Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The True History of the Enlightenment

Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments corrects the widespread misunderstanding about the Enlightenment. She notes that the Enlightenment is generally associated with the 18th century French philosophers, but the real Enlightenment happened in Britain and America.

The historians tend to focus on the French Enlightenment while neglecting the British and American Enlightenments, because the British and American philosophers never saw themselves as a distinctive class of enlightened thinkers, whereas the French philosophers had formed a cohesive group, a society of men of letters. They saw themselves as philsophes with a coherent ideology, character, and purpose. They claimed to have a monopoly on reason, and they preached that salvation of all can only be achieved when their version of reason is blindly accepted by all.

The French philosophers believed that the masses are incapable of comprehending the spirit of the Enlightenment and they have to be forced to give up religion and monarchy and accept reason. In contrast, “The driving force of the British Enlightenment was not reason but the “social virtues” or “social affections.” In America, the driving force was political liberty, the motive for the Revolution and the basis for the republic. For the British moral philosophers, and for the American Founders, reason was an instrument for attainment of the larger social end, not the end itself. And for both, religion was an ally, not an enemy.”

Here’s Himmelfarb’s encapsulation of the three Enlightenments:
The British Enlightenment represents “the sociology of virtue,” the French “the ideology of reason,” the American “the politics of liberty.” The British moral philosophers were sociologists as much as philosophers; concerned with man in relation to society, they looked to the social virtues for the basis of a healthy and humane society. The French had a more exalted mission: to make reason the governing principle of society as well as mind, to “rationalize, as it were, the world. The Americans, more modestly, sought to create a new “science of politics” that would establish the new republic upon a sound foundation of liberty. 
The French philosophers, with their insistence on making reason a governing principle, paved way for the bloodbath of the French Revolution. Their philosophy of reason was in essence a cult of reason. It was a disaster. But in most history books they are eulogized as the leaders of the Enlightenment. Himmelfarb’s book corrects this mistake.

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