The Origin of Modernity

The Origin of Modernity

Mini Teaser: Modern Western discord stems from differing Enlightenment experiences.

by Author(s): S. T. Karnick

Christie Davies, The Strange Death of Moral Britain (Somerset, NJ: Transaction, 2004), 264 pp., $39.95.

Arthur Herman, How the Scots Invented the Modern World (New York: Three Rivers, 2002), 480 pp., $14.95.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity (New York: Knopf, 2004), 304 pp., $25.

In the last several decades, modernity--the period initiated by the Enlightenment--has come under increasing criticism. Most prominently, of course, the postmodernists have put together a critique of pure reason, as it were, that uses logic to question the rationality of modern, Enlightenment-based philosophy. In arguing that all reasoning is based on attempts to gain, sustain or increase power, postmodernists openly seek to obliterate the very foundation on which the modern world was built: the supremacy of reason.

The provenance of modernity is a vitally important matter, because a West based on a lie can hardly be seen as worth defending. It is especially important when Western civilization is being challenged from without by forces that, like the postmodernists, see the West as uniquely and inexcusably oppressive. Might the seeds of modernity's problems be located in the original premises of the Enlightenment? If they are, knowledge of the mistakes of that era might help us to remedy our own.

In The Roads to Modernity, Gertrude Himmelfarb journeys back into the past to uncover the Enlightenment roots of the modern world and discern whether a healthy, defensible image of modernity and the West can be found. Although the common view of the Enlightenment assumes that modern Americans, Britons and Continentals have the same cultural and philosophical origins, we come to very different conclusions on many (if not most) matters today. The recent disagreement over the war in Iraq, both within the United States and with "Old Europe", exposed powerful fault lines in the West. Similarly, the European Union's plan to build itself into a bulwark against American power suggests more than just geopolitical maneuvering. It reflects a deep unease with America's desire to sow political liberty and representative democracy on ground that Europe considers to be insufficiently fertile.

Two of the most obvious differences between America and Europe today are in the areas of economic freedom and religious observance, with the United States scoring significantly higher in both--and Britain appearing to be somewhere in the middle, identifying with both America's economic freedom and Europe's secularity. Himmelfarb addresses the possible origins of these differences, starting with the premise that our common Enlightenment background is not as unitary as we think. She posits that there were actually three Enlightenments: a British one representing "the sociology of virtue", a French one based on "the ideology of reason", and an American one pursuing "the politics of liberty."

Himmelfarb makes clear that the sources of our current woes are to be found fully developed in Enlightenment ideas. Consider, for example, the tendency of the modern Left to feel passionate about distant problems but ignore those close to home. As Himmelfarb observes, Rousseau wrote in Emile that "To prevent pity from degenerating into weakness, it must . . . be generalized and extended to the whole of mankind." Rousseau also anticipated today's leftist disdain for parental authority. As Himmelfarb explains his attitude, education "was too important to be left to the 'understanding and prejudices' of mortal fathers, for 'the state maintains, and the family dissolves.' Thus public authority had to take the place of the father and assume the responsibility" of educating the children.

Similarly, Himmelfarb notes that "the purpose of the new regime" that Rousseau called for in his Social Contract "was nothing less than the radical reshaping not only of society but of humanity." That goal, of course, has been a driving force behind much political mayhem to the present day. Before the philosophes, few individuals dreamed of such things, and even fewer considered putting them into action.

Of course, French ideas are by no means the only source of our current problems. Himmelfarb quotes the Earl of Shaftesbury's critique of Locke:

"'Twas Mr. Locke that struck at all fundamentals, threw all order and virtue out of the world. . . . Virtue according to Mr. Locke, has no other measure, law, or rule, than fashion and custom: morality, justice, equity, depend only on law and will. . . . And thus neither right nor wrong, virtue nor vice are any thing in themselves."

Regardless of whether that is a fair characterization of Locke's position, it was a plausible understanding that a good many people took from Locke, and it sounds remarkably like current-day moral and philosophical relativism.

Similarly, Himmelfarb notes that Bernard Mandeville argued, in the notes to his Fable of the Bees, that "what was generally called pity or compassion--the 'fellow-feeling and condolence for the misfortunes and calamities of others'--was an entirely spurious passion, which unfortunately affected the weakest minds the most." The echoes of Nietzsche and Peter Singer in that description are obvious.

Such statements were not the main thrust of British Enlightenment thinking, however, and Himmelfarb explicitly declares her intent to "reclaim the Enlightenment" from "the French who have dominated and usurped it." She proposes to "restore it, in good part, to the British who helped create it."

The author concedes that the term "Enlightenment" was not used at all in English until late in the 19th century and was not commonly used in Britain and America until the 20th century. In addition, she acknowledges the cross-pollination between thinkers in England, Scotland and the Continent, noting, for example, that French luminaries such as Voltaire and Montesquieu lived in England for significant periods and openly professed their admiration for the British, a fondness that was widely reciprocated. Similarly, she notes that numerous British celebrities crossed the Channel in the other direction, and British authors such as Smith, Paine and Priestly were widely feted in the French salons. In addition, "books and ideas circulated even more readily than their authors." She notes, for example, that "[Adam] Smith borrowed the famous pin-factory illustration in the Wealth of Nations from the article 'Epingle' in the fifth volume of the Encyclopédie."

Nonetheless, Himmelfarb argues, the relationship could only go so far, because of the profound difference "in the spirit and substance of their respective Enlightenments." In France, she observes, "the essence of the Enlightenment--literally, its raison d'être--was reason." Reason "defined and permeated the [French] Enlightenment as no other idea did. In a sense, the French Enlightenment was a belated Reformation, a Reformation fought in the cause not of a higher or purer religion but of a still higher and purer authority, reason."

The attitude across the English Channel could not have been more different. Himmelfarb notes that David Hume considered it "a fallacy of philosophy, ancient as well as modern, . . . to regard reason as the main motive or principle of human behavior, for reason alone could never prevail over the will and passions or provide an incentive for virtue." She quotes Adam Smith as noting that it was "altogether absurd and unintelligible to suppose that the first perceptions of right and wrong can be derived from reason." Likewise, Edmund Burke, in A Vindication of Natural Society, wrote, "What would become of the world if the practice of all moral duties, and the foundations of society, rested upon having their reasons made clear and demonstrative to every individual?"

Instead of a pursuit of clear reasons for all human action--and a necessary transformation of the world to make it conform to reason--the British philosophers posited that human beings possess an innate moral sense. Hume, in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, wrote, "It appears that a tendency to public good, and to the promoting of peace, harmony and order in society does, always, by affecting the benevolent principles of our frame, engage us on the side of the social virtues." The opening sentence of Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments is similarly powerful: "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it."

The political implications of the conflicting French and British views of human nature are momentous. Himmelfarb writes, "For the British philosophers, [the] social chasm [between classes] was bridged by the moral sense and common sense that were presumed to be innate in all people." But the philosophes, she notes, "allowing to the common people neither a moral sense nor a common sense that might approximate reason, consigned them, in effect, to a state of nature--a brutalized Hobbesian, not a benign Rousseauean, state of nature--where they could be controlled and pacified only by the sanctions and strictures of religion."

Or of government. With no recourse to any internal moral guide or common sense in which to locate rational behavior, and despising the Church--l'infâme, as Voltaire famously called it--Diderot argued that an individual had no "right to decide about the nature of right and wrong." Instead, individuals had to base their actions on the "general will of the species and of the common desire." This conclusion was based entirely on reason, Diderot claimed, and therefore had the force of ultimate authority.

Essay Types: Book Review