On Sunday, David Brooks
discussed theories of the French and Scottish Enlightenments
and their relevance to contemporary American politics. In his definitions, he lumped
Edmund Burke with Scottish Enlightenment thinkers Adam Smith and
David Hume, calling the lot the "British Enlightenment," and included Descartes in the French Enlightenment. In his telling, the British Enlightenment differed from the French Enlightenment by emphasizing the "limits" of reason.
are born with natural desires to be admired and to be worthy of
admiration. They are born with moral emotions, a sense of fair play and
benevolence. They are also born with darker passions, like self-love
and tribalism, which mar rationalist enterprises. We are emotional
creatures first and foremost, and politics should not forget that.
twin Enlightenments led to two models of political change: Thomas Paine's, which favored radical transformations in which
"revolutionaries deduced certain universal truths...and then designed a new society to fit them," and Burke's, which
shrank from purely reason-based ruptures with the past. The central question in
America, argues Brooks, is "whether we are children of the French or
the British Enlightenment." He decides that though "the children of the
British Enlightenment are in retreat," ultimately "the Scots were right" about human nature. Political changes should occur in a style "that
emphasizes modesty, gradualism, and balance."
- 'Skepticism about Big Radical Ideas' Harvard economist Greg Mankiw
thinks Brooks "offers a good explanation" of this. He says it "made
[him] feel better about [his] watered-down variety" of libertarianism.
- An Important Topic Right Now Commentary's Peter Wehner
posits that these matters are "triply important today, since the
debates we are currently engaged in are about political first
- It Has Its Moments National Review's Jonathan Adler
thinks Brooks "overlooks some key aspects of the Scottish
Enlightenment," namely its skepticism of big government and enthusiasm
for "the spontaneous order that arises from organic social
institutions, including those in the marketplace." He suggests the
"institutions" Brooks might defend "bear no resemblance to the organic
institutions Burke sought to protect."
- Let's Get Our Facts Right "There weren't no 'British Enlightenment,'" writes UCLA professor Mark Keliman
at The Reality-Based Community. "There was a Scottish Enlightenment,
led by Hume and Adam Smith." Also, he adds, "Descartes misses being an
Enlightenment thinker by a century and change. The French Enlightenment
thinkers admired Descartes, but his rationalism had nothing to do with
politics." Nor was Burke "an Englightenment thinker at all, except
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