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Sorting out the Enlightenments

By: Robert Curry
December 2, 2013

A review of The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments, by Gertrude Himmelfarb and The Portable Enlightenment Reader, edited by Isaac Kramnick 

Fontenelle [was] the most representative of all the figures of the Enlightenment." 
—Isaiah Berlin

If America was the embodiment and natural home of the Enlightenment...then the American who best personified the Enlightenment ideal was Benjamin Franklin."
—Isaac Kramnick 


The Portable Enlightenment Reader, a collection of writings by Enlightenment thinkers edited by Isaac Kramnick, features on its cover Benjamin West's painting Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky. If Isaiah Berlin had selected the cover illustration, perhaps he would have chosen a painting of Fontonelle instead.

These two scholars present two very different visions of the Enlightenment. For Berlin, the Enlightenment's center of gravity was in France and its ideal was skillful, abstract rationality. The 18th-century French author Bernard Le Bovier deFontonelle displays very clearly the French Enlightenment's exaltation of "unassisted reason." In his book The Roots of Romanticism (1999), Berlin explains that the academician led a "very careful and rational life." Fontonelle, he also tells us, wrote that "A work of politics, of morality, of criticism, perhaps even of literature, will be finer, all things considered, if made by the hands of a geometer," that is to say, a person skilled in abstract, mathematical reasoning.

Benjamin Franklin, by contrast, personifies a very different vision of the Enlightenment. Capturing the incredible range of his gifts and his contributions is a challenge—and "abstract rationality" doesn't even come close.


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The story of Franklin's lightning experiment is a great place to begin. Franklin did more than just explain lightning, more even than lay the foundation for our modern understanding of electricity. He went on to make an urgently-needed practical application of his newfound scientific understanding by developing the world-changing technology of the lightning rod. Then he published the technological know-how, sharing it freely with the world. He demonstrated that we could understand nature and that our understanding of nature could change the world for the better for everyone. If a church happened to be struck by lightning and burned, it meant that the church fathers had neglected to install a lightning rod, not that that Sunday's sermon had found disfavor with God. Here Franklin the scientist and technological innovator meets up with Franklin the philanthropist who instigated, organized, and supported so many projects to improve the life of his fellow Philadelphians.

Of course, Franklin the statesman played an important role in shaping both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, two of the most world-changing achievements of the American Enlightenment, and of the Enlightenment overall. Characteristically, in the course of his many trips back and forth across the Atlantic in the political service of the colonies and the new nation, he also seized the opportunity to discover and map (quite accurately, as modern satellites confirm) the Gulf Stream, forever improving trans-Atlantic travel by ship. Franklin, the man who has been called "the First American," genuinely seemed to welcome every opportunity in his life-long adventure of making a better world.

There is a huge difference between the French Enlightenment, as represented by Fontonelle, and the American Enlightenment, as represented by Franklin. Consequently, when someone makes a general statement characterizing the Enlightenment, it makes good sense for us to ask which Enlightenment he means.


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Gertrude Himmelfarb's The Roads to Modernity is a helpful guide. Her chapters on the French and the American Enlightenments are models of brevity, clarity, and scholarly command of the subject. The French and the American Enlightenments are brought into sharp focus, and their profound differences are made clear.

Himmelfarb brilliantly contrasts the French Enlightenment, which she terms "the Ideology of Reason," and the American Enlightenment, which she calls "the Politics of Liberty." "The idea of liberty," she writes, "did not elicit anything like the passion or commitment [from the French] that reason did. Nor did it inspire the philosophes to engage in a systematic analysis of the political and social institutions that would promote and protect liberty." The philosophes and the founders were working in very different directions on very different projects. These differences help explain the very different outcomes of the American and the French Revolutions.

Because the study of the Enlightenment has traditionally focused on France, her two chapters provide the interested reader with an opportunity to make a great leap forward not just in understanding the Enlightenments, but also in understanding America. Himmelfarb's thoughtful analysis makes a powerful case for the historical significance and the uniqueness of the American Enlightenment.

She also ably demonstrates that the philosophes' concept of reason explains their disdain for the common people. Voltaire, for example, never concealed his contempt for the people, habitually referring to them as "la canaille" (the rabble), and Diderot wrote that "the common people are incredibly stupid." Here, by way of contrast, is Thomas Jefferson: "State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules."

Himmelfarb traces the founders' confidence in the American people's capacity to rule themselves to two philosophical conceptions—the moral sense and the common sense: "The moral sense and common sense...gave to all people, including the common people, a common humanity and a common fund of moral and social obligations. The French idea of reason was not available to the common people and had no such moral or social component." Much ink has been spilled on why the French and the American Revolutions had such different outcomes. Here you have a key difference: the philosophes' primacy of reason versus the founders' primacy of the moral sense and common sense.


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And yet, pairing the moral sense and common sense raises a problem, because together they virtually define the Scottish Enlightenment. But there is no chapter in The Roads to Modernity on the Scottish Enlightenment. Instead, it is treated as part of the British Enlightenment. Although the Scots enthusiastically entered into—and made significant contributions to—the scientific project begun in Great Britain, they were alarmed by the theory of the mind put forth by John Locke, one of the leading figures of the British Enlightenment. According to Locke, the mind is a sheet of blank paper on which experience, in the form of sensations, will be written. Garry Wills comments in Inventing America (1978) that

Man was seen, after Locke, as determined by the impact of pleasure and pain upon his senses. [Thomas] Reid saw this as a challenge to the certainty of knowledge. [Francis] Hutcheson saw it as a threat to the very possibility of virtue.

