From time to time, I have commented that the Middle East that we are in the process of transforming never had the experience of either a Reformation or Enlightenment and therefore did not have the same cultural reference points as the West for a successful transition to the modern world. As we contemplate a possible “enlightenment” of the Islamic Middle East, hopefully in parallel with a belated reformation of Islam itself, we might reflect on the question of which enlightenment model we wish for—the popular and romanticized French model of “liberty, equality, fraternity” or the less exalted, but profoundly more successful British and American models. Now comes Gertrude Himmelfarb and her book, The Roads to Modernity, with very useful perspective on the differences among the three Enlightenments—French, British, and American—and the difference they have made. And, although she doesn’t specifically speak to the question to which I allude here, she clearly answers it without serious doubt.
For Himmelfarb, the key differentiation is the driving force for the three “roads”—for the French, it was the ideology of reason as the enemy of, and to completely supplant, religion; for the British, it was the “social virtues” or “social affections” of the moral philosophers; and for the Americans, it was “the politics of liberty”. Unlike the French model, which attempted to transform human nature itself, the British and American models recognized the innate similarity in human nature across cultures and social status. And, critically for the success of the latter two, reason was an instrument for the attainment of the larger social end, not the end itself, and religion was an ally, not an enemy, in this pursuit. So as we observe and help guide the transformation of the Middle East, it is helpful to remember which models have produced true human freedom and productivity and which one, notwithstanding its popular appeal, has produced human strife. Himmelfarb’s book provides helpful insights.