The Magazine

The Art of Thinking

Gertrude Himmelfarb's lives of the mind.

Jun 5, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 36 • By DAVID GELERNTER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Moral Imagination

From Edmund Burke to Lionel Trilling

by Gertrude Himmelfarb

Ivan R. Dee, 288 pp., $26

THIS IS A COMPLEX, challenging book by one of the world's smartest and deepest scholars at the top of her game. It's a series of essays on modern thinkers, mainly British, from Edmund Burke and Jane Austen to Michael Oakeshott and Lionel Trilling. (The essays have appeared before, but most have been substantially revised for this book.)

Gertrude Himmelfarb's list is wide ranging, but her messages are clear: Read meticulously and without prejudice and you can expect surprises--especially if you are a conventional liberal or a conventional academic who would rather think than act. (Pure thought is no good--is top-heavy and likely to capsize--without the ballast of everyday, practical experience.) A careful reader must not expect to see big pictures in the clouds. Truth is in the details, and is not necessarily dramatic. But if you stand back and look carefully, you just might catch a glimpse of the intellectual and spiritual battle that is being waged in the background of these essays. The title--The Moral Imagination--hints at the nature of the battle.

Some of the pieces focus on a single work; most are miniature intellectual biographies that take in huge amounts of ground. In either case, Himmelfarb resists the temptation that afflicts nine out of ten of the world's celebrity intellectuals: to write books that, no matter what the ostensible topic, are all about themselves. Himmelfarb richly deserves to be an egomaniac, but is not.

The single most important thing about The Moral Imagination is the challenge it poses to its readers. To make sense of this book, you must have your brain turned on every step of the way. Your first problem is to figure out what the title means. (Burke introduced the phrase "moral imagination.") The author isn't so much interested in novel or imaginative ethical systems as in thinkers who present moral realities in original ways.

"What other reformers tried to do with legislation," she writes of Charles Dickens, "he did by a supreme act of moral imagination"--he used fiction to plant the poor as individual men and women in the minds of a nation that all too readily blurred them together. Dickens dressed up moral reality in new togs and sent it forth into society to make its way. Jane Austen managed things differently in Emma, where "the moral lesson emerges slowly, tentatively, lightened with humor and irony." But Austen and Dickens both evinced "moral imagination" by confronting the public with moral problems in unexpected guises, against unexpected backdrops--which made old problems seem new. The same holds for most of the others on the list.

Two related Himmelfarb themes come together in her comment on Dickens ("What other reformers tried to do with legislation . . . "). First, truth is in the details; don't skim along at an elevated philosophical altitude, with your nose in the air, or you will miss what's important. Second, reasoning is no good unless it is grounded in practical reality. Himmelfarb is a scholar's scholar, who admires thinking and doing. Listing Walter Bagehot's many fields (banking, journalism, literature, politics), she concludes of the journalist and essayist that "it was his practical experience of these worlds, filtered through a subtle and sensitive mind, that gave him his remarkable intellectual power." Likewise with the idiosyncratic conservative Michael Oakeshott, whose "admirers take delight in the fact that he was a racing man and the owner of a racing horse, and in his disdain for academic solemnities and proprieties."

The next big challenge for alert readers is to figure out why Himmelfarb has chosen these particular subjects. Her introduction explains that she admires them; but what makes them admirable? Everyone on her list is an eminent author--although Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill were even more eminent statesmen. Some are essayists, some are novelists. All deal with moral questions without being professionals in the field of ethics--although Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill are philosophers in good standing and did write about moral questions.

The truth might lurk in Ludwig Wittgenstein's famous discussion of nouns like "game"--there is no one attribute that all "games" share. Instead they show a "family resemblance." One bunch of games shares one property, another (which might partially overlap the first) shares some other property. The thinkers on Himmelfarb's list are woven together by criss-crossing attributes, not by any one characteristic.