Gertrude Himmelfarb (1922-2019) was a distinguished author and social critic who specialized in the intellectual history of the Victorian era. Her sixteen books—published between the ages of 30 and 95—ranged in genre from biography to historiography to essay to polemic. Among her many subjects were Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill, Edmund Burke, George Eliot, Adam Smith, Albert Einstein, the Enlightenment, postmodernism, philosemitism, and Methodism. The critic John Gross called Himmelfarb “one of the most gifted and trenchant observers of the Victorian scene.” The sociologist Robert Nisbet said she was “by wide ascent the foremost historian today on Victorian ideas and values.” Even her critics, such as political theorist Alan Ryan, conceded that Himmelfarb’s output and range was “astonishing.”
The Victorians and Victorian Virtue
The Victorian era seemed a chamber of horrors—aesthetic, intellectual, and otherwise—when Himmelfarb published Lord Acton: A Study of Conscience and Politics in 1952. Such, at least, was the picture painted by Lytton Strachey in Eminent Victorians (1918), which looked on the nineteenth century as an interruption in the great path of the Enlightenment, a diversion sandwiched between the philosophes of the eighteenth century and the Freudian psychologists and modernist artists of the twentieth.
Correcting this misreading of the Victorians was the central thrust of Himmelfarb’s career as a historian. In a succession of books and essays she explored the Victorian response to such varied subjects as poverty, marriage, and Darwinism, and in the process did much to rehabilitate Victorian culture in all its complexity, nuance, and bracing sense of moral and social responsibility.
Himmelfarb showed that the Victorian era—though not, like any era, without its flaws—was generally a time when an emphasis on virtue coincided with economic development and greater private and public happiness. The Victorian family was far from a rigid system that restricted and blocked women. On the contrary, many women had social roles that suited them and that they liked. The lives of couples were not expressions of patriarchal supremacy, but partnerships full of appreciation that included complex systems of duties and rights and, in many cases, love. Intimacy and good relationships were the highest aspirations of many Victorians, and were seen as the pinnacle of human love and devotion.
Himmelfarb argued that Victorian virtues were neither dependent on an aristocratic political culture nor unique to their time and place. In an interview after receiving the National Humanities Medal, she explained that the Victorian virtues—prudence, temperance, industriousness, decency, and responsibility—are compatible with liberal democracy. These virtues “depended on no special breeding, talent, sensibility, or even money,” she said. “They were common, everyday virtues, within the capacity of ordinary people. They were the virtues of citizens, not of heroes or saints—and of citizens of democratic countries, not aristocratic ones.” In many essays and works of commentary, Himmelfarb made a trenchant case that the cultivation of such virtues could help reinforce modern liberal democracy in America and elsewhere.
Reason, Virtue, Liberty
In her book The Roads to Modernity (2004), Himmelfarb faulted historians of the eighteenth century European Enlightenment for focusing primarily on the French experience, thereby slighting the markedly different course taken by the thinkers of the British or Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment and its American legatee. In her view, the main difference between the two Enlightenments concerned the status of reason. The French philosophes imbued reason with a quasi-religious sanctity and sought to reform, or remake, society on its basis. By contrast, figures like John Locke, Lord Shaftesbury, Adam Smith, and David Hume saw reason not as an end in itself but as a tool for social reform and the safeguarding of liberty. It was therefore necessary to temper reason with the social virtues of compassion, sympathy, and mutual responsibility.
How, then, to sustain and encourage those virtues? Here too leading figures of the British and Scottish Enlightenment deviated from their Continental counterparts. Whereas the latter were characterized by a fierce anti-clericalism and hostility toward religion, the former assigned to religion a central role. Isaac Newton—a hero to the French and British Enlightenments alike—was a deeply religious man and a believing Christian, even if not of the orthodox, Trinitarian kind. The notorious skeptic David Hume had a certain appreciation for religious enthusiasm, viewing it as a means of expressing a love of liberty. Much like his fellow Scot Adam Smith, Hume believed in the necessity of a religious establishment for the advancement of society.
Fundamental differences over the approach to social reform and attitudes toward religion help explain the divergent paths taken by France and Britain from the eighteenth century onward. The rigid, radical, and utopian rationality of the French led to a decisive, violent, and failed revolution, and would influence the development of Communism and many of its latter-day avatars. Meanwhile, the British devotion to common-sense virtue and appreciation for religion curbed the revolutionary impulse and led to the slow, controlled, and successful growth of the British Empire and the gradual expansion of democratic governance and individual rights during the nineteenth century.
