THE DE-MORALIZATION OF SOCIETY by Gertrude Himmelfarb

THE DE-MORALIZATION OF SOCIETY

From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 The prominent historian of Victorian ideas here boldly links her scholarly research to contemporary cultural issues. Her not-so- hidden agenda is to provide the intellectual basis for a ``new reformation'' that would restore ``moral and civic virtues'' in an increasingly amoral society. In order to recast the current debate about ``values,'' Himmelfarb (On Looking into the Abyss, 1994) turns attention from this relativistic term and focuses on the Victorian-era notion of ``virtue,'' which was family-oriented and more secular than traditional Christian virtue. In 19th-century England, both the working class and the bourgeoisie aspired to a level of respectability that incorporated beliefs in ``work, thrift, cleanliness, and self-reliance.'' Far from the coercive, absolutist morality posited by most radical historians, Himmelfarb discovers a civil society that democratized virtue: Working men could be ``gentlemen,'' and wives could find satisfaction in managing their homes and families. In short, ordinary people could attain ordinary virtues. Himmelfarb's truly revisionist account lets her Victorian witnesses speak for themselves, and they pay tribute to a time when enlightened self-interest coincided with the public good. Though some historians persist in portraying the era as materialistic, Himmelfarb re-examines Victorian attitudes toward both poverty and reform. Her contemporary subtext becomes clearer in controversial chapters on Victorian Jews as the quintessential Victorians and 19th-century government intervention in social issues as the precursor of present-day failures. One need not accept Himmelfarb's explanation for social and cultural decline--she's rabidly anti-materialist--to agree that the Victorians provide an admirable counter-example to our present malaise. This is first-rate intellectual history, fully attentive to the social and political contexts.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-679-43817-3
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1995




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