The Long View: The Demoralization of Society from Victorian Times to Modern Values

This book is probably best read in productive counter-point to Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms. It is not possible to understand the modern world without understanding both genetics and moral reform. Victorian England was the product of at least 1500 years of selection that made the most prudent, hard-working, and law-abiding population on the face of the Earth. However, there is enough slack in the leash biology keeps on culture to allow an oscillation between Regency dissipation, to Victorian prudery, back to yobs, within the space of 200 years. There is no known genetic mechanism that would allow that much change in that time span, so that leaves other causes. Since I haven't completed the demonstrative regress, I cannot claim that the moral revolution of the Victorians was the exclusive cause of the change for the better in the nineteenth century. However, I can claim it to be plausible to be one of the causes.

We do have the Victorians to thank for changing caritas from love in general into alms for the poor. In their eminent practicality and domesticity, the more rarefied meaning was lost, or perhaps discarded. We probably also owe our notion of progress in the Anglosphere to the Victorians. Progressive politics as such was a late Victorian/Edwardian thing, but the ball got rolling much, much earlier than that. 

One of the big differences between the attitude of the early Victorians and anyone who self-described as a "Progressive" at the time, is how they saw the poor. The attitude of the earlier Victorians is echoed in C. S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man. In a passage describing the difference between a trendy English textbook of the day and what Lewis chose to call the Tao [Natural Law was too Romish]

If they embark on this course the difference between the old and the new education will be an important one. Where the old initiated, the new merely "conditions." The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly: the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds—making them this or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation—men transmitting manhood to men: the new is merely propaganda.

The progressive era was also the era of eugenics. Lewis was astute to notice that the attitudes of his social betters tended to see the poor as livestock. It isn't an accident that eugenics and evolutionary theory grew up together among country gentlemen who bred animals for sport.

The other aspect of decadent Victorianism that largely goes unsaid here was the occult revival. John was familiar with this, as a student of the occult. I do think I detect something of this in the last lines of John's essay, but this a topic for another time.

The Demoralization of Society From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values
by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Alfred A. Knopf,1995
ISBN 0-679-43817-3


Nietzsche's Victory


Educated people in England and America around the year 1900 believed in social progress because they had experienced it. In England, where our statistics are best, crime and illegitimacy rates at the time Queen Victoria died in 1901 had fallen by about half from their mid-nineteenth century high. Public drunkenness became rare and alcoholism ceased to be an accepted fact of private life. Literacy became nearly universal, sanitation and diet improved at every level of society. People put great effort into staying clean, and governments built infrastructure that enormously increased the availability of water to common people. Wages nearly doubled in a generation. The entire adult male population was enfranchised. Married women gained control over their own property. All this happened while large towns became sprawling cities and severe financial panics periodically shook the economy. (The term "depression" is a later American euphemism).

This level of civilization was maintained through the first half of the twentieth century, through two world wars. Then, in the 1950s, the statistical indices of social pathology began to creep upwards. In the 1960s, they vastly accelerated. By 1990, crime rates were ten times their nineteenth century high, illegitimacy over four times. (Remember, these former highs had been reached in the most Dickensian years of the Industrial Revolution.) Additionally, in some ways the population was getting appreciably stupider and sicker. As the century neared its end, it had become fashionable to belittle the idea of progress. No wonder.

So what happened? That's the question that Gertrude Himmelfarb, Professor Emeritus of the City University of New York (and wife of neoconservative scholar Irving Kristol) tries to answer in this brief and very readable overview of social history. There is no attempt here to turn the Victorian era into paradise lost. Victorian women may not have been the silent slaves depicted in feminist mythology, but they were sufficiently dissatisfied with their lot that they collectively exerted themselves for almost a century to widen their public role. Society was riddled with class and racial prejudices that most people today would find gruesome. (Curiously, the word "imperialism" does not even appear in the index, though the book treats mostly of England in the last fifty years of the nineteenth century.) Though working people were not as poor as they used to be, they still worked appalling hours for wages not far above subsistence levels. The Victorians were even more familiar with poverty, ignorance and disease than we are. The difference is that they believed these things could be greatly mitigated. Their belief was not irrational; they really knew how to do it.

