Monday, December 27, 2004

250-Word Review: The Roads to Modernity

Gertrude Himmelfarb's latest book, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments, is well worth your time if you're curious, as I was, whether Garry Wills was right when he wrote recently that the Enlightenment in America is dead.

Himmelfarb makes a strong case that America's share of the Englightenment came mostly from England and Scotland, via David Hume, Edmund Burke, and Adam Smith (who was as much of a moral philosopher as an economist) whereas the French philosophes like Voltaire and Diderot, who were (and are) so influential on the Continent, never really caught on here.

The American Englightenment, she argues, led by the likes of Jefferson and Franklin, was crucially interested in the politics of liberty; the English Englishtenment pusured the politics of virtue; and the French worshipped Reason -- at one point converting the cathedral of Notre Dame into a Temple of Reason.

Himmelfarb points out that the American Enlightenment worked in partnership with religion to a degree unimaginable in France, where the Enlightenment was largely motivated by anti-clericalism. I'm personally indebted to this American tradition, having been educated at a Methodist-founded liberal arts college. My wife was similarly educated at a strongly Christian Reformed college. (We are both Catholic now.)

Garry Wills spoke too soon; the traditions of the American Enlightenment are still vigorous, but could certainly be strengthened. Bible-thumping fundamentalists, as well as agnostics/atheists who think that Christians have abandonded their reason, all need to read this book. It would raise the level of our national dialogue considerably.

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