The Historian as Moralist

First Lady Laura Bush and Second Lady Lynne Cheney flank Gertrude Himmelfarb after she received the National Humanities Medal in 2004. (National Endowment for the Humanities)
The remarkable life’s work of Gertrude Himmelfarb

The passing of Gertrude Himmelfarb, who died on December 30th at the age of 97, is a loss felt keenly by all who had the good fortune to know her.

To family and friends, she was known as Bea Kristol, and embodied character and decency, good humor, and good sense. To Americans with an interest in our country’s intellectual life, she might have been best known as the wife of Irving Kristol. This always suited her humility (let alone her pride in Irving), and you would surely gain some real insight into the aims of the original neoconservatives by reflecting on the fact that Irving Kristol’s wife was a scholar of Victorian England.

But as such a scholar — one whose life’s work spanned an amazing seven decades of wise, independent-minded, reliably fascinating, and brilliantly expressed historical analysis — Himmelfarb has never been sufficiently appreciated. There will no doubt be many remembrances of her unique mix of personal warmth and dignity in the days to come, from many who knew her far better than I did. But a reflection on the ambitions and significance of her work is very much in order too.

She was among the most important American historians of the last century. Her path-breaking work illuminating the intellectual life of 19th-century Britain not only helped transform our understanding of what the Victorians were up to but also provided a rich vocabulary for describing the place of the moral in the social and political lives of liberal societies. And in the process, she helped several generations of politically minded intellectuals in her own day understand themselves, their roles, and their goals more profoundly.

The Resonance of History

Himmelfarb’s approach to the contemporary relevance of historical inquiry was more or less a mirror image of the attitude that came increasingly to prevail in her profession over her decades of scholarship. As she put it in the introduction to the final collection of her essays, in 2017, many academic historians now fall into “interpreting the past in terms of the present, imposing the values of an enlightened progressive present upon a benighted, retrograde past.” Her own temptation, she wrote, was almost the opposite: to learn from the past what the present has forgotten.

But Himmelfarb never ambled into history in search of points to score in contemporary political disputes. She plunged into the past hoping to understand it, and in the process came to better understand her own time more deeply. “Just as a philosopher today may look to the classics for the enduring truths of humanity,” she wrote, “so a historian may find that his past, the period in which he is professionally engrossed, resonates in his own present, the period in which he happens to live.”

In this, as in much else, Himmelfarb echoed her first subject, the 19th-century British historian and statesman Lord Acton. Acton’s life and thought formed the topic of her doctoral dissertation in history at the University of Chicago, completed in 1950. And that work then became her first published book — Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics, published in 1952 when she was just 30 years old.

Himmelfarb once told me that she was not very fond of the book, so I hesitate to treat it as characteristic of her later work. But I frankly think her attitude about it may have been a function of misplaced humility, or an unavoidable cringing at encountering the precocious voice of her much younger self. The fact is that the book is a masterpiece, and reading it in light of her later work leaves the reader simply stunned by the degree to which the core concepts that would define her life’s work were not only evident but developed in nearly their full depth and sophistication in her very first major scholarly endeavor.

These concepts also amount to at least a partial answer to the question that would have to strike anyone looking over the span of her interests and ideas: Just what was it that drew this young, Jewish woman born and bred in Brooklyn in the 1920s and 30s to the world of the Victorian intellectuals? Her interest in them never waned, and the reasons for it (beyond the inexplicable curiosity that is always part of what motivates any great scholar) are plain in her writings on Acton.

She found the Victorians particularly instructive regarding two sets of questions she thought were essential to her own time and place. The first was what she would later (in a biography of John Stuart Mill) call “the paradox of liberalism” — namely that in prioritizing individual liberty above all other political goods, modern liberalism threatened to undermine the moral foundations of individual liberty, and therefore of its own strength. The second involved the significance of intellectuals in the public lives of free societies. Himmelfarb was fascinated by the role that writers, scholars, journalists, critics, and academics played in politics and culture, and nearly all of her work takes up that subject in one way or another.

Acton offered her much fodder on both fronts. He was a keen student of the paradox of liberalism, and he understood it to be rooted in an ideal of the individual that had its merits but was frequently taken too far. Acton, whose Catholicism shaped every facet of his thought and work, identified this excess with a certain kind of Protestant intemperance. Himmelfarb characterized his view concisely:

The only liberty recognized by the Protestants was the liberty of the individual; the only authority the authority of the state. Thus the individual acquired the right to worship in whatever religion he wished, but his church was deprived of the right to administer its own laws. By this means, the emancipation of the individual became a refined technique for ensuring his utter subjection and the limited power previously exercised by the church was replaced by the absolute power of the state.

