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Historian in search of the truth

18 September 2020

Rod Garner celebrates the life and thought of Gertrude Himmelfarb

Encounter Books

DURING a long and productive life as a distinguished historian of ideas, Gertrude Himmelfarb (who died, aged 97, in Washington, DC, on 30 December 2019) attracted many friends, even more admirers, and not a few detractors. Lauded by some as a “physician for the national soul”, over two generations she defended the necessity of virtue in political life, and the importance of the “moral imagination” — a term first used (as she was quick to point out) by the Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, in the 18th century. Critics derided her as out of touch with the times, a moralising busybody obsessed with how everybody else should live.

Her meticulous scholarship produced accessible books and essays that reflected her passion for Victorian intellectuals and reformers. Wilberforce, Dickens, George Eliot, and Lord Acton held her analytical gaze: in particular, the way in which their ideas and ideals shaped a dynamic society impaired by inequality and poverty.

She was influential: a sharp critic of both the counter-cultural values of the United States in the 1960s, and, in her view, the overly relaxed attitude of the public towards President Clinton’s lying about a sexual affair in the 1990s that led to his impeachment. Margaret Thatcher and John Major found her arguments on self-help and personal responsibility persuasive, but so, too, did the Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and the Labour MP Frank Field.


BORN in 1922, Himmelfarb grew up with her Jewish parents in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. Her father cut glass and sold engraved saucers and jars to stores. During the Depression, he went bankrupt several times. His clever daughter worked her way through college, picking up credits in history, economics, and philosophy. Evening classes brought her a degree from the prestigious Jewish Theological Seminary on Upper West Side, Manhattan. There, aged 18, she also met her future husband, Irving Kristol, a left-wing activist, who quickly fell in love with her and proposed after three or four trips to the movies. A lifelong marriage followed, described by a close friend as “the best of our generation”.

At graduate school in Chicago, Himmelfarb was told that she would never get an academic post because she was a woman, a Jew, and a native of New York. The prejudice barely touched her. She was not sure that she had a future, anyway, as the immensity of the Holocaust became a growing personal obsession.

After the war, she went back to New York and became part of an influential magazine, Partisan Review, that published writers such as W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, and Hannah Arendt. Their combined talents came to represent what one commentator described later as “the high watermark of American intellectual life”.

That of a humane scholar, who listened more than she spoke, Himmelfarb’s legacy to the academy and the world of religion is considerable. She cautioned against intellectual fashions, lazy or strident opinions, unexamined assumptions, and indifference or contempt for the past and its achievements. Slogans and soundbites masquerading as ideas or policies dismayed her. In their place, she advocated nuance, subtlety, and hard thought as the proper criteria for the task of truth-seeking.

Against post-modernism that denied the possibility of arriving at any truths about the past, or reality more generally, she argued for the idea and pursuit of truth as a necessary calling: “Something to aspire to even if it can never be fully attained”. As a historian, she knew that history could be a guide to how we should live and learn now. And, possibly with Cicero in mind, she believed that to be acquainted with only one’s own age was “to be for ever a child”.

Hard and bitter personal experience also led her to acknowledge the limitations of history as a means of foretelling the future. In 1989, she wrote: “I myself have been too traumatised by Communism and Nazism to have any confidence in the eternal realities of history, except the reality of contingency and change, of the imponderable and the unanticipated, and, as often as not, the undesired and undesirable.”

The prescience of this remark is striking, as the shared certainties of the West and beyond have now fallen prey to a new and deadly virus. Like the hard sayings of Jesus, it wakes us from our slumbers concerning the nature and cost of true religion. Discipleship has a cruciform shape. Unprecedented, and sometimes unparalleled, suffering forms part of the journey.


BY WAY of a final and salutary reminder from Himmelfarb that speaks specifically to the Christian conscience, we can look briefly at one of her most notable essays, From Clapham to Bloomsbury: A genealogy of morals. In this study, she examined (among others) the Clapham Sect: the early-19th-century Evangelical Anglicans who ended the slave trade and fought tirelessly over decades to reform the prison system. Morally upright, zealous, earnest, and, to some, a little self-righteous — even priggish — they were caricatured in their day as “the Saints”.

The Bloomsbury Group came later. Its clever, witty, and essentially disaffected members, including Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, embraced art and literature as their religion. They recognised no binding moral obligations (other than of their own devising) and repudiated the Victorian morality that Clapham represented. As a self-appointed elite, they embraced sexual freedom, looked down on the lower classes, and took no practical steps to alleviate the pain or suffering of others.

Himmelfarb sought to be fair in her estimation, but she knew which side she was on. Life had taught her respect for self-discipline, responsibility, and hard work, and imbued her with a decency that looked outwards. The narcissism and stupidity of the Bloomsbury group in presuming that the world existed to “feed its superior selves” contributed little to the moral ecology of the age.

In contrast, she advocated the “politics of compassion”, the “deep, difficult, holy work” of the Clapham Sect, the Salvation Army, and the various friendly societies that served the poor in a sacrificial way.

In the aftermath of this time of pestilence, no less than in the past, such virtues will be required if the many, and not just the few, are to flourish.

Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian.

“To look upon religion as the ultimate source of morality, and hence of a good society and a sound policy, is not demeaning to religion. On the contrary, it pays religion ­— and God — the great tribute of being essential to the welfare of mankind. And it does credit to man as well, who is deemed capable of subordinating his lower nature to his higher”

Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments

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