The Value of Victorian Virtues

By Himmelfarb, Gertrude | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 7, 1995 | Go to article overview

The Value of Victorian Virtues


Himmelfarb, Gertrude, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


When Margaret Thatcher, during the British election campaign of 1983, raised the issue of "Victorian values," she said that she was grateful to have been brought up by a Victorian grandmother who taught her such values as hard work, self-reliance, self-respect, cleanliness, neighborliness and pride in country. "All of these things," she said, "are Victorian values. They are also perennial values."

Well, not quite. Thatcher's grandmother would not have spoken of them as "values." She would have spoken of them as "virtues." Moreover, they were not "perennial" virtues. Certainly the virtues celebrated by classical philosophers such as Aristotle - wisdom, justice, temperance, courage - do not appear in the litany of Thatcher's grandmother. Nor were the Victorian virtues the Christian ones - faith, hope and charity - although the Victorians would not have belittled these virtues.

The Victorian virtues were more domesticated than the classical ones and more secular than the Christian ones.w Those virtues were deemed essential, not only for the good life of individuals but for the well-being of society. And they were "virtues," not "values." Not until the present century did morality became so thoroughly relativized that virtues ceased to be "virtues" and became "values."

Values, as we now understand that word, can be beliefs, opinions, attitudes, feelings, even habits or preferences. One cannot say of virtues, as one can of values, that anyone's virtues are as good as any one else's, or that everyone has a right to his or her own virtues. Only values can lay that claim to moral equality and neutrality.

For the Victorians, virtues were fixed and certain, not in the sense of governing the actual behavior of all people all the time, but as standards against which behavior could be judged. When conduct fell short of those standards, it was deemed to be bad, wrong or immoral - not merely misguided, undesirable or "inappropriate."

In Victorian England, moral principles were as much a part of public discourse as of private discourse and as much a part of social policy as of personal life. They were imbedded in two powerful strains of Victorian thought: utilitarianism on one hand, Evangelicalism and Methodism on the other. They complemented and reinforced each other, the utilitarian calculus of pleasure and pain, rewards and punishments, being the secular equivalent of the religious gospel of virtues and vices. It was this alliance of a secular ethos and a religious one that provided the practical basis for social policy.

Every measure of poor relief, for example, had to justify itself by showing that it would promote the moral as well as the material well-being of the poor.

In recent times, we have so completely rejected any kind of moral principle that we have divorced poor relief from moral sanctions and incentives. This reflects in part the theory that society is responsible for all social problems and should therefore assume the task of solving them; and in part the prevailing spirit of relativism, which makes it difficult to pass any moral judgments or impose any moral conditions upon the recipients of relief.

In retrospect, we can see that the social pathology - "moral pathology," I would call it - of crime, violence, illegitimacy, welfare dependency, and drug addiction is intimately related to the "counterculture" of the 1960s that promised to liberate us from the stultifying influence of "bourgeois values. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Value of Victorian Virtues
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.