The Poverty of Theory

The Poverty of Theory

Gertrude Himmelfarb is a remarkable woman. Remarkable, first, because in some respects she is a pioneer.


Gertrude Himmelfarb is a remarkable woman. Remarkable, first, because in some respects she is a pioneer. Born in 1922, she has always retained her own name, and has combined raising a family on both sides of the Atlantic with writing and editing (thus far) seventeen books. And while the direction of her intellectual life journey–from the far left to the activist right–is scarcely an unusual one, few women of her generation have adopted this route with anything like as much conviction, success and aplomb. She met her husband, Irving Kristol, at a Trotskyist political meeting in Brooklyn in the 1930s and wrote her master’s thesis on the French revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre. Since then, however, she has gone on to earn praise from Newt Gingrich, lecture in front of Margaret Thatcher and collaborate with Lynne Cheney.

As this suggests, Himmelfarb is not simply a historian. Since the 1980s, especially, she has been a conspicuous and sometimes pugnacious cultural critic and commentator on public affairs. How she views her role is suggested by a remark she once made about Lionel Trilling, a friend and an intellectual model. Trilling, she wrote in On Looking Into the Abyss (1994), “was able to resist the insidious ideological and political fashions of his time without the coarsening of mind that often comes with doing battle, and also without the timidity and equivocation that retreats from battle in an excess of fastidiousness.” This latter quality is emphatically not one of her own failings, at least not in the face of perceived enemies on the left within academia and outside it.

Thus when social history was still fashionable, she attacked its more extreme exponents for having a “valet-like conception” of the past that lent itself to “denigration of greatness and heroism.” When post-structural literary criticism was in vogue, she accused some of its better- known practitioners of convoluted thought and convoluted prose. And she has since taken on postmodernist historians, claiming that they deconstruct the “texts” of the past and the “texts” of previous historians so as to create a tabula rasa upon which to impose their own radical agendas: a strategy tantamount, as she sees it, to “a repudiation of the historical enterprise as it has been understood and practiced until very recently,” which she does not mean as a compliment.

These polemics have been combined with more academic writings of a distinctive and unusual type. Over and over again, Himmelfarb has chosen to focus on Britain’s past, especially on its intellectual history, with a view to commenting as well on America’s present. She adopts this tactic once more in The Roads to Modernity.

It is, according to her publishers, a “revisionist history” aiming–among other things–to wrest prime credit for the Enlightenment from France and its philosophes by demonstrating the massive contribution of eighteenth-century British thinkers. As Himmelfarb herself concedes, she is pushing at an open door. To be sure, Peter Gay’s highly influential masterwork The Enlightenment (1967) reinforced a pre-existing tendency to view this as a single, pre-eminently French phenomenon, but in recent decades much has changed. J.G.A. Pocock has wisely urged the abandonment of the definite article and an exploration instead of Enlightenments. Recognition that many nations were implicated in the movement in very different ways has been accompanied by the argument that–even in the same country–plural manifestations of Enlightenment could coexist. Thus, in Robert Darnton’s vivid reinterpretation, even in France it was never simply a case of Olympian figures like Voltaire or Diderot running the show; Grub Street was involved too: the aspiring, the failures, the hacks. This wider process of revision has helped make possible a radical and highly flattering reassessment of the British experience as a whole. The late Roy Porter made the case triumphantly in his Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World (2000). “To speak of enlightenment in Britain,” he argued, “does not merely make sense; not to do so would be nonsense.”

To an extent, The Roads to Modernity introduces Porter’s arguments to a wider American audience. Like him, Himmelfarb contends that British Enlightenment actors were different from their counterparts across the Channel (though no less important) because they did not need to view themselves as a persecuted, rebellious minority. The political revolutions of the 1640s and 1688 and dynastic change in 1714 had already circumscribed the power and mystique of the British monarchy. The Toleration Act of 1689 insured freedom of worship and education to most British and Irish Protestants (Catholics had a much harder time of it). After the lapsing of the Licensing Act in 1695, the British press was arguably the freest and most diverse in the world, while London was the West’s largest, richest and most vibrant capital. Accordingly, most British writers and intellectuals–at least before 1775–did not feel an overwhelming compulsion to challenge church and state along the lines of Écrasez l’infâme. They could relax into profitable and innovative exploration of other ideas and causes.

For Himmelfarb, one of their prime concerns was to insist upon the social importance of public spirit, morality and compassion. The French might be obsessed in their Old European fashion with reason, but the British focused upon virtue. Thus the Earl of Shaftesbury in his Inquiry concerning virtue, or merit (1699), insisted upon the importance of man’s “natural affection for his own kind.” While in his Theory of Modern Sentiments (1759), which was once as well-known as The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith dwelt on the importance of sympathy for an unfortunate individual as a spur to benevolence: “We enter, as it were, into his body and become in some measure the same person with him.” Edmund Burke, too, she insists–quite correctly–was an Enlightenment figure caught up in the debate about the nature and advancement of public virtue. He may have denounced the radicals of the French Revolution, but he was steadfast in opposing British excesses in India, not because he was anti-imperialist (he was not) but rather because he believed in the possibility of a benevolent imperialism.

