The Victorian Achievement

3 May 2018


Queen Victoria reigned 20 June 1837 to 22 January 1901.

There is not only an insufficient appreciation of the Victorian achievement in history, but perhaps more importantly there is an insufficient understanding of the Victorian achievement. Victorian civilization — and I will avail myself of this locution understanding that most would allow that the Victorianism was a period in the history of western civilization, but not itself a distinct civilization — achieved nothing less than the orderly transition from agricultural civilization to industrialized civilization. As such, Victorianism became the template for other societies to make this transition without revolutionary violence.

The transition from agriculturalism to industrialism was the most disruptive in the history of civilization, and can only be compared in its impact to the emergence of agricultural civilization from pre-civilized nomadic hunter-gatherers. But whereas the the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to settled agriculturalism occurred over thousands of years, the transition from agricultural civilization to industrialized civilization has in some cases occurred within a hundred years (though the transition is still underway on a planetary scale). The Victorians not only managed this transition, and were the first people in history to manage this transition, they moreover managed this transition without catastrophic warfare, without the widespread breakdown of civil order, and with a certain sense of style. It could be argued that, if the Victorians had not managed this transition so well, rather than a new form of civilization taking shape, the industrial revolution might have resulted in the collapse of civilization and a new dark age.

Today we think of Victorianism as a highly repressive social and cultural milieu that was finally cast aside with the innovations of the Edwardian era and then the great scientific and social revolutions that characterized the early twentieth century and which then instituted dramatic social and cultural changes that ever after left the Victorian period in the shadows of history. But Victorian repression was not arbitrary; it served a crucial social function in its time, and it may well have been the only possible social and cultural mechanism that would have made it possible for any society to be the first to make the transition from agriculturalism to industrialism.

Victorianism not only made an orderly transition possible from agriculturalism to industrialism, it also made possible an orderly transition from a social order (i.e., a central project) based on religious tradition to a social order that was largely secular. Americans (especially Americans who don’t travel) are not aware of the degree to which European society is secularized, and much of this occurred in the nineteenth century. Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach was an important early expression of secularization.

Nietzsche already saw this secularization happening in the nineteenth century, and, of course, Darwin, a proper English gentleman, worked his own scientific revolution in the midst of the Victorian period, which played an important role in secularization. Rather than being personally destroyed for his efforts — which is what almost any other society would have done to a man like Darwin — Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey and treated like a national hero.

Considerable intellectual toughness was a necessary condition of making a peaceful transition from agriculturalism to industrialism, and we can find the requisite toughness in the writers of nineteenth century England. The intellectual honesty of Matthew Arnold is bracing and refreshing. Arnold’s “Sweetness and Light” is a remarkable essay, and not at all how we today would characterize the aspirations of Victorian society, but in comparison to the horrific counterfactual that might have attended the industrial revolution under other circumstances, the grim Victorian world described so movingly by Charles Dickens is relatively benign. Since we have, for the most part, in our collective historical imagination, consigned nineteenth century English literature to our understanding of a genteel and proper Victorianism, it is easy to believe that the men of the nineteenth century did not yet possess the kind of raw, unsparing honesty that the twentieth century forced upon us. Reading Arnold now, in the twenty-first century, I see that this is not true.

Matthew Arnold’s world may have been innocent of World Wars, Holocausts, genocides, nuclear annihilation, and the rigorously realized horrors bequeathed to us by the twentieth century, but it was not an innocent world. History may always reveal new horrors to us, but even in the slightly less horrific past, there were horrors aplenty to preclude any kind of robust innocence on the part of human beings. And it is interesting to reflect that, while the Victorian Era is remembered for its social and cultural repression, it is not remembered for the scope and scale of its atrocities.

This is significant in light of the fact that the twentieth century, which has been seen as a liberation of society once Victorian constraints were swept away, is remembered for the scope and scale of its atrocities. Again, the Victorians did a better job than we did in managing the great transitions of our respective times. Voltaire famously said (during the Enlightenment) that we commit atrocities because we believe absurdities. If this is true, then the absurdities believed by the Victorians were less pernicious than the absurdities believed in the twentieth century.

The late-Victorian or early Edwardian Oscar Wilde in his De Profundis was raw and unsparing, but was rather too self-serving to measure up to the standard of intellectual honesty set by Matthew Arnold. (I fully understand that most of my contemporaries would probably disagree with this judgment.) However, Wilde’s heresies, like Arnold’s honesty, was characterized by a great sense of style. We may criticize the Victorian legal and penal system for essentially destroying Wilde, but it was also the Victorian cultural milieu that made Oscar Wilde possible. If Wilde had not been quite so daring, he might have gotten by without provoking the authorities to respond to him as it did.

Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism is a wonderful essay, employing the resources of Wilde’s legendary wit in order to to make a serious point. Like many of Wilde’s famous witticisms, his central motif is the contravention of received wisdom, forcing us to see things in a new perspective. Though we know in hindsight the caustic if not criminal consequences for individualism under socialism, Wilde did not have the benefit of hindsight, and Wilde makes the case that socialism will make authentic individualism possible for the first time. Wilde’s conception of individualism under socialism was in fact a paean to his own individualism, carved out within the limitations of Victorian society. This, too, is an ongoing legacy of Victorianism, which was sufficiently large and comprehensive to include individuals as diverse as Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Matthew Arnold, and Oscar Wilde.

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2 Responses to “The Victorian Achievement”

  1. xcalibur said

    I’m aware of Victorian repression (perhaps symbolized by narrow women’s corsets), and the iniquities of the period (vividly described by Dickens). However, it’s true that there was a lack of atrocities in Victorian society, and a great increase in the scope and scale of violence once those restraints had been removed in the 20th century. The Civil War may be an exception to this, but that can be explained by the US being an exceptional historical case. I had not perceived this overarching pattern, but I must agree with it.

    It occurred to me that the catastrophic World Wars would not have been possible without the might of industry, a major example of how war and peace are two sides of the same coin, ie as a society becomes more advanced, it also increases its capacity to make war. However, I had not considered until now that there was a relative interregnum of large-scale warfare in the West, lasting about a century between the Napoleonic Wars and WWI (except for the Civil War as mentioned above), and this in spite of the rise of industry. I’m trying to imagine an alternate history in which industrialization led to a 19th century conflict on the scale of the 30 Years War… yikes. That certainly could’ve led to a new Dark Age.

    I think the British Empire in general is under-appreciated for their accomplishments. They successfully made the peaceful transition from agrarian to industrial society. They also campaigned to end slavery and the slave trade, a fact which I never learned in school (I found out from Thomas Sowell’s chapter: The Real History of Slavery) but that’s another topic.

  2. […] The Victorian Achievement Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon […]

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