Gertrude Himmelfarb’s Unparalleled Contribution to the Study of the Past and Our Understanding of the Present

January 2, 2020 | Yuval Levin
About the author: Yuval Levin is the director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he also holds the Beth and Ravenel Curry Chair in Public Policy. The founder and editor of National Affairs, he is also a senior editor at The New Atlantis, a contributing editor at National Review, and a contributing opinion writer at The New York Times.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, the eminent historian of Victorian England and the European Enlightenment, died Monday night at the age of ninety-seven. The author of a prodigious number of books and essays on a wide variety of topics, Himmelfarb was among the great minds of post-World War II America. Her contributions to Mosaic can be read here; the Israeli historian Asael Abelman’s essay on her work here; and a review of her final book here.

Yuval Levin reflects on Himmelfarb and her legacy:

Just what was it that drew this young Jewish woman born and bred in Brooklyn in the 1920s and 30s to the world of the Victorian intellectuals? . . . She found the Victorians particularly instructive regarding two sets of questions she thought were essential to her own time and place. The first was what she would later (in a biography of John Stuart Mill) call “the paradox of liberalism”—namely that in prioritizing individual liberty above all other political goods, modern liberalism threatened to undermine the moral foundations of individual liberty, and therefore of its own strength.

The second involved the significance of intellectuals in the public lives of free societies. Himmelfarb was fascinated by the role that writers, scholars, journalists, critics, and academics played in politics and culture, and nearly all of her work takes up that subject in one way or another.

Lord Acton, [the subject of her first published book], offered her much fodder on both fronts. The elimination of mediating, moderating layers of both authority and liberty endangered them both. This would become a defining insight of a certain kind of communitarian critique of liberalism over time. But Himmelfarb, drawing on Acton, saw it early and clearly.

Acton’s answer to this problem was not to abandon liberalism, but to insist that it be tethered to traditional religion. The attachment would serve both partners, though it was destined always to be rocky and perturbed. . . . But he also knew that they needed to insist that religious freedom was a communal, not just an individual freedom, and that the moralism that grew out of serious religious conviction needed to have a place in the public life of a liberal society. The relevance of this insight for our own time hardly needs to be stressed.

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