The De-Moralization of Society:
From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values

336 pages,
ISBN: 0679764900

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Can Do, or Could Do Then?
by Mark Lloyd

The recent publication in paperback of The De-Moralization of Society invites a wider audience to consider a book that very much deserves our attention. What makes Gertrude Himmelfarb's study so important is that it addresses the chief dissatisfactions of modern democratic citizens in a direct and substantive way. She begins by provoking a clear awareness that our current malaise, manifested by the social ills of crime, drug abuse, dependency, the disintegration of the family, and the fragmentation of communities, reflects a specifically moral crisis.
Moral crises demand moral solutions, and Himmelfarb does not hesitate (as do many today) to suggest an ethics of restraint and responsibility as the only suitable antidote. Unlike most conservatives, though, she points to a real historical example of moral improvement on a grand scale that resulted in tangible social benefits. This is perhaps the greatest achievement of her book: she offers us a realistic example of what we could hope for and aim at as would-be reformers.
She begins by formulating the moral crisis of our time in light of the difference between "virtues" and "values". Victorians always spoke of morality in terms of "virtues". People today speak almost invariably of "values". Himmelfarb writes that "so long as morality was couched in the language of `virtue', it had a firm, resolute character." But the introduction of "`values' brought with it the assumptions that all moral ideas are subjective and relative, that they are mere customs and conventions, that they have a purely instrumental, utilitarian purpose, and that they are peculiar to specific individuals and societies."
Like the new fat-substitute "Olestra", "values" are apt not only to leave us unsatisfied, but also to make us dyspeptic. Because they are selfconsciously subjective, "values" do not provide us with the common standards of decency that would bind us together as a community of citizens. What is more, a universal acknowledgement of the great variety of "values" de-legitimizes almost every posture of disapprobation, and this has the inadvertent effect of inviting us to skirt or ignore our own "values" in the difficult and painful situations where they prescribe restraint or self-sacrifice. A mere glance at historical trends of statistics on crime and illegitimate birth suffices to tell the tale. The language of values is, by definition, unprincipled.
Such was not the case with Victorian virtues. With this in mind, Himmelfarb takes us on a grand tour of the Victorian moral universe, giving a wealth of historical anecdotes, statistics, and statements by various social commentators along the way. We learn that the Victorians were eminently principled and confident in their action and in their disapprobation of viciousness, irresponsibility, and vulgarity. Their virtues, she admits, were neither the heroic classical virtues nor the traditional Christian ones, though they involved elements of each. Victorian morality was undoubtedly "bourgeois", but in the best sense of the term.
"Respectability," "sobriety" (understood as not being inebriated all of the time), "hard work", "self-help", "obedience", "cleanliness", and "orderliness" do not awaken in our hearts the most profound inspiration, but neither do they impose the most extreme demands on us. They are, as Himmelfarb insists, eminently practical and largely domestic virtues.
But what is most impressive is her well-documented account of how the proliferation of Victorian moral culture during the mid to late nineteenth century coincided with a decline in social ills that is astounding in variety and magnitude. Crime, illegitimacy, poverty, and illiteracy all declined steadily during the period. When one appreciates how rare it is for genuine moral and social reform to take place in any society, despite ubiquitous cries for such reform, the Victorian example proves truly instructive. And yet Himmelfarb remarks at one point that the moral enthusiasm of the period must be understood in part as a reaction to Darwin, whose theories shook up the Christian faith of many people. Was Victorianism, then, the affirmation of a softened, thoroughly secular, and ultimately fragile kind of Christian morality in the absence of a Christian God? If this was so, is anything like Victorianism reproducible in our time? Himmelfarb argues that the rise of "gentlemanliness" and "respectability" as prominent public ideals was, in the most crucial sense, a result of the political democratization that was taking place. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that Victorian morality was a middle-class phenomenon, she holds that the cult of "respectability" transcended class (even gender) and extended to the working class. She argues that Victorian virtues are democratic virtues, displayed by individual character and centred upon the private home and family. "Background", in the aristocratic sense of the term, was not a crucial component of "respectability", which was attainable by all. She is most impressed with the manifestations of Victorian morality precisely among the lower classes. Victorianism may then be understood as consequent to the democratization of a formerly aristocratic England, making available as aspirations for people at large the standards and sensibilities formerly reserved to the few.
