The Victorians Return

By Mark Bauerlein

Perfection, the State, and Victorian Liberalism, by Daniel S. Malachuk (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). 210 pp.

For most undergraduates majoring in English, the Victorians are a bleak and heavy assignment. Not the novelists, Dickens, the Brontes, Wilkie Collins, Eliot, and Thackeray, who remain a favorite of bookish girls (whose numbers, though, are dwindling). Rather, they dread the great social thinkers and cultural critics of the age, Carlyle, Ruskin, Mill, Arnold, Newman, and Pater, along with the Americans Emerson and Thoreau, men who ruminated on Big Questions with the urgency of those contemplating an ultimate fate. However much literary history has been gutted by topical and theoretical arrangements of the curriculum, in the survey courses students still have to plow through snippets of Sartor Resartus, Walden, Mill’s Autobiography, Nature, Culture and Anarchy, The Stones of Venice, and The Renaissance, and they find the labor dreary. The Victorian frame of mind strikes them as dark and overwrought. People who worry over the prospects of civilization, as the sages did, raise the stakes of cultural conflict to levels the average sophomore cannot understand, riddled as he is with adolescent irony. (Carlyle’s acidic irony is inscrutable to him.) To speak of Culture and Society and Heroes, instead of subcultures, multiculturalism, diversity, and social justice, which have filled their social studies classes since 5th Grade, is to trade in meaningless abstractions. After they graduate with a B.A. in English, they never open another page of nineteenth-century thought.

The estrangement isn’t entirely due to the mass entertainments that surround young people,, Halo 2, Friends, and the like. Graduate students, too, even those devoted to Victorian studies, regard the thinkers with a dubious eye. They read the major works, but with the possible exception of Mill’s On Liberty and some of Emerson’s essays, the cultural politics expressed are fatally hierarchical, Eurocentric, traditionalist, and earnest. Think of Arnold on “the best that has been thought and said,” Thoreau on charity, Carlyle on social order . . . Graduate students may study Carlyle and the rest, reading their works with due diligence, but they cannot take their positions seriously as outlooks with which to admit or reject. The Victorians belong to history, not to real life. They’re a scholarly subject, not a personal inspiration or an ethical source.

In his short, but valuable study of Victorian social theory, Daniel Malachuk explains why. His aim is blunt: to resurrect the Victorian liberals, mainly Mill and Arnold (not Carlyle), as wise and valiant political/cultural theorists worthy of inclusion in today’s most sophisticated academic and public policy debates. They represent a vital tradition, he contends, more broad-minded and forward-looking than the bulk of contemporary political theory, and they rightly cling to human ideals long-since shelved by liberal thinkers. Admittedly, his three titular terms—“Victorian,” “the State,” “perfection”—stand in disrepute, for how many scholars proudly bear the label “Victorian”? How many politicians, after the Reagan Revolution, advocate expanding the State’s powers? How many intellectuals hear in the word “perfection” the utopian impulse that ends in dehumanization and blood?

Nevertheless, Malachuk insists, the Victorian social/political thinkers conducted an inquiry into the means and ends of institutions and individuals that was principled, flexible, and, if we can only get out of our modern and postmodern skepticism, redemptive. Indeed, he writes, those “who can grasp what was most significant about the Victorian liberals [may] assist us in a radical renewal of the liberal imagination” (10).

This is a bold claim, not least because it assumes the decay of liberal opinion. To justify it, Malachuk begins by elucidating why the venerable works of Victorian thinkers have faded as moral guides. First of all, the Victorians were victims of their rebellious children, the modernists. Malachuk quotes George Bernard Shaw praising Ibsen in 1891 for dragging the Victorian ideals of “duty, unselfishness, idealism, sacrifice, and the rest of the anti-diabolic scheme to the bar” (43). Oscar Wilde, too, deplored “the sickly cant about Duty,” William Butler Yeats observed how “the worst,” not “the best,” are “full of passionate intensity,” and Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) effectively dismissed Victorian morality with blithe derision. These days, it is Wilde’s whimsy and Ibsen’s cynicism that readers heed, not the strictures of Victorian rectitude, and Wilde’s personal and Hedda Gabler’s fictional fate offer sad testimony to the repressiveness of Victorian morality.

