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Home » Uncategorized » 20180624 – Himmelfarb, Gertrude – The Roads to Modernity

20180624 – Himmelfarb, Gertrude – The Roads to Modernity



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The main idea here is to identify and stress difference between 3 enlightenments that took place in approximately the same time: British, French, and American. The most attention is paid to the British, which was peaceful, often conducted by religious individuals as its key thinkers, and directed at the finding the best model of relationship between regular people and aristocracy, generally accepting the need and value of both groups for effective functioning of society. The French enlightenment was mainly developed by non-religious and often atheistic philosophers, was militant pretty much against everybody who would not submit to “General Will” as the philosophers and/or philosopher-king would define it, and eventually led to revolution and terror. Practical people – landowners, smugglers, lawyers, and businessmen led the American enlightenment and, unlike both European enlightenments, it was directed to protect interest and liberty of individuals regardless of their position because such liberty supported effective free market system in which all these practical people could thrive.




This starts with an interesting note that British did not have philosophers, they had morals philosophers. Author discusses John Lock and his ideas about table rasa and rejection of this idea by Shaftesbury, who stressed religion and self-interest as driver of human actions. Generally British either Lock or Hobbes rejected Rousseau ideas of human inherent goodness. Another writer that author discusses is Mandeville and his “The Fable of the Bees”, which stressed vice at individual bee level that could be turned into Paradise for the whole mass. This was strongly rejected by British including all luminaries of British thought: Gibbon, Adam Smith, Hutcheson, and others. Author discusses exchange between Hutcheson and Hume about benevolence of innate faculty and then Smith’s “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”, which was better known than the “Wealth of Nations” at the time. Author also discusses British approach to morality and religious believes and stresses that they saw sources of morality outside of religion, while deeming it very important and rejecting atheism. Finally, author discusses the year 1776 when Hume died, Adam Smith published “Wealth”, and Gibbon published “Decline and Fall”, which author defines as not a work of moral philosopher, but of a moral historian.


This starts with Adam Smith and his work, describing them as inseparable entity with prevalence of moral philosophy over economics. The latter thinkers like Schumpeter found it difficult to separate, but for Adams it was nearly the same. Then she follows into details of Smith’s work demonstrating that he was first bringing ideas such as a nation that would include lower layers of population, rejected mercantilism and hindrance to prosperity, explained value of market defined wages as the engine of prosperity for everybody. She also discusses Marxism and its approach to alienation of labor and to education as directed at forming work force, rather than providing knowledge and helping to develop personality.


Burke was thinking in the same line as Adam Smith and as Smith was artificially divided between Smith of “Wealth of the Nations” and of “Moral Sentiments” , Burke was divided between laisses faire economist and traditionalist / conservative. In reality neither was in contradiction with self. Support for tradition and rejection of massive change as in French revolution is pretty much consistent with economic and even political freedom, while attempts to jump into the bright future usually lead to violence since in any society there are significant numbers of people who do not want change. Author also discusses in details Wilkes affair and corruption of parliament. Burke is probably the clearest case of demonstrating very different ways of French and British enlightenment.


This is about British dissidents who were more inclined to support French enlightenment and supremacy of reason over traditions: Richard Price, Priestly, Thomas Paine, and others. Author discusses in details Paine and his conflict with Burke about French revolution. At the same time these dissidents professed to be disciples of Adam Smith and actually were against big government. Paine even wrote against Babeuf in defense of private property. What does link them to latter leftists’ idea is fight for disestablishment of church. Another personality author discusses in detail is William Godwin and his writings about political justice and its influence on happiness. In this case it was indeed based on abolition of private property and idea of society based on morality developed by reason and science, rejecting private materialistic interests.


This is about usually missed part of enlightenment because of its religious nature – Methodism. Author presents it as religion of working classes highly suitable for period of industrialization, even if it was not necessarily logically consistent. She discusses some personalities of this movement, especially Wesley, allocating lots of attention to how they were perceived by contemporary thinkers.


Here author defines British enlightenment as age of moral sentiments, sympathy, compassion, and overall benevolence. She discusses how it was presented in novels, real live via multitude of association and mutual help societies, philanthropy, and overall attempts to modify society in such way that nobody would be let out in the cold. It also meant to go against cruelty, even against cruelty to animals and popular blood sports. Author also brings here discussion of education for poor that was considered a tool to improve their lives. All this benevolence was changing quality of live in Britain, sometimes even supporting positive interaction between classes.


