Commentary Magazine


Topic: Gertrude Himmelfarb

Michael Oakeshott and Modern Conservatism

In a speech he presented to the biennial meeting of the Michael Oakeshott Association in September, the intellectual historian Wilfred McClay pointed out that conservatism is very much in a state of flux and uncertainty, even inner turmoil.

In the course of his remarks, McClay reflected on what Oakeshott’s understanding of conservatism might have to contribute to what passes as conservatism in the present day. Here, in part, is what Bill McClay said: 

Russell Kirk liked to cite a phrase of H. Stuart Hughes—an apt phrase from a most unlikely source—to the effect that conservatism is “the negation of ideology.” That may sound more like an admonition than a definition, but if so, such a warning would be fully in order. The lapse into ideology is a perennial danger for conservatism, as for any other modern political or social disposition, and there is even a danger that it can harden into a form of rationalism. Here is one place where the voice of Oakeshott can be of great help to us, in reminding those who associate themselves with conservatism that they betray their calling if they allow this hardening to occur unchallenged, and wed themselves to the application of abstract propositions without a consideration of the context and contingencies that affect their application. And his voice can remind them that prudential nimbleness and openness are things very different from unprincipled opportunism.

This is a very important point beautifully stated. And Professor McClay is quite right; the lapse into ideology is a perennial danger for conservatism (and for any political and religious movement, for that matter). The temptations of those of us who are committed to a political and religious philosophy/cause, always, is confirmation bias; that we go in search of facts to support pre-existing views; and that we self-segregate and inhabit a closed mental world in which we simply don’t allow counter-arguments and contrary empirical data to penetrate the walls we erect. We simply refuse to hold up our views to refinement and revision. (The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, has spoken about this phenomenon with real insight.)

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In a speech he presented to the biennial meeting of the Michael Oakeshott Association in September, the intellectual historian Wilfred McClay pointed out that conservatism is very much in a state of flux and uncertainty, even inner turmoil.

In the course of his remarks, McClay reflected on what Oakeshott’s understanding of conservatism might have to contribute to what passes as conservatism in the present day. Here, in part, is what Bill McClay said: 

Russell Kirk liked to cite a phrase of H. Stuart Hughes—an apt phrase from a most unlikely source—to the effect that conservatism is “the negation of ideology.” That may sound more like an admonition than a definition, but if so, such a warning would be fully in order. The lapse into ideology is a perennial danger for conservatism, as for any other modern political or social disposition, and there is even a danger that it can harden into a form of rationalism. Here is one place where the voice of Oakeshott can be of great help to us, in reminding those who associate themselves with conservatism that they betray their calling if they allow this hardening to occur unchallenged, and wed themselves to the application of abstract propositions without a consideration of the context and contingencies that affect their application. And his voice can remind them that prudential nimbleness and openness are things very different from unprincipled opportunism.

This is a very important point beautifully stated. And Professor McClay is quite right; the lapse into ideology is a perennial danger for conservatism (and for any political and religious movement, for that matter). The temptations of those of us who are committed to a political and religious philosophy/cause, always, is confirmation bias; that we go in search of facts to support pre-existing views; and that we self-segregate and inhabit a closed mental world in which we simply don’t allow counter-arguments and contrary empirical data to penetrate the walls we erect. We simply refuse to hold up our views to refinement and revision. (The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, has spoken about this phenomenon with real insight.)

This in turn can set off a mental and epistemological chain reaction, one in which we find ourselves eschewing, in principle, compromise (which would have one directly at odds with the framers of the American Constitution, which was itself a product of extraordinary compromises); celebrate pugilism above prudence; and find a kind of psychic satisfaction in attacking and excommunicating the impure within one’s ranks. This drift toward unconservative habits of thought is precisely why conservatism needs the influence of Oakeshott, whom McClay says is best understood as a corrective thinker rather than a foundational one.

Of course most discussions of Oakeshott are bound to touch on the importance of disposition, the way we view ourselves and the world around us. Which leads me to another scholar who has written wonderfully on Oakeshott.

In her 1975 essay (which is reprinted in this collection) on Oakeshott–one of the most respected intellectual spokesmen for 20th century British conservatism–the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb said the key word describing the conservative disposition was “enjoyment.”

“The ‘conservative disposition,’” Himmelfarb wrote, “the disposition to enjoy what is rather than pining for what might be, to appreciate the givens and the goods of life without wanting to subject them to social or political validation – that is a perfect description of his own temperament… Oakeshott’s conservatism, like his temperament, is something of a rarity these days.”

That is perhaps truer now than it has been in the past.

My impression is that among some on the right there is an increasing sense of around-the-clock agitation and desperation, which translates into shrillness and brittleness. One can sense, at least here and there, a spirit of ressentiment, or a “narrative of injury.” It’s the feeling that conservatives are a persecuted minority, combined with a growing rage and weariness with what they perceive to be the multiplying failures all around us.

What is missing, I think, is the sense of enjoyment, of gratitude, of what one writer of Oakeshott, Elizabeth Corey, has called the “disposition of delight.” (In describing the attitude of what Oakeshott called the Rationalist, who is the antithesis of the conservative, Corey writes, “The Rationalist is constitutionally incapable of contentment with any present state of affairs, because everything always falls short of his ideal and therefore is constantly in need of improvement.”)

In saying all this I don’t mean to underestimate the challenges our country faces (though it needs to be said that we have certainly faced graver situations than we find ourselves in right now). My point is simply that the disposition and temperament we bring to the task matters quite a lot.

Conservatives would be wise to unlearn the art of discontent and replace it with an undercurrent of hope. This is, after all, America.

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The Manichean Temptation

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.

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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.

Part of the explanation for this is that many of us who are active in politics eventually choose a side—whether it be the side of an individual, a political party, or a political philosophy. And once we do, we’re all on one side or all on another. As a result, we often lose our detachment and sense of distance. We go in search of facts to reinforce pre-existing views. Pastels are replaced by primary colors.

It’s important to point out here that the qualities Bagehot possessed are not antithetical to a principled worldview or advocacy. Seeing complexities in situations doesn’t mean that all politicians and all political ideologies are created equal. Nor is truth always equidistant between two end points. There’s far more to say for the philosophy of Adam Smith than for Karl Marx.

But what Himmelfarb found admirable in Bagehot, I think, was his refusal to hermetically seal himself off when it came to considering the merits of opposing views. “His sense of reality was multifaceted,” according to Himmelfarb, “shaped by the simple and the complex, the commonplace and the recondite.”

“He was that rare species of the twice-born who could give proper due to the rights and merits of the once-born,” she wrote.

Resisting the temptation to ascribe all virtue and intellectual merit to one’s own side while denying it to the other—as if on every issue all the arguments line up on one side and none on the other, freeing us of the need to carefully weigh competing goods—is among the more challenging things in politics. But most of us who comprise the political class struggle with this temptation more than we want to admit.

None of this is new and none of this is easy. Self-knowledge—including the ability to perceive when honest inquiry in the search for truth becomes subsidium to championing a person, a party, or a cause—rarely is. I wouldn’t deny for a moment that in politics, as in philosophy, arriving at the correct destination matters quite a lot. But so does integrity in the process. Corrupting the means to the ends can also corrupt the ends.

That’s worth bearing in mind in any age, but perhaps especially in ours, when the accelerated pace of commentary—from cable television to blogs to Twitter—makes serious thought that much harder and an appreciation for ambiguities and subtleties that much rarer.

In 21st century America—in the midst of an intense presidential election—we could all use a bit more of the sensibilities and disposition of a Walter Bagehot.

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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.”

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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.”

 

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