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The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments
"Hostile world opinion may find in this eloquent, heartfelt book a clarification of just what it is in the United States of which it so deeply disapproves; but in the United States itself, this volume, which apparently offers a comparative analysis of the USA, France and Britain as a route to self-knowledge, will probably be read as a reassuring paean of praise for the homeland. The United States, Himmelfarb writes, has recently 'superimposed on the politics of liberty something very like a sociology of virtue. After decades of disuse, virtue is once again a respectable part of the political and social vocabulary'. We seem destined to live in interesting times." Jonathan Clark, The Times Literary Supplement (read the entire Times Literary Supplement review)
Synopses & Reviews
One of our most distinguished intellectual historians gives us a brilliant revisionist history.
The Roads to Modernity reclaims the Enlightenment–an extraordinary time bursting with new ideas about the human condition in the realms of politics, society, and religion–from historians who have downgraded its importance and from scholars who have given preeminence to the Enlightenment in France over concurrent movements in England and America. Contrasting the Enlightenments in the three nations, Gertrude Himmelfarb demonstrates the primacy of the British and the wisdom and foresight of thinkers such as Adam Smith, David Hume, Thomas Paine, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Edward Gibbon, and Edmund Burke, who established its unique character and historic importance. It is this Enlightenment, she argues, that created a moral and social philosophy–humane, compassionate, and realistic–that still resonates strongly today, in America perhaps even more so than in Europe.
This is an illuminating contribution to the history of ideas.
"Himmelfarb, a leading neoconservative historian of ideas (One Nation, Two Cultures, etc.), takes on the ambitious project of reclaiming the Enlightenment from what she sees as delusionary French thinkers and restoring it to the (apparently) virtuous moderation of the English. The French Enlightenment, she claims, was excessively preoccupied with reason and insufficiently concerned with individual liberty; the philosophes idealized Man in the abstract but despised the common man. In contrast, a distinctively humane British Enlightenment was underpinned by ideals of social virtue: compassion, benevolence and sympathy. These thinkers were tolerant and pragmatic, convinced that private self-interest and public welfare were ultimately compatible. Their legacy, Himmelfarb argues, exerts a major influence on contemporary U.S. culture. Himmelfarb's book is both sophisticated and accessible, and makes some valuable revelations: Adam Smith's hostility to the 'business class'; Burke's antipathy to British rule in India. One wonders about the value of the term 'Enlightenment' when it is so broad as to encompass John Wesley, and the author's exaltation of the English-speaking philosophical tradition appears particularly problematic in her treatment of the American Enlightenment. Was the American Civil War, allegedly fought in defense of liberty, any less terrible than the infamous Terror? Nonetheless, this is a book with important ideological implications that deserves to be read and debated across the political spectrum." Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A vibrant example of intellectual history." Library Journal
"[A] cogent case for the chronological priority and philosophical primacy of the British model in shaping the philosophy of reason and liberty on the cusp of modernity." Booklist
"[W]ith The Roads to Modernity...we now have a historical and philosophical prologue to the sociology of virtue." Scott McClemee, The New York Times Book Review
About the Author
Gertrude Himmelfarb taught for twenty-three years at Brooklyn College and the Graduate School of the City University of New York, where she was named Distinguished Professor of History in 1978. Now Professor Emeritus, she lives with her husband, Irving Kristol, in Washington, D.C. Her previous books include The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values; On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society; Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians; The New History and the Old; Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians; The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age; On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill; Victorian Minds (nominated for a National Book Award); Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution; and Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics.
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