Commentary Magazine


Compassion, Victorian England and Us

Earlier this week, I wrote in defense of “compassionate conservatism.” Since then, I re-read portions of historian Gertrude Himmelfarb’s book Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians. It is a pioneering study of late Victorian English society, which discovered and attacked poverty with a combination of scientific rigor and moral fervor.

Himmelfarb points out that for the late Victorians, compassion was a moral sentiment, not a political principle – an active sentiment appropriate for genuine misery or sorrow that called for some charitable or benevolent action. The “driving mission” of reformers, philanthropists, and social critics was to “make compassion proportionate to and compatible with the proper ends of social policy.” Compassion properly understood was the common denominator behind enterprises like the Charity Organisation Society, the Settlement House movement, and more. “Over and over again,” Himmelfarb writes, “contemporaries testified to the extraordinary accession of social consciousness and social conscience in the last decades of the century, and most conspicuously in the 1880s.”

She then distinguishes between sentimental and unsentimental compassion. “In its sentimental mode,” according to Himmelfarb,

compassion is an exercise in moral indignation, in feeling good rather than doing good; this mode recognizes no principle of proportion, because feeling, unlike reasons, knows no proportion, no limit, no respect for the constrains of policy or prudence. In its unsentimental mode, compassion seeks above all to do good, and this requires a stern sense of proportion, of reason and self-control. The late Victorians … agreed that what was important was to do good to others rather than to feel good themselves. … To be truly humane, genuinely compassionate, was not to be selfless; it was only to be true to one’s “best self” and to the “common good” that included one’s own good. This was not a heroic goal, not the aspiration of a saint or a martyr. But it was eminently moral and humane.

In her last chapter, Himmelfarb argues that in “rediscovering” poverty, those of us in modern American society have much to learn from the late Victorians. “After making the most arduous attempt to objectify the problem of poverty, to divorce poverty from any moral assumptions and conditions,” she writes, “we are learning how inseparable the moral and material dimensions of that problem are. And after trying to devise social policies that are scrupulously neutral and ‘value-free,’ we are finding these policies fraught with moral implications that have grave material and social consequences.”

I raise all this in order to illustrate that compassion is not a “soft” virtue that ought to cause conservatives to roll their eyes, as if it’s simply a Trojan Horse for the liberal welfare state. Sometimes it is; but the task of a responsible conservative movement is to rescue the term from those with a collectivist mindset. How to advance unsentimental compassion in 21st century America is a complicated matter; and in the end, it depends most of all on individual hearts being moved to act on behalf of the most vulnerable members of the human community.

There was a time not all that long ago when conservatives focused much of their energies on creative ways to strengthen civil society, alleviate poverty, and assist addicts and unwed mothers in ways that are both principled and compassionate (see this piece by William Schambra in The Chronicle of Philanthropy). The degree to which government can catalyze these efforts isn’t always obvious, and we know that government can sometimes do more harm than good. But our obligation to care, to reject indifference and show solidarity with those who find themselves in the shadow of life, is clear enough.

“I am a part of all that I have met,” Tennyson wrote. “Some work of noble note, may yet be done … Come, my friends, ’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”