The De-moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values

Gertrude Himmelfarb
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995
314 pp., $24.00

Martin E. Weinstein
Political Science
University of Montana-Missoula

When Gertrude Himmelfarb describes contemporary America and British society as demoralized, she has two meanings in mind. First, she is referring to historically high rates of serious, violent crime and to unprecedentedly high rates of illegitimacy. The incidence of violent crimes in Britain is now about forty times greater than it was in 1901, and there appears to have been a comparable increase in violent crime in America. By 1970, Americans living in big cities, and that is where most Americans live, had a slightly greater chance of being murdered in peacetime than our soldiers had of being killed in combat in World War II (237). Our societies are doing a poor job of protecting life, limb and property, the original purpose of society. Crime rates show a close correlation to illegitimacy, which was less than 5% in America and Britain from the mid-19th century to 1960. It is now about 30% in both countries. Second, she is referring to a related and perhaps a more profound phenomenon, which is the disappearnce in the two largest English speaking countries during this century of any fixed principles and rules of behavior--virtues--and of their substitution by shifting, relative and slippery values.

Himmelfarb, an eminent historian of the Victorian Period, believes that we can extract valuable lessons from the study of 19th century American and British life, lessons that could help us to reverse the unraveling to our societies. Although she does not deny that Victorian England and America suffered from excesses and defects, she believes that men, women and most especially children lead better lives in a society built around the conventional family, and held together by the pursuit of virtue and respectability, meaning honesty, diligence, cleanliness, thrift and courtesy. Himmelfarb argues that one of the basic flaws in our approach to social policy in this century is that we have assumed that all human and social problems are rooted in scarcity and will be resolved by the production and distribution of wealth. She is of one mind with Thomas Carlyle that morality and character are the basis of healthy, strong societies, and that it is healthy, strong societies which generate wealth and which endure.

Karl Marx had the greatest influence in converting Western intellectuals and governments to the belief that economics and the control of production are the basic realities and determinants of human and social history. But how did virtue, morality and character become transformed into values? Himmelfarb's analysis suggests that while other thinkers and writers prepared the ground, Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Weber played the major roles in the mutation. Nietzsche, in his romantic, passionate struggle to raise the human condition, denounced religion as a prison and morality as rules for slaves. He affirmed that in the new, superior human condition to be created by will and the pursuit of beauty, morality would be replaced by what he referred to in German as Wert. Wert translates into English as value, worth or esteem. Nietzsche and Marx, so different in most respects, worked in tandem to discredit the very conception of morality. For Marx, morality was simply the rules of conduct laid down by the ruling class to protect the property. However, it was Nietzsche who introduced Wert or values in place of morality and virtue. Although the sociologist Max Weber, writing in the early decades of this century, shortly after Nietzsche's death, was critical of Nietzsche's purported nihilism, he matter-of-factly borrowed Wert and used it as if it were part of the accepted vocabulary. Through Max Weber the word values swept into common use. In this scientific century, morality, virtue and character gradually but steadily became verbal artifacts of an age of religion and superstition. Values brought with it the assumptions that all moral ideas and rules are subjective and relative, and in effect, that all human behavior is socially, economically or genetically determined.

Where there is no free choice and no moral responsibility, there can be no legal or criminal responsibility. Hence, the Menendez brothers admittedly murdered their mother and father, but a hung jury in California declined to find them guilty on the grounds that the brothers may have been victims of parental abuse which produced their homicidal behavior. Parenticide, which to the Victorians was among the most heinous and unthinkable crimes, has been transmuted into an uncontrollable homicidal response and as we have noted, this kind of violent crime proliferates despite unprecedented affluence.

Himmelfarb makes clear that the family and home were at the center of Victorian society. They were the primary school where virtues were taught and practiced. Especially in England, but also in America, domesticity was "the antithesis to the market--its necessary other." As Himmelfarb notes, G.K. Chesterton even complained that the family was being revered at the expense of religion, and described his generation as the first that "asked its children to worship the hearth without the altar." Marx mistakenly believed that Victorian capitalism had reduced the bourgeois family to "a mere money relation" and "an instrument of production." He was fundamentally in error. Work in the Victorian marketplace was for the sake of the family and home, which were elevated far above the arena of economic activity. Home was the receptacle of morality. It was during the 19th century, principally in Victorian England and America, that mothers were kept out of the labor market and placed in charge of the home where they were responsible for shaping the moral and intellectual character of their children.

