In her 1965 New York Review of Books essay on the 19th century British businessman, essayist, and journalist Walter Bagehot (which can be found in this collection), the eminent historian Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote this:
The current intellectual fashions put a premium on simplicity and activism. The subtleties, complications, and ambiguities that until recently have been the mark of serious thought are now taken to signify a failure of nerve, a compromise with evil, an evasion of judgment and “commitment.” It is as if the “once-born” (to use the terms invented by Francis Newman and immortalized by William James) were reasserting themselves over the “twice-born”: the once-born, simple and “healthy-minded,” having faith in a beneficent God and a perfectible universe; the twice-born in awe of His mystery, impressed by the recalcitrance of men and the anomalies of social action.
Bagehot, who became editor of The Economist, possessed what Himmelfarb called a “compelling vision that inevitably brought with it a complexity, subtlety, and depth that he found lacking in much of the discourse of the time.” As it was then, so it remains today.
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.”