The beasts of modernism have mutated into the beasts of postmodernism—relativism into nihilism, amorality into immorality, irrationality into insanity, sexual deviancy into polymorphous perversity. And since then, generations of intelligent students under the guidance of their enlightened professors have looked into the abyss, have contemplated those beasts, and have said, “How interesting, how exciting.”

—Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Looking into the Abyss (1994)

When Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote about the abyss that was consuming the intellectual and moral traditions of her own time, she was one of the first to recognize how seductive was its appeal and how depraved its outcome. In her book On Looking into the Abyss, she attributed the original insight to the critic Lionel Trilling, who detected it in the early 1960s in the underbelly of the modernist movement that had dominated literature and the arts since the early twentieth century. Himmelfarb, however, came to her own recognition from another direction entirely, partly from her study of the history of ideas in Britain’s Victorian era, but also from the apparently unlikely field of the history of social policy and of the ideas that led the Victorians to define poverty as a social problem. As she produced insightful books and essays, almost until her death on December 30 last year, aged ninety-seven, those who knew her work came to regard her as not only one of the great American historians of her time, but also one of this nation’s most compelling moral critics.

Modernists, from their earliest public manifestations in London’s Bloomsbury, had regarded the Christian morality of the English-speaking world as the greatest obstacle to the “free thought” and “free love” they craved. They cleverly redefined the prevailing moral environment as “Victorian,” which, after the death of the Queen in 1901, they declared out of date and out of place in the new, modern twentieth century. By the time Himmelfarb began postgraduate studies in the 1940s, this was the assumption of almost all who saw themselves as progressives, not only in universities but also in newspapers, literature, the arts, and the entertainment industries. It largely remained so until she contested the ground on which it stood with a series of essays and books from the 1970s to the 1990s that urged reconsideration of the modernist vision and its postmodern descendants.

She could point to the consequences of today’s misuse of moral principles.

In 1983, Himmelfarb published The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age, and in 1991 the sequel Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians, arguing that, instead of imposing unregulated Dickensian institutions and dark satanic mills on the lower orders, the Victorians had redefined poverty as a moral issue that demanded both compassion from society at large and a sense of responsibility from the poor themselves. In describing the latter, she made an important intervention in the language of morality. She did not use the term “Victorian values,” as almost every historian of the subject did at the time. The Victorians themselves, she pointed out, did not use the word “values.” This anachronism only arose in the mid-twentieth century as a way to relativize morality. It implied that anyone’s values were the moral equivalent of anyone else’s. Some values could not be better than others, only different. Instead, she insisted on using the term “virtues.” In a much-quoted passage Himmelfarb wrote:

Hard work, sobriety, frugality, foresight—these were modest, mundane virtues, even lowly ones. But they were virtues within the capacity of everyone; they did not assume any special breeding, or status, or talent, or valor, or grace—or even money. They were common virtues within the reach of common people.

To the Victorians, she argued, virtues were fixed and certain, not to govern the actual behavior of all people all the time, but to serve as standards against which behavior could be judged. When conduct fell short of those standards, it was deemed to be bad, wrong, or immoral, she said, not merely misguided, undesirable, or, that weasel-word, “inappropriate.” From the historical record, she could point to the consequences of today’s misuse of moral principles:

In recent times, we have so completely rejected any kind of moral principle that we have divorced poor relief from moral sanctions and incentives. This reflects in part the theory that society is responsible for all social problems and should therefore assume the task of solving them; and in part the prevailing spirit of relativism, which makes it difficult to pass any moral judgments or impose any moral conditions upon the recipients of relief. In retrospect, we can see that the social pathology—“moral pathology,” I would call it—of crime, violence, illegitimacy, welfare dependency, and drug addiction is intimately related to the “counterculture” of the 1960s that promised to liberate us from the stultifying influence of “bourgeois values.”

As well as detecting profound consequences from small manipulations of language, Himmelfarb’s historical eye also allowed her to understand the broad intellectual contours of the periods she studied better than almost any of her peers. She went on to use that understanding to illuminate the basis of ideological divisions with her own time. This was best demonstrated in her daring but highly successful history of the Enlightenment in Britain, France, and the United States.

In 2005, she published The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments. It is a provocative revision of the typical story of the intellectual era of the late eighteenth century that made the modern world. In particular, it explains the source of the fundamental division that still doggedly grips Western political life: that between Left and Right, or progressives and conservatives. From the outset, each side had its own philosophical assumptions and its own view of the human condition. Roads to Modernity shows why one of these sides has generated a steady progeny of historical successes while its rival has consistently lurched from one disaster to the next.

By the time she wrote, a number of historians had accepted that the Enlightenment, once characterized as the “Age of Reason,” came in two versions, the radical and the skeptical. The former was identified with France, the latter with Scotland. Historians of the period also acknowledged that the anti-clericalism that obsessed the French philosophes was not reciprocated in Britain or America. Indeed, in both the latter countries many Enlightenment concepts—human rights, liberty, equality, tolerance, science, progress—complemented rather than opposed church thinking.

Himmelfarb joined this revisionist process and accelerated its pace dramatically. She argued that, central though many Scots were to the movement, there were also so many original English contributors that a more accurate name than the “Scottish Enlightenment” would be the “British Enlightenment.”

Moreover, unlike the French who elevated reason to a primary role in human affairs, British thinkers gave reason a secondary, instrumental role. In Britain it was virtue that trumped all other qualities. This was not personal virtue but the “social virtues”—compassion, benevolence, sympathy—which British philosophers believed naturally, instinctively, and habitually bound people to one another. This amounted to a moral reformation.

She assigned prominent roles to the social movements of Methodism and Evangelical philanthropy.

