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Faith-Based History


Gertrude Himmelfarb is astonishing. Born in 1922, she is in her early eighties, but she continues to write on her favorite topics with undiminished vigor and with the determination to écraser l’infâme that has been her trademark since the 1960s. Like other members of her generation of neoconservatives, she began on the far left; like others, she has ended, at least in the intellectual traditions she favors, not on the far right, but on the middle ground occupied by Lord Acton, Walter Bagehot, and a host of anxious Victorian liberals. Lionel Trilling was an admirer of Matthew Arnold and E.M. Forster. It is no more surprising that a Jewish New York intellectual who was educated at Brooklyn College and taught there for many years should feel at home with English Catholics, Anglicans, and agnostics.

The explanation for her preferences seems to lie in the acute anxiety about public values—the broad public culture—that drives her politics. Like others of the same neoconservative generation, she is a political conservative because she is first of all a cultural conservative, mistrustful of secularization and deeply frightened by what she thinks of as the twentieth century’s abandonment of the moral values that once held civilized societies together. She shows every sign of having become more frightened over the past forty years.

When the British prime minister Margaret Thatcher argued for a return to “Victorian values,” her British admirers were puzzled, and her critics mocked her for espousing the ethics of the narrow-minded and hard-hearted factory owners who populate Victorian novels. But Gertrude Himmelfarb knew what Mrs. Thatcher meant and she heartily approved of her views. The Roads to Modernity is concerned with the eighteenth century rather than the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but the allegiances and anxieties that have permeated her work for forty years are visible throughout.

There is room for disagreement about the quality of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s work as a historian and room for concern about the extent to which it has been damaged by her political preoccupations—some might say obsessions. What leaves no room for disagreement is the quality of her writing, which has a verve and sharpness absent from most academic prose, and if there is always much to disagree with in what she says, she says it with wonderful clarity. The Roads to Modernity is no exception. It is a pleasure to read. There is a great deal to be said against the line Ms. Himmelfarb takes, but much to be said in favor of the way she does it.

The subtitle, “The British, French, and American Enlightenments,” is, however, quite misleading. This is not an account of the British, French, and American Enlightenments, but a series of essays on Professor Himmelfarb’s favorite British eighteenth-century philosophers; France is discussed only in an essay denouncing the philosophes as a gang of elitist, atheist, ultrarationalist utopians, while America gets one essay praising the Founding Fathers for borrowing their ambitions from the British rather than the French. The Roads to Modernity ends with a short epilogue in praise of compassionate conservatism as an embodiment of American Enlightenment ideals: what one might call “Burkeans for G.W. Bush.” The United States remains the last best hope of humanity. The British, her readers will be sorry to learn, have “discarded” their former virtues, while the French “have never adopted” them.


The Roads to Modernity invites analysis at two levels, the historical and the political. First, an outline of its argument is required. Gertrude Himmelfarb is not a historian’s historian; she is not moved by curious facts to propound new ideas about how to understand profoundly alien societies and their members. She is a social theorist’s historian. She concentrates on the moral, religious, political, and economic ideas of her chief characters, as though societies were, after all, governed by philosopher-kings just as Plato hoped they would be. That they are not always the philosophers that either Plato or Ms. Himmelfarb would wish to be kings goes without saying. She is also a “presentist,” less concerned to emphasize the otherness of the past than to make her subjects talk to us in our own terms. She is above all a moralist, handing out good conduct marks to cautious centrists and awarding failing grades to just about all Frenchmen other than Montesquieu and Tocqueville; and, of course, she is a propagandist.

Ms. Himmelfarb writes as though it is a novel idea that there was such a thing as a “British Enlightenment”; but it has been a hot subject for some two decades, and historians such as John Pocock and Roy Porter have written extensively on it. Indeed, Ms. Himmelfarb is generous in acknowledging her debts to them. More generally, British historians have always taken it for granted that the country that produced Isaac Newton and John Locke and went on to produce Adam Smith and David Hume was in many senses and in many respects enlightened; what they have doubted was that in the absence of the shadows cast in France by absolute monarchy and the Catholic Church, there was much room for the campaign of intellectual emancipation that “capital E” Enlightenment betokened. It is in that sense—only—that it was for so long an orthodoxy that the idea of “the” Enlightenment was essentially French. That thought she does not really challenge.

