Sunday, December 26, 2004

Re-defining the Enlightenment

I just completed reading Gertrude Himmelfarb's The Roads to Modernity, which I found enjoyable. (A shorter version of the book can be found, essentially, in this essay written by Gimmelfarb a few years ago). In the book, Himmelfarb identifies three strands of the Enlightenment, the French, British and American. From the French, we received the "ideology of reason," the most identifiable strand of the Enlightenment and that which most people identify the movement. The British championed the "sociology of virtue" while the Americans developed the "politics of liberty." Himmelfarb attempts to do two things with the book.
I am engaged in a doubly revisionst exercise, making the Enlightenment more British and making the British Enlightenment more inclusive.
She casts the French philosophes as the antagonists to her British thinkers. (Rather than restating her arguments, I'd recommend reading the aforementioned short essay). The American Enlightenment, according to Himmelfarb, while unique in many aspects, was more derivative of the British than the French, though the reliance on Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws by the writers of the Federalist Papers was particularly notable. However, America's Enlightenment was also heavily influenced by religion and, as such, was a child of both the Revolution and the Great Awakening. As a result, Himmelfarb suggests that, above all, the combination of religion and politics resulted in a pragmatic American Enlightenment. Ideals were identified, but were sacrificied for the more immediate viability of the political situation.

Himmelfarb's work has been predictably pilloried by the "establishment" and those on the left as nothing more than a neo-conservative revision of the Enlightenment. Himmelfarb's goal, according to this mindset, is to set up historical justification for the modern-day political goals of the "neo-cons." Perhaps they are correct, and if they are, then Himmelfarb has done nothing less than what those of the New Left, neo-Marxists or post-modern schools have long done themselves. She has re-interpreted history in an attempt to justify her current worldview. Whether one approves of her politics or not, her revisionist analysis of the Enlightenment has brought forth new ideas and perspectives. Therefore, though we may castigate the ideology behind the research, the result of politically motivated history is often illuminating and valuable. It generates discussion, debate and further revision. The result is almost always a more complete picture of the past. That is all that a practicing historian should really want.

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