December 31, 2019

RIP: Gertrude Himmelfarb, the Historian of Moral Change, Dead at 97. David Brooks writes:

Himmelfarb argued that the Victorians who started the Salvation Army, the various aid societies, and the settlement-house movement worked hard to serve the poor in a disciplined, realistic, sacrificial way, not in a self-indulgent way that would make them feel good but do nothing for those in need. This was the crossroads Himmelfarb always admired. She wrote two books on this transformation of ideas and values, The Idea of Poverty and Poverty and Compassion.

In many of her books and essays, Himmelfarb pits two groups or thinkers against each other, to let us see how contrasting moral ecologies live out in real time. The French Enlightenment versus the Scottish Enlightenment. The optimism of Adam Smith against the pessimism of Thomas Malthus.

One of her greatest essays is “From Clapham to Bloomsbury: A Genealogy of Morals.” First, she shows us the early-19th-century Clapham Sect, a group of evangelical Anglicans who ended the slave trade and fought for decades to reform the prison system. They were morally upright, self-abnegating, adherents to respectable middle-class morality, a little priggish and self-righteous. They were lampooned as “The Saints” in their day.

Bloomsbury was a group of writers and social activists who emerged in the early 20th century, which included people such as Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, and Lytton Strachey. Bloomsbury was in open revolt against the Victorian morality that Clapham represented. Art was their religion. Rebellion their pose. They slept around and looked down on the masses. “We repudiated entirely customary morals, conventional and traditional wisdom,” Keynes wrote. “We recognized no moral obligation on us, no inner sanction, to conform or to obey. Before heaven we claimed to be our own judge in our own case.”

A society that has moved from Clapham to Bloomsbury has undergone a moral revolution. So has one that has moved from Lionel Trilling to Ken Kesey. So has one that has moved from Dwight Eisenhower to Donald Trump.

Read the whole thing; although Brooks fails to mention his own role on the road from Ike to Trump.

Related: Links to Himmelfarb’s articles at Commentary, and their reviews of her books.

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