Friday, November 19, 2010

Putting the clock back

Can the clock be turned back? Can social disintegration be reversed? When it seems that things are falling apart, that "the center cannot hold," it may help to remember that there have been times when things did move in a more hopeful direction. For instance, Gertrude Himmelfarb, the great historian of 19th century England, described how the Victorian Era saw a remarkable improvement:
.... One of the extraordinary facts about Victorian England, which came as a revelation to me, was the low illegitimacy rate. Around 1845 the illegitimacy ratio was 7%; by the end of the century it had come down to less than 4%. In the poorest part of London, east London, it was 4% at its peak and 3% by the end of the century. Remember, this was a time of enormous political, economic and social turmoil: the industrial revolution, the cultural revolution, urbanism and so on. And yet it in spite of all these difficulties, illegitimacy was considerably reduced and the English emerged from this period in a state of re-moralization – in dramatic contrast to our present situation where illegitimacy rose from 5% in 1960 to nearly 30% today. ....

.... Like the low illegitimacy rate, the low crime rate is quite extraordinary. There was a drop in the crime rate of nearly fifty percent in the second half of the 19th century; again in dramatic contrast to the crime rate in our own times which in the past thirty years has risen ten-fold. The low crime rate was a reflection of the Victorian virtues – work, temperance, orderliness, and responsibility.

It was also a reflection of the degree to which this ethos had been internalized. We tend to think of stigma and sanctions as being externally imposed by society, by law and coercion. But in fact, what was most characteristic about Victorian England was the internalization of these sanctions. For the most part they were accepted by the individual willingly, even unconsciously; they were incorporated in his superego, as we would now say. This combination of external and internal sanctions made for a powerful ethos, an ethos supported by religion, law, and all the other institutions of society. ....
Alan Jacobs has been thinking about a book describing England in the preceding century and the tendency to believe that "progress" can only move in one direction:
I think it’s fair to say that most of us living in America today assume that, as we like to put it, “you can’t turn back the clock,” that history always and inevitably moves in a liberalizing direction. And we think that whether we consider such “liberalizing” as the epitome of good or the embodiment of evil or something in between. It seems to be endemic to Americans to embrace the “Whig interpretation of history”, that is, to see the whole of history as marching inexorably towards us, to see everything culminating in ourselves — whether we happen to like that culmination or not.

But when we seriously compare the social world of England in 1750 to the social world of England in 1850, it becomes harder to sustain the Whiggish model. As C. S. Lewis once commented, “as to putting the clock back”:
Would you think I was joking if I said that you can put a clock back, and that if the clock is wrong it is often a very sensible thing to do? But I would rather get away from that whole idea of clocks. We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.
Of course, we can and will disagree about what counts as real progress — about whether the clocks are wrong at all, and, even when we agree that they are wrong, where they should be re-set. But the key point is that history does not move in a single, inevitable direction — or at least, has not done so thus far — and if we imagine our grandchildren’s world as nothing but a continuation of our own, an extension or our own values and inclinations, we may prove in the end to be as wrong as wrong can be. [more]
Learning from Victorian Virtues | Acton Institute, A Not-So-Distant Mirror | Big Questions Online