In this well-argued work Himmelfarb compares the nature and fruits of the British (Scottish-English), French and American Enlightenments. The bulk of the book deals with the British Enlightenment with reference to Adam Smith, Godwin, Hume, Hobbes, Locke, Newton, Wollcraftstone and Lord Shaftesbury plus, unusually, John Wesley and Edmund Burke. She assigns prominent roles to the social movement & philanthropy of Methodism and Evangelical Christianity. Thomas Paine and the Founding Fathers represent the American, whilst Diderot and Voltaire are covered as the main characters in the French Enlightenment. In every case there were exceptions, e.g. Locke and Newton had more in common with the revolutionary French whilst Montesquieu was closer to the evolutionary British.
The British "moral philosophers" differed from the French "philosophes'. What made them moral philosophers was their belief in a moral sense thought to be so deeply entrenched in the human soul as empathy/compassion as to have the same compelling power as innate ideas.The author views Lord Shaftesbury's Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit
as the start of the British Enlightenment. Shaftesbury credited humanity with this innate moral sense. Adam Smith's laissez-faire economics and belief in natural equality expressed in On the Wealth of Nations
mirrors Shaftesbury's concept of social affection. Smith believed that sympathy and benevolence were moral virtues inherent to the human condition.
Although formidable figures, Locke and Hobbes had little lasting influence on the issues that defined the British Enlightenment. According to Locke things could be judged good or evil only by reference to pleasure or pain, which themselves resulted from sensation. Shaftesbury disagreed - virtue did not derive from reason, religion, sensation or self-interest.These were instrumental in promoting or suppressing it but he saw the moral sense as the real source of virtue. This moral sense is the guide to distinguishing right from wrong
. Shaftesbury did not shy away from discussing the baleful passions like envy, malice, cruelty and lust that torment mankind. He even warned of excessive virtue, since an immoderate degree of e.g. altruism could destroy the "effect of love," whilst excessive pity rendered a man incapable of remedial action.
For Shaftesbury, the sense of compassion & kindness were rooted in nature and instinct and preceded instruction and reason which were secondary, serving to determine the best way of promoting the good but not an end in itself. Thus the innate impulse to the good was the basis of the social ethic that informed British philosophical and moral discourse throughout the eighteenth century. Subsequent philosophers that followed Shaftesbury agreed on the moral sense as universal attribute and viewed it as a corollary of reason and interest, but independent of and prior to both.
Burke unfairly gained a Counter-Enlightenment reputation owing to his revulsion in the atrocities of the French Revolution but he was a supporter of American independence who urged the government to respect the rights and freedom of both Americans and Englishmen during the war of independence. Himmelfarb shows that his views never deviated from the notions about moral virtue that characterized the British Enlightenment.
John Wesley did not care only about the next life but was concerned about improving social conditions in this life. He argued that to renounce reason was to renounce religion, that religion & reason go hand in hand, and that irrational religion is harmful. Religion and reason combined were needed to improve society. The Methodists produced a vast corpus of educational material on medicine, literature, grammar, science, natural history and more. Himmelfarb observes that the endeavor succeeded in uplifting the common people. Evangelicals and Methodists distributed food, clothes and money to the poor, visited the sick and those in jail, ameliorated the plight of the unemployed and contributed to the abolition of slavery.
The French Enlightenment deified reason so the French Revolution turned against religion. Most of the leaders of the French Enlightenment were militant atheists
and materialists. The worship of rationality contained a snobbish elitism and contempt for common people that contributed to the excesses of the revolution and later led to the dictatorship of Napoleon. Philosophes like Diderot and Voltaire despised the ordinary people for their faith and ignorance but there were noble exceptions like Montesquieu
The Enlightenment in the American colonies closely resembled the British one. It was inspired by the moral and social philosophy of Smith, Hume and Burke with its humane and realistic social ethic. According to Himmelfarb, America has inherited and retained aspects of the British Enlightenment that the British themselves have discarded and that continental Europe never adopted. The combination of virtue and freedom produced a strange paradox: the USA is the most capitalistic and simultaneously the most moralistic of nations. American liberty is unique in that it's based on a virtue that was put into practice by British Methodists and Evangelicals whose traditions were cherished by their American counterparts.
As in Britain, the American Enlightenment harbored no antagonism towards religion. On the contrary, it was considered the source of morality. Although church and state were separated, church and society were intertwined; she claims the role of religion
contributed to the success and endurance of American institutions. The Founding Fathers recognized the ability of religion to unite society even though two of them -- Franklin and Jefferson --were deists.
In conclusion, Himmelfarb claims that the American Enlightenment is thriving today whilst the British and French versions have petered out. There is some truth in this as in the late 20th century France became the breeding ground of irrational pseudo-philosophies like postmodernism
and deconstruction but these have spread to, and to a large extent taken over, the humanities in American academia
Yet France also preserved the evolutionary strain in the person of moral intellectuals like Jean-François Revel
, Alain Besançon, Andre Glucksmann and Chantal Delsol
. Having pondered Himmelfarb's informative analysis, it might perhaps make sense to divide the Enlightenment into Anglo-Saxon and Continental traditions which represent the evolutionary versus the revolutionary strains. The text is served by copious notes and this informative book concludes with an index.