Moral imagination runs not incidentally but necessarily in tandem with a certain aspect of conservatism, what I think of as imaginative conservatism…
The Moral Imagination: From Edmund Burke to Lionel Trilling, by Gertrude Himmelfarb (259 pages, Ivan R. Dee, 2006)
The Moral Imagination is a very engaging collection of a dozen essays on a dozen authors by a historian in the appreciative mode. Some pieces go back to the ’60s, some are recent, all are substantially revised even to the point of recantation. They are full of interesting circumstances and thought-inducing reflections, but above all, they are free of the historian’s peculiar incivility: the cannibalizing of literary and philosophical texts for material incidental to them but useful to research. Gertrude Himmelfarb actually savors books as works; rather than subjugating them to professional depredations, she treats of them with pleasure and praise. A mark of this mode is her historian’s holiday from chronology: George Eliot before Jane Austen, Michael Oakeshott before Winston Churchill.
She pairs the authors in various permutations for comparison and contrast, allowing them, in effect, to talk to each other. They are, in order of appearance: Burke, Eliot, Austen, Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, J.S. Mill, Walter Bagehot, John Buchan, the Knox family, Oakeshott, Churchill, and Trilling (the only American).
What they all have in common is a “moral imagination” (a term introduced by Edmund Burke) and their distinctive varieties of conservatism. There are, for example, the new-fangled middle-class Tories, men who begin to be called Conservatives in the 1830s—”Tory men and Whig measures” as Disraeli, himself an old-fashioned Tory, defines them in his novel Coningsby. In his Tory adherence, Disraeli makes a pair with John Buchan. (It is a delight to learn something of the dark complexity of Buchan, whose adventure stories have given me such acute pleasure, which I had ascribed to a residual juvenility in me.)
The moral imagination seems to run not incidentally but necessarily in tandem with a certain aspect of conservatism, what I think of as “imaginative conservatism.” For “moral imagination,” as contrasted with, say, “social conscience,” is the representation to oneself of concretely visualized human conditions and consequences, as opposed to ideal rational constructions abstracted from living detail. But this imagination, the kind that is affirmingly receptive rather than strenuously constructive, is fed by remembered experience, be it worldly or fictive, and that means, in turn, that it is inevitably past-nurtured. Oakeshott, the most single-minded and most recent representative of this way of being, whose pairable predecessor is Burke, says:
The disposition to be conservative is, then, warm and positive in respect of enjoyment, and correspondingly cool and critical in respect of change and innovation; these two motivations support and elucidate each other.
Gertrude Himmelfarb is very far from being an ideological schoolmarm, but I wonder whether there is not lurking in these essays a gentle lesson to her fellow conservatives: If you mean to capture hearts rather than rouse anger, cultivate the imaginative kind of conservatism and its language.
The one brand-new and centrally placed essay of the book is subtitled “The Other Mill.” Since Mill’s On Liberty is liberal scripture, the juxtaposition of this, his best-known piece with “the other Mill,” that is, with his writings before and after, is pretty stunning. Bluntly put: He is discovered to have encircled the main tenets of On Liberty with (unacknowledged) rebuttals, rebutting in particular his defense of that radical individualism whose issue in our day is the gospel of doing one’s own thing. Ms. Himmelfarb, in the appreciative mode, credits him with often being “a better Tory than Tories themselves” and with being, therefore, that much the more intellectually interesting. But I wonder: In most of us, wouldn’t such drifting in circles signify that the intellectual anchor had failed to take hold of any bottom?
The first essay, on Burke, contains a delightful surprise. The vindication of “prejudice” to be found in his Reflections on the Revolution in France can be put to work as an apology for orthodox Judaism. I won’t reveal how this is done, but when it is done, you say to yourself: of course. The inverted order of the next two essays enhances the reading of both authors. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is “by common consent” her greatest novel. I would modify a little: It’s just about the greatest English novel—except perhaps Jane Austen’s six, especially the most artful of them, Emma. Reading Middlemarch and Emma out of sequence “is an exhilarating experience, perhaps even more so than reading them in their proper chronological order.” For Emma read first might seem frivolous, while making Middlemarch feel intolerably solemn. Perhaps this perceptive historian might agree that imagined worlds have no “real-time” chronology in any case, and that is why such inverted readings are wholly in order.