Ms. Himmelfarb sets out to argue two somewhat unfashionable points. First, she wants to defend the Enlightenment against recent detractors such as John Gray, who have derided it as an attempt to impose upon the rest of the world Western European values whose appeal is strictly limited and local although they are passed off as timeless, natural, and universal. She does not do this by launching a philosophical argument in defense of universal values but by showing that at least one Enlightenment—the British—was flexible, pluralist, and not inclined to impose the dictates of reason on the rest of humanity. It is obviously right to see the Enlightenment as plural, to see it as Enlightenments rather than the Enlightenment, and perhaps to drop the noun in favor of the adjective—to consider all the ways of being “enlightened” that were available to the eighteenth century. None of that settles the question whether there are universal values, and if so, what they are, but that is not Ms. Himmelfarb’s intention.

Second, she sets out to seize the Enlightenment from the French and restore it to the British in the interests of changing our ideas about what the Enlightenment involved:

To bring the British Enlightenment onto the stage of history, indeed, the center stage, is to redefine the very idea of Enlightenment. In the usual litany of traits associated with the Enlightenment—reason, rights, nature, liberty, equality, tolerance, science, progress—reason invariably heads the list. What is conspicuously absent is virtue. Yet it was virtue, rather than reason, that took precedence for the British, not personal virtue but the “social virtues”—compassion, benevolence, sympathy—which, the British philosophers believed, naturally, instinctively, habitually bound people to each other.

As this suggests, Ms. Himmelfarb imposes a single and rather persuasive theme on her narrative: that the “good” Enlightenment was not a rationalist, secular, radical enterprise at all. It was mildly progressive, socially conservative, culturally tolerant. Its foundations were as much sociological and anthropological as philosophical.

She claims, not wholly persuasively, that in the company of Hobbes and Locke, eighteenth-century thinkers such as Shaftesbury, Adam Smith, David Hume, and Edmund Burke do not appear to advantage as philosophers. (Leave Hume off the list, and the claim is more plausible, of course; even then the suggestion that what distinguished Hobbes from his successors was his greater “gravity and profundity” is something of an insult to a writer whose prose was as quick and acerbic as Ms. Himmelfarb’s own, and whose absence of gravity, not to mention his deep skepticism, was complained of at length by his contemporaries.) What her heroes were, she says, is sociologists of virtue. “Virtue” in this context is a term of art; it has nothing to do with the preservation of one’s virginity, but everything to do with the qualities that make us useful members of society.

This claim takes us into the history of eighteenth-century moral philosophy, which is the subject of Ms. Himmelfarb’s first four chapters and the first half of the book. It was, as she says, the century of theories of the moral sense. Hume, particularly, argued that our moral judgments are not based on reason. He memorably observed that a man who prefers the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of his little finger is not, strictly, irrational. The sentence “I prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my little finger” is intelligible and not self-contradictory. Of course, such a preference would be very strange; but in this narrow sense of irrational it is not irrational, merely very odd. Where do moral judgments come from if not from reason? From a moral sense. And what prompts our approval is, by and large, the perception that someone’s character or conduct will benefit his or her fellow creatures.

Although it might seem that a moral sense ought to be amenable to psychological investigation along with the senses of sight, taste, hearing, and so on, that is not the direction in which discussion mostly went in eighteenth-century Edinburgh and London. The moral sense was less a sense than the everyday disposition to praise and blame the conduct, character, purposes, and attitudes of ourselves and other people. What did spring from an emphasis on the moral sense was two other things—or two facets of the same thing: first, and most famously in Hume, a downplaying of reason; and, second, and most famously in Adam Smith’s Theory of the Moral Sentiments, an emphasis on our capacity for empathy—though the eighteenth century called it “sympathy”—the ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and feel for them and with them. Fellow-feeling was both the basis of ethics and essential to social cohesion.

Ms. Himmelfarb is not interested in the history of moral philosophy for its own sake, of course. She is concerned with the implications for social, economic, and political life that her favored thinkers drew. Here she draws on her earlier books about poverty and the organization of charitable relief in Britain, The Idea of Poverty and Poverty and Compassion, and works back to the ancestors of her favorite Victorians. Rational schemes, she believes, threaten to bring about socialism at best and Stalinism at worst; an appropriate combination of the discipline of the market and the compassion of the better-off does most to relieve the misery of those who fall on hard times through no fault of their own.

And here, as so often in other essays, she is eager to emphasize the benign role that religion plays in a well-ordered society. Britain, she thinks, was in the eighteenth century a relatively tolerant society and secured the blessings of an established religion without the nastiness to which fanaticism gives rise. The truth of religion was not an issue; indeed, it was something better left unexamined. The utility of religion in providing the underpinnings of good morals was the important issue. So, although it is less than clear what the private beliefs of Adam Smith were, he certainly thought that religion was good for us, that a philosopher should attempt to encourage people to adopt a tolerant and inclusive faith, and should not dwell too intently on the absurdities and follies which a literal approach would reveal. By the same token, Hume and Gibbon, who were at best agnostic, were not inclined to deprive the poor of the comforts of faith or to forego whatever disciplinary power religion might exercise over the rich and ambitious.


