Philosophers vs. Philosophes. (the Periodical Observer - Religion & Philosophy)

The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Philosophers vs. Philosophes. (the Periodical Observer - Religion & Philosophy)


"The Idea of Compassion: The British vs. the French Enlightenment" by Gertrude Himmelfarb, in The Public Interest (Fall 2001), 1112 16th St., N.W., Ste. 530, Washington, D.C. 20036.

We're too quick to associate the 18th-century Enlightenment with the French philosophes. There was a British Enlightenment as well, and for Himmelfarb, professor emeritus of history at the Graduate School of the City University of New York and the author, most recently, of One Nation, Two Cultures (1999), it was the more admirable of the two.

The third Earl of Shaftesbury was the father of the British Enlightenment. In 1711, he introduced the concepts that would be key to British philosophical and moral discourse for the rest of the century, including "social virtues," "natural affections," "moral sense," "moral sentiments," "benevolence," "sympathy," and "compassion." That last concept played a far larger part than either self-interest or reason in the British Enlightenment. Indeed, it was the unique achievement of Enlightenment British-style to transform the religious virtue of compassion into a secular virtue. Unlike the French philosophes, British moral philosophers such as Adam Smith thought reason secondary to social virtues of the sort Shaftesbury proposed, and they invoked not reason but an innate moral sense as the basis for those virtues. Smith went so far as to make the idea of compassion the central principle of his Theory of Moral Sentiments: "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature wh ich interest him in the fortune of others and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it."

Himmelfarb argues that the religious revival begun in England in 1738 by John and Charles Wesley-Methodism--was also part of the Enlightenment. The Methodists socialized religion and inculcated a gospel of good works, as reflected, for example, in their efforts to educate the poor. Already tending to the same worthy ends, both moral philosophy and religion were reinforced by the new political economy of natural liberty. For Adam Smith, "self-interest was a moral principle conducive to the general interest," and the general interest "was simply the totality of interests of all the members of society, including the working classes. …

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