Himmelfarb is at her most original, however, in her discussion of the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. High Tory, an opponent of the American Revolution, a charismatic preacher convinced that the Devil took corporeal form, he seems at first glance the very antithesis of what the Enlightenment was about. But like many scholars now, Himmelfarb insists that piety and this new intellectual sensibility proved compatible, and she draws attention to some of the other facets of this extraordinary man. He was well-read, poring over history and philosophy books while on horseback. He was a fierce opponent of the slave trade, and he desperately wanted to give the poor at home a better sense of their own worth. Wesley’s commitment to teaching poor children to “read, write, and cast accounts” was typical, she believes, of the British Enlightenment’s interest in widening access to education, one of the many things that distinguished it from its French counterpart. For while the philosophes espoused reform in the abstract, they had, she argues, “little thought left, and even less sympathy, for the common people.”

As this latter, rather sweeping judgment suggests, The Roads to Modernity is a political tract as well as a history book, and it is also an argument about America. Himmelfarb concedes that France’s Enlightenment was not responsible for all the violence and viciousness of its Revolution, but insists that “there were unmistakable echoes of the philosophes…at every stage.” America’s Revolution, however, was utterly different from and infinitely better than this ugly sister conflict and much indebted to the British version of Enlightenment. Moreover, this influence has persisted and been of momentous importance: “If America is now exceptional, it is because it is 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.”

All this is an interesting amalgam of very new and very old polemics. By insisting that America still bears the benevolent impress of the Enlightenment, Himmelfarb is clearly directing her fire at one level against those postmodernists who have sought to disparage or dismiss the movement. At another level, she is continuing a debate over the respective merits of the two great eighteenth-century Western revolutions that has been ongoing since 1789. Thus for John Quincy Adams, it was vital to rescue America’s revolution “from the disgraceful imputation of having proceeded from the same principles as the French.” By contrast, Jefferson famously took a more relaxed view of violent revolution, observing even before 1789 that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” As is also true of Himmelfarb’s book now, such disputes in the past owed as much to political partisanship as to concern with the nuances of history. For what is arguably striking about Britain, France and America in the eighteenth century–and remains true today–is less their undeniable differences than the degree to which they were nonetheless closely interconnected.

So while it is true that American revolutionaries derived many of their ideas from Britain’s Enlightenment, it is no less true that without French support the former might never have won. But the connections between these sister republics go much deeper. Both the American and French revolutions were concerned with popular sovereignty, nationalism, the rights of man(less so women) and republicanism. Moreover, both epic struggles possessed an imperial dimension. Its military violence and empire-building after 1789 are often used by critics to downgrade France’s revolution, but 1776 generated its own brand of violence and imperialism that is still too often forgotten or glossed over. Himmelfarb’s discussion here of how newly independent America dealt with slavery and the Native American population–its “problems,” as she calls them–is decidedly queasy. “The native occupations of hunting and subsistence farming were incompatible with a more sophisticated agricultural economy,” she remarks. Well, that’s all right then.

Of course, the American Revolution was a great event of global significance, but it had its shadow side. Here, though, Himmelfarb is too ready to focus only on what is bright in the American record and indeed in the British record, while doing less than justice to France’s achievements. Thus she has wise things to say about British Enlightenment benevolence and sensibility, but scarcely mentions Britain’s slave trade. Nor does she mention that it was a French Enlightenment figure, Abbé Guillaume Raynal, who wrote perhaps the most wide-ranging critique of the West’s overseas empires and slave-trading systems. By the same token, she makes much of what she views as the philosophes‘ excessive cult of reason. But a main argument of Voltaire’s Candide, a classic of the French Enlightenment, is that pure reason divorced from sensitivity and experience leads all too easily to error, absurdity and indifference to human suffering.

For all its intelligence and historical scholarship, this book reflects a current conservative worldview that is at once depressing and deeply unfortunate. Here, in these pages, is plucky little Britain doing its bit for the Enlightenment but naturally passing the torch to an even better America, while France invariably gets it wrong. But this won’t do, either as a description of the past or a strategy for the present. America, Britain and France are all remarkable countries. Over the past few centuries, all three of them (and many other countries) have generated important arguments for liberty and human betterment, and done wonderful things. All three have also been conspicuously warlike, imperial and at different times guilty of genocide. For Americans, British and French to snipe at one another’s undoubted faults and failings is therefore a singularly pointless and–given our current global challenges–very dangerous indulgence. Much better that we work together in defense of enlightenment.

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