The two great heroes of Ms. Himmelfarb’s narrative are Edmund Burke and John Wesley. The first is entirely unsurprising. Ms. Himmelfarb has been steadily warming to Burke over the past several decades, and she now admires him in much the same fashion that Conor Cruise O’Brien does. That is, she thinks he was right about the virtues of the American colonists when he defended them against the regulatory ambitions of Lord North and George III, right to defend the people of India against the predatory behavior of Warren Hastings and the East India Company, and above all right to attack the French Revolution and the French revolutionaries with every weapon at his command.

Like many commentators, she admires the way Burke foresaw as early as 1790 the horrors that were to come—the murder of the royal family, the Terror, and the eventual installation of a military despotism. But more than anything, she shares Burke’s fear that an unbridled rationalism will destroy civilization, sweeping away not only traditional authority in the shape of monarchy, landed aristocracy, and established church, but all restraint whatever. This, of course, reflects Ms. Himmelfarb’s conviction that something very alarming happened in the 1960s, a process that she has described as the “de-moralization” of society.

The most famous passage in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France is his lament on the humiliation of Marie Antoinette when the royal family was dragged back to Paris from Versailles in October 1789:

I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever…. But now all is to be changed. All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off.

As Tom Paine unkindly observed, once Burke starts writing in this vein, there seems no reason why he should ever stop, short of exhaustion. But Ms. Himmelfarb approves wholeheartedly. She remains fiercely unforgiving of the 1960s aversion to drapery and decency.

If it is not surprising that she so much admires Edmund Burke, it is more surprising that Ms. Himmelfarb recruits John Wesley to the pantheon of Enlightenment heroes. Wesley was a self-described enemy of democracy, and deeply hostile to American independence. The virtues of Methodism are, however, an old theme with Ms. Himmelfarb. Here is one topic where she and more left-wing social historians can agree. The British tradition of “ethical socialism” always drew its inspiration from a Christian rather than a Marxian conception of the brotherhood of man, and Ms. Himmelfarb is surely right to remind us that without a long prehistory of philanthropic provision for the needy—including their educational needs—there would not have been the informal and unofficial welfare state with which later, more organized arrangements could cooperate.

The shortcomings of the French Enlightenment are an old story, to which Ms. Himmelfarb contributes nothing novel: Voltaire’s anti-Semitism is duly rebuked, as is the enthusiasm displayed by most of the philosophes for enlightened despotism, rather than a balanced government of the British kind. There is undeniably something deeply repulsive about the contempt of some of them for the common people, though Ms. Himmelfarb does not go out of her way to notice that Burke could refer to “the swinish multitude” in the Reflections while arguing elsewhere that the common people were as likely to be right as wrong about the misdeeds of their rulers. In a similar way, Rousseau could distinguish between peasants who were ground down by their condition and small proprietors who were not.

Her thoughts on the American Enlightenment, on the other hand, are interesting because she has a narrow path to tread in praising it. The French, after all, won the war of independence for the colonists; Tom Paine, later the devoted enemy of Burke, was one of the most important defenders of independence at a time when opinion was unsettled; and the motives of the colonists were not in all respects beyond reproach. Many of them wanted to be free of the British government’s efforts to protect the Native American population from the colonists’ invasion of their territory. Others planned to steal their neighbors’ property on the pretext that their neighbors were Tories.

There are further difficulties, of course. The worst is slavery. “How is it,” asked Dr. Johnson, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” In itself, the idea that a society might regard political liberty as immensely valuable while relying on a slave economy is not surprising. Athenian democracy relied on slave labor to extract silver from the mines at Laurium; the Roman Republic employed slaves. Both contributed to modern ideals of political freedom. There is, however, one crucial difference between them and the American colonists. Neither Athens nor Rome could have made sense of the proposition that “all men are created equal”; but the colonists rebelled against their rulers on the basis of just that self-evident truth.

