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.
Read it all.