Moral Imagination: From Edmund Burke to Lional Trillingby Gertrude Himmelfarb
Gertrude Himmelfarb, one of America's most distinguished intellectual historians, here explores the minds and lives of some of the most brilliant and provocative thinkers of modern times: Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill, Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill, Jane Austen and George Eliot, Charles Dickens and John Buchan, Walter Bagehot and the Knox brothers, Michael Oakeshott and Lionel Trilling. In their distinctive ways, Ms. Himmelfarb argues, they exemplify what Burke two centuries ago and Trilling most recently have called the “moral imagination.” Behind the drama of ideas that played itself out in the lives and writings of these individuals was the free play of the moral imagination. From her own long engagement with these subjects, Ms. Himmelfarb describes how each of these thinkers, coming from different traditions, responding to different concerns, writing in different genres, shared a moral passion that permeated their work. And it is the liveliness of their imaginations that makes their reflections—on politics and literature, religion and society, marriage and sex—sometimes unpredictable, often controversial, always exciting, and as illuminating and pertinent today as they were then. In this eminently readable book, Gertrude Himmelfarb captures the wit and wisdom—and foibles and frailties—of a dozen memorable writers and thinkers, statesmen among them. The Moral Imagination possesses the clarity and persuasion of Ms. Himmelfarb's best work.
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The Moral ImaginationFrom Edmund Burke to Lionel Trilling
By Gertrude Himmelfarb
Ivan R. DeeCopyright © 2006 Gertrude Himmelfarb
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEdmund Burke Apologist for Judaism?
* One of the most moving experiences in my teaching career occurred after a seminar discussion of Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. A student came up to me to explain that she had missed the previous session because it was a Jewish holiday (a little-observed one, which I had quite forgotten), but she wanted to assure me that she had borrowed another student's copious notes. She also took the opportunity to tell me how much she valued the course and especially how affected she was by Burke's book, for it gave her a new understanding and appreciation of Judaism-of her Judaism, which was a rigorous form of orthodoxy (so rigorous that she had had to get a special dispensation to attend a secular university).
I confess that I had never thought of Burke as an apologist for Judaism in any form. Of Catholicism, yes, in France-and in England, according to Conor Cruise O'Brien, who sees Burke as a crypto-Catholic, a "slumbering Jacobite," whose attack on the French revolutionaries was really a polemic against the English who had illegitimately (so he thought) imposed the Protestant ascendancy on Ireland. But no one had ever accused Burke of being a crypto-Jew. Indeed, some students had been disturbed by the references in the Reflections to "Jew brokers" and "money-jobbers, usurers, and Jews," the classic expressions of anti-Semitism. They also noted that in his diatribe against the anti-Catholic agitator Lord George Gordon, Burke made a point of the fact that Gordon was a "public proselyte to Judaism," heir to "the old hoards of the synagogue, ... the long compound interest of the thirty pieces of silver." And they were only slightly mollified by Burke's suggestion that this convert "meditate on his Talmud, until he learns a conduct more becoming his birth and parts, and not so disgraceful to the ancient religion to which he has become a proselyte." But the student who found in Burke a rationale for her faith was less troubled by these lapses. What impressed her was his defense of tradition and religion-and of religion as tradition. This is what spoke to her, as an Orthodox Jew, so directly and powerfully.
Tradition is, indeed, one of the main motifs of the Reflections-the crucial distinction, as Burke saw it, between the French Revolution and the English "Glorious Revolution" a century earlier. Where the French sought to create a society de novo, based upon principles dictated by reason, the English, even in the midst of their revolution, had tried to retain as much of the past as possible. The English revolutionaries, he explained, wanted nothing more than "to preserve our ancient indisputable laws and liberties, and that ancient constitution of government which is our only security for law and liberty." To make of the revolution itself "an inheritance from our forefathers," they sought precedents in "our histories, in our records, in our acts of parliament and journals of parliament," going back to that "ancient charter," the Magna Charta, and beyond that to "the still more ancient standing law of the kingdom." This, Burke emphasized (the italics were his), was the "pedigree," the "patrimony," the "hereditary title," the "entailed inheritance" of England's liberties.
