In her stimulating and, for some, controversial book The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb seeks to reclaim the Enlightenment from French thinkers such as Voltaire and Diderot and restore it to the British, where it began. The French have acknowledged their debt to Newton and Locke, but these thinkers did not significantly influence those of Himmelfarb's British Enlightenment. She focuses instead on moral philosophers such as the third Earl of Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, Edward Gibbon and others. The emphasis in France was on reason, while in England these thinkers were more concerned with the social virtues of compassion, benevolence and sympathy. In America, religion was an ally, not an enemy. Himmelfarb makes a convincing case for redefining the Enlightenment, making it both more British and more inclusive by welcoming figures such as John Wesley and Edmund Burke. In Britain the moral philosophers were reformists, but not subversive, while in France, reason became the ideology to challenge religion, the church and other institutions.
Burke wrote of the commonality of human nature in numerous works. Wesley believed that Christianity was essentially a social religion, and Methodist preachers engaged in a variety of humanitarian endeavors that were practical expressions of the ideas of the moral philosophers. In America, political liberty was the primary concern. As Himmelfarb points out, it was on slavery that the politics of liberty dramatically clashed with the sociology of virtue. The Roads to Modernity is a thoughtful and wide-ranging discussion of an important period in the history of ideas. Roger Bishop is a Nashville bookseller and frequent contributor to BookPage.