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The Last Victorian Sage

eye on the news

The Last Victorian Sage

Gertrude Himmelfarb, 1922–2019 January 2, 2020
Arts and Culture
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Gertrude Himmelfarb, our foremost historian of ideas and one of the nation’s greatest historians of any stamp, died Monday at 97. Though a Washingtonian for the last decades of her long and productive life, the Brooklyn-born Himmelfarb was among the last of a storied band of New York Jewish intellectuals—the “Family,” they called themselves—who joined scholarly erudition to wide-ranging social, political, cultural, and ethical concerns far transcending the merely academic. They wrote for an educated general audience eager for the acuity with which they brought the wisdom and experience of the past to bear on the problems of present-day life. Through much reflection and debate, they’d mostly thought their way through the Trotskyist political correctness that prevailed in their student days to arrive at a liberal Americanism that, in time, metamorphosed into their own brand of conservativism. Now, with wonks and pundits, pedants and ideologues, taking their places, and with the “educated general reader” going extinct, today’s intellectuals seem shallow and dull by contrast.

Acerbic in her impatience with foolishness, Himmelfarb particularly scorned the Marxoid view that people’s beliefs and ideals have no independent reality but are just reflections of the material conditions around them. She rejected social-policy theories that give short shrift to cultural life, ignoring what goes on in people’s minds and hearts as a mere reflection of the real reality—the economic reality that should be the focus of our attention. According to this viewpoint, what people think can’t possibly alter the large forces that shape their lives. What determines individual behavior is the environment, not the content of the mind and spirit of the individual—as in, for example, the belief that crime springs from a lack of opportunity. She wasn’t much more sympathetic to social-policy thinkers who consider individuals the authors of their own actions and fates only to the extent that they choose rationally among various economic incentives—a welfare check versus a minimum-wage job, say. To her, this was just another way of saying that individuals merely respond mechanically to the environment: they don’t shape it.

As she saw it, beliefs shape behavior and transform the environment, rather than only vice-versa. The ideals that a culture transmits to its citizens affect whether they will be victims or masters of circumstance. In the introduction to her 1986 book, Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians, she remarked that the essays in that volume had what she called an almost obsessively unifying theme—the theme of the moral imagination, in the phrase of Lionel Trilling and, before him, Edmund Burke—a phrase that she also used as the title of a 2006 collection of essays. This theme unifies all her extraordinary works, beginning with her first book, on Lord Acton, subtitled “A Study in Conscience and Politics,” and including her magisterial Poverty and Compassion, subtitled “The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians.” Far larger than everyday propriety, the moral imagination refers, as Himmelfarb puts it, to “the morality that dignifies and civilizes human beings, removing us from our natural brutish state.” It is the specifically human faculty that converts a mere featherless biped, as the Victorian sage Thomas Carlyle liked to say, into a creature of intelligence and a man.

Central to Himmelfarb’s thought was the relation between the moral imagination and poverty—the moral imagination of the larger society and of the poor themselves. Nowhere does she explicate this theme more profoundly than in The De-moralization of Society, published in 1995. How was it, she asks, that over the course of the nineteenth century, all of Britain’s key indicators of social pathology markedly improved? The illegitimacy rate, 7 percent in 1845, plunged below 4 percent by century’s end. Between 1857 and 1901, the crime rate fell by half, so that even while the population soared from 19 million to 33 million, the absolute number of serious crimes decreased. The prostitutes and drunks common at midcentury had become so scarce by 1900 that they no longer seemed a pressing social ill.

All this happened amid urbanization and industrialization that some theorists held should have produced social disintegration, not social improvement. But a much stronger force swept all before it: Victorian culture in general, and Victorian morality in particular, with its emphasis on virtue, respectability, work, self-help, sobriety, cleanliness, and family. The great Victorian achievement, as Himmelfarb saw it, was a “moral reformation” that allowed Britain “to attain a degree of civility and humaneness that was the envy of the rest of the world.”

It was a deeply self-conscious reformation, sparked by such value-laden institutions as Sunday schools and the temperance movement, by the “cult of respectability” and allegiance to duty even when belief in God and immortality began to falter, by the factory acts and great sanitation projects by which the propertied classes set out to improve the lives of the poor. It was a profoundly democratic reformation, too, Himmelfarb explains. “In attributing to everyone the same virtues—potentially at least, if not in actuality—[the Victorians] assumed a common human nature and thus a moral (although not a political or an economic) equality.” Just look at how the idea of a gentleman changed over the nineteenth century from a class term to a mainly moral term, so that such virtues as “integrity, honesty, generosity, courage, graciousness, politeness, [or] consideration for others” could distinguish a middle-class Victorian—even sometimes a laborer—as a gentleman.