Burke conceded that the English lawyers citing those ancient documents might have got some of the details wrong. But this made their motive, their "powerful prepossession towards antiquity," all the more evident. Moreover, the past served not only to validate the revolution; it validated the future as well. "People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors." And the past itself was not fixed and immutable; on the contrary, as the revolution itself proved, the past was the only security for reform. "The idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation, and a sure principle of transmission, without at all excluding a principle of improvement. It leaves acquisition free; but it secures what it acquires."
The French revolutionaries, on the other hand, in destroying whatever of the past they could, also tried to destroy that most venerable of institutions, the church, thus denying the most basic of human impulses, religion. We know, Burke declared, that "man is by his constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against, not only our reason but our instincts; and that it cannot prevail long." If the French Revolution succeeded in subverting Christianity, he predicted, the void would be filled by "some uncouth, pernicious, and degrading superstition." (This prediction was borne out three years later, with the inauguration of the "Worship of Reason," complete with new Temples of Reason, a new calendar, new festivals, and new saints.)
As religion was rooted in human nature, Burke reasoned, so the church was in human society. For the church was one of the institutions that reflected "the rational and natural ties that connect the human understanding and affections to the divine," helping to sustain "that wonderful structure, Man." And the best kind of religious institution was a church establishment that was part of the state and yet, by virtue of its independent property, independent of the state. Such a religious establishment consecrated church and state alike. This was especially important in a parliamentary regime, for it imbued free citizens with a "wholesome awe," reminding them that they were not entirely free, that they were only "temporary possessors and life-renters" in the commonwealth and were accountable to "the one great master, author and founder of society." Such an establishment, moreover, did not preclude the toleration of other religions. On the contrary, unlike unbelievers who tolerate other religions out of neglect or contempt, an establishment like that of the English tolerates them out of respect. The English "reverently and affectionately protect all religions, because they love and venerate the great principle upon which they all agree, and the great object to which they are all directed."
My student could have found a vindication of her faith elsewhere. Certainly she could have found it, or something very like it, in Maimonides or other authorities. But Burke gave her a more universal, less parochial justification of her faith as well as a better understanding of it in relation to her own time and place. Where Burke challenged an Enlightenment that, in the name of reason, threatened Christianity, she saw Jewish orthodoxy not threatened, to be sure, but demeaned by the enlightened secular ideology of her own age. And where he defended the idea of an established yet tolerant church, she recognized such a de facto establishment in her own dominantly Christian yet tolerant society-and, indeed, in the de jure yet tolerant Jewish establishment in Israel.
More important was the role Burke attached to tradition, in religion as in society. Burke has been criticized for being overly deferential to tradition and history and insufficiently respectful of both reason and revelation. If this is so, it is less a problem for Judaism than for Christianity. No religion is as tradition-bound and history-centered as Judaism. And Orthodox Judaism is all the more so. Of the 613 commandments prescribed for devout Jews, some are universal moral principles binding on all civilized human beings. But others are unique to Judaism; they are what distinguish it from all other faiths and peoples. To nonobservant Jews, some of these commandments seem arbitrary and irrational, relics of primitive customs and superstitions. For the Orthodox they carry the weight of law and morality because they have the mandate of authority-that of revered although not divinely ordained rabbis-and the sanction of tradition, of generations of ancestors.
Burke has also been criticized for having too utilitarian a view of religion, valuing it as an instrument of social cohesion and moral edification rather than as a personal, emotional spiritual experience. For Judaism, however, there is no dichotomy between the utility and the spirituality of religion. The observance of law and participation in the community of worshippers are so much a part of the religious faith that they enhance rather than diminish the spiritual experience, giving that experience a depth and a dimension it might otherwise lack. The idea that there is something spiritually demeaning or impoverishing in such an ethical, communal, "utilitarian" (as is said invidiously) religion is itself a product of the French Enlightenment, which denied the need for any transcendent basis for morality or community because it deemed reason to be self-evident and self-sufficient.