This starts with reference to Tocqueville who contrasted French philosophers and British counterparts by noting that British were quite practical and constantly used ideas in government practice, while French had two separate domains one of which was busy with theory of society without practical application and another managed society without paying any attention to ideas. Obviously, America was much close to British attitude than to the French, with important difference that these were the same people who did theorizing and administration. That’s probably one reason why French Encyclopedia has only historians interested in it, while American Constitution, Federalist papers, important speeches, and such are still discussed nearly daily and often in the news.


This is about French attempts to push out religion and substitute it with reason, which in practice demanded the same uncritical accepting whatever philosophers come up with. Author discusses personalities of the period: Diderot, Voltaire, Holbach, and others. Author also looks at articles about reason, religion, and other issues in Diderot’s Encyclopedia.


Here author discusses French enlightenment attitude to Liberty, which is interesting by its theoretical approach: demand for absolute liberty for them and orientation at “what ought to be” rather than “what is”. This was one of the reasons of negative reaction to Montesquieu’s “The Spirit of Laws”. The point was who could safeguard liberty and protect against despotism. Montesquieu thought it should be nobility, but majority of philosophers bet on philosopher–king.


This is about the idea of enlightenment despot such as Frederick or Ekaterina managing people to prosperity and happiness. Author discusses how philosophers treated this idea: mainly supporting it, but with some uneasiness. Overall, they also included support for tolerance and were against slavery, for some reason assuming that enlightened despot would always do the same.


This is about difference between 3 Enlightenments: British mainly cared about “condition of the people” and generally rejected idea of General will. Americans did not have that many poor to care of, had plenty of land and other resources so “people” could care about themselves quite nicely, and therefore did not worry that much about this staff. Author looks in details at Rousseau, Diderot, and others to demonstrate this variety of approaches.


Generally, philosophers prefer to avoid revolutions and hoped for the change coming top down. However, their work created environment that actually allowed revolution to happen. Author uses Robespierre to demonstrate this influence.


If in Britain foreground of Enlightenment was public good – handling poverty and other issues of social policy, France – General will leading to achieving ideal, in America it was liberty – religious and political via self-governing.


Here author dig deeper in this American exceptionalism with discussion of Federalist papers and overall American revolution and Constitution, all of which is still pretty much alive and under nearly daily discussion 240 years on.


This is about relationship between social virtue and political liberty, which was kind of dividing issue between Federalists who were skeptical about virtue looking to separate powers and put ambition against ambition and Anti-federalists who believed that virtue generated by link of independent farmer to the land alone guarantee success. Here skepticism was directed against commerce and self-interest.


Here author discusses a very interesting feature of American Exceptionalism: religion as source of virtue, which is not supported by government, but rather independent from it and allows for diverse development, providing for Americans to choose whatever they want and, as result, practically assuring higher level of religiosity than was and is typical for other countries.


This is continuation of discussion of relations between religion and enlightenment in America with stress on mutual tolerance, acceptance, and even support that was leaving very little space for skeptical atheistic Enlightenment of European type.


The final part is about two groups, which while living in America had little to do with American Enlightenment and even overall ideological discussions: Indians and Slaves. Author reviews development of these two groups and their slow inclusion into American society, which always was and still remains difficult and problematic process.


This is an interesting take at roots of contemporary world, which represents fruits of each enlightenment development over the 250 years.

The French enlightenment ideology that is still supported consciously or not by intelligentsia everywhere produced totalitarian states ruled by intelligentsia either highly credentialed or self-taught, but always convinced that they represent the General Will of people and it gives them right to kill, torture, and starve individuals of this people by millions.

Contemporary EU type systems based mainly on mix of French and British enlightenment when there is theoretical acceptance of rights of people, but it accompanied by practical reality when these rights easily subverted to “General will” that intelligentsia (with or without aristocracy) is expressing due to its members superior education, knowledge, and morals. Obviously rights notwithstanding, government violently suppresses all individuals and groups that do not agree and would not comply with this will.

Finally American Enlightenment produced contemporary America, which, despite strong influence of European ideas and even periodic capture of government power by individuals driven by these ideas, still remains the country in which individual enjoy first amendment allowing unrestricted free expression, freedom of movement, relatively free market based productive activities, and the second amendment that allow to have guns to protect all of these.

I actually think that technological development will eventually leave only ideas of individual liberty that grew from American enlightenment operational, because no other set of ideas would be capable providing meaningful live in the era of complete automation.

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