If you need an example of a society in a state of moral and social collapse, you might do worse than to study England in the second half of the eighteenth century. Cities were growing in an almost unregulated fashion as the impoverished peasantry were driven off the land. The capital was intermittently in the hands of a mob bent on revolution. Crime was so common that the hundreds of capital offenses on the books were no longer considered sufficient deterrent, so the transportation of criminals to Australia was begun. The national government was corrupt to a degree that would have embarrassed Boss Tweed. Parliament was the tool of aristocratic factions. The aristocracy itself was violent, promiscuous and ruthless. The Church of England, though blessed with a few great apologists, served mostly as a source of undemanding careers for less gifted younger sons. The country was obviously in a chaotic condition, but its rulers had no plans to put it back in order, or even any clear idea of what was wrong. Though hardly unprejudiced observers, the American Founding Fathers tended to assume that the British Empire was about to go the way of the later Roman Empire.

It was not the rulers of Britain who saved the nation, but the pious middle class. Led most famously by John Wesley and his Methodists, the English evangelicals and nonconformists (i.e., people belonging to non-Anglican protestant churches) began a program of moral reform that, within a century, had transformed society almost as much as technology had transformed the economy. It was a moral revival. Its mechanism was the dissemination of virtues in churches, in schools, and, where applicable, whenever the state met the citizenry. The revival was a long march through all the institutions of the nation. It took four generations, and it was one of the most successful social enterprises in the history of the world.

This work was not accomplished through social bureaucracies; for the most part, they did not exist until the end of the period. The Victorian era (which for many purposes began before Victoria's actual accession to the throne in 1837) was the great age of private philanthropy. Though philanthropy did involve large financial donations, to a large extent it was a hands-on affair. University graduates and professional people established and worked in settlement houses in poor neighborhoods. They taught adult education classes and provided free health care. Successful businessmen undertook surveys of health and poverty at their own expense. Using skills learned in the business world, they invented empirical social science. More to the point, they were able to craft proposals for reform that could be understood by other practical men in government.

The state helped where it could, for good or ill. The workhouse system under the Poor Laws, which in principle required unemployed able-bodied people to live in a workhouse, was leniently applied in practice. It was cheaper to support the indigent if they lived on their own. However, the system helped to stigmatize poverty, even poverty through ill-fortune. Particularly in the final decades of the century, a series of remarkably strict antipornography laws were passed. The state became concerned with discouraging abortion and contraception (some feminists supported these policies, some opposed them). The state served to promote private morality best, perhaps, through the example of the royal family. Though George III had been popular, neither George IV nor William IV had been especially well-liked, for good reason. In contrast, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, surrounded by their innumerable children, were the very picture of domestic bliss. The wealthy and powerful often led the sort of irregular lives that the wealthy and powerful sometimes do. However, they were at pains to maintain the appearance of propriety. Any history of high society from the period is replete with sham marriages and shocking discoveries found posthumously in the personal diaries of eminent Victorians renowned in life for their moral rectitude. This was not hypocrisy, in the sense that naughty Victorians were pretending to standards in which they did not believe. They did believe in them; they just were unable to live up to them. Their pious impostures, however, gave many lesser contemporaries the strength to succeed where prominent persons failed.

Lists of the "Victorian Virtues" have multiplied since that day in the 1983 when a reporter was so ill-advised as to suggest to Margaret Thatcher that her social ideals were merely Victorian. She immediately took the offensive in the cause of the Victorians, one that this review, perhaps, is continuing. The virtues the Victorians cherished were "domestic" in the general sense of personal, practical, humble. While they were consistent with the noble virtues expounded by Aristotle and the theological virtues as summarized by St. Paul or St. Thomas, they were the versions of these ideals which would appeal to people who had to work for a living. Aristotle endorsed wisdom, justice, magnanimity, temperance and courage. The Victorians, more prosaically, were interested in diligence, cleanliness, honesty, sobriety, civic pride. "Charity" ceased to mean love and came to mean the dutiful support of the deserving poor.

