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Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenmentsby Gertrude Himmelfarb
In an elegant, eminently readable work, 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 human nature, 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, Himmelfarb demonstrates the primacy and wisdom of the British, exemplified in such thinkers as Adam Smith, David Hume, and Edmund Burke, as well as the unique and enduring contributions of the American Founders. It is their Enlightenments, she argues, that created a social ethic–humane, compassionate, and realistic–that still resonates strongly today, in America perhaps even more than in Europe.The Roads to Modernity is a remarkable and illuminating contribution to the history of ideas.
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“Exciting intellectual pugilism ... Himmelfarb mounts a vigorous argument that the British [Enlightenment] was reformist rather than subversive, respectful of the past and present even while looking forward to a more egalitarian future.” –The New York Times Book Review
“[Himmelfarb’s] writing . . . has a verve and sharpness. . . . It is a pleasure to read.” –The New York Review of Books
“Exceptionally well written and clever.”–The Washington Post Book World
“Himmelfarb has one of the keenest intellects of our time.” –The Houston Chronicle
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1. "Social Affections" and Religious Dispositions
The British did not have "philosophes." They had "moral philosophers," a very different breed. Those historians who belittle or dismiss the idea of a British Enlightenment do so because they do not recognize the features of the philosophes in the moral philosophers--and with good reason: the physiognomy is quite different.
It is ironic that the French should have paid tribute to John Locke and Isaac Newton as the guiding spirits of their own Enlightenment, while the British, although respectful of both, had a more ambiguous relationship with them. Newton was eulogized by David Hume as "the greatest and rarest genius that ever rose for the ornament and instruction of the species," and by Alexander Pope in the much quoted epitaph: "Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night;/God said, Let Newton be! and all was light." But Pope's An Essay on Man sent quite a different message: "The proper study of mankind is man" implied that materialism and science could penetrate into the mysteries of nature but not of man. In an earlier essay, the allusion to Newton was more obvious; it was human nature, not astronomy, Pope said, that was "the most useful object of humane reason," and it was "of more consequence to adjust the true nature and measures of right and wrong, than to settle the distance of the planets and compute the times of their circumvolutions." While Newton received the adulation of his countrymen (he was master of the Royal Mint and president of the Royal Society, was knighted, and given a state funeral), and his scientific methodology was much praised, he had little substantive influence on the moral philosophers or on the issues that dominated the British Enlightenment. (His Opticks, on the other hand, was an inspiration for poets, who were entranced by the images and metaphors of light.)
John Locke, too, was a formidable presence in eighteenth-century Britain, a best-selling author and a revered figure. But among the moral philosophers he was admired more for his politics than for his metaphysics. Indeed, the basic tenets of their philosophy implied a repudiation of his. What made them "moral philosophers" rather than "philosophers" tout court was their belief in a "moral sense" that was presumed to be if not innate in the human mind (as Francis Hutcheson thought), then so entrenched in the human sensibility, in the form of sympathy or "fellow-feeling" (as Adam Smith and David Hume had it), as to have the same compelling force as innate ideas.
Locke himself could not have been more explicit in rejecting innate ideas, whether moral or metaphysical. The mind, as he understood it, so far from being inhabited by innate ideas, was a tabula rasa, to be filled by sensations and experiences, and by the reflections rising from those sensations and experiences. The title of the first chapter of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding was "No Innate Speculative Principles" (that is, epistemological principles); the second, "No Innate Practical Principles" (moral principles). Even the golden rule, that "most unshaken rule of morality and foundation of all social virtue," would have been meaningless to one who had never heard that maxim and who might well ask for a reason justifying it, which "plainly shows it not to be innate." If virtue was generally approved, it was not because it was innate, but because it was "profitable," conducive to one's self-interest and happiness, the promotion of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Thus, things could be judged good or evil only by reference to pleasure or pain, which were themselves the product of sensation.
