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

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9781845951412: The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments

The Roads to Modernity Contrasting the Enlightenments in the three nations, this book demonstrates the primacy and wisdom of the British, exemplified in such thinkers as Adam Smith, David Hume, and Edmund Burke, as well as the enduring contributions of the American Founders. Full description

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Extrait :

1. "Social Affections" and Religious Dispositions

The British did not have "philosophes." They had "moral philosophers," a very different breed. Those historians who belittle or dismiss the idea of a British Enlightenment do so because they do not recognize the features of the philosophes in the moral philosophers--and with good reason: the physiognomy is quite different.

It is ironic that the French should have paid tribute to John Locke and Isaac Newton as the guiding spirits of their own Enlightenment, while the British, although respectful of both, had a more ambiguous relationship with them. Newton was eulogized by David Hume as "the greatest and rarest genius that ever rose for the ornament and instruction of the species,"[1] and by Alexander Pope in the much quoted epitaph: "Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night;/God said, Let Newton be! and all was light." But Pope's An Essay on Man sent quite a different message: "The proper study of mankind is man" implied that materialism and science could penetrate into the mysteries of nature but not of man. In an earlier essay, the allusion to Newton was more obvious; it was human nature, not astronomy, Pope said, that was "the most useful object of humane reason," and it was "of more consequence to adjust the true nature and measures of right and wrong, than to settle the distance of the planets and compute the times of their circumvolutions."[2] While Newton received the adulation of his countrymen (he was master of the Royal Mint and president of the Royal Society, was knighted, and given a state funeral), and his scientific methodology was much praised, he had little substantive influence on the moral philosophers or on the issues that dominated the British Enlightenment. (His Opticks, on the other hand, was an inspiration for poets, who were entranced by the images and metaphors of light.)[3]

John Locke, too, was a formidable presence in eighteenth-century Britain, a best-selling author and a revered figure. But among the moral philosophers he was admired more for his politics than for his metaphysics. Indeed, the basic tenets of their philosophy implied a repudiation of his. What made them "moral philosophers" rather than "philosophers" tout court was their belief in a "moral sense" that was presumed to be if not innate in the human mind (as Francis Hutcheson thought), then so entrenched in the human sensibility, in the form of sympathy or "fellow-feeling" (as Adam Smith and David Hume had it), as to have the same compelling force as innate ideas.

Locke himself could not have been more explicit in rejecting innate ideas, whether moral or metaphysical. The mind, as he understood it, so far from being inhabited by innate ideas, was a tabula rasa, to be filled by sensations and experiences, and by the reflections rising from those sensations and experiences. The title of the first chapter of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding was "No Innate Speculative Principles" (that is, epistemological principles); the second, "No Innate Practical Principles" (moral principles). Even the golden rule, that "most unshaken rule of morality and foundation of all social virtue," would have been meaningless to one who had never heard that maxim and who might well ask for a reason justifying it, which "plainly shows it not to be innate." If virtue was generally approved, it was not because it was innate, but because it was "profitable," conducive to one's self-interest and happiness, the promotion of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Thus, things could be judged good or evil only by reference to pleasure or pain, which were themselves the product of sensation.[4]

Locke's Essay was published in 1690. Nine years later, the Earl of Shaftesbury wrote an essay that was, in effect, a refutation of Locke. This, too, had its ironies, for this Shaftesbury, the third earl, was brought up in the household of his grandfather, the first earl, who was a devotee of Locke and had employed him to supervise the education of his grandchildren. It was this experience that had inspired Locke's Thoughts Concerning Education--and inspired as well, perhaps, the pupil's rejection of his master's teachings.[5] Shaftesbury's essay, "An Inquiry Concerning Virtue, or Merit," was published (without his permission but to great acclaim) in 1699 and reprinted in 1711 in somewhat revised form in his Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times. That three-volume work, reissued posthumously three years later and in ten more editions in the course of the century, rivalled Locke's Second Treatise (a political, not metaphysical tract) as the most frequently reprinted work of the time. The hundred-page essay on virtue was the centerpiece of those volumes.

