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The Roads to Modernity: the British, French, and American Enlightenments

In 1945, Austrian economist F. A. Hayek delivered a lecture on what he called “Individualism: True and False.” The gist of his argument was that there had been a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding concerning the relationship between the individual and society, both in terms of social theory and practical politics.

He juxtaposed what he suggested could be considered two traditions of social and political individualism: the British and the French. The British tradition included such thinkers as John Locke, Bernard Mandeville, Edmund Burke, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Adam Ferguson (the last three of whom were among those often referred to as the Scottish moral philosophers). For these British thinkers, social theory began with a focus on the individual because they understood that “society” is not an entity separate from the interactions of the individuals who comprise it. To understand the origin and evolution of society, we must understand the logic and interactive processes of human action.

Furthermore, in this British tradition the conception of man is not that of a rational calculator presumed to possess perfect knowledge and guided only by a narrow material notion of “self-interest.” Instead, man was seen as motivated by passions as much as by cool reason, with imperfect and limited knowledge. The social order and many of its institutional traditions, customs, and rules of interaction have evolved slowly and in unanticipated and unpredictable ways over many human lifetimes. Much of what is called human society and civilization is seen as “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design” (to use the phrase coined by Ferguson and often quoted by Hayek).

Thus the British tradition of individualism had little con?dence in the ability to plan society. And particularly because of man’s imperfections and foibles, these thinkers were reluctant to see power centralized in the hands of government. Far better to decentralize decision-making in the private competitive market so as to limit the potential damage from error and abuse.

In the alternative French tradition represented by thinkers such as Descartes, Hayek argued, there was a tendency toward hyper-rationality, a belief that man through his reason could understand clearly and de?nitely how to remake society. All social institutions and traditions not “provable” through logic and rational re?ection to be “useful” or “good” were to be criticized and torn down. In their place would be constructed a new world according to a politically planned design. In many of his writings over the years, Hayek tried to show the “fatal conceit” in those who presumed to possess the knowledge and ability to reconstruct man and society in their own “enlightened” image.

From a different conceptual vantage point and with other interpretative purposes in mind, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb offers a similar contrast between these two traditions in her recent book, The Roads to Modernity. She highlights those aspects of the French Enlightenment that emphasized the power of man’s reason to comprehend not only the natural world, but the social order as well. Superstition — and all religion in the eyes of many of these French thinkers represented superstition — blinded man from seeing the world as it really is. Pure reason could cut through the jungle of irrational tradition and custom to clear the way for man to remold society to his liking. But such reasoning was not open to all men, most of whom were mired in ignorance and unable to think clearly. An elite of enlightened thinkers could be trusted to design a utopia for mankind. Himmelfarb reminds us that such hubris led to the reign of terror and dictatorship in the wake of the French Revolution.

She points out that while the Enlightenment is often identi?ed with this circle of French thinkers, there were two other eighteenth-century Enlightenment traditions, the British and the American. Himmelfarb argues that rather than being a cult of reason, the British tradition was concerned with understanding society and its foundations in the character and nature of men. Besides his unique reasoning quality, man also possesses a social and moral sense that makes him sensitive to the circumstances of his fellow human beings.

While the degree of religious faith varied among these British thinkers, they all believed that man’s potential for personal and social virtue was an outgrowth of and inseparable from an understanding of his relationship to a higher Being who breathed these qualities into the human character. This fostered a sense of individual responsibility and a spirit of benevolence and charity toward others that generated a vast array of voluntary philanthropic associations to assist in alleviating the hardships of the less fortunate in society. As Himmelfarb points out, this was neither inconsistent with nor antagonistic to a general acceptance of Adam Smith’s conception of a “system of natural liberty,” in which men normally interacted in a network of free-market commerce and exchange.

The unique quality of the American Enlightenment, she says, was its development of institutions for the preservation of political liberty. The constitutional order that the Founding Fathers produced encapsulated their vision of a system that would leave men free to pursue their personal and social virtues without the heavy-handed presence of political domination. She gives special attention to the extent to which the Founding Fathers considered that the spirit and practice of freedom were grounded in religious conviction.

Equally important, Himmelfarb points out the role that self-interest was seen to play in maintaining a free and good society.

She contrasts the ancient world’s notion of heroism and great men with the American ideal of ordinary free men learning and practicing virtuous conduct through the interplay of commerce and industry. The marketplace fosters good and moral conduct that establishes standards in social affairs which help maintain the health of a free society.

In the concluding chapter, Himmelfarb highlights those features that have made the American experience unique and which she thinks still undergird the character and conduct of the American people today. She surely underestimates the extent to which the interventionist-welfare state has undermined the spirit of self-responsibility that existed in America, say, a hundred years ago. She also seems not to see the extent to which the welfare state (some aspects of which she clearly supports) is fundamentally inconsistent with her ideal of free and virtuous people.

Nonetheless, her book offers a useful and often insightful appreciation of the far-more-enlightened British and American Enlightenment traditions, which have been unfairly overshadowed by the French tradition.

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