Such criticisms were bolstered by another modern phenomenon, the ideological slaughters of the subsequent decades. Liberal minds observed the horrors of fascism and communism and recoiled, extending their concerns to any viewpoint that imposes its will upon and prescribes values to every member of society. The crimes of modern dictators and totalitarians lay not only in the act of killing, they reasoned, but in the arrogant attitude they took toward their own beliefs. “Modern liberals,” Malachuk writes, “arguably at least since the period between the world wars, have sought to describe an autonomous self in opposition to the dogmatic selves favored by major ideological rivals like fascism and collectivism” (30). The pattern was clear. Dogma leads to intolerance, intolerance to aggression, and aggression (armed with the killing technologies of the Twentieth Century) to the Holocaust and the Gulag.

To save humanity from self-destruction, liberals developed a new model of citizen and society. Just as Enlightenment theorists affirmed religious freedoms and natural rights in the wake of the seventeenth-century religious wars, Cold War liberals developed a new division of private and public domains in the wake of totalitarian experiments. When it came to issues of culture, religion, and taste, they argued, individuals needed to become more accommodating and cosmopolitan, making their judgments a matter of private expression, not public policy. Bertrand Russell, quoted by Malachuk, sums up the attitude: the “genuine liberal does not say ‘this is true,’ he says ‘I am inclined to think that under present circumstances this opinion is probably the best’” (31). Richard Rorty provides a more recent example, one that has proven enormously influential in the academic world in the last two decades, the “liberal ironist.” The liberal ironist is liberal in believing that “cruelty is the worst thing we do,” and ironic in having “abandoned the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance” (quoted 27-28). Nothing transcendent or extra-historical undergirds the beliefs individuals embrace. These new liberals may hold their beliefs with conviction and passion, but when they enter the public sphere, they temper their faith, acknowledging the contingency of all opinion.

Society, too, must curb its ideological/cultural/religious conformity, becoming less nationalistic and ethnocentric, less comprehensive and more pluralistic. The state’s role is to ensure freedom of conscience, not a common culture. Public institutions should form a “minimal framework,” a system for moderating disagreements through rational, non-violent channels. They aim for justice, not truth or beauty or the good. In this preference for neutral frameworks that explicitly do not intervene in people’s moral convictions or religious beliefs so long as they do not infringe on others’ convictions or beliefs, the different schools of liberalism and their representatives agree (Malachuk names them: political liberalism, modus vivendi liberalism, and virtue liberalism; John Rawls, Rorty, Ronald Dworkin, Martha Nussbaum, Peter Berkowitz).

How do the Victorian liberals fare in this new social philosophy? Needless to say, poorly. They come off as too insistent, too judgmental. They reprimand, censure, rebuke, provoke, and, most disqualifying of all, prescribe. Twentieth-century liberalism, Malachuk says, sought to remove moral and cultural values from the political sphere, or rather, to let individuals choose their values without influence from state authorities. They recognized that reasonable people will always disagree over values, and so the societies in which they lived had to develop institutions that would allow for a pluralism of opinions. “To continue to pursue some kind of comprehensive political theory—that is, one that unites a political and a moral program—is not just pointless; it is reckless,” Malachuk writes, paraphrasing the liberal outlook.

The Victorians, however, did precisely this, crafting a political framework grounded in a moral vision. Contemporary liberalism withholds ends from institutions and the state, so that institutions simply provide means for individuals to envision and pursue their own ends, giving them as much freedom as possible within the limits set by the maxim of leaving other people alone. In contrast, the Victorians placed ends squarely at the center of their liberalism, the ends stemming from the third and most un-modern term in Malachuk’s thesis: perfection. Perfectionism asserts that the proper role of the state includes favoring certain values and goods with the aim of improving the moral character of human beings. In our atmosphere of diversity and multiculturalism, that sounds like discrimination and homogeneity, but Malachuk maintains that Victorian perfectionism is based upon optimistic and noble premises. The first premise is the trust that people are not so immutable that they cannot be drawn out of their illiberal opinions, even those most deeply embraced. This faith testifies to the Victorians’ positive conception of human will. Second is the assumption that the progress may happen through liberal education and rational persuasion, not intimidation and “re-education.” This evinces their progressive notion of human reason. And third, perfectionism presupposes an objective basis for moral principles, so that the ends toward which they aim transcend the local interests of the perfectionists. This, finally, evinces their confidence in universals and in a liberal community’s ability to apprehend them if its institutions are adjusted properly.