For most readers of Burke's Reflections-and for most of my students-the most disturbing passages in the Reflections were his vindication of "prejudice" and "superstition." These words were as provocative then as now, and deliberately so, for Burke used them purposefully to dramatize his differences with the French Enlightenment. For this Enlightenment, prejudice and superstition tainted all those aspects of life-habit, custom, convention, tradition, and religion-that were offensive because they seemed to violate the principle of reason. For Burke it was precisely those qualities that were the saving graces, so to speak, of civilized society-and, ultimately, of reason itself. Prejudice and superstition, he insisted, were not arbitrary or irrational. On the contrary, they existed in a continuum with wisdom and virtue, having in them the "latent" wisdom and virtue that had accumulated over the ages.
It was in the spirit of enlightenment-although not that of the Enlightenment as the French understood it-that Burke framed his defense of prejudice. The church establishment itself was a form of prejudice: "the first of our prejudices, not a prejudice destitute of reason, but involving in it profound and extensive reason." And all the other manifestations of prejudice had the same complementary relation to reason.
We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man's virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.
So, too, superstition, for Burke, existed in a continuum with reason-and with religion as well. In excess, Burke granted, superstition was a great evil. But, like all moral subjects, it was a matter of degree, and in moderate forms it was a virtue. Superstition was "the religion of feeble minds," which had to be tolerated in a mixture with religion, in some shape or other, "else you will deprive weak minds of a resource found necessary to the strongest." Burke was not arguing, as some have claimed, that superstition was necessary pour les autres, for the lower classes, still less that religion was necessary pour les autres. It was not particular men but "man" generically who was by constitution a religious animal." And it was all men, the strongest as much as the weakest, who had need of religion. Indeed, the strong required it even more than the weak, because they were more exposed to temptation, pride, and ambition, therefore more needful of the "consolations" and "instructions" of religion.
Finally, even more repugnant to the modern temper was Burke's paean to Marie Antoinette. "History will record," he promised, that momentous day, the 6th of October 1789, when "a band of cruel ruffians and assassins" descended upon Versailles, rushed into the queen's chamber, killing the guard and forcing the queen, "almost naked," to flee to her husband, where they were seized and taken to Paris, leaving behind a palace "swimming in blood, polluted by massacre, and strewed with scatterd limbs and mutilated corpses." That gory scene was followed by Burke's rhapsodic memory of his sight of the queen, then a dauphiness, sixteen or seventeen years earlier, "glittering like the morning star, full of life, and splendor, and joy." Little did he then dream that he would live to see such disasters fall upon her in a nation of "gallant men," "men of honour." Surely ten thousand swords would have leaped from their scabbards to avenge her. "But the age of chivalry is gone," he lamented. "That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever."
"The age of chivalry is gone." And with it those sentiments-honor, reverence, loyalty, gallantry-that not only protected kings and queens but "kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom." This was the meaning of ancient chivalry in modern times. "Without confounding ranks, [it] had produced a noble equality, and handed it down through all the gradations of social life. It ... mitigated kings into companions, ... raised private men to be fellows with kings, ... subdued the fierceness of pride and power, ... obliged sovereigns to submit to the soft collar of social esteem, compelled stern authority to submit to elegance, and gave a dominating vanquisher of laws to be subdued by manners." But all of this was being destroyed by the Enlightenment.
All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.
It took a bold and original mind, like Burke's, to make so radical a critique of the Enlightenment of his day-and of much of modernity today. And it took a brave and mature mind, like my student's, to see in that critique an explanation and appreciation of her own religion, which draws upon all the resources of history and humanity to sustain and invigorate itself: ancient traditions, the origins of which may have been lost in time; institutions and establishments, sanctified by age and experience, which bind people together in the common existence of daily life; prejudices and superstitions that betoken the larger truths of virtue and wisdom; and, not least, the "moral imagination" that gives heart and soul, as well as mind, to a living faith.
Excerpted from The Moral Imagination by Gertrude Himmelfarb Copyright © 2006 by Gertrude Himmelfarb.
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Meet the Author
Gertrude Himmelfarb's other books include The Roads to Modernity; One Nation, Two Cultures; The De-Moralization of Society; On Looking into the Abyss; Poverty and Compassion; Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians; Victorian Minds; Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution; and Lord Acton. In a distinguished career as an historian, she has received a great many honorary degrees and fellowships and, most recently, the 2004 presidential National Humanities Medal. She lives in Washington, D.C.
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