The Standard Bearer For The Spirit of American Conservatism And Ideas Of Civilization – Gertrude Himmelfarb
As written in the January 1st Poetic Justice Warrior Year in Review, and taught by psychologist Jean Moroney:
Focusing on positive values requires effort, and is the first big step to rational action. Left alone, it evolves into the economic way of peaceful human progress. Avoidance of disvalues is rooted in fear, can be destructive, and threaten your values. Left unchecked, it devolves into the political way of authoritarian control.
Two days earlier, on December 30th, we lost an important exemplar of individualism’s virtues, the prolific historian of ideas, and Poetic Justice Warrior Gertrude Himmelfarb. Best known as the champion for England’s Victorian era, so named after the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 through the end of the 19th century, Himmelfarb boldly described the motivational system of disvalues as,
For Rousseau and Mandeville, the absence of a moral instinct meant the laws of society had no moral validity. They were nothing but the inventions of the cunning and the powerful, in order to maintain or to acquire an unnatural and unjust superiority over the rest of their fellow creatures.
Himmelfarb’s “moral instinct” is analogous to volitional focus on positive values – they require principled action. As she explains about 20th century moral equivalency, “Postmodernism entices us with the siren call of liberation and creativity, but it may be an invitation to intellectual and moral suicide.”
The Roads to Modernity
In her 2004 book subtitled: The British, French, and American Enlightenments, Himmelfarb argues for the classical liberal virtues of reason, self-reliance, and compassion and compares each country’s different conceptualization for achieving them. For example, the French tradition advanced by philosopher Rene Descartes claims superior knowledge for power-seeking elites. Their hubris justifies their destruction of institutions they deem irrational. In contrast, according to economist Richard Ebeling in his 2010 review of her book, “the British tradition of individualism had little confidence in the ability to plan society. Far better to decentralize decision-making in the private competitive market so as to limit the potential damage from error and abuse.”
Citing Austrian economist F. A. Hayek’s description of French individualism as a “fatal conceit” fueled by “hyper-rationalism,” Himmelfarb was also an ardent proponent of . . .
The footnote would seem to be the smallest detail in a piece of history. Yet it carries a large burden of responsibility, testifying to the validity of the work, the integrity of the historian, and to the dignity of the discipline.
Context is also essential for the student’s dignity, as school teacher Lisa VanDamme relates about hers, “They have learned the overall stories and scope of history to understand some of the basic principles on which freedom and human flourishing depend.” Like historians and students, entire societies will flourish or decivilize depending on their depth of soul. A dignified society, as Himmelfarb explains, is the product of positive values guiding principled action,
Without will, without individuals, there are no heroes. But neither are there villains. And the absence of villains is as prostrating, as soul-destroying, as the absence of heroes.
Despite the label as an American conservative, Ebeling adds, “She seems not to see the extent to which the welfare state (some aspects of which she clearly supports) is fundamentally inconsistent with her ideal of free and virtuous people.” This would explain why British socialists like former Labour Party leader and Prime Minister Gordon Brown championed her social prescriptions, “I have long admired Gertrude Himmelfarb’s historical work, in particular her love of the history of ideas.”
On Looking Into The Abyss
Ideas Have Consequences says Richard Weaver in his iconic book of the same title, and so says Himmelfarb. With our gift for reason, the world is intelligible, we can make identifications proven by empirical evidence, form propositions, and add to our knowledge. As Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand teaches, “The world you desire can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it is yours.” Or lives and generations lost. For Himmelfarb, an individual or society jumping into the abyss of subjective values is suicidal,
Postmodernism is denial of objectivity, of the reality of the past, of the possibility of arriving at any truths about the past. It induces a radical skepticism, relativism, and subjectivism that denies even the ideal of truth.
For Bea Kristol, as Himmelfarb was known to her friends, the alternative to postmodern nihilism (ideas rooted in the denial of reality and positive values) are bourgeois Victorian virtues.
In 19th-century Britain, Victorians spoke the language of morality because they believed in the reality of virtues as the guiding principles of public as well as private affairs. In this sense there was a basic consensus on social affairs.
Himmelfarb defended the Victorian era against charges of hypocrisy by explaining that “Victorian virtues were based upon firm ideas of right and wrong.” She argued they were universal ideas that people of all socio-economic classes aspired to. Working class families readily put these values into practice and improved their lives and their communities. The evidence is overwhelming – quality of life rose, fertility rates and population increased, illegitimacy and crime rates fell, and sanitation and health care systems improved.
Coincidental to this, and essential to Himmelfarb, was the emergence of an impressive network of privately organized social safety nets for people who were unable to help themselves. As the Wall Street Journal reports,
Dr. Himmelfarb deplored the idea “that society is responsible for all social problems and should therefore assume the task of solving them.” The Victorians’ approach was “hardheaded, rational, pragmatic – and at the same time moral and humane.”
Accordingly, this did not apply to those unwilling to help themselves; instead there were the workhouses deplored by social activist and novelist Charles Dickens.
The Spirituality of Man
Yet Himmelfarb vigorously opposed the idea that people are merely programmed to react to their socio-economic condition and were slaves to their environment. To her, this denies our ability to control our behavior, shape our environment, and exercise our free will. Here she teaches us about today’s decivilizing cultural Marxism,
It is fatally anti-humanistic. It denies a consciousness independent of material conditions. It denies a will capable of shaping history. It denies an individuality not reducible to class. It denies the idea and the reality of freedom, a freedom that is more than the “bourgeois” freedom to buy and sell. And it denies the spirituality of man.
As fellow historian Myron Magnet explains,
The idea of a gentleman changed over the 19th century from a class term to moral term. “Integrity, honesty, generosity, courage, graciousness, politeness, and consideration for others” could distinguish a middle-class Victorian, or sometimes a laborer, as a gentleman.
And journalist Jay Nordlinger relates, “To read a book by Gertrude Himmelfarb is to be in the company of a civilized woman: erudite, understanding, eloquent, and civilized. How gratifying.” Poetic justice for a poor, little, Jewish girl from Brooklyn whose family escaped Russian tyranny.