Unfortunately, Himmelfarb does not discuss how this levelling force of democracy, which raised the moral sensibilities of the common people, affected the character of those formerly among the British aristocracy. If the dawn of the twentieth century found most Englanders more prosperous and more decent, did it not also find many aristocratic families degenerating into the characters represented comically in the novels of P. G. Wodehouse? In the transition from heroic virtues to mass bourgeois ones, was there not something lost? Himmelfarb does not indicate that there was, and we may suppose that given our current moral climate she decided to represent the Victorian moralization of England as unqualifiedly salutary.
To be sure, in order to achieve that end, Himmelfarb is forced to discuss a number of preconceptions about the Victorians. Very thought-provoking is her apologia for Victorian hypocrisy. Now she does not apologize for the most sinister forms of that hypocrisy, such as those represented (and, in her view, exaggerated) by Dickens. But it was generally the case that those who deviated from the strict norms of Victorian society did so while expressing regret and attempting to keep up an appearance of propriety. Thus, George Eliot insisted upon being called "Mrs. Lewes", though the man whose name she appropriated was married to another woman. (They married as soon as his wife died.) In the same vein, though on a wider scale, pre-marital pregnancy was very common throughout the century, even as the frequency of illegitimate birth consistently declined. In our time, when "sincerity" and "openness" are somehow esteemed among the finest human qualities, it is difficult to appreciate the dignity of a deviance that respects and seeks to avoid offending public standards of decency. Victorians had among them such deviants, and in an important sense their discretion helped avert the sort of controversies that tear at our moral fabric.
Himmelfarb is less clear and persuasive on the status of Victorian women, though much of the book is devoted to them. She dwells at length on the "separate spheres" conception of the relationship between men and women, and brings much evidence to illustrate the general view among Victorians of the moral superiority of women. Yet she does not persuade us that the women of the period were better off, and seems to admit at certain points that the rhetoric of female moral superiority served to confirm their subjection and marginalization. The handful of "new women" who emerged at the end of the century, and who scorned conventions like marriage and motherhood, are portrayed as miserable. But even as Himmelfarb seems to celebrate the many women who disdained the suffragette movement, she gives us little by way of systematic argument to evoke our sympathy for their anti-feminism.
On the problem of poverty and the Victorian solution of public relief combined with generous, widespread, and labour-intensive philanthropy, Himmelfarb is on much more solid ground. Victorians were obsessed with philanthropic service and generosity. A sense of duty was brought to the task, embodied by the ethic "Gain all you can... give all you can." Prominent individuals took part, on the grass-roots level, in the effort not only to provide the poor with basic necessities, but to raise their capacities in ways that would make them self-sufficient in the future. The length of stays in "work-houses" declined over the century, as did recidivism. This philanthropy was participatory in the sense that donors played an active role in the administration of resources, and that recipients were expected to make great efforts to raise themselves to the standards of the "respectable". We would likely today call such philanthropy patronizing or arrogant. But the unequivocal consensus between recipient and giver regarding the character of the "good life", and the common awareness that the recipient aspired to take part in that life, produced surprising results. Moreover, there was no ambivalence on the part of those with means that their generosity was in a sense self-serving. Generosity was considered a good quality, and in the interest of the giver; it was "honourable". Some rich families in New England and some old-moneyed Canadian families continue-to an extent-to behave in this way. But the culture of philanthropy has largely been abandoned in favour of an exclusively institutional administration of charity, where giver and receiver are passive participants alienated from each other. Though Himmelfarb does not mention this, the new-moneyed billionaires like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are conspicuously delinquent where philanthropy is concerned, and they deserve our contempt, not our envy. The Victorians were not like the Hobbesian creature who "seeketh power after power, that ceaseth only in death."
Despite its estimable successes, Himmelfarb's book ends with disappointment. After immersing oneself in Victorian moral culture for two hundred pages, one is eager to find how this example can apply to our current situation. But Himmelfarb finally declares that "no-one, not even the most ardent `virtue revivalist' is proposing to revive Victorianism. Those `good old'/`bad old' days are irrevocably gone." She also surmises that the "main thing the Victorians can teach us is the importance of values-or, as they would have said, `virtues'-in our public as well as private lives." She persuades us that the so-called "New Victorian" advocates of speech codes and political correctness are inadequate pretenders to the Victorian legacy. But since we cannot appropriate anything substantive from days "irrevocably gone", it is hard to see exactly what she advocates as an answer. It also seems that she retreats into the moral universe of values, even as she decries their relativizing propensity. The conclusion that the book points to, if not draws, seems a terribly pessimistic one. At the same time, it may often be the case that pessimistic conclusions are the most accurate ones, and we perhaps should not chide her for recognizing the malignancy of our corruption.

Mark Lloyd is a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Toronto.


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