under different circumstances, more than a century earlier, the Puritans in England, under the leadership of Cromwell, had demonstrated that they were fully prepared to apply an axe to the neck of a king. The differences between the revolution that had occurred in the New World and that which swept across France was rooted in objective conditions.

First of all, there existed no feudal heritage in North America. However formidable the British government may have appeared to the American colonists, the resistance it offered to the rebellion hardly equalled that of the ancien regime and its allies throughout Europe. For Britain, the issue posed by the American demand for independence was, in the final analysis, a matter of policy. For the ancien regime, the demands and aims of the revolution raised questions of life and death. Hence, the implacability of its resistance”.

G. Himmelfarb then goes on to call into question whether the French enlightenment figures were really conscious of what they were doing. Again D North “Fighting for its own survival, the bourgeoisie could not hope to defeat the forces of the ancien regime without issuing the broadest appeal to all the oppressed of France and, indeed, Europe and even the world. The Declaration of the Rights of Man, issued in the first period of the revolution, had proclaimed the inviolability of property.

But the unrestricted exercise of this right collided with the elementary social interests of broad sections of the urban masses, without whose support the French bourgeoisie could not possibly defeat the ancien regime”

Any limited research into the relationship between enlightenment figures in Britain and their European counterparts demolishes argument for a British exceptionalism which is supported by her and Gordon Brown. While each country of course had its national traits they were far superseded by the universal nature of the principles of the enlightenment.

It can be said that there was an especially close relationship between the French and English enlightenment figures, Voltaire himself spent two years in Britain and popularised the works of Newton in France but one major difference was the political, social and economic situation in France was radically different to that of England.

Many of the English figures were to some extent part of the establishment, in France figures like Voltaire and Diderot were seen as troublemakers and oppositionists to the monarchy. France’s continuing war footing and its losing commercial ground against its rivals such as the Dutch led to a growing frustration among highly educated people who made up the enlightenment. They were frustrated with their class position, which prevented them from proceeding further in society. While they dominated the economic world their status was low and saw those in power as a band of ignorant idlers and fops. Voltaire especially in his book Candide railed against the law courts and nobility as “those assasins in red robes and erminie”.

It could be said that they were more radical than their British counterparts. Voltaire himself offered no solution to their problem. It was left to Rousseau who issued a blueprint for a new democratic system of state which later was to be the manifesto of the French revolution.

Himmelfarb also is incorrect in her characterisation of the English philosophers such as Locke and David Hume. She describes these as ‘moral philosophers’ which fits in with her social ethics schemer. Her obsession with morality is very abstract and is hostile to any attempt to place morality on any kind of materialist footing. Disconnected from any class or social base.

If we were to concede Himmelfarbs point that British enlightenment figures were not as radical as their European counterparts, this can be explained by Britain’s quite exceptional historical development, one factor being that it had already carried through its revolution in the 1640s and had achieved social and political reforms that were still to be achieved in countries such as France. The British enlightenment thinking could be perhaps best summed up as a more pragmatic approach summed up by Locke who said “our business here is not to know all things, but those, which concer our conduct.

It would however be mistake to believe that enlightened thinkers in Britain where unlike their counter parts, it has been argued that the enlightenment “baby’s first words were spoken in English”.

Britain had a profound effect on thinking around the world. Voltaire wrote “without the English reason and philosophy we would still be in the most despicable infancy in France”. Diderot translated into French the works of people such as Shaftesbury, and the idea of the Encloypedia came from a scheme to translate Ephains chamber Encylcopaedia.

This was not all one way traffic there was tremendous exchange of ideas, Adam Smith’ the economist learnt from the physiocrats during his visit to France between 1764-66 Jeremy Benthan derived his utilitarianism partly from a study of Helvetius.

The American declaration of independence was heavily influenced by the thinking of Locke whose idea that there was no innate principles in the mind underpinned many of the writings of the enlightenment. Perhaps Diderot could sum the universal friendship fostered by enlightened thinkers when he said of David Hume “my dear David you belong to all nations and you will never ask an unhappy man for his passport”.

On page 51 Himmelfarb makes the assertion that ‘British moral philosophy was reformist rather than subversive again is not true. “Locke has some claim to be one of the key sources of modern theories of equality and any discussion of the political implications of social inequality needs to be well grounded in his work. In his Two Treatises of Government Locke maintained that all men were naturally in a state of perfect liberty and equality. He envisaged that by common consent they had agreed to join together into a political or civil society, which ought to be governed by majority decisions. On entering civil society they granted their right to enforce justice to some form of government but they retained the right to resist this government and, if necessary, to overthrow it by force of arms”.

From North “The enclyclopedia ran to seventeen volumes and had a subscription of 4000 but was read far and wide. Some historians somewhat mechanically see enlightenment thinkers as nothing more than expressing narrow class interests but this misses the point. I believe they prepared the way for the revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries and spoke in the name of all humanity invoking universal themes of human solidarity and emancipation beyond the limits of their own class”.


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