Monday, August 30, 2004

Where the French Went Wrong

A review of Gertrude Himmelfarb's The Roads to Modernity says it well:
...Now comes distinguished historian Gertrude Himmelfarb (married to Irving Kristol, widely regarded as the godfather of the neoconservative movement) to add some intellectual heft to the right's Francophobia.

Himmelfarb's basic contention, one she supports with great passion and wide-ranging scholarship, is that the great 18th century French Enlightenment has been vastly overrated and that the British and American Enlightenments have been comparatively underrated. Her goal in writing this book is to "reclaim the Enlightenment...from the French who have dominated and usurped it" and restore it to the British and Americans.

So who stole the Enlightenment and gave credit for it to the French? Himmelfarb never says so directly, but one can venture a guess: liberals in academia. Her critique of the French Enlightenment is twofold: First, the French philosophes, from Rousseau to Voltaire to Diderot and the rest, were anti-religious, and second, they were elitists who scorned the common people. The French so worshiped reason that they denied the value of faith, thus cutting themselves off from the multitudes.

The great Voltaire, Himmelfarb points out, opposed education for the children of farmers on the grounds that they were mired in religious superstition and thus largely unredeemable. This kind of elitist thinking, Himmelfarb tells us repeatedly, pervaded the French Enlightenment. So did totalitarian impulses, impulses embodied in the French Revolution and "the Terror." Himmelfarb spends much space describing Rousseau's concept of the "general will" and how it influenced Robespierre and hence "the Terror."...
Exactly. Rousseau, the godfather of communism, believed that individuals had surrendered their will to the state by entering into an imaginary social contract (somewhat like John Rawls's imaginary "veil of ignorance"). And it was all downhill from there. Now we have Rousseau's descendants -- modern-day Democrats -- who want to regulate our lives for our own good. That includes, of course, denying a good education to poor children in the name of "public" education.