Posts tagged with: gertrude himmelfarb

actonLord Acton once said of the American revolution: “No people was so free as the insurgents, no government less oppressive than the government which they overthrew.” It was America’s high view of liberty and its ideas that cultivated this unprecedented freedom ripe for flourishing. Colonists railed over 1 and 2 percent tax rates and were willing to take up arms in a protracted and bloody conflict to secure independence and self-government.

In a chapter on Lord Acton in The Moral Imagination: From Adam Smith to Lionel Trilling, Gertrude Himmelfarb explains how Acton was a historian who saw moral absolutes, and these were the same absolutes Lord Acton found in America’s Framers.

In America, there is certainly a great dearth of moral clarity in today’s political culture and really most of society. I think a large segment of our population certainly feels aimless and fatigued over the trajectory of not just the political debate, but where our nation is headed. As a country that is losing its history, many thirst for a return to first principles and away from the kind of relativistic rot which has become the status quo. Below is an excerpt from Himmelfarb’s book which discusses Lord Acton’s view on the American Revolution:

Although the first tentative overtures toward freedom came in ancient and medieval times, only in modernity, Acton claimed, did it emerge in its true nature. English Protestant sects in the seventeenth-century discovered that “religious liberty is the generating principle of civil, and that civil liberty is the necessary condition of religious.” But not until the American Revolution had “men sought liberty knowing what they sought.” Unlike earlier experiments in liberty, which had been tainted by expediency, compromise, and interest, the Americans demanded liberty simply and purely as a right. The three-pence tax that provoked the revolution was three-pence worth of pure principle. “I will freely spend nineteen shillings in the pound, Acton quoted Benjamin Franklin, “to defend my right of giving or refusing one other shilling.” Acton himself went further. The true liberal, like the American revolutionists, “stakes his life, his fortune, the existence of his family, not to resist the intolerable reality of oppression, but the remote possibility of wrong, of diminished freedom.” The American Constitution was unique in being both democratic and liberal. “It was democracy in its highest perfection, armed and vigilant, less against aristocracy and monarchy than against its own weakness and excess. . . . It resembled no other known democracy, for it respected freedom, authority, and law.”

(March is Women’s History Month. Acton will be highlighting a number of women who have contributed significantly to the issue of liberty during this month.)

What does the Victorian era have to do with contemporary culture and society? Quite a bit, in the mind and work of Gertrude Himmelfarb, an American historian who called her own work “the history of ideas.” Himmelfarb has been criticized for her call to the return of traditional values (like shame, personal responsibility and self-reliance) by an academic community that prefers what they believe is a “value-neutral” method of teaching and research.

courtesy of www.superscholar.org

courtesy of www.superscholar.org


Himmelfarb wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on the British parliamentarian and historian Lord Acton, which she later published as Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics (1952). Himmelfarb found Lord Acton’s ambivalent blend of liberalism and pessimism, ideas of progress, and notions of human sinfulness, as well as his advocacy of a “judicious mix of authority, tradition, and experience, to be highly relevant for the post World War II world.” Even in this early work, she discerned a connection between the modern neglect of personal moral character and the political catastrophes of the twentieth century, including the rise of fascism and totalitarianism.  (Gertrude Himmelfarb: Jewish Women’s Archive)

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It’s perhaps serendipitous that I’m beginning to read Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values on the same day that the first Values Voter Debate is going to be held in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.

You might think of the so-called V2 debate as an answer to Jim Wallis’ Presidential Forum on Faith, Values, and Poverty, which featured leading Democratic presidential candidates (although Wallis’ promotional materials promised a similar event including Republican candidates, such a forum has yet to materialize. The V2 organizers also say that all Democratic candidates have refused a similar event).

It would be easy to focus on the many differences between the two events, not least of which is the fact that the high-profile Democratic contenders were eager to attend the CNN-sponsored Sojourners event, while the leading GOP candidates are not participating in the V2 debate.

But instead let’s focus on what is similar, and it’s the only word that’s shared in the two titles: “Values.” Here’s what Himmelfarb says about the shift from the language of virtues to values,

“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. (And, in the current intellectual climate, to specific classes, races, and sexes.)

So long as morality was couched in the language of “virtue,” it had a firm, resolute character…. But for a particular people at a particular time, the word “virtue” carried with it a sense of gravity and authority, as “values” does not.

Himmelfarb traces the genesis of “values” language into the modern context through influence of Nietzsche and Max Weber. The rest of the book explores the consequences of this shift, and I look forward to reading it.

We might quibble with Himmelfarb about particular details, but I think it’s pretty indisputable that there has been a shift in moral claims. She writes,

It was not until the present century that morality became so thoroughly relativized and subjectified that virtues ceased to be “virtues” and became “values.” This transmutation is the great philosophical revolution of modernity, no less momentous than the earlier revolt of the “Moderns” against the “Ancients”–modern science and learning against classical philosophy.

Now whether or not such moral relativism is an entirely novel phenomenon in human history, or merely whether this is its first major and successful foray into Western civilization, I think Himmelfarb’s basic point stands.

It will be interesting to see how political debates like the one tonight and over the course of the next year bear out her distinction between “values” and “virtues.” I suspect that we’ll see far more of the former than the latter.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, August 10, 2007
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Here are some book reviews of note from recent weeks that you may find to be of interest: