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Learning from Victorian Virtues

R&L: Let’s begin by discussing your latest book, The Demoralization Of Society. In it you state that Victorian society stigmatized the recipients of government assistance. Tell us about that.

Himmelfarb: Well, it stigmatized them in several ways: first, it stigmatized them rhetorically. The recipient of relief was called a pauper, not a poor man. The Victorians made a great attempt to keep the distinction between pauper and poor. The word poor was synonymous with the working classes or the “independent laborer”; “pauper” was a term of stigmatization.

Another way was through the principle of “less eligibility”. This principle stipulated that the pauper should always be in a less eligible, that is to say a less desirable, condition than the independent laborer. The pauper would be less eligible in two respects. First, he would receive less from the parish than the laborer did in the way of wages. In addition, the able-bodied pauper, (this principle did not apply to the sick, elderly or children) would be assisted only in the workhouse. This was a form of psychological as well as economic stigmatization.

R&L: Was this type of stigmatization dehumanizing?

Himmelfarb: No. It’s purpose was precisely the opposite – to make the poor better human beings by encouraging the able-bodied pauper to seek work and discouraging the laborer from lapsing into pauperism. The evil of excessive or “indiscriminate” relief, as the Victorians put it, was that it tended to pauperize, demoralize, and thus dehumanize the poor. Stigmatization is the other side of the coin of virtue. You can’t have a set of virtues, a system of values, without having a corresponding system of stigmas. The interesting thing about the workhouse was that conditions there were not always worse than the conditions of the poorest independent laborer; some contemporaries claimed that in terms of food and living conditions, they were sometimes better. What the Victorians understood, however, was that the workhouse was socially and morally demeaning. This was its great deterrent.

R&L: What about the image of the workhouse that we have from Dickens?

Himmelfarb: It must be said that workhouses were appalling by our standards. But they were not as bad as they were sometimes represented. There were serious debates among the Victorians as to just what were the conditions of the workhouses, the diets of the inmates, the living conditions, and so on. Dickens exaggerated the evils of the workhouse just as he exaggerated everything; this is part of his literary genius. And later commentators have exaggerated what Dickens had said. So, yes, workhouses were appalling by our standards, but less appalling when seen in the contemporary context.

Although the Poor Law reform of 1834 did stipulate that the able bodied should receive relief in the workhouse, in actuality that principle was violated more often than not, and many continued to receive “outdoor” relief. There were not enough workhouses to go around, they were expensive to build, and the parishes tended to be far more lenient about the application of the law than the reformers had intended.

R&L: Alexis de Tocqueville visited England during this period. What was his reaction to all of this?

Himmelfarb: Tocqueville visited England just before the reform of 1834 and recommended that relief – state provided relief – be abolished. He thought such relief was demeaning and demoralizing, a public manifestation of inferiority. Charity, on the other hand, being a private transaction, was more effective and morally satisfying, both for the recipient and the donor.

R&L: Does Victorian England have anything to tell us about illegitimacy, a social phenomenon so often associated with welfare?

Himmelfarb: Yes, a great deal. One of the extraordinary facts about Victorian England, which came as a revelation to me, was the low illegitimacy rate. Around 1845 the illegitimacy ratio was 7%; by the end of the century it had come down to less than 4%. In the poorest part of London, east London, it was 4% at its peak and 3% by the end of the century. Remember, this was a time of enormous political, economic and social turmoil: the industrial revolution, the cultural revolution, urbanism and so on. And yet it in spite of all these difficulties, illegitimacy was considerably reduced and the English emerged from this period in a state of re-moralization – in dramatic contrast to our present situation where illegitimacy rose from 5% in 1960 to nearly 30% today.

R&L: The Victorians, especially with their strong emphasis on morality, virtue, and the like, are often criticized for hypocrisy – their high rate of prostitution, for example. How do you interpret this?