Locke's Essay was published in 1690. Nine years later, the Earl of Shaftesbury wrote an essay that was, in effect, a refutation of Locke. This, too, had its ironies, for this Shaftesbury, the third earl, was brought up in the household of his grandfather, the first earl, who was a devotee of Locke and had employed him to supervise the education of his grandchildren. It was this experience that had inspired Locke's Thoughts Concerning Education--and inspired as well, perhaps, the pupil's rejection of his master's teachings. Shaftesbury's essay, "An Inquiry Concerning Virtue, or Merit," was published (without his permission but to great acclaim) in 1699 and reprinted in 1711 in somewhat revised form in his Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times. That three-volume work, reissued posthumously three years later and in ten more editions in the course of the century, rivalled Locke's Second Treatise (a political, not metaphysical tract) as the most frequently reprinted work of the time. The hundred-page essay on virtue was the centerpiece of those volumes.
Virtue, according to Shaftesbury, derived not from religion, self-interest, sensation, or reason. All of these were instrumental in supporting or hindering virtue, but were not the immediate or primary source of it. What was "antecedent" to these was the "moral sense," the "sense of right and wrong." [Shaftesbury's "moral sense" was very different from John Rawls's recent use of that term. For Shaftesbury it was an innate sense of right and wrong; for Rawls it is an intuitive conviction of the rightness of freedom and equality.] It was this sense that was "predominant...inwardly joined to us, and implanted in our nature," "a first principle in our constitution and make," as natural as "natural affection itself." This "natural affection," moreover, was "social affection," an affection for "society and the public," which, so far from being at odds with one's private interest, or "self-affection," actually contributed to one's personal pleasure and happiness. A person whose actions were motivated entirely or even largely by self-affection--by self-love, self-interest, or self-good--was not virtuous. Indeed, he was "in himself still vicious," for the virtuous man was motivated by nothing other than "a natural affection for his kind."
This was not a Rousseauean idealization of human nature, of man before being corrupted by society. Nor was it a Pollyannaish expectation that all or even most men would behave virtuously all or most of the time. The moral sense attested to the sense of right and wrong in all men, the knowledge of right and wrong even when they chose to do wrong. Indeed, a good part of Shaftesbury's essay dealt with the variety of "hateful passions"--envy, malice, cruelty, lust--that beset mankind. Even virtue, Shaftesbury warned, could become vice when it was pursued to excess; an immoderate degree of "tenderness," for example, destroyed the "effect of love," and excessive "pity" rendered a man "incapable of giving succour." The conclusion of the essay was a stirring testament of an ethic that, by its very nature--the "common nature" of man--was a social ethic: "Thus the wisdom of what rules, and is first and chief in nature, has made it to be according to the private interest and good of everyone to work towards the general good; which if a creature ceases to promote, he is actually so far wanting to himself and ceases to promote his own happiness and welfare.... And, thus, Virtue is the good, and Vice the ill of everyone."
The contrast, not only with Thomas Hobbes but with Locke as well, could not be more obvious. Neither was explicitly named by Shaftesbury, perhaps out of respect for Locke, who was still alive when the essay was written (although he had died by the time it was reissued). But no knowledgeable reader could have mistaken Shaftesbury's intention. In 1709 he wrote to one of his young proteges that Locke, even more than Hobbes, was the villain of the piece, for Hobbes's character and base slavish principles of government "took off the poison of his philosophy," whereas Locke's character and commendable principles of government made his philosophy even more reprehensible.
'Twas Mr. Locke that struck at all fundamentals, threw all order and virtue out of the world.... Virtue, according to Mr. Locke, has no other measure, law, or rule, than fashion and custom: morality, justice, equity, depend only on law and will.... And thus neither right nor wrong, virtue nor vice are any thing in themselves; nor is there any trace or idea of them naturally imprinted on human minds. Experience and our catechism teach us all!
As Shaftesbury did not mention Locke in the Inquiry, so Bernard Mandeville did not mention Shaftesbury in The Fable of the Bees--at least not in the first edition, published in 1714. But appearing just then, a year after Shaftesbury's death and at the same time as the second edition of the Characteristics, Mandeville's readers might well take it as a rebuttal to Shaftesbury's work. The subtitle, Private Vices, Public Benefits, reads like a manifesto contra Shaftesbury.
