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. (Aug. 27) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
One of the most important and least remarked truths of modern history is that the British enlightenment came before the French, both temporally and intellectually. Himmelfarb's new book does full justice to this fact and goes on to place the American enlightenment in the context of its predecessors. I am not quite persuaded that Himmelfarb's account, constantly drifting off from the political activities of the Founders to the ferment among American Wesleyans and Calvinists, fully supports her claim that the Federalist Papers were to the American enlightenment what the Encyclopedie was to the French. Nevertheless, readers wishing a quick introduction to the philosophical and sociological roots of the political principles of the Revolutionary and Federalist periods will not regret time spent with this clearly written and enlightening book. Himmelfarb's exploration of the ideological connections between Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, as well as her arguments for the continuities between the younger and older versions of these key figures, is an extraordinary and convincing tour de force.
Himmelfarb (emeritus, Graduate Sch., CUNY) separates the French Enlightenment from the British and American Enlightenments, which she views as the expression of a moral philosophy found primarily in the writings of Adam Smith, David Hume, and Edmund Burke. Himmelfarb argues that a moral sentiment throughout the writings of these British philosophers led to an Age of Benevolence, in which a practical altruism prevailed in the Anglo-Saxon realm-a sentiment not commonly associated with these icons of the conservative pantheon. Conversely, she views the French Enlightenment as a more abstract and dogmatic intellectual phenomenon; the French philosophes' insistence on the compassionless primacy of Reason over the lesser emotions ultimately led to the bloody excesses of the Reign of Terror. In conclusion, she asserts that in America the moral sentiments expressed by Smith, Hume, and Burke are now embodied in George W. Bush's fading call for compassionate conservatism. Grounded in the texts, from which she quotes copiously, and sure to be controversial, this vibrant example of intellectual history should be in both academic and public libraries.-Jim Doyle, Sara Hightower Regional Lib., Rome, GA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Put down your freedom fries, citoyens, and pause in awe as right-wing historian Himmelfarb attempts to rescue the Enlightenment from the awful French. Mais oui, the French, "who have dominated and usurped" the Enlightenment, imagining-the nerve-that the likes of Diderot and Rousseau ever had any influence on the rest of the world. And then there are the insidious postmodernists, who, even though they're sort of French themselves, have announced that inasmuch as slavery, war, and other evils persisted even as the philosophes converted good men and women to their cause, there is no need to pay any attention to "the Enlightenment project." Well, stuff and nonsense, thunders Himmelfarb (One Nation, Two Cultures, 1999, etc.): the Enlightenment is enduring and just fine, and especially so if one restores it "to its progenitor: the British." Wait a second, Angus: not the Scottish, but the British, by which Himmelfarb, through a neat bit of linguistic and geographical legerdemain, really means the English. (Yes, Hume was Scottish. Yes, Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson were Scottish. But, bending time and space, Himmelfarb proposes adding John Locke and Isaac Newton to the mix, as well as the third Earl of Shaftesbury, to say nothing of Edward Gibbon, Joseph Priestly, and Thomas Paine, whereupon the sadly outnumbered Scots recede north of the Humber.) And the contribution of these Enlightened English to the enterprise? Why, the insistence not on "reason," a touchy subject, "but the ‘social virtues' or ‘social affections,' " as well as the view that religion was an ally and not-as the awful French had it-an enemy. Combine social virtues and religion and you have "benevolence," "a more modest virtuethan Reason, but perhaps a more humane one." Another term for benevolence? Why, compassionate conservatism, "compassion" being a word that the English had "long before the French" and, being voluntary, that fit in well in the finest moment of the Enlightenment-namely, the creation of America. All in all, a piffling and pet-peevish book, but sure to provoke merriment in cafes up and down the Champs Elysees. Agency: Writers' Representatives
“Support[ed] with great passion and wide-ranging scholarship. . . . Himmelfarb has written a keenly argued and thought-provoking intellectual history of the 18th century.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“Exciting intellectual pugilism É 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