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

Again, Himmelfarb refuses to think for her readers. She makes observations about the past that are blatantly relevant today--but since the relevance is blatant, the reader can figure out the connections himself. "Disraeli had not only to convince the country of its national interests; he had to convince his own Foreign Office and cabinet." (President Bush has the same problem with the State Department and the CIA.) Something was bothering John Stuart Mill: "When almost every person who can spell, can and will write," he wondered, "what is to be done?" The world will be flooded with ersatz wisdom! How will we tell the gems from the junk? How will we keep up with the sheer volume of new publication? The Internet age has made all his anxieties come true.

REPEATEDLY THESE ESSAYS REVEAL something surprising or at odds with conventional scholarship. The hero and heroine of a Jane Austen romance marry for love, but out of "moral urgency," too. John Stuart Mill is, indeed, a great champion of liberal individualism, but there is an "other Mill" besides (and not his father!). Free of the daunting influence of his companion-then-wife Harriet Taylor, Mill was no longer opposed to authority, or religion, or even prayer. Michael Oakeshott's career is a double surprise. You might have pictured this quiet, judicious, soft-spoken conservative as a friend of Christianity. In fact, he was lukewarm verging on hostile. But in his last major work, On Human Conduct (1975), he changed his mind and produced "a sensitive and moving account of religious faith." Himmelfarb reminds us that a man's thoughts change over a lifetime.

She reminds us, too, of how often the liberal mainstream neglects the conservative side of history. A serious student must reckon with the conservative tendencies of Austen, Mill, Trilling. Must cope with George Eliot's refusal to sign a petition in favor of woman's suffrage. Must understand Disraeli's conservative beliefs--which cannot be dismissed as mere political poses--and must reckon with the fact that Disraeli as prime minister "could take credit for the most radical reform of the century: a doubling of the electorate resulting in the enfranchisement of most of the urban working classes."

The author's consistency in letting readers figure things out for themselves makes The Moral Imagination an intellectual puzzle. Himmelfarb is a deep and sober author, but her book (maybe one shouldn't admit it) is a game itself, challenging and illuminating. I found myself rushing back and forth from chapter to chapter, flipping pages in search of a phrase or idea I knew had occurred somewhere else. The more you invest in this book, the more it returns.

If it has a weakness, it lies in Himmelfarb's occasional willingness to sacrifice breadth to depth. It's intriguing that Dillwyn Knox, whose main intellectual passion was Greek poetry, should have been recruited by British naval intelligence to break German codes during World War II. But Himmelfarb gets into trouble when she calls Knox "largely responsible for breaking the German code known as Enigma." Enigma wasn't a code per se; it was an electromechanical coding machine. Which is unimportant. But how can the author ignore the epochal work on Enigma by the great mathematician Alan Turing? It's too bad that Turing (being a scientific rather than literary type) is out of bounds.

Himmelfarb calls Thomas Hobbes "the most provocative of modern thinkers," which is exactly the sort of daring intellectual swan dive into a cup of water that makes a book interesting. Readers want to know who was the most, the best, the greatest, the worst. Such judgments are almost always interesting, and it's sad that today's apathetic, cowardly intellectual establishment discourages them. But the inevitable questions arise: Was Hobbes really more provocative than Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx? Wittgenstein? Turing? Himmelfarb has written about the first three thinkers but not (so far as I know) about Wittgenstein (or Turing). Although Wittgenstein was an analytic philosopher with a weakness for mathematics, he was obsessed with moral questions as well.

But the weaknesses are minor, the strengths major. And if The Moral Imagination has an overarching theme, it has to do with the contrast between the "moral imagination" and the "liberal imagination" (the title of one of Trilling's most important books). In the end, the moral and liberal imagination aren't two independent topics; they are dead opposites. Their opposition has been building for two centuries, and is turning into full-fledged war.