The original version of the Fable, published in 1705 as a sixpenny pamphlet (and pirated, Mandeville complained, in a halfpenny sheet), consisted of some thirty verses depicting a society, a hive of bees, where everyone was a knave, and where knavery served a valuable purpose. Every vice had its concomitant virtue: avarice contributed to prodigality, luxury to industry, folly to ingenuity. The result was a "grumbling" but productive hive, where "...every part was full of Vice,/ Yet the whole mass a Paradise." A well-intentioned attempt to rid the hive of vice had the effect of ridding it of its virtues as well, resulting in the destruction of the hive itself, as all the bees, "blest with content and honesty," abandoned industry and took refuge in a hollow tree.
Lest the moral escape his readers, Mandeville reissued the poem in 1714 with a prefatory essay, "The Origin of Moral Virtue," and a score of lengthy "Remarks" amplifying lines of the poem; the editions of 1723 and 1724 added still other essays and remarks. In the enlarged version (now a full-length book), Mandeville elaborated upon his thesis. Self-love, which was reducible to pain and pleasure, was the primary motivation of all men, and what was generally called "pity" or "compassion"--the "fellow-feeling and condolence for the misfortunes and calamities of others"--was an entirely spurious passion, which unfortunately afflicted the weakest minds the most. Moralists and philosophers, he conceded, generally took the opposite view, agreeing with the "noble writer" Lord Shaftesbury that "as man is made for society, so he ought to be born with a kind affection to the whole of which he is a part, and a propensity to seek the welfare of it."
Maudeville's conclusion was sharp and uncompromising:
After this I flatter my self to have demonstrated that neither the friendly qualities and kind affections that are natural to man, nor the real virtues he is capable of acquiring by reason and self-denial are the foundation of society; but that what we call evil in this world, moral as well as natural, is the grand principle that makes us sociable creatures, the solid basis, the life and support of all trades and employments without exception; that there we must look for the true origin of all arts and sciences, and that the moment evil ceases, the society must be spoiled if not totally dissolved.
The Fable of the Bees profoundly shocked contemporaries, provoking a frenzy of attacks culminating in a ruling handed down by the grand jury of Middlesex condemning it as a "public nuisance." Joining in the near-universal condemnation were most of the eighteenth-century greats--Bishop Berkeley, Francis Hutcheson, Edward Gibbon, Adam Smith. Smith expressed the general sentiment in pronouncing Mandeville's theory "licentious" and "wholly pernicious." [Smith was offended not only by Mandeville's amoralism, his refusal to distinguish between vice and virtue, but also by his mercantilist views, which were a by-product of that philosophy. Because there was no natural moral sense and thus no natural harmony among men, Mandeville assumed that the government had to intervene to convert "private vices" into "public benefits." Mandeville is sometimes taken to be an apologist for capitalism; but it was mercantilism that was the logical deduction from his philosophy.]
Mandeville's was a spirited but futile attempt to abort the social ethic that was the distinctive feature of the British Enlightenment. That ethic derived neither from self-interest nor from reason (although both were congruent with it) but from a "moral sense" that inspired sympathy, benevolence, and compassion for others. Thus, where Locke, denying any innate principles, looked to education to inculcate in children the sentiment of "humanity," "benignity," or "compassion," Shaftesbury rooted that sentiment in nature and instinct rather than education or reason. "To compassionate," he wrote, "i.e., to join with in passion.... To commiserate, i.e., to join with in misery.... This in one order of life is right and good; nothing more harmonious; and to be without this, or not to feel this, is unnatural, horrid, immane [monstrous]."