The elimination of mediating, moderating layers of both authority and liberty endangered them both. This would become a defining insight of a certain kind of communitarian critique of liberalism over time. But Himmelfarb, drawing on Acton, saw it early and clearly.

Acton’s answer to this problem was not to abandon liberalism, but to insist that it be tethered to traditional religion. The attachment would serve both partners, though it was destined always to be rocky and perturbed. “The liberals wanted political freedom at the expense of the church,” Himmelfarb wrote, “and the traditional Catholics wanted the church at the expense of political freedom. Acton knew that in a non-Catholic state the church’s freedom could only be guaranteed by a free society so that people who wanted religious freedom needed to be friends of genuine liberal freedom.” But he also knew that they needed to insist that religious freedom was a communal, not just an individual freedom, and that the moralism that grew out of serious religious conviction needed to have a place in the public life of a liberal society.

The relevance of this insight for our own time hardly needs to be stressed. But for Himmelfarb, too, writing in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Acton offered a powerfully compelling case for a morally-infused cultural politics, and for prioritizing the moral — not only as a set of ideas, but as manners, habits, norms, and standards — as the genuine moving force in any serious social change.

His view of his own vocational calling clearly spoke to her as well. It is surely no coincidence that as a budding historian Himmelfarb chose as her subject a historian of a prior era. And it isn’t hard to see how much she took from his example in her description of Acton’s distinct understanding of his role: “Acton had the highest of ideals and the most modest of expectations,” she wrote. But low expectations made him not a cynic but a moralist. “History, he insisted, could not be genuinely scientific and objective unless it was explicitly and essentially moralistic.” She entitled a later essay about Acton “Lord Acton: The Historian as Moralist.” And that is just what she made of herself over time.

A moralist need not be a scold, though Himmelfarb insisted that there was a rightful place for scolds too. The idea that moralism is inherently inauthentic, or is some kind of pompous, false pretension to morality, was itself a modern, cynical affectation — the product of a fear of being seen to take morality too seriously that had thoroughly infected our public language. The Victorians had not yet been bathed in this acid of ironic detachment.

Properly understood, the moralist calls society to its highest self, perhaps especially by helping a society understand the ways in which what it thinks are its strengths are actually its weaknesses. And an effective moralist would do this in an engaging and compelling way. The ablest moralist is thus almost inevitably a kind of intellectual. And Himmelfarb was always intrigued by the ways of intellectuals.

This fascination was blended with a healthy dose of bemused skepticism, though. Himmelfarb lived and worked among the great midcentury New York intellectuals, and while she took their ambitions seriously she knew their foibles all too well. On this front, too, Acton offered her a lot to work with. She was charmed though not impressed by his tendency (which must have seemed familiar) to react to political and moral crises by starting magazines — noting wryly at one point that it seemed to have escaped his notice that “there were more obvious ways to act politically than through the intermediary of abstruse, scholarly journals.”

And she found in Acton an instance of a common intellectual inclination to overvalue abstractions, criticizing his famous assertion that “the great object, in trying to understand history, political, religious, literary, or scientific, is to get behind men and to grasp ideas.” The two could not be so easily distinguished, she thought. Even Acton’s own greatest virtues as a thinker were in large part functions of his temperament and background, and of his distinct religious outlook and intellectual community. She was interested in minds, to be sure, but minds were more than ideas.

In this sense, her interests in the paradox of liberalism and in the place of intellectuals were much connected. The fate of liberal societies must sometimes rest on the work of cohesive, confident, but small and insular communities of thinkers and writers. And these could only serve their purposes if they were infused with a moralism that was frequently (albeit not necessarily) religious, and thus gave them some distance from liberalism’s failings while investing them in its success.

These would be cautious, realistic, sensible friends of liberty, whose hopes for their society would not be rooted in its own worldly self-confidence but in their confidence in a higher truth. Acton, she wrote, “was not the optimistic historian, like Buckle, who conceived of history as the invariable victory of truth over error, the progressive conquest by the intellect of physical and human nature.” But he also “did not share Tocqueville’s fears that religion and aristocracy, the necessary conditions of liberty, were obsolete in the modern world, and that democracy, equality, and centralization were in danger of submerging men in a slough of despotism.” Rather, history for him was “a succession of gains and losses,” but “the idea of liberty could no more be lost forever then the idea of morality.”