Virtue, according to Shaftesbury, derived not from religion, self-interest, sensation, or reason. All of these were instrumental in supporting or hindering virtue, but were not the immediate or primary source of it. What was "antecedent" to these was the "moral sense," the "sense of right and wrong."[6] [Shaftesbury's "moral sense" was very different from John Rawls's recent use of that term. For Shaftesbury it was an innate sense of right and wrong; for Rawls it is an intuitive conviction of the rightness of freedom and equality.] It was this sense that was "predominant...inwardly joined to us, and implanted in our nature," "a first principle in our constitution and make," as natural as "natural affection itself."[7] This "natural affection," moreover, was "social affection," an affection for "society and the public," which, so far from being at odds with one's private interest, or "self-affection," actually contributed to one's personal pleasure and happiness.[8] A person whose actions were motivated entirely or even largely by self-affection--by self-love, self-interest, or self-good--was not virtuous. Indeed, he was "in himself still vicious," for the virtuous man was motivated by nothing other than "a natural affection for his kind."[9]

This was not a Rousseauean idealization of human nature, of man before being corrupted by society. Nor was it a Pollyannaish expectation that all or even most men would behave virtuously all or most of the time. The moral sense attested to the sense of right and wrong in all men, the knowledge of right and wrong even when they chose to do wrong. Indeed, a good part of Shaftesbury's essay dealt with the variety of "hateful passions"--envy, malice, cruelty, lust--that beset mankind. Even virtue, Shaftesbury warned, could become vice when it was pursued to excess; an immoderate degree of "tenderness," for example, destroyed the "effect of love," and excessive "pity" rendered a man "incapable of giving succour."[10] The conclusion of the essay was a stirring testament of an ethic that, by its very nature--the "common nature" of man--was a social ethic: "Thus the wisdom of what rules, and is first and chief in nature, has made it to be according to the private interest and good of everyone to work towards the general good; which if a creature ceases to promote, he is actually so far wanting to himself and ceases to promote his own happiness and welfare.... And, thus, Virtue is the good, and Vice the ill of everyone."[11]

The contrast, not only with Thomas Hobbes but with Locke as well, could not be more obvious.[12] Neither was explicitly named by Shaftesbury, perhaps out of respect for Locke, who was still alive when the essay was written (although he had died by the time it was reissued). But no knowledgeable reader could have mistaken Shaftesbury's intention. In 1709 he wrote to one of his young proteges that Locke, even more than Hobbes, was the villain of the piece, for Hobbes's character and base slavish principles of government "took off the poison of his philosophy," whereas Locke's character and commendable principles of government made his philosophy even more reprehensible.

'Twas Mr. Locke that struck at all fundamentals, threw all order and virtue out of the world.... Virtue, according to Mr. Locke, has no other measure, law, or rule, than fashion and custom: morality, justice, equity, depend only on law and will.... And thus neither right nor wrong, virtue nor vice are any thing in themselves; nor is there any trace or idea of them naturally imprinted on human minds. Experience and our catechism teach us all![13]

As Shaftesbury did not mention Locke in the Inquiry, so Bernard Mandeville did not mention Shaftesbury in The Fable of the Bees--at least not in the first edition, published in 1714. But appearing just then, a year after Shaftesbury's death and at the same time as the second edition of the Characteristics, Mandeville's readers might well take it as a rebuttal to Shaftesbury's work. The subtitle, Private Vices, Public Benefits, reads like a manifesto contra Shaftesbury.[14]

The original version of the Fable, published in 1705 as a sixpenny pamphlet (and pirated, Mandeville complained, in a halfpenny sheet), consisted of some thirty verses depicting a society, a hive of bees, where everyone was a knave, and where knavery served a valuable purpose. Every vice had its concomitant virtue: avarice contributed to prodigality, luxury to industry, folly to ingenuity. The result was a "grumbling" but productive hive, where "...every part was full of Vice,/ Yet the whole mass a Paradise." A well-intentioned attempt to rid the hive of vice had the effect of ridding it of its virtues as well, resulting in the destruction of the hive itself, as all the bees, "blest with content and honesty," abandoned industry and...

Revue de presse :

"Supported with great passion and wide-ranging scholarship... Himmelfarb has written a keenly argued and thought-provoking intellectual history of the eighteenth century" ( San Francisco Chronicle)

"Exceptionally well written and clever" ( Washington Post)

"She writes with a real grace and her effortless prose brings the history of ideas to life" ( Sunday Times)

"This stimulating essay makes a convincing case for the unique character and significance of the British Enlightenment" ( Guardian)

"An intelligent history... the prose is elegant and the arguments engaging and she weaves her way gracefully and effortlessly across centuries, disciplines and nations" ( Observer)

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