Two years after the publication of the expanded version of the Fable, Francis Hutcheson entered the debate with An Inquiry Concerning the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, reissued the following year with Virtue or Moral Good replacing Beauty and Virtue. The subtitle of the original edition gave its provenance: In Which the Principles of the Late Earl of Shaftesbury Are Explained and Defended, Against the Author of the Fable of the Bees. It was here that Hutcheson first enunciated the principle, "The greatest happiness for the greatest numbers." Unlike Helvetius and Jeremy Bentham, who are often credited with this principle and who rooted it in the rational calculations of utility, Hutcheson deduced it from morality itself--the "moral sense, viz. benevolence." [* Bentham himself variously attributed this principle to Montesquieu, Barrington, Beccaria, and Helvetius, "but most of all Helvetius." Smith mistakenly attributed the origin of the "moral sense" to Hutcheson rather than Shaftesbury.] These words, "moral sense" and "benevolence," appear as a refrain throughout the book. The moral sense, Hutcheson repeatedly explained, was "antecedent" to interest because it was universal in all men. "Fellow-feeling" could not be a product of self-interest because it involved associating oneself with such painful experiences as the suffering and distress of others. So, too, the "disposition to compassion" was essentially disinterested, a concern with "the interest of others, without any views of private advantage." It was also antecedent to reason or instruction. Like Burke later, Hutcheson warned of the frailty of reason: "Notwithstanding the mighty reason we boast of above other animals, its processes are too slow, too full of doubt and hesitation, to serve us in every exigency, either for our own preservation, without the external senses, or to direct our actions for the good of the whole, without this moral sense." Elsewhere he explained that reason was "only a subservient power," capable of determining the means of promoting the good but not the end itself, the innate impulse to good.
"Benevolence," compassion," "sympathy," "fellow-feeling," a "natural affection for others"--under one label or another, this moral sense (or sentiment, as Smith preferred) was the basis of the social ethic that informed British philosophical and moral discourse for the whole of the eighteenth century. The generation of philosophers that followed Shaftesbury qualified his teachings in one respect or another, differing among themselves about the precise nature and function of the moral sense. But they all agreed that it (or something very like it) was the natural, necessary, and universal attribute of man, of rich and poor alike, the educated and uneducated, the enlightened and unenlightened. They also agreed that it was a corollary of reason and interest, but prior to and independent of both.
1. David Hume, The History of England: From the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688, 4 vols. (Philadelphia, 1828 [1st ed., 1754-62]), IV, 434. Some commentators on Adam Smith find in his work a Newtonian mode of analysis. One claims that Smith "self-consciously" set out to apply Newtonian principles by the use of mechanical analogies and metaphors (Alan Macfarlane, The Riddle of the Modern World: Of Liberty, Wealth and Equality [New York, 2000], p. 82; see also Ian Simpson Ross, The Life of Adam Smith [Oxford, 1995], p. 179). Yet there is only one passing reference to Newton in the Theory of Moral Sentiments (on the initial public neglect of him), and none in Wealth of Nations.
2. See A. R. Humphreys, The Augustan World: Society, Thought, and Letters in Eighteenth-Century England (New York, 1963), p. 207.
3. On the aesthetic influence of Newton, see the elegant and powerful little book by Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Newton Demands the Muse: Newton's Opticks and the Eighteenth Century Poets (Hamden, Conn., 1963 [1st ed., 1946]).
4. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Chicago, 1952 [1st ed., 1690]), pp. 95, 103, 105 (bk. I, chs. 1 and 2); p. 176 (bk. II, ch. 20).
5. Lawrence E. Klein suggests that Shaftesbury's personal relationship with Locke accounts for the "emotional intensity" of his search for his own "philosophical identity" and thus his attack on the Lockean principles (Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness: Moral Discourse and Cultural Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century England [Cambridge, 1994], p. 15).
6. Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, 3 vols. (Indianapolis, 2001 [1711; reprint of 6th ed., 1737-38]), II. 27 (bk. I, pt. 3, sect. 2); p. 18 (bk. I, pt. 2, sect. 3, and passim). "Moral sense" appears only once in the text of the essay (p. 27), but it is clearly meant to be synonymous with "the sense of right and wrong," which appears repeatedly. In the 1714 edition, "moral sense" also appears in the marginal notations and in the index. (Here, and throughout this book, I have modernized the capitalization, punctuation, and spelling of these eighteenth-century writers. To retain the original is distracting and, in the case of the capitalization of common nouns, deceptive because it gives an unintended emphasis to the words.)