Victorian Minds

This peculiar disposition — a moralistic counterbalance to the excesses of liberalism, advanced through the work of small cadres of intellectuals — seemed to Himmelfarb to be badly needed in her time. And it was not only Acton who offered a model of how it might work. Victorian Britain more generally stood as a powerful example. And from the 1950s through the 1970s, Himmelfarb devoted herself to exploring and articulating the lessons of that era, and to illuminating its most appealing and instructive figures.

Much of this work took the form of essays written over two decades and collected in Victorian Minds: A Study of Intellectuals in Crisis and Ideologies in Transition, published in 1968 and selected as a finalist for a National Book Award. In these essays, Himmelfarb proved to be a masterful observer of the sociology of intellectual transformation — how ideas percolate, rise, are debated and considered, accepted or rejected.

This is, as she described it, an elite process of opinion formation, but it happens at the core of elite intellectual life, not at its highest reaches. “The philosopher need address himself only to the best minds of an age—perhaps only to the best minds of all time,” she wrote in the introduction to Victorian Minds. But “the historian of ideas must also consider the representative minds of an age, which may well be the ‘second best’ minds.” She quickly added, however, that “for Victorian England, fortunately, this is no great affliction, the second-best then being better than the best of many other times and places.”

An essay in the volume on the Victorian ethos is a masterpiece of historical narrative synthesis, showing how Wesleyanism was the deepest source of what came to be called Victorianism — an evangelical social transformation that gave the age its fundamental character. But the other great essays in the volume trace the work of these minds through profiles of individuals, reveling in the very human strengths and weaknesses of its brilliant, thoughtful, and complicated, but often also arrogant, petty, and vicious, subjects.

An essay on Leslie Stephen offers perhaps the epitome of her work on the intellectual as a type, and of her capacity to both admire that type and find it ridiculous. An essay on Walter Bagehot comes closest to defining an ideal intellectual in Himmelfarb’s view — an ideal that is much more journalistic than academic. And two essays on Edmund Burke (whom she dubs a “proto-Victorian”) offer the extraordinary spectacle of a historian changing her mind: The first is a highly critical overview of Burke’s political project and the second, written more than a decade later, is essentially a scathing review of the first, in which Himmelfarb openly critiques what she had come to consider her own narrow-mindedness and offers a very different reading of Burke. She notes in the introduction that she could have just hidden the first away, but wanted the reader to see her rethinking in public and judge if she was right to do so.

But although these kinds of essays seemed to be Himmelfarb’s natural mode of expression, her work on the Victorians was actually best framed by the three long, deep, intellectual biographies she wrote in these decades. It began with her biography of Acton in 1952; it hit its stride with a biography of Charles Darwin in 1959; and (after a decade and a half devoted to essays and to teaching) truly reached its peak with a biography of John Stuart Mill in 1974.

Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution was a study of the distance between the sources of transformational ideas and the transformations they then engender. A lot of the book was a history of Darwin’s own thinking, which Himmelfarb traced with an exquisite sensitivity for how the life of an intellectual really works and for the power of insight.

She rejected as implausible (and in some respects chronologically impossible) the familiar view that Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle was where his ideas about evolution first took shape. After piling up mountains of evidence, she concluded bluntly that, despite Darwin’s own claims on this front, “there is, in fact, no real continuity between the Beagle and the Origin of Species.” Instead, she traced Darwin’s core idea to a vague but powerful insight that he developed into a coherent concept over a very long span of time, and which only really became the idea everyone identifies with Darwinism after extended exposure to critics and converts.

Her capacity to understand intellectuals in the context of cohesive, competitive communities of thinkers and writers allowed her to avoid both idealizing her subjects and cynically dismissing them. It let her grasp the ways in which the weaknesses of arguments (and she believed Darwin’s actual argument in On the Origin of Species was very weak indeed) were rooted in the exigencies that confronted the makers of arguments. Her discussion of Darwin’s uneasy but ultimately constructive engagement with critics is a model of scholarly empathy. Most great ideas are largely wrong at first, she suggested, but with patience and skill they can be crafted into jewels.

But it was through an engagement with the thought of John Stuart Mill that Himmelfarb brought her study of the Victorians to its greatest heights. Mill was a challenge for her from the start. She noted in the introduction to On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill that dissatisfaction with her understanding of his motivations had led her in the early 1960s “to scrap hundreds of pages of what had been intended as an intellectual biography of Mill.” She returned to the work a decade later, this time successfully.

