The Achievement of Gertrude Himmelfarb

In her new essay collection, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb offers this confession: “I am sufficiently stimulated by the past to relate it to the present.” She believes that “just as a philosopher today may look to the classics for the enduring truths of humanity,” the historian may “find his past, the period in which he is professionally engaged, resonates in his own present, the period in which he happens to live.”

Himmelfarb, of course, has long been particularly engaged with the Victorian era; her previous books include Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (1959), On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill (1974), and Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians (1986). These works reveal an astute, subtle mind well-versed in the Humanities—in literature and philosophy as well as history. And they exhibit none of the condescension that sometimes surfaces when modern-day intellectuals, writing about the past, convey the sense that, as Himmelfarb puts it, “their having come late into this world gives them an advantage over those who preceded them.” Himmelfarb approvingly quotes the political philosopher Leo Strauss, who once noted that “It goes without saying that I never believed that my mind was moving in a larger ‘circle of ideas’  than Xenophon’s mind.’”

In Past and Present: The Challenges of Modernity, from the Pre-Victorians to the Postmodernists, Himmelfarb once again covers considerable ground. Her book collects essays and essay-reviews published previously in Commentary, the New Republic, and the Weekly Standard, among other magazines and journals, and these writings cover nearly the full range of Himmelfarb’s career, from 1951 to 2016. Her various subjects include Edmund Burke, Thomas Carlyle, Winston Churchill, William James, and Albert Einstein. She writes with acumen about Benjamin Disraeli’s Judaism; about the remarkably prolific but rather neglected Walter Bagehot; about Thomas Huxley’s elegant “arguments against social Darwinism—and against scientism in general”; about Cardinal John Henry Newman’s idea of the university, with its lofty goals of “providing for the development of character, the discipline of the intellect, and the enlargement of the mind.”

In a particularly insightful piece from 2012, “William James: Once Born and Twice Born,” she addresses the influence of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, four prominent apostles of atheism who tasked themselves with spreading faithlessness throughout the world. She begins her task of locating the “new atheists” in intellectual history by pointing to Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion (2012), Alain de Botton’s attempt to “rescue” religion, or at least its more beautiful trappings. The great faiths may not be true, she quotes de Botton as saying, but they can be “sporadically useful, interesting, and consoling.” All that music, those “buildings, prayers, rituals, feasts,” are consolations that atheism, however truthful, simply cannot provide.

A more substantive if similarly unorthodox discussion than de Botton’s can be found in James’s 1896 lecture, “The Will to Believe,” and his 1902 book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. In James’s works, Himmelfarb suggests, we find a formidable thinker whose treatment of the subject can “speak to use with a special relevance and cogency. And he does so not in an affable spirit of compromise or conciliation, but as a hardheaded realist,” one who was “so appreciative of the varieties of religious experience” because “he was so acutely aware of the varieties—and complexities, anomalies, and difficulties—of life itself.”

In two separate essays, “Victorian Values, Jewish Values” (1989) and “Churchill’s Welfare State—and Ours” (2014), Himmelfarb presents an intriguing and not unsympathetic portrait of Beatrice Webb, one of the prime movers of Britain’s socialist Fabian Society, which in the early 20th century sparked the interest of prominent artists and intellectuals like H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, and influenced the Labour Party in its formative stage.

As the author notes, Webb herself championed staunch Victorian values: hard work, sobriety, thrift. The Fabians, though, had little faith in l’homme moyen sensual. They didn’t quite trust his ability to look after himself. They wanted “professional experts” calling the shots, guiding members of the working and lower middle classes into functioning more efficiently in what Webb called “the great social machine.” As Webb wrote in 1889, “We must abandon the self-conceit that we are independent units, and bend our jealous minds, absorbed in their own cultivation, to this subjection to the higher end, the Common Weal.”

Today, of course, we hear echoes of the Fabian Society in any Bernie Sanders speech. Himmelfarb, not surprisingly, also finds its traces in the Affordable Care Act, a convoluted stab at nationalized healthcare over-engineered by academic and political experts, one of whom was widely quoted admitting that its tortured language was deliberate, meant to flummox voters whose “stupidity” was “really, really critical for the thing to pass.” Himmelfarb suggests too that:

we may see the Fabian vision of the “regeneration of society,” the “reconstruction of the Social System,” in Barack Obama’s exultant pronouncement just before his election: “We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.”

Among the intellectuals of the 20th century, Himmelfarb writes most appreciatively of Lionel Trilling, considered by many to have been America’s preeminent literary critic when he died, aged 70, in 1975. Some 40 years later, she laments in “Trilling: The Moral Imagination, Properly Understood” (2009), the once-influential critic’s name is virtually unknown even among graduate students of literature. Trilling, who taught for nearly three decades at Columbia University, was a keen student of Sigmund Freud, but his various writings—including the 1950 bestseller, The Liberal Imagination—reveal remarkably wide interests, and deep erudition rather than ideological fervor. Like Himmelfarb herself, Trilling was interested in the interaction between society and art; and, though he “did not use the words ‘postmodernism’ or ‘deconstruction’—they were not in common usage then,” he “deplored the increasingly esoteric and dehumanizing, as he thought it, nature of the humanistic disciplines.”

As Himmelfarb notes, Trilling’s approach begins with the belief that “literature was a ‘criticism of life,’” informed by “an insistent sense of morality—‘moral realism,’ he called it.” Trilling wrote about “philosophers ancient and modern,” about “poets, novelists, writers and thinkers of every genre,” offering “a juxtaposition of characters and ideas that is exhilarating and sometimes startling.” She observes that “It was Edmund Burke who introduced the term ‘moral imagination’ into political discourse.” But it was Trilling who “popularized it and made it the heart of his literary and social criticism.”

Trilling influenced Himmelfarb herself with his appreciation of the great Victorian poet and essayist Matthew Arnold, whose Culture and Anarchy has been provoking and often puzzling readers since it first appeared serially in Cornhill Magazine in 1867. In an essay first published in 1994, “Arnold’s Culture War—and Ours,” Himmelfarb takes a fresh look at Culture and Anarchy when it was republished with commentaries by contemporary critics including Steven Marcus and Gerald Graf. Academic in interest, Culture and Anarchy tends to revive during periods of political and cultural unrest. In the 1990s, thus, as the exponents of multiculturalism gained ground, Arnold’s allusive and often witty work, with its defense of “perfection” and “right reason,” its extolment of the “best that has been thought and said,” was reconsidered only to be derided as antiquated, “hegemonic,” even “totalitarian.”

But “much of the present appeal of Arnold,” writes Himmelfarb, at least “to those unfashionable souls who find him appealing, derives from his stance in the ‘culture wars.’” Arnold is “clearly on the side of what for shorthand purposes has been called the ‘canon’: the idea that there is such a thing as Great Books,” and that “those books transcend the bounds of race, class, and gender.” She rightly highlights, on the other hand, that “for Arnold, as for his later-day admirers, that canon is subject to revision and expansion. This is implicit, after all, in his notion of ‘play of mind.’”

The culture wars loom large in Past and Present. In “Democratic Remedies for Democratic Disorders” (1998), Himmelfarb recalls Disraeli’s famous observation, in his 1845 novel Sybil, that England had become “two nations,” one rich and one poor. Today, Disraeli’s dramatic term could be readily applied to the United States, but with a different emphasis.

Less than wealth, even less than ethnicity or race, what separates today’s Americans, Himmelfarb observes, are starkly differing assumptions about fundamental things. In one corner  are traditionalists or “neo-traditionalists” who respect, even if they do not always practice, the same values and codes their churches and shuls endorse. For these Americans, like the ones Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the 1830s, religion and freedom exist harmoniously side by side. For them religion remains “the first of their political institutions” (Tocqueville) because, Himmelfarb adds, it is “not, strictly speaking, a political institution at all.”

But of course, in the other corner, are the nation’s leading cultural institutions—including academia and the mass media—for whom such views have little currency. Himmelfarb pointed this out nearly 20 years ago. Here she notes the revealing fact that “well over half the public say they attend church at least once a month.” But only “5 percent of leading filmmakers” admit doing so. As a result, the “two-nations divide” continues to grow.

“Having been spared a class revolution,” Himmelfarb suggests, “we have finally succumbed to the cultural revolution. What was a subculture or counterculture only a few decades ago is now the dominant culture.” This is a theme she explored in The De-moralization of Society (1995), which drew upon considerable statistical data to show how extensively American cultural codes and standards had changed since the Second World War. More and more we live off “the religious capital” of previous generations. And the account is getting low.

Today, writes Himmelfarb in “Democratic Remedies for Democratic Disorders,” society’s real problems are “moral and cultural rather than political: the collapse of ethical principles and habits, the loss of respect for authorities and institutions, the breakdown of the family, the decline of civility, the vulgarization of high culture, and the degradation of popular culture. Three-quarters of the people in a recent poll said the main cause of America’s problems is ‘moral decay.’”

Back in the 1990s, Himmelfarb saw certain signs of regeneration. A “majority of Americans of all religious creeds, and of none,” but “sharing a common ethos” were, she thought, taking serious notice of the nation’s vulgarizing trends, providing impetus for a possible “remoralization” of society. But the final piece in Past and Present, entitled “From Postmodernism to Transgenderism,” is less optimistic, implying that the cultural center cannot, in fact, hold.

In this essay, which was first published in 2015, Himmelfarb points to the philosophical assumptions that now infuse academic writing in the Humanities, thanks to the outsized influence of Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. The wide attention given Caitlin Jenner and transgenderism generally is just one indication that core elements of the postmodern “project”—including the “denial of ‘fixity’” and the “denial of any ‘essential reality’”—have travelled deeply and far since their incubation in the English Department seminar rooms of the 1970s. “If postmodernism is no longer the modish term it once was,” Himmelfarb writes, “it is because its spirit has been so integrated into the culture that it no longer needs affirming or controverting.”

Be all of that as it may, reading Past and Present is not a dispiriting experience. At its best, Himmelfarb’s work—to borrow her own description of Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination—reveals a stimulating appreciation of “the complexity of moral life and therefore of social and political life.” Her “moral imagination,” like Trilling’s, “stands as a corrective to the ‘terrible simplifiers’ who have ideologized our culture as well as our polity.”