In making her case, Himmelfarb included people in the British Enlightenment who until then had been assumed to be part of the Counter-Enlightenment, especially John Wesley and Edmund Burke. She assigned prominent roles to the social movements of Methodism and Evangelical philanthropy. Despite the fact that the American colonists rebelled from Britain to found a republic, Himmelfarb demonstrated how very close they were to the British Enlightenment and how distant from French republicans.

In France, the ideology of reason challenged not only religion and the church, but also all the institutions dependent upon them. Reason was inherently subversive. But British moral philosophy was reformist rather than radical, respectful of both the past and present, even while looking forward to a more enlightened future. It was optimistic and had no quarrel with religion, which was why in both Britain and the United States, the church itself could become a principal source for the spread of enlightened ideas.

In Britain, the elevation of the social virtues derived from both academic philosophy and religious practice. In the eighteenth century, Adam Smith, the professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow University, was more celebrated for his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) than for his later thesis about the wealth of nations. He argued that sympathy and benevolence were moral virtues that sprang directly from the human condition. In being virtuous, especially towards those who could not help themselves, man rewarded himself by fulfilling his human nature.

Edmund Burke began public life as a disciple of Smith. He wrote an early pamphlet on scarcity which endorsed Smith’s laissez-faire approach as the best way to serve not only economic activity in general but the lower orders in particular. His Counter-Enlightenment status is usually assigned for his critique of the French Revolution, but Burke was at the same time a supporter of American independence. While his own government was pursuing its military campaign in America, Burke was urging it to respect the liberty of both Americans and Englishmen.

Some historians have been led by this apparent paradox to claim that at different stages of his life there were two different Edmund Burkes, one liberal and the other conservative. Himmelfarb disagreed. She argued that his views were always consistent with the ideas about moral virtue that permeated the whole of the British Enlightenment. Indeed, Burke took this philosophy a step further by making the “sentiments, manners, and moral opinion” of the people the basis not only of social relations but also of politics.

Apart from the different philosophical status they assigned to reason and virtue, the one issue where the contrast between the British and French Enlightenments was sharpest was in their attitudes to the lower orders. This is a distinction that has reverberated through politics ever since. The radical heirs of the Jacobin tradition have always insisted that it is they who speak for the wretched of the earth. In eighteenth-century France, they claimed to speak for the people and the general will. In the nineteenth century, they said they represented the working classes against their capitalist exploiters. In our own time, they have claimed to be on the side of blacks, women, gays, indigenes, refugees, and anyone else they define as the victims of discrimination and oppression. Himmelfarb’s study demonstrates what a façade these claims actually are.

The French philosophes thought the social classes were divided by the chasm not only of poverty but, more crucially, of superstition and ignorance. They despised the lower orders because they were in thrall to Christianity. The editor of the Encyclopédie, Denis Diderot, declared that the common people had no role in the Age of Reason: “The general mass of men are not so made that they can either promote or understand this forward march of the human spirit.” Indeed, “the common people are incredibly stupid,” he said, and were little more than animals: “too idiotic—bestial—too miserable, and too busy” to enlighten themselves. Voltaire agreed. The lower orders lacked the intellect required to reason and so must be left to wallow in superstition. They could be controlled and pacified only by the sanctions and strictures of religion which, Voltaire proclaimed, “must be destroyed among respectable people and left to the canaille large and small, for whom it was made.”

In Britain and America, by contrast, the chasm between rich and poor was bridged by the moral sense and common sense the Enlightenment attributed to all individuals. Everyone, including the members of the lower orders, had a common humanity and a common fund of moral and social obligations. It was this social ethos, Himmelfarb argued, that in the English-speaking world was the common denominator between Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, secular philosophers, religious enthusiasts, Church of England bishops, and Wesleyan preachers.

“Man is by constitution a religious animal,” Edmund Burke famously wrote in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. For Burke, religion itself, and religious dissent in particular, was the very basis of liberty. The Methodists went one step further and also made it the basis of social reform.

Everyone, including the members of the lower orders, had a common humanity and a common fund of moral and social obligations.

John Wesley’s great mission was to foster not only the spiritual salvation of the poor, but also their intellectual and moral edification. There was no conflict between reason and religion. “It is a fundamental principle with us,” Wesley argued, “that to renounce reason is to renounce religion, that religion and reason go hand in hand, and that all irrational religion is false religion.” It was only by “religion and reason joined” that “passion and prejudice” and “wickedness and bigotry” could be overcome.

In pursuit of their mission, the Methodists produced a huge volume of literature not just on Christianity, but also on grammar, medicine, electricity, natural history, Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, Locke, and other classics. Himmelfarb observed: “The whole of this quite extraordinary publication industry, comprising books, pamphlets, and tracts on a variety of subjects and directed to different levels of literacy and interest, constituted something like an Enlightenment for the common man.”

In the American colonies, the First Great Awakening—the religious revival of the 1730s and early 1740s—paralleled the Methodist revival in Britain. The contrast with France was dramatic. In seeking respite from the religious passions of the Old World, Himmelfarb wrote, the Americans did not, like the French, turn against religion itself. Instead, they incorporated religion into the mores of society. They “moralized” and “socialized” religion, turning its energies into movements for voluntary association, local organization, and, ultimately, the politics of liberty.

In Britain and America, the Enlightenment was both a theoretical and a practical expression of this outlook. Religion, moral philosophy, and their egalitarian assumptions shaped the era. They worked together for the common cause: the material as well as the “moral reformation” of the people. In Roads to Modernity, Himmelfarb revealed more clearly than in any other book on the subject the environment in which these ideas and practices were born. At the same time, however, her vision into the abyss continues to warn us all what we have to lose if we persist in feeding the theoretical beasts that lurk there and are now clawing their way onto our once-solid ground.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 6, on page 12
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