Himmelfarb: First of all, many of the charges of hypocrisy are grossly exaggerated. The rate of prostitution, for example, was probably no higher in the early Victorian period than it had been before, and it was almost certainly lower later in the century. In any case, I believe firmly in the old adage, “hypocrisy is the homage that virtue pays to vice.” Violations of the moral code were regarded as such; they were cause for shame and guilt. The Victorians did not do what we do today –- that is, “define deviancy down”– normalize immorality so that it no longer seems immoral. Immorality was seen as such, as immoral and wrong, and was condemned as such. Men might be weak – they might have recourse to prostitutes, for example–- but the moral principle remained the same. (And the same, incidentally, for men and women. Men violated the principle more often than women, but the principle applied to both. In this respect, there was no “double standard”.)

R&L: Is this unique in contemporary society, this lowering of the moral standard to accommodate the lifestyle?

Himmelfarb: I suppose there is the temptation to normalize the abnormal in all societies, isn’t there? But it is particularly so in our society because we have a weak sense of what is regarded as moral and normal. We are wary of all value judgments. We tend to regard them as evidence of an intolerant, illiberal, and judgmental spirit. We are all too willing to abandon the very idea of a moral standard.

R&L: Your point connects with the subtitle of your book, “From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values”; please explain for us the distinction between virtues and values.

Himmelfarb: The idea of virtue goes back to antiquity, and it varied in the course of time. The ancient virtues were not the Christian virtues, and they were certainly not the Victorian virtues. But what was common to all of these virtues, to the very idea of virtue, was a fixed moral standard – a standard by which all people at all times and under all circumstances would be judged. Today we have abandoned that idea of virtue and have adopted instead what we now call “values”. Value is a subjective, relativistic term; any individual, group, or society may choose to value whatever they like. One cannot say of virtues what one can say of values, that anyone’s virtues are as good as anyone else’s, or that everyone has a right to his own virtues. This shift from virtues to values represents the true moral revolution of our time.

R&L: In your book you also mention the impact of Victorian social mores on the crime rate: the Victorians seemed to have had an exceptionally low rate of crime. Can you expound on this?

Himmelfarb: Like the low illegitimacy rate, the low crime rate is quite extraordinary. There was a drop in the crime rate of nearly fifty percent in the second half of the 19th century; again in dramatic contrast to the crime rate in our own times which in the past thirty years has risen ten-fold. The low crime rate was a reflection of the Victorian virtues – work, temperance, orderliness, and responsibility.

It was also a reflection of the degree to which this ethos had been internalized. We tend to think of stigma and sanctions as being externally imposed by society, by law and coercion. But in fact, what was most characteristic about Victorian England was the internalization of these sanctions. For the most part they were accepted by the individual willingly, even unconsciously; they were incorporated in his superego, as we would now say. This combination of external and internal sanctions made for a powerful ethos, an ethos supported by religion, law, and all the other institutions of society.

R&L: In Victorian society there were a multitude of private charities operative. To what extent were they religious in orientation, and what does this signify for us today?

Himmelfarb: This period saw an enormous expansion of private charities, especially in the 1880’s and 1890’s. Most of them, but not all, were religious based. Some were denominational, some ecumenical, still others testified to a generalized religious spirit. Charity itself was regarded as a religious virtue. Some philanthropists, like Charles Booth, were not religious in any orthodox sense, but adhered to the Positivist’s “Religion of Humanity”. The Salvation Army was founded by a Methodist sect, but catered to those of all religions – or none. Each religion had its own children’s mission. Toynbee Hall, the first settlement house, was nondenominational, although it was established and run by Samuel Barnett, who was an Anglican minister. Whatever their denominational or nondenominational character, they were all imbued with a religious spirit. One of the important lessons we can learn from Victorian England is the cooperation of the various religions, and indeed, of religious and secular organizations, in philanthropy in general.

R&L: What role did the Victorian Jew play in forming the culture?

