Interview: Gertrude Himmelfarb Learning from Victorian Virtues
R&L:Let’s begin by discussing your latest book, The Demoralization Of Society. In it you state that Victorian society stigmatized the recipients of government assistance.Tell us about that.
Himmelfarb: Well, it stigmatized them in several ways: first, it stigmatized them rhetorically. The recipient of relief was called a pauper, not a poor man. The Victorians made a great attempt to keep the distinction between pauper and poor. The word poor was synonymous with the working classes or the “independent laborer”; “pauper” was a term of stigmatization.
R&L: Was this type of stigmatization dehumanizing?
Himmelfarb: No. It’s purpose was precisely the opposite — to make the poor better human beings by encouraging the able-bodied pauper to seek work and discouraging the laborer from lapsing into pauperism. The evil of excessive or “indiscriminate” relief, as the Victorians put it, was that it tended to pauperize, demoralize, and thus dehumanize the poor. Stigmatization is the other side of the coin of virtue. You can’t have a set of virtues, a system of values, without having a corresponding system of stigmas. The interesting thing about the workhouse was that conditions there were not always worse than the conditions of the poorest independent laborer; some contemporaries claimed that in terms of food and living conditions, they were sometimes better. What the Victorians understood, however, was that the workhouse was socially and morally demeaning. This was its great deterrent. Another way was through the principle of “less eligibility”. This principle stipulated that the pauper should always be in a less eligible, that is to say a less desirable, condition than the independent laborer. The pauper would be less eligible in two respects. First, he would receive less from the parish than the laborer did in the way of wages. In addition, the able-bodied pauper, (this principle did not apply to the sick, elderly or children) would be assisted only in the workhouse. This was a form of psychological as well as economic stigmatization.
*Professor Himmelfarb taught for twenty-three years at Brooklyn College and the Graduate School of City University of New York, where she was named Distinguished Professor of History in 1978. Professor Himmelfarb’s research has focused on, among other topics, morality and its effects on economics. Her previous books include Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics, On Liberty and Liberalism, and Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians. Now Professor Emeritus, she spoke with us from her home in Washington, D.C.