Key to the reformation was the family. To the Victorians, the family home was “a sacred place”; family and home together, says Himmelfarb, “constituted something like a civic religion.” The foundation of the social order, families were universally recognized as the great schools of citizenship and civilization. If Victorian families didn’t grant women the freedom we moderns demand, married women’s lives were much more fulfilled than jeering critics, from Lytton Strachey onward, have contended. Even as Victorian family values embodied the comfortable middle-class ethic, they were democratized to include working-class families as well: far from feeling victims of class and patriarchal oppression, working-class wives overwhelmingly reported themselves satisfied and fulfilled by their lot.

The reformation succeeded so well also because it extended below the working class, to the poorest of the poor. Victorian welfare policy, embodied in the 1834 Poor Law, rested on a single moral proposition: that the conditions of life on relief for the able-bodied poor should be “less eligible”—less attractive—than those of the meanest wage earner’s life The goal: to make welfare less appealing than work and to honor effort by making sure that its rewards always surpassed the wages of idleness.

The result was the system of workhouses Dickens excoriated in Oliver Twist: welfare came at the cost of giving up your liberty and bearing a stigma. However harsh, the system worked: welfare expenditure, £8 million in 1817, remained at that figure in 1871—though the population had doubled. As Himmelfarb judges: “[S]tigmas are the corollaries of values. If work, independence, responsibility, respectability are valued, then their converse must be devalued, seen as disreputable.“ Accordingly, hand-in-hand with harshness toward the “undeserving” poor went benevolent philanthropy toward the “deserving” poor, ranging from organized efforts to educate them and improve their working and living conditions to individual acts of charity to help them through hard times.

To Himmelfarb, poverty is as much a matter of the mind and spirit as of the pocket. Perhaps today’s prevalence of illegitimacy, welfare dependency, crime, school failure, drug use, and the like among the intergenerational poor has much to do with our culture’s push to remove the stigma from these things at the same time that it has devalued middle-class—Victorian—virtues and traditional family life, not just for the poor but for us all. To cure it, social policymakers will need to take a larger view of human freedom than the shrunken one that has left society so demoralized, in both senses of the word.

Himmelfarb and her husband, Irving Kristol—she was Bea Kristol in private life—were beloved friends and precious mentors to me. When they still lived in New York, one of the great treats of my wife’s and my life was their periodic invitation to Sunday lunch, where we might meet a congressman or an ambassador (Bibi Netanyahu, as it happened), and where Bea taught me how to make horseradish sauce. Even before I met her, an essay of Bea’s on Burke in her 1968 Victorian Minds had helped nudge me down the road to conservatism. As for the civic religion of family, nothing demonstrated to me the truth of our mutual friend Daniel Bell’s judgment that the Kristols’ marriage was the happiest of their generation as much as a disagreement they once had at our dinner table—a long and intense dispute about whether President Ronald Reagan should visit a military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe and to show that our former enemies were now our ever-closer friends and allies in the Cold War. Trouble was, as the White House learned after accepting the invitation, Waffen–SS officers were buried in that graveyard, so the president’s wreath would appear to honor among the very worst of Nazi murderers.

Irving, who had advised Reagan to go, contended that the visit was pure realpolitik, and that canceling the ceremony now, instead of demonstrating that bygones were bygones, would inflame mutual hostility. Bea maintained that morality was morality: that the Holocaust was pure evil and could not in any way be papered over, much less honored. The two went at this for half an hour, my wife and I egging Bea on. Our other guests uttered scarcely a word, one couple out of fascination, the other out of fear of saying the wrong thing. But it was fascinating, because, in all this time, Irving, though clearly getting the worst of the discussion, never lost his characteristic unruffled, benevolent sweetness, and Bea—with her delicate bones, sharp features, energetic animation, and keen, all-observant eye, resembling some rare, small, royal falcon—never argued but only debated, though with every so often a characteristic, “Oh, Irving!” A model and an inspiration.

I remember Irving speaking at his 60th birthday party of his thankfulness for all that America had bestowed on him. “I never imagined I’d have a color TV set,” he said, “or a washing machine.”

“Oh, Irving!” said Bea. “We don’t have a washing machine. It’s a dishwasher.”

They were both truly thankful for all that America had given them. When they resided in New York, Bea’s mother lived with them for a time. She would stand for hours at their big window looking north over Central Park, puzzling out what to make of all the joggers. Perhaps with memories of the Russian pogroms her family had fled in her childhood, she would say to herself: “I don’t understand. What are they running from?” That was the beauty of America, Bea and Irving knew. They didn’t have to run away from anything.

Photo: Otto Herschan Collection/Hulton Archive

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