The Origin of Modernity

The Origin of Modernity

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

by Author(s): S. T. Karnick

The British philosophers looked elsewhere for moral authority. Smith, Himmelfarb notes, observed in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, "Religion, even in its rudest form, gave a sanction to the rules of morality, long before the age of artificial reasoning and philosophy." Even British skeptics and deists approved of religion for its social utility. Gibbon, "a thoroughgoing skeptic [though] not an atheist", in Himmelfarb's estimation, dismissed the philosophes, who he said "preached the tenets of atheism with the bigotry of dogmatists, and damned all believers with ridicule and contempt." Himmelfarb writes that in Britain "there was a conspicuous absence of the kind of animus to religion--certainly nothing like the warfare between reason and religion--that played so large a part in the French Enlightenment."

Today, by contrast, Britain is far less religious than it was then. Christie Davies, in The Strange Death of Moral Britain, observes, "Britain in the twenty-first century is a thoroughly secular society in marked contrast to what it had been a hundred years earlier. . . . What is left is not an amoral or an immoral society but one that can make only limited moral demands on its members." Like Himmelfarb, Davies argues that the Enlightenment did not purge religion from Britain. In fact, he claims, "in some areas it led to an intensification of religious life", citing the "increasing levels of church adherence and membership in relation to population rising to a peak in England and Wales in 1904 and in Scotland in 1905."

Davies observes that Britain changed radically during the 20th century, citing a long litany of statistics demonstrating that Britain today is a moral disaster area with previously unrecorded heights of criminality and social disorder. He identifies the philosophy that he calls (rather awkwardly) "causalism" as the instigator of the changes. "Whereas the moralists assume that individuals are autonomous persons making free choices", he writes, "the causalist sees their actions, to a substantial extent, as 'caused' by external pressures." Assigning personal responsibility is thus impossible, and the goal of government becomes an open-ended one of lessening harm and suffering throughout the realm. Like the continental approach to governance, causalism opens the door to endless government regulation of individuals' lives.

But where does this philosophy come from? Davies believes that the rise of large institutions made it possible, because they are better at deciding who is to pay if something goes wrong than at figuring out who is wrong and therefore responsible. Davies writes, "once this had become the predominant way of thinking about laws and regulations in general, it was almost inevitable that it should be extended into the area of the regulation of personal morality." However, he quotes Frances Power Cobbe, who wrote in 1902 that "the present disastrous state of things" in British moral discourse was attributable to "the rise of utilitarian, dependent morality--duty regarded as dependent on expediency, conscience no longer recognized as the voice of God or as revealing an eternal or immutable moral law." Davies praises this statement and calls it "prophetic."

Hence, the onset of causalism preceded the rise of large institutions in Britain (which Davies correctly states was a phenomenon of the 20th century) and was a result of declining adherence to Christian doctrines (which would soon become apparent in falling church attendance). Davies exhaustively traces the decline of religious observance in Britain during the past century and connects it to the nation's changing moral attitudes.

Indeed, Davies notes the refusal of persistently religious Ulster to accede to the death of moralism, which was overcome only when the British government implemented EU edicts in recent years. He also observes that the decline of moral Ireland has been delayed by the strength of the Irish Catholic Church. He cites "the weakness of religious and moral fervor in Britain relative to the United States or Ireland in the latter part of the twentieth century."

Arthur Herman, in How the Scots Invented the Modern World, likewise sees religion as the central social variable in civilizational change. Unfortunately, he posits yet another Enlightenment--a Scottish one. Like the French revolutionists two centuries later, the 16th-century Scottish preacher and writer John Knox and his followers scoured away all manifestations of Catholicism in their nation. Unlike the French firebrands, however, Knox and his followers were intent on replacing Catholicism with a different form of Christianity, not a secular rationalism. They believed that "political power was ordained by God, but that that power was not vested in kings or in nobles or even in the clergy, but in the people", Herman notes. This idea provided an essential foundation stone for modern political democracy and the market economy. Likewise, people were to be judged by their accomplishments instead of birth rank, thanks to the Protestant emphasis on equality before God.

