Alan Wolfe on Gertrude Himmelfarb
[Wolfe is known as a gentleman of the center-left; Himmelfarb (mother of William Kristol!) as a gentleperson of the right. An excerpt from Wolfe's review of Himmelfarb's The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments:]
European politicians these days frequently find themselves invoking the values of the Enlightenment, especially when simultaneously challenged at home by ever increasing numbers of Muslims immigrants. If they were to read Gertrude Himmelfarb, they would discover that there are different Enlightenments from which to choose--and that serious consequences follow once the choice is made.
An essay in the Encyclopedie, the Bible, so to speak, of the French Enlightenment, proclaimed that "Reason is to the philosopher what grace is to the Christian." A devotion to reason (even more than to the idea of liberty) guided the views of French intellectuals such as Voltaire and Diderot. Indeed, under the proper set of conditions, the pursuit of reason might mean the curtailment of liberty, which helps explain why so many of the thinkers of the French Enlightenment supported enlightened monarchs and expressed nothing but disdain for the rabble. The French Enlightenment, as Himmelfarb portrays it, has more room for principle than for people; without fully endorsing the view that there is a direct line from Rousseau to the French Revolution's Terror, Himmelfarb sees in French versions of the Enlightenment the dangerous idea that abstractions such as the "general will" can and should run roughshod over the desires of ordinary people to lead lives appropriate to their situation.
All of which makes Himmelfarb admire the British. Far more moderate in temperament than their French counterparts, thinkers like Adam Smith believed that "the public realm, governed by the principle of justice, was of secondary importance compared with the private realm, where the sentiment of sympathy and benevolence would prevail." The British Enlightenment was a common-sense sort of affair, Himmelfarb believes. It sought not the radical transformation of individuals so much as methods of unleashing the decent instincts that human beings already possessed. Eighteenth-century Scottish and British thinkers had no need to launch a frontal attack on religion; quite the contrary, they viewed religious motivation as part and parcel of the spirit of benevolence society should embody. Uninterested in waging a war to make human beings perfect, they were true democrats, for they generally admired real people with all their flaws and strengths.
The American colonists rebelled against Great Britain, but, from Himmelfarb's perspective, they wisely chose to condemn the British monarch, not the British Enlightenment. In, for instance, The Federalist Papers, one sees the same kind of cautious pragmatism and taste for experimentalism that Himmelfarb admires in British thought. Unlike the French Enlightenment, ours did not require a renunciation of religion. We made liberty, and not reason per se, central to our outlook on the world. Our quest, as Himmelfarb insightfully points out, was for "a more perfect union," not the one perfect society. No wonder, then, that the Enlightenment is more alive in the United States today than it is in France or even Great Britain; every time we invoke the Constitution or proclaim our commitment to freedom, we bring the best of the eighteenth century to bear on the realities of the twenty-first.
Himmelfarb the conservative enthusiast can be brittle and ideological. Himmelfarb the historian is nearly always thoughtful and engaging. Although a few needless polemics are thrown out in The Roads to Modernity, this is the Himmelfarb I love to read.