Mill, she argued, was “the most eminent of the eminent Victorians,” yet also the one who laid the foundations for the demise of the moral consensus that made Victorianism sustainable. She noted that the most peculiar thing about reading Mill as a historian of his era, rather than as a student of political philosophy, was that he seemed to be answering a question no one asked. And this was a common critique of Mill in his day. His most effective critics, Himmelfarb argued, said not that his prescription was wrong but that the problem he diagnosed did not exist: The liberty of thought he claimed to seek already prevailed in Britain, and his grievances about conformity were completely unfounded. Mill’s passionate complaints were, as Macaulay had put it, “like shouting fire in Noah’s flood.”

Himmelfarb explained this by suggesting that Mill was actually most concerned with one particular kind of liberation that had not been achieved (or really attempted) by the spirit of his age: the liberation of women. On Liberty, she argued, is fundamentally and above all a radically feminist book, and its radicalism revealed the dangerous, corrosive underbelly of 19th-century (and all the more so 20th-century) liberationist liberalism. Those tendencies sought to liberate women not so much from social inequality as from the human condition. Mill could not come out and say that his purpose was the complete deliverance of women (and by extension of men) from traditional social and familial roles, and so instead he worked to show that such roles were, in any context, unjust, constricting, and deleterious to human flourishing. He unleashed an individualism so extreme as to endanger every form of social order.

In this way, and through the lens of a study of intellectual culture in 19th-century Britain, Himmelfarb returned to the paradox of liberalism and illuminated its 20th-century implications. The final chapter of On Liberty and Liberalism was in a sense the opening chapter of a new phase of Himmelfarb’s career. It offered a powerful indictment of the philosophy of radical liberation that she took to undermine the prospects of our civilization. It was a work of social criticism — albeit rooted in her historical inquiries into the Victorians, from Acton to Darwin to Mill. Indeed it is with Acton, where her professional interests began, that she concluded that discussion: “Liberals have learned, at fearful cost, the lesson that absolute power corrupts absolutely,” she wrote. “They have yet to learn that absolute liberty may also corrupt absolutely.”

This led Himmelfarb to the most powerful formulation of the worry that hangs like an ominous shadow over her seven decades of scholarship:

Having made an absolute of liberty and having established the individual as sovereign, the liberal has no integrated view of the individual in society which can moderate either his passion for liberty or his desire for regulation and control. When liberty proves inadequate, government rushes in. And since the only function assigned to government by the principle of liberty is the negative one of protection against injury, when government is obliged to assume a positive role, neither its proper powers nor its proper limits have been defined. The paradox is inevitable: government tends to become unlimited when liberty itself is thought to be unlimited. The paradox brings others in its wake. While contemporary liberalism has enormously enhanced the roles of society, government, and the state, it has provided them with no principles of legitimacy.

The result is a recipe for social breakdown and political disillusionment — for what she termed “de-moralization.” It is a recipe that Himmelfarb worried our society had set out to follow.

Moral Capital

At that point, in the middle of the 1970s, Himmelfarb began to take a turn that mirrored the one Acton had taken. She went from being a historian of Victorian moralism to being also a Victorian-style moralist in her own time and place.

But that does not mean that she became a political activist. Her work retained the character of historical scholarship, but it turned to questions of particular relevance to the condition of society and the moral lives of citizens. And the way she went about determining which questions these should be was very much a function of her insights about the character of the Victorian achievement.

The radical moral revolution Mill had launched was for a long time constrained in its effects by what Himmelfarb called “the moral capital of the Victorians.” But this was not simply capital they had inherited — it was not the accumulated practices of an unbroken chain of virtue and tradition reaching to the roots of Western civilization, as conservatives sometimes imagine. Rather, the Victorians had managed to build a significant portion of their capital through a moral and religious revolution of their own and also through intellectual exertions that could offer lessons to their successors.

The capital they amassed was lost only gradually. “In Edwardian and Georgian England,” Himmelfarb wrote, “the moral revolution was confined to a relatively small (although influential) group of ‘free spirits.’” It was only in her own time that Himmelfarb thought that revolution was finally becoming altogether democratized:

The idea of moral liberation is no longer the preserve of an elite but is rapidly becoming the common ground of an entire generation. Having finally used up the moral capital of the Victorians, we find ourselves more and more thrown back upon the one idea which appears to be of unquestionable validity, the idea of liberty.

To avoid the danger that seemed to await us down this path, we might try to adopt some of the intellectual habits that had helped the Victorians build up crucial moral capital themselves.

So how had they done it? Her answer to this question was a core insight of Himmelfarb’s later work, and of her contribution to the evolution of the modern Right in America. At the heart of the Victorian achievement on this front was a transformation of the concept of poverty, which injected moral language into what otherwise would have been coldly economic political arguments and which put the concepts of responsibility and compassion front and center.

