Victorian Virtues

This is a book review of “The De-moralization of Society, From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values” (1994), by Gertrude Himmelfarb, historian and writer. I have read a couple of her books after reading this review of her latest book “The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments”.

She taught history at Brooklyn College and the City College of New York. She has written extensively about Victorian Society and the political, cultural, and religious ideas of the time. Some of her published works address the lives and ideas of the liberal Catholic historian and intellectual Lord Acton, the liberal utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill, and Charles Darwin.
This book begins with a discussion of the word “values”. Before 1880, the noun “value” mean something similar to price or cost. It meant what something was worth. The verb “value” meant to assess, to appraise,or to attribute worth or value to something. The German nihilist philosopher Nietzsche used the word “values” to describe moral beliefs and attitudes. His belief was that human beings could reject and destroy the values of society and choose their values in the exercise of their fundamental “will to power“. The sociologist Max Weber used the term in a less nihilistic sense, but in his usage too, values have become subjective and relative. To some degree, most people in America and Western Europe have adopted Weber’s idea that we should be non-judgmental about other people’s values and choices or Nietzsche’s more extreme idea that people should be free to live by their own “values” to the point that the majority have become intimidated by the demands of immature, selfish, needy, violent, criminal, perverted, anti-social, and plain loopy people.
In the 1980’s, conservative leaders and thinkers began to promote a return to traditional values, family values and religious values, and some specifically promoted a return to Victorian values. This provoked a reaction from cultural leaders – writers, artists, the media, academics – with strong beliefs and vested interests in modern and liberal ideas about values and freedom.
Ms. Himmelfarb’s book is a unsentimental, historical examination of Victorian values, or as the Victorian’s called them, virtues. She methodically debunks many modern ideas about the Victorian age – that it was a religious age, that it was repressive, that it was a brutally harsh and dark age, where most people lived like the paupers in the workhouses portrayed by Dickens in “Oliver Twist”. Most modern popular ideas about that time come from literature rather than history, and literary writers often had a particular perspective – a market driven tendency to sentimental and emotional exaggeration of hardship and conflict, an idealistic wish to inspire reform, or a personal reaction against social norms.
There was a Victorian culture – a set of “values” accepted across social and economic classes, by secular and religious thinkers, by men and women. It had evolved from a more religious medieval and Renaissance culture, but it was no longer a religious culture. It was an economic and political or civic culture. Many – perhaps the majority in society were not religiously observant, and deism, rationalism, romanticism and atheism had become common. The most creative and active schools of thought were Evangelicism and Methodism on the religious side and Utilitarian liberalism, and they all promoted rational and ethical social reform. The general ethic was humanitarian and compassionate, in spite of Dickens’s harsh portrayal of the hard-hearted rationalism of the British businessman in Ebenezer Scrooge. The English Victorian poor laws were intended to encourage self-sufficiency, and the rigor of the poor laws was offset by extensive philanthropy and self-help. They had a strong ethic for tangible self-improvement by education and social advancement.
The Victorians believed in self-discipline, work, perseverance, responsibility, honesty. They were concerned with status and respectability. They didn’t believe that people were entitled to self-esteem. They believed that people earned respect by being virtuous, regardless of social class, wealth or talent. They believed that the virtues could be taught and learned and enforced by social norms. The Victorian liberals, like the founders of America, tended to assume that a virtuous and honest people could function in a liberal and democratic society, without strict laws or repressive law enforcement.
The Victorian system worked well. Under those beliefs and values, the Victorians managed industrialization and vast technological and economic changes, and urbanization and vast social changes. Contrary to modern stereotypes, they managed to keep crime and addiction under control. Modern thinkers persist in believing that the Victorians had to be unhappy because they did not have modern values. Ms. Himmelfarb suggests that the Victorians were justifiably happy in a safe and orderly society which was making material progress. She is frankly dismissive of modern theoreticians of false consciousness who feel that the Victorians were somehow tricked by society into not realizing how unhappy they ought to be with their lives.
The Epilogue “A De-Moralized Society” relates many modern social problems to the loss of the Victorian virtues. While Western societies have progessed materially since Victorian times, they have regressed socially. She believes that social problems are not based in economics or the oppression of the poor – they are based in a failure of modern social policy. Social policy has tried to increase the resources of the underclass and free it from economic bondage without dealing with personal moral issues. Unfortunately, a 20th century revolution of values has liberated the poor from the bourgeous Victorian values that would empower and assist them to move from being underclass to working class. In fact, we see the social values and practices traditionally associated with the underclass being embraced by the affluent – promiscuity, drug abuse and addiction, violence, anomie – with disastrous effects. She says that modern social science tends to look at the moral values of a society as determined by economics – a Marxist theory. She says the history of Victorian society demonstrates that values determine the health and success of a society.
She hints many times at some of the reasons that modern society has lost its respect for the Victorian virtues, although she does not try to work through the reasons for the great cultural shifts from Victorian values. She suggests that we have become obsessed with subjective, relativistic, selfish personal ethics and obsessed with experience, and have lost our sense of social responsibility. Ms. Himmelfarb looks at some of the notorious Victorians – Wilde and the decadents – lionized today as rebels against a repressive society, and offers evidence that they were what the Victorians thought they were – obscure, immature, pampered, promiscious, narcissists, sometimes perverts.
She adds a post-script about modern and post-modern political correctness and the politics of identity. Some commentators refer this movement and its leaders as the new Victorians. She thinks this movement is very far from being Victorian in its ethos. It is focussed on feelings and self-esteem, on protecting people from having to explain or justify their ideas or earn respect and status. It is a dogmatic and repressive ethic, far from the liberal and rational ethic of the Victorian age.
She writes clear prose, free of academic terminolgy, or journalistic idiom. She writes with the force and authority of long refection and a formidable intellect.