Victorian attitudes toward sex varied, though Ms. Himmelfarb is careful to debunk some of the extreme anecdotes on the subject as later satires. (Victorian matrons did not really put little skirts around the bottoms of their pianos to cover the legs. I, for one, am disappointed.) On the other hand, the Victorians did bowdlerize Shakespeare so that salacious passages might not offend innocent eyes. (Thomas Bowdler was the ingenious publisher who gave us this eponymous verb.) They did the same to Gibbon in order to expunge the impieties from "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." However, throughout the period, they never lost sight of the virtue of chastity itself. It was a positive good, not simply the failure to commit evil.

Victorian virtues were also domestic in the specific sense of being centered on the home and the family. "Respectability" was something that Victorians worried about, particularly the working class. It meant that husbands worked as much as they could, and then they came home and gave their paypackets to their wives, who might then give them some spending money. It meant that the mothers of large families kept her children clean and sent them to school. In a world without washing machines or food that could be stored for more than a few days, this was no small proposition. Perhaps a quarter of Victorian women worked for wages, either at home or in commercial settings. This was "respectable" because it was necessary, but it was not regarded as a good in itself. Women of the professional and upper classes often had what amounted to demanding careers, but these were likely to be volunteer positions in charitable or social service enterprises.

I suspect that Ms. Himmelfarb underestimates the rates of marital breakup and illegitimacy before the nineteenth century and into its first half. She argues, on the basis of selected statistics from parish registers, they such things were rare going back to Tudor times. As Paul Johnson's "The Birth of the Modern" explains, "marriage" in the early years of the century was still a surprisingly slippery notion. Only marriages before a Anglican clergyman were automatically valid. People married in a Baptist chapel might not bother with a license. There was also the ancient and amiable institution of the "common law" marriage. (In common law marriages, the state usually takes no notice of the arrangement until one partner dies and the other claims the departed's property.) There were also popular customs, a sort of common law divorce, for ending these unions. The most picturesque of these was the public "wife sale." (The portrayal in Thomas Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge" is misleading, since these performances were not open auctions.) A full legal divorce in England literally took an act of parliament, but some large percentage of the married population was not "married" in way of which the law took cognizance. The regularization of marriage and divorce laws in England must therefore be included among the century's reforms. It was made easier to get married, and control over marital disputes was removed from the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts. Popular behavior gradually conformed to the law. The early Victorians, particularly the common people, were rather lax about these matters. The latter ones were not, and divorce was rare.

The Victorians did not exactly invent childhood, but they made it a special stage of life. They created the peculiar culture of children, the literature and the clothes and the toy industry. It was Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic who gave us Christmas trees and "The Night Before Christmas." Maybe more important, they gave us universal compulsory education and the first restrictions on child labor. School became the career of Victorian children, in principle of the children of all ranks. When marriage laws were amended, one of the principle goals was the protection and support of children. Producing children and raising them were unambiguously the chief priorities of both sexes and of all classes. Only at the very end of the period did serious people begin to suggest that maybe career or eugenic factors should play a role in these matters.

Nietzsche did not cause the end of the Victorian era. He was early read and appreciated by people like Shaw, of course, but the fin de siecle had interests other than the German philosopher's aesthetic nihilism. However, he understood what was happening, and what was going to happen, better than anyone else. God had died for a growing fraction of the intellectual class of the West sometime in the middle of the 19th century. Without a theological grounding, he realized, virtues would become "values," social conventions that could be debated and modified as convenience suggested. Nietzsche had only contempt for his contemporaries' comfortable assumption that society would go on much as it had, except that people would no longer go to church. The moral system of Western civilization is founded on Judaism and Christianity. Once this foundation was removed, the superstructure would start to crumble. Although it was not until the 1960s that the effects would be felt on a popular level in the English-speaking world, the moral imagination of the West was becoming visibly unhinged in Nietzsche's lifetime.

