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Bookmarks Issue: 
14-Jan-Feb-2005
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The British, French, and American Enlightenments

A-RoadsModernityThe Roads to Modernity takes a hard look at the source of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement favoring rational thought and scientific knowledge over blind faith which reached its peak in the 18th century. Himmelfarb attempts to reclaim the Enlightenment from the French, who typically receive the lion’s share of the credit for the period’s advancements. She argues that there were, in fact, several Enlightenments—and that British Enlightenment thinkers like Adam Smith, David Hume, and Edmund Burke ushered in an "Age of Benevolence" that created a far more tolerant, humane, and realistic social and moral philosophy. Himmelfarb argues that British philosophy, more than the elite French one, continues to influence British and American culture today.
Knopf. 284 pages. $25. ISBN: 1400042364

Washington Times 4 of 5 Stars
"As the author notes early on, ‘To bring the British Enlightenment onto the stage of history, indeed, the center stage, is to redefine the very idea of the Enlightenment.’ This difficult redefinition she has accomplished." Stephen Goode

New York Sun 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In contrasting these three enlightenments, Ms. Himmelfarb uses broad strokes and bright colors, and it is often tempting to argue with her conclusions. … But a brief book like The Roads to Modernity is meant to start debates, not settle them; in that purpose, Ms. Himmelfarb succeeds admirably." Adam Kirsch

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"While there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about a right-wing intellectual admiring Burke and Smith while denigrating the French, Himmelfarb has written a keenly argued and thought-provoking intellectual history of the 18th century." Chuck Leddy

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"[Himmelfarb] plunges directly into the 18th century, quickly and neatly distinguishing between two opposed sets of thinkers—the British (who are the good guys) and the French (who are, well, French). This scheme makes for exciting intellectual pugilism." Scott McLemee

Providence Journal 2.5 of 5 Stars
"... toward the end, Himmelfarb dismisses the Indian problem and slavery in a few pages. … Suddenly, the ideas she’s been discussing seem cut off from the real world, sealed in some academic vault." Sam Coale

Toronto Star 1 of 5 Stars
"The truth is that this is a book that is only superficially about something that took place more than two centuries ago. Its real goal is altogether modern: to find a respectable pedigree for the neocons." Jessica Warner

Washington Post 1 of 5 Stars
"Himmelfarb devotes hardly a word to common Enlightenment ideals like progress, rights, institutional accountability, popular sovereignty, the scientific revolution, and the critique of feudal tradition. She has even less to say about the intolerance of the religious establishment, the barbarism of the aristocracy and the power of superstition." Stephen Eric Bronner

Critical Summary

Reclaiming the Enlightenment would be an ambitious challenge for any historian, but it is perhaps even more daunting for one so closely identified with a particular brand of politics (neoconservatism). No one questions Himmelfarb’s credentials for tackling the job: she is professor emeritus at the City University of New York and the author of nine books. But she takes some hard lumps for attempting to link the Enlightenment to the current American political scene (one reviewer dubbed her "an apologist for the Bush administration"; another accused her of knowingly "reading her own political agenda into the text of the past"). Is it any wonder that the more conservative critics provided raves and liberals gave sharp critique? Detractors felt Himmelfarb ignored historical facts inconvenient to her viewpoint. Ultimately, as its mixed reviews illustrate, The Roads to Modernity succeeds in at least one area: inspiring impassioned debate about a controversial new idea.