Going beyond John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, Himmelfarb pointed instead to an alternative tradition of liberalism whose adherents included Montesquieu, Alexis de Tocqueville, and the American founders: a tradition that placed virtue, social morality, education, and—conspicuously—religion alongside liberty as essential elements in the formation of a free society. She developed this interpretation of liberty most fully in her study of Edmund Burke, generally regarded as the father of modern conservatism.
At the heart of Burke’s outlook was the belief that politics should be tailored not to the abstractions of philosophers but to the realities of human nature, in which reason plays only a part—and not the largest part. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke argued that man is a “religious animal” for whom faith is the most basic impulse. He assailed the determination of French revolutionaries to replace Christianity with a Cult of Reason, Temples of Reason, a Festival of Reason, and a new calendar. Atheism, championed by the French revolutionaries in the name of reason, was in fact, Burke wrote, contrary to both human instinct and reason; it could not long survive.
Jews and Modernity
Another persistent theme in Himmelfarb’s writing was the situation of the Jews in modern Europe. Her historical work showed the deep roots of the more positive history of the Jews in Anglo- and Anglo-American societies than in the Continental European societies. While many Europeans in the nineteenth century persisted in regarding the Jews, long after their formal emancipation, as a nation within a nation, demanding that they forsake aspects of their identity in exchange for full acceptance, in England the “Jewish question” was far more prosaic, political, and less fraught. It was a question of citizenship—and no more.
In the mid-nineteenth century, when English Jews received full legal and political equality with the removal of the final restrictions on their right to hold office, they did so not as individuals required to deny their Jewish identity, but as English citizens who happened to be Jews. They received full rights of citizenship from a people who had neither undergone French-style secularization nor rejected its Christian identity, but continued to maintain an established church even as it respected religious diversity.
The affinity of English-speaking peoples with the Jews is the topic of Himmelfarb’s The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England from Cromwell to Churchill (2011). This history of not just tolerance but positive feeling, itself one of the most important and most unusual links connecting Jews and the Jewish tradition with some of the greatest minds of Western culture, begins in England with the Puritans’ attraction to the “Hebrew spirit,” and the mid-seventeenth-century return of Jews to the British Isles centuries after their expulsion. It continues in the writings and public statements of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, born a Jew but baptized at the age of twelve. And it culminates, in the twentieth century, in the Zionism of Lord Arthur Balfour and Winston Churchill.
In The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot (2009), Himmelfarb focuses in particular on the great writer’s final novel, Daniel Deronda, published in 1876. The eponymous hero, who was raised as a member of the British aristocracy, discovers that he is a Jew and marries an extraordinary Jewish woman. Deronda dedicates his life to his people throughout the world by working toward the establishment of a national home in the land of Israel.
That Eliot created a fictional character committed to such an undertaking some two decades before Theodor Herzl appeared on the world stage with an identical proposal is both fascinating and astounding. More fascinating still is the fact that what inspires Deronda to help the Jewish people is not—in the manner of Herzl at the Dreyfus trial—an encounter with anti-Semitism or violent persecution. Indeed, those regular features of Diaspora existence are almost entirely absent from Eliot’s novel. Rather, as Himmelfarb shows, Deronda aims to bring about the national rejuvenation of the Jews because that is what is due to an ancient and venerable people destined to make a noble contribution to humanity.
The Moral Imagination
The language of morality and morals recurs throughout Himmelfarb’s work. She wrote often of the “moral imagination” that informed the writings of an author, the actions of an individual, or the spirit of an age. The phrase originated with Edmund Burke and surfaced again in the writings of the literary critic Lionel Trilling. “What interested him,” Himmelfarb wrote of Trilling in 2004, “was the relation of morality to reality—the abiding sense of morality that defines humanity, and at the same time the imperatives of a reality that necessarily, and properly, circumscribes morality.”
Himmelfarb worried that the moral imagination of contemporary America had become dulled. Postmodernism and deconstructionism had come to dominate the academy and in so doing banished ideas of objective truth from humanities departments. Public discourse and public policies had been “de-moralized”—stripped of moral content, of moral standards, of moral expectations. What began as an intellectual rejection of objectivity in favor of subjectivity ended in social calamity.
All was not lost. As Himmelfarb wrote in the introduction to her final collection, Past and Present, “Trilling recalls us to the principle that may still liberate and restore us—the idea of truth.” She ended by quoting Trilling a final time, words that summarize well her own beliefs: “In the face of the certainty that the effort of objectivity will fall short of what it aims at, those who undertake to make the effort do so out of something like a sense of intellectual honor and out of the faith that in the practical life, which includes the moral life, some good must follow from even the relative success of the endeavor.”