- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 1, 2006

THE MORAL IMAGINATION: FROM EDMUND BURKE TO LIONEL TRILLING

By Gertrude Himmelfarb

Ivan R. Dee, $26, 288 pages

REVIEWED BY ARNOLD BEICHMAN

It is said that the British historian Macaulay’s ambition was to displace the novel from the fashionable coffee table. If any contemporary historian could do that, it would be without question Gertrude Himmelfarb. Would I had the power to transport Miss Himmelfarb into the 19th century. Then she could interview personally the admirable figures of the Victorian era and later we could all share in her pleasure.

But even though the age of miracles is long over (if it ever really began), we can nevertheless read quite happily her reflective essays on the sterling characters whose lives she describes in these biographical sketches. Miss Himmelfarb is working in the tradition of the 17th-century John Aubrey’s “Brief Lives” about William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, John Milton and other worthies.

Author of “The De-Moralization of Society,” “One Nation, Two Cultures” and other extensively researched volumes tracing the history of modern thought, Miss Himmelfarb has examined the evolution of ideas and how ideas influence historical developments. The purpose of her chrestomathy, she says, is to “do justice to the men and women who have enriched my life, the lives of generations before me and, I hope, of those after me.”

Miss Himmelfarb has presented us with a dozen beautifully written essays about such major politico-literary figures as Edmund Burke, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Winston Churchill, the lesser-known Walter Bagehot and Michael Oakeshott, the English political philosopher who, pace Leo Strauss, inspired American neo-conservatism.

In this volume of essays she has examined the writings of 11 Britons and one contemporary American, Lionel Trilling. Her fascinating essay on Churchill describes his “conciliatory attitude to the welfare state,” pointing to a feature of Churchill’s politics that has been little noted.

In July 1945, Churchill was negotiating with Joseph Stalin the future of a defeated Nazi Germany. In the middle of these portentous negotiations he had to return to Britain to participate in the first postwar election. The results were a stunning knockout for the Tories. Churchill was out and Clement Attlee’s Labor Party was in, and in big.

When he got off the floor, Churchill was prepared to do anything to get back as prime minister so he could negotiate the peace. It was at this moment that he revealed his ideological flexibility, his liberal, even ultra-liberal domestic policies, which even permeated a large part of the Conservative Party, sneeringly referred to as “pink Tories.”

Under the leadership of R.A. Butler, the party issued what was called the Industrial Charter, which not only recognized trade unions but also — horrors — their right to strike.

When Labor Party critics pointed out that the Tory Industrial Charter did not give government workers the right to strike, unlike the Labor Party platform which did, Churchill immediately approved an amendment to the Tory Charter to allow strikes against government institutions.

And when disgruntled Tories asked Churchill what he would do about nationalized industries if he were returned to power, he authorized a reply which, in effect, said you can’t unscramble the omelet. In other words, if the British voter wants socialism, fine, but only under Conservative leadership.

One of the most insightful of these essays deals with Michael Oakeshott, a self-avowed conservative. He espoused what he called a “conservative disposition,” which Miss Himmelfarb defines as “a temper of mind rather than a set of ideas, a spirit and attitude rather than a philosophy or creed.” For Oakeshott, “Rationalism is the great heresy of modern times.” It meant taking reason as the sole authority excluding tradition, habit, custom, common sense.

However, the essay I cherished was titled “The Moral Imagination,” dedicated to Lionel Trilling, known personally to both of us, she the writer and I the reviewer. Miss Himmelfarb is right in calling Trilling “the most eminent intellectual figure of his time …”

And with reason. He was doing the unthinkable. He was not only challenging the tenets of Marxism but, more daringly, the tenets of liberalism which offered, to quote Miss Himmelfarb, “no defense against totalitarianism.”

Miss Himmelfarb goes even further and argues that Trilling was “a progenitor of conservatism [who] did provide a mode of thought, a moral and cultural sensibility, that was inherently subversive of liberalism and thus an invitation not to conservatism but to some hybrid form of neoliberalism or neo-conservatism.”

I have concentrated on two of Miss Himmelfarb’s essays not because the others are of lesser quality, which they are not, but to indicate the superb quality of her own mode of thought. “The Moral Imagination,” which should also be looked upon as a manual for modern statesmanship, could well be the title of her autobiography-to-come.

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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