7. Ibid., p. 80 (bk. II, pt. 2, sect. 1); p. 25 (bk. I, pt. 3, sect. 1).
8. Ibid., p. 45 (bk. II, pt. 1, sect. 1); p. 57 (bk. II, pt. 1, sect. 1).
9. Ibid., p. 14 (bk. I, pt. 2, sect. 2).
10. Ibid., p. 16 (bk. I, pt. 2, sect. 2).
11. Ibid., p. 100 (bk. II, pt. 2, sect. 3). On "common nature," see pp. 45-46 (bk. II, pt. 1, sect. 1).
12. Other historians dispute this interpretation of the relation of Locke and the moral philosophers. Frank Balog, for example, argues for the "pivotal position of Locke" in the Scottish Enlightenment. He quotes the first English work on the subject, James McCosh's Scottish Philosophy from Hutchinson to Hamilton (1875): "The Scottish metaphysicians largely imbibed the spirit of Locke, all of them speak of him with profound respect; and they never differ from him without expressing a regret or offering an apology." But Balog admits that the Scottish philosophers differed with Locke on "one fundamental issue, the nature of conscience and morality"--for moral philosophers, a fundamental issue, indeed. And he cites Hume as criticizing Locke for being "unhistorical and subversive"(Balog, "The Scottish Enlightenment and the Liberal Political Tradition," in Confronting the Constitution, ed. Allan Bloom [Washington, D.C., 1990], pp. 193, 207, 205).
13. Quoted in Klein, Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness, p. 65.
14. One editor of the Fable says that Mandeville had not read Shaftesbury when he published the first edition of the book in 1714 (The Fable of the Bees, ed. Philip Harth [London, 1970 (reprint of 1723 ed.)], p. 32). But the book has so many echoes of Shaftesbury--in reverse--that this seems improbable. It is unlikely that Mandeville would have failed to read a book published three years earlier that was so much discussed and praised. The editor also suggests that the Fable may be understood as a satire, "an outstanding ornament of the greatest age of English satire" (p. 43). But this is to take the book far less seriously than contemporaries did.
15. Ibid., pp. 67, 75.
16. Ibid., pp. 158, 165, 264.
17. Ibid., p. 329.
18. Ibid., p. 370.
19. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie (Oxford, 1976 [reprint of 6th ed., 1790]), pp. 306, 308 (pt. VII, sect. 2, ch. 4). Many years later, Gibbon commended William Law for attacking "the licentious doctrine" that private vices are public benefits (see Harth, introduction to the Fable, p. 14).
20. See Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), especially the discussion of why children should be taught not to be cruel to animals.
21. The Life, Unpublished Letters and Philosophical Regimen of Anthony, Earl of Shaftesbury, ed. Benjamin Rand (London, 1900), p. 158.
22. Francis Hutcheson, An Inquiry Concerning the Original of Our Ideas of Virtue or Moral Good (2nd ed., 1726), reprinted in British Moralists, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford, 1897), I, 107.
23. Ibid., p. 118. See also Hutcheson, A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy in Three Books (5th ed., Philadelphia, 1788 [1st ed., 1747]), pp. 12-13, 21-22. The theme reappears in his Observations on the Fable of the Bees (1726) and in An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, with Illustrations on the Moral Sense (1728).
24. The Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham, ed. Timothy L. S. Sprigge (London, 1968), I, 134n., and II, 99 (letter to John Forster, April-May 1778); Smith, Moral Sentiments, p. 321 (pt. VII, sect. 3, ch. 3).
25. Hutcheson, Inquiry, pp. 86, 93, 140-43; Short Introduction, pp. 9, 12.
26. Hutcheson, Inquiry, p. 156.
27. Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy (London, 1755), I, 69-70. -- Dave Cramer Manager, XML and Prepress Stratford Publishing Services 70 Landmark Hill Drive Brattleboro, VT 05301 802.254.6073 x127 firstname.lastname@example.org
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Meet 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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