Himmelfarb: There was a very large Jewish immigration from Russia and Poland to England in the late 1880’s, as there was to this country. Beatrice Webb, who was not then quite a socialist but had socialist inclinations, examined this Jewish community and wrote a perceptive and sympathetic account of it. She came to the conclusion that these very poor Jews epitomized the Victorian spirit. They worked hard, they saved, they were thrifty, law-abiding, family oriented, thought in terms of the future, and so on. And she saw these virtues as related to their religion. It was their this-worldly, moral religion that inspired them to “better themselves” and rise from the class of the poor. Of the totally impoverished Jews coming out of Russia, there were very few who went on public relief. Those Jews who needed support for the first years until they got a job, were taken care of by the Jewish community rather than the state. Webb found all of this entirely admirable. It’s curious to find a socialist praising a Jewish ethic which was also, as she recognized, a capitalist ethic.

R&L: You are one of the pre-eminent Acton scholars in the world, some of your earliest work dealt with Acton’s intellectual contribution to the ideas of liberty and religion. I know this is a difficult question, but what would Acton say about re-moralizing society? How would he approach this question?

Himmelfarb: I think he would have been as distressed as many of us are today by the condition of our society. He was very religious and very liberal, and very much a moralist, and for all these reasons he would have been appalled by our present state of demoralization and acutely aware of the need for some kind of remoralization. Like all of us, he would have preferred that it come about not by the efforts of government, but by the cultivation of an ethos that would encourage both private and public virtues. Acton was not a libertarian; he was not opposed to social legislation in principle. He had too much respect for the complexities of history and society to be a strict libertarian. I think he would have agreed that there was a role for both the law and the state in the process of remoralization. But above all, he would have looked to religion as the inspiration for moral reformation.

R&L: In a recent Wall Street Journal column you suggested that a faith revival such as the one experienced in 19th century England might be necessary in order for religion to have an impact on the morality of today. Do you see such a revival coming about?

Himmelfarb: There is no question but that religion played a crucial role in the Victorian moral reformation. That reformation goes back to the Wesleyan movement in the 18th century.

The movement had several distinctive features. First, it was from its beginning as much an ethic as a religion; the two were intimately connected, so that the ethic derived its strength from the religion. Second, the ethic was as much a social matter as an individual one; it emphasized the social virtues (charity, good works) as much as the individual ones (work, temperance). Third, it cut across class lines. After Wesley’s death, at the end of the 18th century, the movement split, the Methodists becoming dissenters and the Evangelicals remaining in the Church of England. While the Methodists appealed largely to the working and lower middle classes, they shared the same ethic. There was thus created something much like a national moral consensus.

Whether we have the conditions for that sort of moral revival today I don’t know. Certainly there are some heartening signs of it. The other day I picked up my paper in Washington and read of a rally of over 50,000 Promise Keepers – men who stood in a stadium for nearly 10 hours, praying and committing themselves to be dutiful husbands and faithful fathers (and paying $50 for this privilege). And this is being reproduced all around the country. The other encouraging thing is the beginning of a convergence of religious conservatives and secular conservatives on this moral issue. I am reminded again of Victorian England when the Evangelicals and the Utilitarians made common cause in social and moral reformation.

R&L: Many have claimed that this kind of alliance threatens civil liberties and pluralism. Do you share such concerns?

Himmelfarb:  No, I don’t. We are talking about an alliance on specific issues. This does not mean that these groups will constitute a separate party or that they will be allied on all sorts of other issues. But if there can be agreement and cooperation on questions, that will be a step forward. I don’t see how this can be a civil liberties threat – except to those who regard all religions with suspicion.

R&L: What has been the general reaction to the book?

Himmelfarb: There has been, predictably, a double reaction. The book has been favorably received (more favorably than I had expected) by those who recognize the seriousness of today’s moral crisis and who are prepared to learn from the experiences of the Victorians. At the same time it has been criticized by others who refuse to acknowledge that there is a problem and who are hostile to any idea of virtue, let alone the Victorian virtues. There are still many people who are in a state of denial – they think that illegitimacy is an acceptable “alternative life style” and that crime is a misperception created by faulty statistics. But I do believe that this point of view is becoming increasingly rare (expect, perhaps, in the academy), and I think that the sympathetic response to my book on the part of many liberals as well as conservatives is itself a sign of the times.