According to Himmelfarb, one of the commonest mistakes that social historians have made about the Victorian period is that they have drawn a sharp line between the affluent middle class, which they concede aspired to and at times even practiced Victorian virtues, and the much more numerous working classes, who were believed to live in poverty, filth, drunkenness and crime. While the undeserving poor certainly existed, they were a small and despised minority. Himmelfarb draws upon Elizabeth Roberts' A Women's Place, which is based upon extensive oral histories of working class women in late-Victorian and post-Victorian Lancashire, to argue that by the last 19th century, most working class families had become the repository of "respectability, hard work, self-help, obedience, cleanliness, orderliness." That, of course, is one of the main reasons why capitalist society did not explode in revolution as Marx predicted it would. Victorian virtues did not divide the middle class from the working class. They cemented them into a unified society and nation.

As a feminist, Roberts started her book expecting to write a history of the oppressive exploitation of working class women, but she discovered that mistreatment and exploitation were infrequent. Many of the working class women in her study had to work outside the home to make ends meet, but they believed that the center of their lives was home and family. Moreover, most of these women believed that they had good, useful, satisfying lives. To Roberts' surprise, they gave little importance to self awareness and to self-fulfillment. They saw little distinction between their own good and that of their families. Roberts concluded that their "considerable powers were all exercised, firmly, in the perceived interest of their families--that is how they saw their "place."

It is not difficult to see that the Victorian woman, wife and mother, was the essential element of the family and home, just as the family and home, and the virtues inculcated there, were the basis of orderly, peaceful, productive society.

In a chapter entitled "The New Women and the New Men," Himmelfarb acknowledges that the order, peace and productivity of Victorian societies required discipline, the deferral of gratification and the repression of instinct, and that there were critics in America and Britain who denounced these restrictions as unnecessary, inhuman and intolerable. In Britain, Havelock Ellis, taking Nietzsche as his inspiration, became the center of a small group of men and women who denounced Victorian virtues, the conventional family and heterosexuality, and who practiced what they preached. It has been fashionable in twentieth century America and Britain to admire the new women and the new men of the late Victorian period as the vanguard of a liberated, more rational, happier society. But Himmelfarb tells us that most of the new women and new men did not have free, happy, satisfying lives. Their personal frustrations, miseries, failures and suicides were explained away by their having been a tiny group of courageous visionaries who were crushed by an overwhelmingly hostile culture. Theoretically, the destruction of the Victorian family and the institution of sexual diversity and alternative lifestyles and marriages should have heralded the beginning of a golden age of freedom and happiness. As Himmelfarb points out, however, sexual liberation has gone hand-in-hand with burgeoning illegitimacy, and illegitimacy has not worked well for most unwed mothers and even less well for their children and society as a whole. Her analysis suggests that the new women and the new men were not so much the visionary victims of Victorian repression as they were the precursors of our demoralized society.

I find myself largely in agreement with and full of admiration for Gertrude Himmelfarb's gracefully written, carefully argued book. However, one significant flaw that should be noted is Himmelfarb's neglect of World War I as a major factor explaining the collapse of Victorian morality and the shift to modern values. It was widely believed among Victorians that their family and social morality had carried the human race beyond the barbarism and savagery of war. The brutality and destruction of World War I shook the Americans and the British to their moral and intellectual foundations. After all, if the seemingly moral, respectable Victorian family and Victorian society had culminated in the trenches, the gas warfare, and the slaughter of the Great War, the survivors naturally wondered if perhaps there was something fundamentally wrong with that prim and proper family and with the disciplined, productive capitalist society in which it lived. The intellectual and social revolt against Victorianism, the strong attraction after 1918 of Marx, of Nietzsche, of Weber, cannot be understood without reference to the shock, disappointment and bitterness generated by World War I.

