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

Gertrude Himmelfarb. The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments (New York: Knopf, 2004).


Burke’s views on economics suggest that there may be something like an “Edmund Burke Problem”- a “two Burkes” phenomenon comparable to the “Adam Smith Problem.” Just as the altruistic principles of the Theory of Moral Sentiments have been thought inconsistent with the individualistic ones of the The Wealth of Nations, so the laissez-fairism of the Scarcity pamphlet may be thought inconsistent with the traditionalism-and even, on occasion, the statism of the Reflections. In both cases, however, the inconsistency was superficial. There were not two Burkes any more than there were two Smiths. The pamphlet on scarcity dealt with a specific economic issue in a specific context; the book on the French Revolution with political and social issues in quite a different context and of a quite different nature.

It was this powerful moral imagination, rather than any political ideology, that was Burke’s distinctive contribution not only to the analysis of the French Revolution but to the British Enlightenment itself. This is why “liberal” and “conservative” do not adequately describe his response to such events as the Wilkes affair and the Hastings impeachment, the American Revolution and the French R evolution. The moral philosophers posited a moral sentiment in man as the basis of the social virtues. Burke took this philosophy a step further, by making the “sentiments, manners, and moral opinions” of men the basis of society itself, and, ultimately, of the polity as well.

Google Books