All of these assumptions are more or less inimical to contemporary liberalism, especially of the academic kind. The reigning schools of thought in recent decades—deconstruction, Marxism, psychoanalysis, postmodernism, feminism—all share a belief in the opposite, in the irrational roots of human nature, the more or less coercive nature of education, and the absolute historicity of belief. This is why the strongest consideration of Victorian liberalism emerged in recent years not among political scientists but among conservative politicians and intellectuals in the 1980s and 1990s. Margaret Thatcher, for instance, stated in 1983: “I was grateful to have been brought up by a Victorian grandmother. . . . You were taught that cleanliness is next to godliness; you were taught self-respect; you were taught always to give a hand to your neighbor; you were taught tremendous pride in our country. All of these things are Victorian values” (quoted on p. 51). Newt Gingrich, too, praised the Victorians, sometimes calling himself a “Victorian liberal,” and historian Gertrude Himmelfarb explicitly highlighted the moral dimension of Victorian life. “In the evolving democracy that was Victorian England,” she wrote in 1995, “all individuals were assumed to be free moral agents, hence their own masters. It is no accident that the Victorians put such a premium on the self—not only on self-help and self-interest but also on self-control, self-discipline, self-respect. A liberal society, they believed, required a moral citizenry” (quoted on p. 53). The lesson conservatives took from the Victorians applied well, they believed, to what they saw happening in America in the 1970s and 1980s (decaying behavioral standards, rising crime rates, poor outcomes in the public schools): a society that confined moral standards to private matters denied itself the very cohesive that keeps it vibrant and civilized.

Conservatives could appreciate the individual liberties and responsibilities posited by Victorian liberalism, though, only by downplaying its statist aspects. Arnold, for instance, asserted the necessity of state action in blunt terms. Acknowledging the decline of aristocracy as a welcome development, but one that left a cultural void—who would sustain high culture?—Arnold asked, “what influence may help us to prevent the English people from becoming with the growth of democracy, Americanized? I confess I am disposed to answer: On the action of the State” (quoted on p. 90; “Americanized” means “equality without culture”). And Mill wrote in Considerations on Representative Government (1861) that one measure of the state was “the degree in which it is adapted to take advantage of the amount of good qualities which may at any time exist, and make them instrumental to the right purposes” (quoted on p. 91). For both of them, the proper role of government was, in Malachuk’s words, “to educate democratic citizens toward perfection” (91).

That sounds like the libertarian’s version of the “nanny state,” but the Victorians often explicitly reject any form of government that fosters dependence among the citizenry and that limits, without proper testing, new directions of thought. “Habits of self-reliance and independent action,” wrote Thomas Adolphus Trollope (novelist Anthony’s older brother), “are not found to be common among subjects of paternal governments. . . . [A] condition of society which prevents the free action of intelligence in any and every direction will soon be found to have been also fatal to social and intellectual qualities which mark the communities in which great mercantile careers have been common” (quoted on p. 104). Thoreau, too, in spite of his oft-cited sallies against government, envisioned a state that would endure and ennoble its citizens. “I please myself with imagining a State at last,” he wrote in “Resistance to Civil Government,” “which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose, if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it” (quoted on p. 13).

The state, then, is properly designed not to sustain itself or to pull all individuals within its sphere, but to help them rise into better selves. People can become better, and a state can assist them. Even Mill’s famous defense of dissent and lifestyles in On Liberty is oriented not against the state, but toward perfectionist goals: “As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so is it that there should be different experiments of living” quoted on p. 99; emphasis added by Malachuk). Diversity is not an end in itself. It is the instrument by which human intelligence advances. Once perfection has been reached, the state has outlived its purpose. As Emerson put it in his epigrammatic way, “To educate the wise man, the State exists; with the appearance of the wise man, the State expires” (quoted on p. 147). Until that time, and, once reached, whenever wisdom slides back into folly, the state has its uses.

Malachuk piles up these and many other quotations in making his case for a pre-modern liberalism. The argument proceeds not by refuting modern and postmodern liberalism, but by demonstrating the wisdom and practicality of Victorian liberalism. Reading through the litany of Victorian opinion, one must admit that it provides a refreshing contrast to today’s liberal sentiment, the wishy-washy attitude that elevates tolerance into the highest value and that finds “irony” the most meritorious posture. The Victorians understood better, knowing that some positive opinions, not just procedural ones, are worth fighting for. While academics may be in a position to “bracket their conceptions of the good,” as Malachuk puts it (41), and to wonder why the rest of the population doesn’t follow suit, the Victorians recognized that most individuals, some of them the most principled ones, believe too strongly in their beliefs to handle them so gingerly. Liberalism need not be so abstemious.