Nevertheless, Himmelfarb's central thesis, that the Victorian family and Victorian morality formed the basis of a more law abiding, secure and civil society than that which we have constructed to replace it, is powerfully argued. Some liberals may find it offensive, since it challenges many of their most cherished beliefs about human nature, society and progress. So may some Libertarians and free-market conservatives, whose beliefs in individualism and choice will jostle uncomfortably with family constraints and social discipline. One of the reasons I find her so persuasive is that having studied Japanese and having lived and worked in Japan for more than seven years, I have had the chance to experience a Victorian society at first hand and to compare it to our own. Although there are unhappy people as well as bad people in Japan, as there are everywhere, my experience suggests that there are proportionally fewer discontented, miserable, alienated Japanese than Americans. Personal experience and observation also lead me to believe that the statistics on crime and productivity are correct. Japanese society is much more orderly, peaceful and secure than ours. The Japanese are for the most part more diligent, conscientious and productive.

Is it reasonable to call Japan a Victorian society? Although there are obvious differences between contemporary Japan and 19th century America and Britain, there are also striking similarities. In Japan, the family is sacrosanct, and wives and mothers rule the family. Illegitimacy is rare. Samuel Smiles' Self Help is still in vogue. Government welfare is limited to those few people who have no family to help them. At home and in the schools, children are instilled with the virtues of conscientious work, reliability and honesty, cleanliness and neatness, frugality and thrift, and perhaps, above all, modesty and good manners. I have known Japanese who chafe against this discipline and repression, who complain that what they call the iron web of family and social obligation crushes their souls and blights their happiness. Some escape to New York or Montana, where they sing praises to American freedom and individualism, stay a few months or years, and then return gratefully to Japan, to their families.

The lesson I have drawn from living and working in Japan is not that a Victorian society is utopian or ideal, for it is not. Rather, the lesson is that in a society built around the Victorian family and home, and instilled with Victorian virtues and restraints, or their contemporary Japanese counterparts, capitalism works well. Frugality and thrift lead to the accumulation of capital and to productive investment. Conscientious work produces solid goods and satisfying services. Reliability and honesty mean that contracts are honored, bills and debts paid, and deliveries made on time. Since the family lives on from generation to generation, Victorians and Japanese take a long-term approach to business and to life. Criminality and illegitimacy bring shame and dishonor to the family, and as a result, are socially unacceptable and rare.

Gertrude Himmelfarb accurately describes the demoralization of American and British societies that has accompanied the weakening of the family and the replacement of Victorian virtues by modern values. One can see that the American and British capitalist economies and representative systems of government have also suffered. With solid, respectable families and their morals and manners on the wane, consumption and debt run riot, investment flags and competitiveness suffers. Where illegitimacy and widespread crime make a mockery of respectability and of law and order, elected governments and legislatures become helpless, and together with law and the courts, fall into disrespect and disrepute. Capitalism deteriorates into instant gratification, individual greed and ultimately gangsterism. Democracy deteriorates into public entertainment and demagoguery.

The current miserable state of affairs in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe should be a warning to us. There, in the aftermath of the collapse of Communism, governments and peoples are struggling to use capitalism to rebuild their societies and countries. But decades of Marxism have undermined Russian families and civic institutions, and as a result the capitalism practiced in Russia today is almost indistinguishable from gangsterism. This should be a warning to Republicans as well as Democrats. Permissiveness and sexual diversity have weakened the family and demoralized our society, but capitalism and free markets do not operate in a vacuum, and they do not themselves make a sound, decent society.

The reconstruction of the American family and of family virtues must begin with the recognition of human limits and frailty, and with the disavowal of utopia. Again and again, while reading Gertrude Himmelfarb, I was reminded of the Greek tragedians, of the Bible, and of Thomas Hobbs. The imperfections of the human condition are inescapable. When our sexual, acquisitive and destructive instincts are left untrammeled, we may reach for moments of ecstasy, but only at the price of chaos, savagery and early death. When we discipline our instincts and form families, make laws and build civilization, we can enjoy greater security and the milder joys of culture, but only so long as we observe and endure the structures and limits of morality and virtue.

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