Hutcheson's challenge to Locke's account put moral philosophy and the moral sense at the center of Enlightenment thinking. Hutcheson's version set the terms of the debate, and he relied on the analogy of our external senses, just as Jefferson, himself relying on Hutcheson, did:

Man was destined for society.... He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his nature as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality.

Hutcheson and the Scottish thinkers rejected Locke's sensationalist account of the human mind because, they argued, the only basis it could provide for morality was convention. Today, we call this moral relativism.

According to Thomas Reid, common sense, like the moral sense, is also part of the endowment of human nature. Because we possess common sense, human beings can master speech, geometry, ship-building, and a host of skills that require integrating ideas and sense perceptions. Animals fulfill Locke's criteria insofar as they experience the impact of sensations of pain and pleasure, but they do not acquire thereby the ability to discover, learn, and teach the Pythagorean Theorem, just as they do not thereby become moral agents.

Reid's use of the term "common sense" is related to, but distinct from, our use of the term in ordinary speech, and he was aware of the risk of confusion that might result from putting a term from common speech to work as a technical term in philosophy. For our purposes the important point is that the American Founders were convinced by Hutcheson, Reid, and their Scottish colleagues. The founders, wrote historian Gordon Wood in his book The American Revolution (2002), "identified with Scottish moral or commonsense thinking" thereby avoiding "the worst and most frightening implications of Lockean sensationalism." The founders used the Scots' account of the moral sense and common sense in, as Himmelfarb puts it, their "systematic analysis of the political and social institutions that would promote and protect liberty." The Scots had done the brilliant theoretical work that opened the way for the founding's success.


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The design of Himmelfarb's The Roads to Modernity tells a different story. The chapter on the British Enlightenment is over three times as long as either the chapter on the French or the one on the Americans. In it, there are lengthy sections on Edmund Burke (whom Himmelfarb categorizes as an Enlightenment thinker, though she admits he is generally assigned to the counter-Enlightenment) and on Methodism, which taken together are much longer than either the chapter on the French or the chapter on the American Enlightenments.

In light of the number of pages dedicated to Burke and to Methodism, Himmelfarb's discussion of John Locke is remarkably meager. She chooses to downplay his significance. In what is almost an aside, she writes: "John Locke and Isaac Newton are often designated as the fathers of the British Enlightenment. I myself would give that distinction to the third Earl of Shaftesbury." This claim is more than audacious. Locke and Newton are not just "often designated" as the men who fathered the Enlightenment. On this point the French, the Scots, and the Americans of the Enlightenment agree.

As a result of the diminished role of Locke and Newton, no attempt is made to represent for us how the latter's scientific discoveries, or the former's philosophical writings and the possibilities suggested by the Glorious Revolution's limits on governmental power, combined to open up the new vision for Western civilization that we call the Enlightenment. For, of course, if Newton and Locke do not have a central role, there is no need for Prof. Himmelfarb to make that attempt.

But why choose Shaftesbury instead for the central role? The answer to that question is made clear simply by continuing the sentence just quoted above: "I myself would give that distinction to the third Earl of Shaftesbury, who was also the father of the Scottish Enlightenment although he was neither Scottish nor a professor." If Shaftesbury is the father of both the British Enlightenment and the Scottish Enlightenment, then a single chapter combining those two Enlightenments under the single label of the British Enlightenment would make sense. The need for a separate chapter on the Scottish Enlightenment is eliminated—but at what a cost! The problems are not limited to denying Newton and Locke their iconic status. Starting Enlightenment philosophy with Shaftesbury instead of Locke overlooks that Shaftesbury's purpose was to refute Locke. Like the Scots, Shaftesbury was alarmed and aroused to action by Locke, though he was careful not to name his adversary in print, perhaps for personal reasons. (Locke had supervised Shaftesbury's education as a boy.) In a famous letter, Shaftesbury made his view quite clear:

'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 anything in themselves.

It seems appropriate to place Shaftesbury where the Scots always placed themselves, that is, as one of the many thinkers responding to Locke.


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Locke and Newton's British enlightenment gave rise to the Scottish Enlightenment, which in turn profoundly shaped the American Enlightenment. Locke published his first Letters on Toleration in 1687. During the hundred years until 1787, the year of the Constitutional Convention, the Enlightenments in the English-speaking world made great strides forward—and in the single year of 1776 gave us both Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations in Scotland and the Declaration of Independence in America.

Despite these problems, Himmelfarb's chapter on the British Enlightenment and her whole account of The Roads to Modernity have much to offer the reader. If you read the book carefully, you will find within it much to admire.

Perhaps you should consider reading the chapters on the French and the Americans first. With those two chapters under your belt, and armed with an awareness that the moral sense and common sense are the work of the Scots, while reading you may begin to perceive within this somewhat unwieldy chapter many of the elements of two brilliant chapters, one on the British Enlightenment and one on the Scottish Enlightenment.