In separating the French from the Americans, Ms. Himmelfarb has no problem with individuals, save for Jefferson; he, after all, was unbothered by the violence of the French Revolution, and always of the opinion that the tree of liberty needs periodic watering with the blood of tyrants. This was not the sort of thing that Washington or John Adams said. She has worse trouble elsewhere. About slavery, there is really nothing to be said other than that it was a blot on the British Empire until 1833 and a worse blot on the United States until the Civil War, and she does not pretend otherwise. But her discussion of the treatment of Native Americans is evasive. Certainly it was true that a hunter-gatherer economy could not easily coexist with settled agriculture. But regret was not the tone of Jefferson’s threats of “extermination” and his plans to invade Canada to chase the American Indian from his last refuge.

Ms. Himmelfarb is casual about all this because she is more interested in reminding us that the American Revolution was made by men who had a strong sense of the place of religion in public life. It is hard to know who believes anything else, but no matter. Almost the only complaint she makes about Tocqueville is that he says too little about the Founders’ concern with religion—which is hard on him, in view of how much he makes of religion everywhere in Democracy in America. But it is of a piece with her enthusiasm for her “benign and tolerant President” who, she wrote last year, has taught Jews in particular not to be afraid of religious rhetoric and to understand what a force for political good religion can be. Like all such claims, it raises some awkward and here unaddressed questions: What does Ms. Himmelfarb herself think about the credibility of any particular faith? Is religious belief something that other people should take seriously, but which the enlightened need not? Ms. Himmelfarb neither asks nor answers such questions. She seems entirely uninterested in real religious conviction—even when she writes about John Wesley. And yet, as many writers have pointed out, religion can only be useful if a sufficient number of people believe that it is not just useful, but true.


Ms. Himmelfarb is a vivid writer, but oddly naive. She writes as though it is an urgent matter to understand who thought what and to award them good and bad marks for their ideas; but she never stops to discuss how much impact intellectuals have on the politics of their day, or to wonder what conditions must obtain if they are to have an impact. She observes in passing that we cannot blame the philosophes for the excesses of the French Revolution—which raises the question why she spends so much energy attacking them—but moves on to claim that there are “unmistakable echoes of the philosophes, of Rousseau especially, at every stage.” But are “echoes” evidence of causation? Certainly, the revolutionaries decided after the event to adopt Rousseau as their patron saint, but that tells one very little about the causation of the Revolution.

She in fact faces a problem that she shares with her hero, Edmund Burke. The social theory to which she is attached makes the impact of the writers by whom she feels most threatened almost unintelligible. On her view, societies are held together by common affections, feelings, mutual benevolence, the whole fabric of what Burke called Prejudice; but in that case, how is it that dissident intellectuals make any headway? On the face of it, they are doomed to cry in the wilderness while sensible people get on with their lives—which is what she assumes when observing that William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft were not much listened to. In L’Ancien Régime et la révolution Tocqueville provided a possible explanation of the impact of the philosophes: the aristocracy acted as patrons to the atheistic intelligentsia. They thereby gave them an influence they would not otherwise have had, and in the process brought about their own destruction. There is evidently very much more to it than that, but it is the beginning of the right kind of story.

The same unconcern with questions of causation afflicts Ms. Himmelfarb’s account of her British writers. She underplays the fact that one reason why many of them were so enthusiastic about promoting peace at home and commerce abroad was that civil war was a real threat until after the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745; and the danger of civil war haunted the British imagination for the rest of the century. Britain was not an intrinsically peaceful country; in the sixteenth century, more Catholics were judicially murdered in Britain than anywhere else in Europe; allowing for population, the civil war of the mid-seventeenth century was more murderous than the French Revolution; and the vindictiveness with which the rebellious Scots were hunted down after 1745 disgusted European observers. Jefferson may have exaggerated when he complained in the Declaration of Independence that the British government had incited the “merciless savages” of the interior to butcher men, women, and children indiscriminately—but it was a credible accusation. British social thinkers may have praised the social virtues, but did they really make their countrymen much nicer?

The Roads to Modernity is perhaps not to be read as history. It is certainly very entertaining if read simply as a slight essay on some distinguished thinkers. But Ms. Himmelfarb—as her epilogue makes clear—means it as more than that. It is meant to defend the view that America, in its current Republican incarnation, represents what is best in “modernity.” And as we know from what she has recently written elsewhere, this includes President Bush’s version of the war on terror, his unflinching support for Ariel Sharon’s Israel, and his faith-based initiatives in welfare and education. The defense of America also includes belittling the achievements of countries whose inhabitants lead longer and more healthy lives than those of the United States, and whose workers are, on an hourly basis, the most productive in the world. One can only observe that the parochialism, narrowness, and insularity of her political outlook betray the cosmopolitan ethos that her book defends. They are also, and in themselves, silly.

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