The essay on George Eliot, subtitled “The Wisdom of Dorothea,” is concerned with the very question that our students, who one and all read the work, find so puzzling. Why does this Dorothea, a woman of some grandeur, find final fulfillment in being the helpmate of that charming, bohemian lightweight, Will Ladislaw? Is it enough to say that she loves him? Why does she; how can she? “Why,” Ms. Himmelfarb asks, “could Eliot not have given us a Dorothea more congenial to a modern feminist?” It is, the answer comes, because “love and reverence” are the messages of Middlemarch. Eliot herself begins the novel with a prelude asserting that the time—the time of a middle-class Middlemarch—is not right for an epic life like that of St. Theresa—a very imperial nun, as our students discover when we bid them look up her life. Instead, “Here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heart-beats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centering in some long recognizable deed.” So ends the Prelude, and the book itself ends with a reprise, applying the lesson to Dorothea. It is quoted at the end of the essay: “Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible.” And then comes that famous apologia pro vita Dorotheae: “[T]hat things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
“This is not a tragic ending,” writes Gertrude Himmelfarb. “It is… eminently moral, even heroic.” That seems very right to me: As Theresa founds sisterhoods, so Dorothea sustains a husband and a family, each in accord with the opportunities life offers—and who wouldn’t rather live within the influence of Dorothea’s “incalculably diffusive” benefactions than under the discipline of Theresa’s very calculatedly expansive convent-foundings?
Yet—so capacious is the novel—there is another possibility, equally countermanding the half-melancholy of the Prelude, equally affirmative, though not so heroic: Dorothea is a somewhat untalented, traipsy, near-sighted young woman who doesn’t quite know where she is going and steps on little dogs, doesn’t learn her Greek very well, or focus on anything as fanatically as the grandeur of her vision would require, were it to come to tomb-visitable fruition. Surely George Eliot knew exactly what it takes actually to do a great work, not just to dream greatly, and she hasn’t endowed her heroine with those capacities. This makes Dorothea a true Middlemarcher and far more lovable than the nun from Avila could possibly have been; it dissipates any air of resigned melancholy around Dorothea’s marriage; it expresses the genre-character of the novel, which is to depict not the great with awe but the middling with love—can Dorothea possibly complain of having lived “a hidden life” as the heroine of this monumental novel?
The essay on the education of Jane Austen’s Emma does a lovely job of putting in juxtaposition the two heroines, one seeking moral fulfillment, the other needing a moral heads-up. Emma, who presides over a not entirely harmless comedy of errors of her own devising, is as self-satisfied as Dorothea is self-searching. The agent of her moral awakening is her older, graver but vigorous neighbor, Mr. Knightley of Donwell Abbey. (The Austen novels abound in unobtrusive “speaking names.”) He is the happier counterpart of Casaubon, Dorothea’s dessicated first husband, who has nothing to teach the young wife who so ardently wants to learn. What Knightley awakens in Emma is the recognition, so the essay argues, that she must put her “manners in the service of morals.” This is a lesson that goes beyond the heroine’s society, though that society is, as Ms. Himmelfarb shows, not at all so narrow in respect of class as some critics claim. Here Burke is made to speak prospectively to Emma’s moral point: manners, by a “steady, uniform, insensible operation,” aid, supply, or destroy morals. As Dorothea is charmed by Ladislaw, so is Mr. Knightley by Emma; both pairs marry for love, “but also out of a kind of moral urgency.” For Dorothea it lies in finding a field of fulfillment, for Emma in deepening her good breeding into a more considerate morality. Each novel is, for its time, “a moral fable”—which is to say, a work of the moral imagination.
The last of these twelve instructive pieces bears most directly on the present American condition. Trilling’s legacy to us is that moderating principle of an all too corruptible “social idealism,” namely “moral realism,” the better angel of conservatism. But behind this lucid legacy, there was a lot of what seems to me a forcibly inventive complexity, the kind affordable by a man not much politically engaged. Some of it, which the author generously tolerates, I find positively repellent, like Trilling’s juxtaposition of Robespierre with Jane Austen as a common progeny of Rousseau through their shared commitment to Hegelian sincerity! What possible real relation could a proto-totalitarian and a terrorist have to Miss Austen, or she to sincerity, the mode of attending more to one’s own truthfulness than to the truth? (Besides, Hegel does not think so very well of strenuous sincerity.) What Ms. Himmelfarb most appreciates in Trilling is his reminder to us of that
sense of variety, complexity, and difficulty which comes… primarily from the ‘experience of literature….’ It is this that gives a passion, and a reality, to the moral imagination, which, at its best, informs the political as well as the literary imagination.
Up till the late nineteenth century, the reading of novels was, in educational quarters, regarded as reprehensible—flighty at the least and morally deleterious at worst. In the century just gone by novel-reading became perfectly permissible—mildly civilizing at most and morally indifferent on the whole. Gertrude Himmelfarb’s book shows us a third way, not previously unknown but not enough practiced, a way of attending that combines pleasure and profit: novels read as images of morality.
This essay was originally published here in March, 2012, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. Republished with gracious permission from The Claremont Review (Volume 7, No. 1, 2006-7).
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “The Oxbow” (1836) by Thomas Cole, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.