Himmelfarb’s turn toward this question was evident in essays and articles by the end of the 1970s, but it is best exemplified by her extraordinary 1984 book The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age, and its sequel, or second volume, published as Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians in 1991. The Victorians, Himmelfarb argued, had basically invented the modern concept of poverty, understood not simply as a social fact but as a moral problem that demanded the attention of society. This demand was answered both with a moral code (which emphasized responsibility) and with what we would now call a policy agenda (which emphasized compassion). And the two combined to “moralize” the politics of the Victorian age in a way that did enormous good not only for the poor.

“Compassion” was the most original of the essential concepts of this intellectual revolution, and it was a decidedly British idea. The Methodists were one important reason why, but what Himmelfarb came to call the British Enlightenment was another. Compassion, sentiment, and fellow-feeling were actually at the heart of what the Scottish Enlightenment (and some of its English evangelists, among whom she counted Burke) had contributed to social and political thought. And by the time the Victorians had taken the stage, it added up to an entire social order that turned out be uniquely capable of powering moral renewal.

Compassion can of course be awfully vague, and also dangerously unbounded, as an organizing principle for social action. This is how its modern critics have often marked it. But as Himmelfarb put it, “the driving mission of most of the late-Victorian reformers, philanthropists, and social critics was precisely to infuse a sense of proportion into the sentiment of compassion, to make compassion proportionate to and compatible with the proper ends of social policy.” And their further hope was to give people in different layers and elements of society a sense of purpose that would draw them toward a more-than-simply-liberal mindset that would reinforce the liberal society’s foundations.

The goal of all this, as a practical matter, was to provide opportunity and dignity to those who lacked them but also to demand upright moral conduct (decidedly including honest labor) from all members of society. It thus made room for market economics and, up to a point, for liberal individualism. But it also insisted on both public and private responsibility for the condition of the poor from a position of democratic equality rather than noblesse oblige. And both rhetorically and politically, it offered an essential counterbalance to the tendency of free societies to grow cold and rigid. This emphasis on compassion, Himmelfarb argued, saved the British (and the Americans as well) from the self-immolating liberalism of the French Revolution — which put reason in the place of sentiment, and so quickly became radically inhumane.

This distinction lay at the heart of what may be Himmelfarb’s most popular book, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments, published in 2004. But it was also at the core of her cultural writings of the 1980s and 90s, gathered in books such as Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians (in 1986), On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society (in 1994), The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (in 1995), and One Nation, Two Cultures (in 1999). Some of these were distinctly historical works and others collections of essays on more contemporary subjects, but all displayed the same priorities and concerns, and the same historical insight keenly applied.

And these arguments were more influential than we might now quite perceive. Under their guidance, that portion of the American Right inclined to insist on the moral character of political debates made compassion its watchword and emphasized moral culture — and especially marriage, childbearing, religion, and community. George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was only the most explicit and obvious example, but the influence of this mode of thought is apparent over three decades in every form of the conservative recoil from the (often-caricatured) libertarian framework of the Right’s economic thinking.

Such recoil had been a repeating pattern in the development of the modern American Right, but the various forms it took after the mid-1970s were all in various ways influenced by Himmelfarb’s insights. And that recoil is very much a part of what we see on the Right today, even if today’s anti-libertarians are unusually unfamiliar with the history of the pattern they are re-enacting. Himmelfarb’s work could help deepen and ripen their efforts just as it did those of some of their predecessors.

In more recent years, Himmelfarb’s scholarship sought to shed light again on the Victorians in their own terms. Books written over the past decade, in her 90s, included two profound reflections on Judaism in British intellectual life and a collection of essays (old and new) about the historian’s task. Clear-headed and perceptive to the last, she continued to emphasize the ways in which we now might learn from those who have succeeded in the task that is also ours: to see that the moral precedes the political and to keep a free society in balance, so that it might remain free but also worthy of its freedom.

Gertrude Himmelfarb understood the importance of this task, and also the enormous contribution that the honest, serious, engaged study of history might make toward our achieving it. In the introduction to her final collection of essays, in 2017, she set out as her ideal the words of her hero Lionel Trilling about the value of honest intellectual work in an age contemptuous of any claims to knowledge of the truth:

In the face of 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.

This is an awfully demanding standard to live by. But Gertrude Himmelfarb’s example shows that it is not impossible.

To have achieved all that she did professionally while also building a thriving family and amassing countless friends, readers, students, and admirers is the mark of an exceptional human being. We were awfully lucky to have her. And we should work to make the most of the extraordinary legacy of insight and learned judgment that she leaves behind for us to study and admire.

May her memory be a blessing.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.


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