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.

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.

Ultimately, it is religion that safeguards morality. And liberalism is, ultimately, the enemy of religion. These truths emerge from Trilling's work. In many ways, Trilling was a champion of liberalism; yet he discerned in liberalism, as Himmelfarb notes, the seeds of paganism. And on the other hand, where "others found [T.S.] Eliot interesting in spite of his politics, Trilling found him interesting because of his politics: a politics not only conservative but religious, and not only religious but identifiably Christian."

In the long run, liberalism intends to renounce Judeo-Christian morality in favor of a world in which human rights have replaced human duties; where only the state has obligations; and the passive, bovine citizenry can relax and let the state take care of everything. The Moral Imagination is the story of the ongoing struggle between the moral and the liberal imagination, between Judeo-Christian morality and liberalism. (In fairness, Himmelfarb doesn't quite say all this; this is only my reading of her message.)

Here are the author's bona fide, no-nonsense conclusions: If you care for the truth you must consider all the facts, evaluate every side, think and think again before you make a decision. If you follow this advice, you might find yourself drawing conservative conclusions again and again. As for the author herself, her luminous intellectual integrity is one of the most powerful weapons conservatism has ever possessed.

David Gelernter is the author, most recently, of The Muse in the Machine: Computerizing the Poetry of Human Thought.

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