Friday, October 08, 2004

Review Book Gertrude Himmelfarb: The Roads to Modernity

A new book from Gertrude Himmelfarb is called "Roads to Modernity". It provides an overview of the British, French and American Enlightenments with an implicit focus on moral and ethical aspects.

There are periods in time when the situation in the world, or at least in some countries appear to be right for fundamental changes in thinking to occur. One such period is called the Period of Enlightenment. It began in France around 1650, the British following from around 1700 and the period ended with the revolutions in America and France at the end of the century (c. 1800).

With many extremely influential thinkers such as:

  • In France: de Montaigne, Pascale, Descartes, Voltaire, Rousseau, Turgot, de la Mettrie
  • In Scotland/Britain: Shaftesbury, Locke, Hutcheson, Hume, Adam Smith, Wesley
  • In the US: Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton, Adams, Franklin, Paine, and Burke

it can be said that the enlightenment was the period of time that gave us much of the philosophical underpinning of our current time.

In 'The Roads to Modernity' Dr. Himmelfarb (Professor emeritus of history - University of New York) discusses the Enlightenment as it happened in England, France and America. The biggest strengths of this book are:

  • Himmelfarb's impressive historical knowledge that enables her to provide a very clear and sometimes humorous overview of the enlightenment period,
  • The many precise bibliographical references and philosophers quotes she gives for further reading,
  • Her accessible, succinct and captivating style (Once I started reading this book from Himmelfarb, it was difficult for me to stop), and
  • (For us as ethical interested people) Himmelfarb's focus on moral and ethical aspects.

Himmelfarb's book is an explicit attempt to prove that while the Enlightenment has been considered as primarily a French happening, the American and particularly the British contributions were probably just as or even more significant.

As always, it is important to keep this starting point or assumption in mind when reading this superb book. If you do that, then you can forgive Himmelfarb for not being able to escape her own cultural biases, being an American herself and having written many books on the (British) Victorian time.

  • For a positive view on the French, this is not the book you are looking for :-) The French in this book are pictured as getting everything wrong. They are dogmatically opposed to religion, contemptuous of the public, opposed to philanthropy, supportive to Enlightened Despotism while their emphasis on reason over all leads directly to the Terror of the French Revolution.
  • Almost by surprise, at the end of the book the Americans get a lot of credits in being at this moment the closest to the 'ideal', which - as far as Himmelfarb is concerned - is the thinking at the time of the Social Virtues of Britain at the end of the 18th century.

Should you want to buy this fascinating book at Amazon or see more reviews, click here.

Finally: Himmelfarb historical excellence has inspired me to finally create a chronological view on my website Value Quotes. Click here for this history of ethics, moral, virtue, value and values in quotes. The page may also provide the more balanced view some people are looking for offering opinions from thinkers from other countries and from other periods as well as those from the Enlightenment.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Needless to say, this will be a short rebuttal to the glowing response posted above. It is fitting that Ms. Gertrude Himmelfarb writes on victorian culture and society; her values and ideas are retrospect. Most intersting about the review is the decided lack of referral to historical fact. Given that Gertrude Himmelfarb is an historical rhetorician is of no suprise; her fiction supersedes fact. It is truly amazing how someone can review and author's work without knowing about the subject at hand. This is a prototypical case where every 'business person', or reviewer of busisness ethics, should require a background in liberal arts- just like the one the Gertrude Himmelfarb possesses. After all, it is essential to have a good grasp of the facts before pretending to know about an issue.

6:09 AM  

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