Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Two Enlightenments?

Gertrude Himmelfarb's interesting book, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments (Vintage Books, 2004) is a plea for expanding our concept of the Enlightenment in such as way as to emphasize the British "sociology of virtue" and the American "politics of liberty" and let them qualify the French "ideology of reason." (19) Her thesis is that we ought not to allow the atheism, anti-clericalism and revolutionary ardor of the Philosophes to define what the Enlightenment is. This is a learned and significant book which exhibits a rare command of modern, intellectual history. But in the end, I believe the thesis obscures more than it illumines.

Himmelfarb's treatment of Edmund Burke, for example, seems a bit forced. She rightly points out that Burke was not unthinking, unreasonable, or closed minded and seems to think that his committment to using reason qualifies him as a part of the Enlightenment. But this only makes sense if we place every reasoning, thoughtful person in the 17 and 18th centuries into one category under the banner of "Enlightenment." But that stretches the definition of "Enlightenment" so far that it becomes virtually meaningless. Admirers of Burkean conservatism, it seems to me, would be better off stressing the rationality of both the Counter-Enlightenment and also the Augustinian-Thomsitic tradition that the Enlightenment revolted against.

Wanting to expand the definition of Enlightenment also leads Himmelfarf to treat David Hume with kid gloves. His extreme nominalism is not mentioned, nor is his skepticism given due weight. He moved in a different social and political climate from the Philosophes, so his public utterances were more measured and less inflamatory and he was careful in what he published during his lifetime. But his philosophy is just as corrosive as anything written by Voltaire or Diderot.

The treatment of the Methodist movement is the most curious aspect of the book. John Wesley's intellect and "progressive" views on slavery and education for the poor are stressed and he is proposed as at least an honourary member of the Enlightenment. But there is simply no contradiction between viewing Wesley's movement as both humanistic and intellectually respectable precisely at the same time as it functions as part of the counter-Enlightenment and helps to serve as a bulwark against French atheism and violent overthrow of the social order. As Himmelfarb herself points out, the Philosophes were not involved in social reform or the relief of suffering, being too caught up in the intellectual adventure of attacking all tradition (and especially religion) in the name of reason. She missed an opportunity, in my opinion, to show that British society was more just, more philanthropic and more open precisely insofar as it resisted the Enlightenment as defined by French radicalism.

The treatment of the American Founders is interesting in that HImmelfarb demonstrates both the continuities with British thought and also the mixture of Christian and Deist convictions exhibited by the Founders. The major difference between France and the United States was that in the United States religion was seen as an ally of justice and liberty even by those who were not personally believing Christians, whereas in France it was seen as the source of all evil.

I appreciate Himmelfarb's concern not to allow Christianity to be portrayed as unintellectual or as unconcerned with social justice. Her attempt to re-define the center of the Enlightenment as an Anglo-American movement with a French deviation is a noble attempt to re-position the role of Chrisitanity in the modern world. And to a certain extent, I think she is successful.

An alternate strategy would be to defend tradition and conservativism against French radicalism (and the British and American thinkers who most sympathized with the French path such as Hobbes, Hume and Paine). It would be to present conservativism as the humanistic and rational alternative to radical atheism and the ideology of reason.

In order to decide between these two strategies, it seems to me that the key is to decide whether French radicalism and the committment to permanent revolution that grew out of it (as seen by Himmelfarb, for example, in Paine and Jefferson) is basically a force for good that, unfortunately, is encrusted with a lamentable anti-Christian coating or whether it is in fact anti-humanistic in essence. The work of Russell Kirk, Alasdair McIntyre, David Bentley Hart and John Milbank would seem to suggest (to me at any rate) that the French Revolution was the logical culmination of the thought of the Philosophes and therefore inherently anti-humanistic in itself. In that case, the French Enlightenment itself must be opposed by Christian humanism.

Part of the problem here is that even many Christian 18th century thinkers adopted the modern criticism of the Augustinian-Thomist tradition and so surrendered the intellectual basis for the morality and social theory they advocated so vigorously. But morality and politics cannot rest on the nominalist foundations of modernity for long. In the end, I think we need to be critical of 17-18th century Christian thinkers precisely to the extent that they qualify for membership in the Enlightenment because the essence of the Enlightenment is the denial of universals, formal and final causation and the resulting loss of teleology. A superficially Christian version of the Enlightenment is not an adequate basis for the future of Western civilization or a Church that wishes to maintain the Faith as Western civilization crumbles.


Jason V. Joseph said...


She also has a C-Span book interview where she discusses her concern for social/cultural issues that Christains can find common cause with:


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