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.”