Herman observes that the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, unlike their European counterparts, "saw the doctrines of Christianity as the very heart of what it meant to be modern" and "resolutely believed that a free and open sophisticated culture was compatible with, even predicated on, a solid moral and religious foundation." Noting that Scotland had declined into a backwater by the end of the 19th century, Herman characterizes this as a direct outcome of modernity but does not say why it came to pass. Given the central role that he sees religion having played in the origins of Scotland's flowering, it would have made sense to consider it as a factor in the society's decline.

The seeds of this decline in religious faith, in both Scotland and England, were sown during the Enlightenment. There was, Himmelfarb acknowledges, an "alternative Enlightenment" in Britain, consisting of radical thinkers such as Paine, Godwin and Priestley, all of whom identified with France and America and shared an antipathy toward trinitarian Christianity.

This British undercurrent accentuates the difficulties in characterizing the Enlightenment in geographical terms as Himmelfarb does. In addition to the similarities between many Enlightenment thinkers in Britain and France, there were great differences among philosophers within each of the three nations. Montesquieu and Rousseau, for example, were very different from the rest of the French Enlightenment in their thinking. Himmelfarb notes, "Unlike his confreres, Montesquieu did not appeal to reason as the fundamental principle of politics and society." Even Rousseau criticized him for that.

Similarly, Himmelfarb points out that Adam Smith's influence "was undermined within a decade after his death" by Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population, and that Britain today evidences little respect for Smith's ideas in either theory or practice. "If America is now exceptional", she astutely observes, "it is because it has inherited and preserved aspects of the British Enlightenment that the British themselves have discarded and that other countries (France, most notably) have never adopted." But Himmelfarb does not explain why the British discarded so much of their patrimony. She observes: "The United States is far more religious today--religious in observance and in conviction--than any European country." But, again, why?

Indeed, the least convincing aspect of The Roads to Modernity is Himmelfarb's claim for a separate American Enlightenment. Brilliant as they were, the ideas the American Founders were discussing had been in the air for quite some time. It is thus dubious to presume that America became more enlightened during this period, given all the evidence Himmelfarb adduces to show the intellectual glories of the early colonial period. Finally, there is a distinct lack of major works outside the political realm that would establish a case for a broad intellectual expansion. There are no American books from the period on the order of The Wealth of Nations, The Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful or The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Nor was there an impressive flourishing of the arts, as there was in Britain.

In the end, the differing outcomes in Britain, America and the Continent do seem to derive from the nations' historical circumstances rather than separate Enlightenments. Which route a nation took during the period depended on its previous experience with political, social, economic and religious freedom, however limited. The English, Americans and Scots had some, as did the Dutch, Swiss, Swedes and Germans. Even the Italians had a significant merchant class that could challenge the powers that reigned during the Renaissance.

This, in turn, was itself an outcome of historical circumstances. It had benefited the interests of the English, Dutch, Swiss, Swedish and German ruling classes, at various times during the Renaissance and earlier, to challenge the power of the Catholic Church. As a largely unintended consequence, those nations liberalized politically to some degree. Over the years, they gained experience developing the institutions of civil society, the realm between the individual and the state, consisting of private relationships among individuals. This was especially true in Britain, as Himmelfarb points out: "there were a plenitude of such associations and a very lively civil society in Britain throughout the eighteenth century. . . . [S]ocieties existed for every kind of worthy purpose."

The French, by contrast, had few strong institutions besides the state and the Church. Like Spain, France was able to resist the Reformation, and the French system stayed in place. Burke identified the difference between the French and British traditions when he noted that whereas the English enjoyed rights of liberty as "a patrimony derived from their forefathers", the French did not have that fortunate "pedigree of liberties." Thus, as Himmelfarb notes, instead of repairing "the dilapidated walls and foundations of an old edifice, . . . the revolutionaries chose to tear them all down and build anew."

Essay Types: Book Review