A Conservative Hall of Fame

Book cover
The Moral Imaginationby Gertrude Himmelfarb

Ivan R. Dee. 259p $26


What exactly is the conservative intellectual tradition in America? More troubling still, what can be said, who can be cited, to counter Lionel Trilling’s pronouncement in his preface to The Liberal Imagination (1950) that In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant, but even the sole intellectual tradition? Let’s see: William F. Buckley? George Will? Andrew Sullivan? William Bennett?

Ah, butaside from questions of staturethose are all political mavens. In the higher realms of culture, the arts and academe the liberals, bless them or curse them, still largely rule the roost. So what is a distinguished conservative historian (and long since recovered ex-Trotskyite) to do? Go back to the world she knows best, to Victorian and 20th-century Britain, where she can serve upand enjoya feast of brilliant (if sometimes quasi-, crypto- or semi-) conservative creativity, with a piquant American dessert ofTrilling himself!

In all, Gertrude Himmelfarb dishes up a dozen essays, some old (but reworked), some new, on Edmund Burke, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, John Stuart Mill, Walter Bagehot, John Buchan, the Knox family, Michael Oakeshott, Winston Churchill and Lionel Trilling. The writing is crisp and judicious; the individual portraits are mostly convincing; the overall picture is rich, but murky.

Himmelfarb remembers Burke as an accidental philo-Semite, thanks to his reverence for prejudice and superstitionthat is, timeworn religious beliefs. She defends Dorothea Brooke’s oft-deplored marriage to Will Ladislaw in Middlemarch as illustrative of Eliot’s hearty, pragmatic, even conventional morality (her atheism notwithstanding). Austen wins applause as the witty moralist of Emma. Despite his rejection of socialism and his studied ignoring of economic systems, Dickens was all the more faithful to the reality of his own time, as most of his contemporaries, including a good many radicals, perceived it. Disraeli’s political and literary careers are hailed as a triumph of imagination (his rather too boisterous imperialism gets downplayed).

J. S. Mill is undeniably a liberal, but Himmelfarb tries to rehabilitate (or invent) the other Mill, not the champion, as in On Liberty, of the unrestricted free market of ideas or the relentless secularist of Utilitarianism, but a defender of the educated elite, a respecter of religion, a despiser of popular culture, and so on. Oh, and he condemned socialism-communism for being neither economically feasible nor socially nor politically desirable. Himmelfarb does an elegant sketch of Walter Bagehot, a clear-headed absurdist, who thought the common people stupid yet found such stupidity a virtue. She has kind words for novelist-cum-politician John Buchan (author of The Thirty-Nine Steps), though she admits such an appreciation may be untimely, given the more-than-faint traces of anti-Semitism and racism in his work.

In The Knoxes: A God-Haunted Family, she pleasantly evokes a classic brood of cantankerous, endearing eccentrics, best known among Catholics from the novelist-translator Ronald. She fondly recalls her old acquaintance, the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1901-90); she reviews the life of Winston Churchill as the last great man on the historical scene; and then on to Trilling, whose moral realism (biologically based, Freudian, tragic) she presents as an antidote to social engineering and, the ultimate perversion, genetic engineering.

This is an impressive collection of figuresand one that American conservatives can only envy. But Himmelfarb does not aim to install them in some sort of coherent pantheon, which is just as well. Part of the genius of prime ministers like Disraeli and Churchill was that they were Tory Democrats, rather than predictable, hard-nosed partisans. Noting the conservative streaks in Mill and EliotHimmelfarb might have mentioned Mill’s support for the death penaltyhardly undoes their stature as feminists and critics of tradition. And then there is the awkward fact that one of the supreme foundation stones of Western culture, the Hebrew prophets, from Amos and Isaiah to John the Baptist and Jesus, are sworn enemies of the status quo; whereas conservatives are almost by definition at ease in Zion. So we seem to have a certain built-in cognitive dissonance, at least when conservatives bless both religion and plutocratic government.

None of Himmelfarb’s authors directly addresses that problem, although one of them, Michael Oakeshott, nicely sums it up by arguing, in Himmelfarb’s words, that, The conservative is one who esteems the present and therefore esteems whatever the past has bequeathed to the present. Whatever? Does that include child marriage, clitoridectomy, ecological mayhem and the growing gap between the rich and the poor?

In another dubious vein, Himmelfarb cheers on her subjects whenever they attack rationalism, which she associates with revolutionary fanatics and Jeremy-Bentham-at-his-worst cranks and considers the besetting sin of liberals. But there is no reason why reason cannot be savvy and empirical (just ask William Jamesor Thomas Aquinas). And the monstrous excesses of pseudo-rational 20th-century totalitarian regimes in no way weakenquite the contrarythe validity of Kant’s dictum that in our age every proposition must submit to die Kritik, i.e., the scrutiny of critical intelligence. Under such scrutiny Oakeshott’s remark that, The conservative has little use for government would appear, to say the least, somewhat questionable.

At any rate, if Himmelfarb is certainly an ideologue (aren’t all thoughtful people?), she is a highly nuanced one. She is seldom reductive or dismissive (though she does call George Orwell’s masterful essay on Dickens querulousperhaps because Orwell said, No grown-up person can read Dickens without feeling his limitations). She has a marvelous grasp of the personal, historical and intellectual features of her sitters.

So, almost 40 years after publishing her signature study, Victorian Minds (1968), Himmelfarb is still going strong. Now if only we could spot a Burke, an Austen or a Churchill on our grim 21st-century horizon.

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