The moral revival had succeeded because it was not original. The working classes and the rural poor did not have a system of morality different from that of the reforming middle class. The virtues the reformers sought to encourage were principles that just about everyone acknowledged. There were rare exceptions, such as the Poor Laws turning poverty into a near crime, that could be characterized as social engineering. Even in those cases, however, the state cannot be accused of trying to make up a virtue out of whole cloth. In the second half of the century, in contrast, that is precisely what the increasingly secular intellectual class tried to do. The aesthetes, for instance, tried to develop an ethics of art-for-art's-sake. While the actual art produced by the self-conscious "decadents" of the end of the century is an acquired taste, it was in fact during this period that art became a substitute for religion for many people. Other late Victorian reformers began to promote more intrusive measures to improve public health or fix the economy. Even when some of these measures were plausible ideas, like the total prohibition of alcohol, they were not to most people self-evident moral principles. The new reformers, however, continued to press them with the self-assurance of their pre-Darwinian forebears. They became moralists who had forgotten what morality looked like.

This era also saw the appearance of eugenics, originally one of the enthusiasms of the Fabian socialists. Earlier Victorian social reformers had looked out on the drunken and dirty laboring classes and seen fellow creatures who needed to be lifted from their deplorable state. The term "patronizing" does not quite do justice to this attitude, but at least it was an attitude of one human being regarding another. The Fabians, on the other hand, such as G. B. Shaw and Beatrice Webb, began to regard their countrymen as cattle in need of an intelligent breeding program. The attitude did not change even when their interest in eugenics wavered; thirty years later these people were also enthusiastic supporters for totalitarian experiments on the continent. Shaw and the Webbs (Beatrice and her co-author husband Sidney) were conspicuous for their support of the Soviet Union during the worst phases of Stalin's regime. (Shaw, by the way, was not as ignorant of what was happening in the Soviet Union as he pretended in public.)

The problem with these opinion-maker enthusiasms is not that they are necessarily wicked, though many of them are. The problem is that they are constructs, something that someone made up. They cannot form the basis of a social consensus, because they are alien to all but their makers. Even when, as in totalitarian societies, they can be imposed by the police, the police themselves are likely to lose interest in them after a while. What happened in the twentieth century was that the opinion-makers continued the cottage industry of value-making which the decadent Victorians had founded. They busied themselves concocting what were, in effect, exotic poisons in the arts and politics and the principles of personal relations. For the first half of the twentieth century, the major institutions of society continued along the vector which the Victorian moral revival had imparted. Teachers knew how to teach, the police knew how to keep the streets safe. For that matter, the Post Office knew how to deliver the mail. However, these funds of institutional wisdom were scarcely inexhaustible. By the middle of the twentieth century, it was obvious that some novel thinking was needed about everything from race relations to the control of industrial pollution. So society applied to the opinion-makers for guidance. And the injection of the poisons began.

Today, we live in a time that bears comparison to the eighteenth century. We have a fatuously self-confident upper class, the New Class of information manipulators, who have forgotten the moral law. We have an increasingly feral underclass who have never heard of it. We also have a very lively sense that something is radically wrong. Many people these days look to the Victorian moral revival as a model for us to follow. If the Victorians were able to reconstruct their society, surely we can engineer a revival of our own?

What happened once can happen again, and certainly not all the cultural indices are falling these days. However, we have to remember that the Victorian moral revival was a side-effect of a popular religious movement. Though the political and economic powers of the time frequently manipulated it, they did not originate it or control it. How could they? No one could have conceived where it would lead. The problem with what many people believe to be the incipient moral revival of America is that we are still playing by Nietzsche's rules. We continue to talk about establishing values, not discovering virtues. To every secularist's considerable surprise, religion is back in politics to a degree not seen for a hundred years, but there is something artificial about the phenomenon. The Methodist revival began as a movement for personal reform that only later developed political significance. (The Labor Party, Ms. Himmelfarb notes, was practically born in a nonconformist chapel.) Today, however, one may be forgiven for suspecting that much of the new-found piety of American conservatives is a political tactic to coopt evangelical and conservative Catholic votes. Secular conservatives seem to think that they can conjure up God to be their familiar spirit and serve their interests. They may well succeed in conjuring up something, but maybe not exactly what they expect.


This article originally appeared in the July/August 1995 issue of Culture Wars magazine. 

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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