Faith-Based History

Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke; drawing by David Levine


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…

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