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The Roads to Modernity


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About the Author

Gertrude Himmelfarb taught for twenty-three years at Brooklyn College and the Graduate School of the City University of New York, where she was named Distinguished Professor of History in 1978. Now Professor Emeritus, she lives with her husband, Irving Kristol, in Washington, D.C. Her previous books include: The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values; On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society; Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians; The New History and the Old; Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians; The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age; On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill; Victorian Minds (nominated for a National Book Award); Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution; and Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics.


Himmelfarb, a leading neoconservative historian of ideas (One Nation, Two Cultures, etc.), takes on the ambitious project of reclaiming the Enlightenment from what she sees as delusionary French thinkers and restoring it to the (apparently) virtuous moderation of the English. The French Enlightenment, she claims, was excessively preoccupied with reason and insufficiently concerned with individual liberty; the philosophes idealized Man in the abstract but despised the common man. In contrast, a distinctively humane British Enlightenment was underpinned by ideals of social virtue: compassion, benevolence and sympathy. These thinkers were tolerant and pragmatic, convinced that private self-interest and public welfare were ultimately compatible. Their legacy, Himmelfarb argues, exerts a major influence on contemporary U.S. culture. Himmelfarb's book is both sophisticated and accessible, and makes some valuable revelations: Adam Smith's hostility to the "business class"; Burke's antipathy to British rule in India. One wonders about the value of the term "Enlightenment" when it is so broad as to encompass John Wesley, and the author's exaltation of the English-speaking philosophical tradition appears particularly problematic in her treatment of the American Enlightenment. Was the American Civil War, allegedly fought in defense of liberty, any less terrible than the infamous Terror? Nonetheless, this is a book with important ideological implications that deserves to be read and debated across the political spectrum. (Aug. 27) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

"Support[ed] with great passion and wide-ranging scholarship. . . . Himmelfarb has written a keenly argued and thought-provoking intellectual history of the 18th century." -San Francisco Chronicle "Exciting intellectual pugilism E Himmelfarb mounts a vigorous argument that the British [Enlightenment] was reformist rather than subversive, respectful of the past and present even while looking forward to a more egalitarian future." -The New York Times Book Review"[Himmelfarb's] writing . . . has a verve and sharpness. . . . It is a pleasure to read." -The New York Review of Books"Exceptionally well written and clever."-The Washington Post Book World"Himmelfarb has one of the keenest intellects of our time." -The Houston Chronicle

Himmelfarb (emeritus, Graduate Sch., CUNY) separates the French Enlightenment from the British and American Enlightenments, which she views as the expression of a moral philosophy found primarily in the writings of Adam Smith, David Hume, and Edmund Burke. Himmelfarb argues that a moral sentiment throughout the writings of these British philosophers led to an Age of Benevolence, in which a practical altruism prevailed in the Anglo-Saxon realm-a sentiment not commonly associated with these icons of the conservative pantheon. Conversely, she views the French Enlightenment as a more abstract and dogmatic intellectual phenomenon; the French philosophes' insistence on the compassionless primacy of Reason over the lesser emotions ultimately led to the bloody excesses of the Reign of Terror. In conclusion, she asserts that in America the moral sentiments expressed by Smith, Hume, and Burke are now embodied in George W. Bush's fading call for compassionate conservatism. Grounded in the texts, from which she quotes copiously, and sure to be controversial, this vibrant example of intellectual history should be in both academic and public libraries.-Jim Doyle, Sara Hightower Regional Lib., Rome, GA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

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