1/13/2020

Walking humbly with Himmelfarb

"The major lesson is one of humility. How odd that Dr. Himmelfarb should have begun her lecture with a mea culpa of sorts for underestimating Burke’s insights in her earlier work. But Dr. Himmelfarb was notably open to the possibility that she had previously lacked the maturity to fully grasp and present her subjects and what they tried to teach. She even downplayed to the point of denigrating her own work on Lord Acton, though by the accounts of a great many scholars it was a masterpiece of historical scholarship. In her openness to a reconsidering Burke’s value and accepting the limits of her own knowledge Dr. Himmelfarb demonstrated a great virtue: Humility, both personal and epistemic. Scholars and social critics of our own era and in the future would do well to learn from her example.

Humility is also the virtue that best connects Himmelfarb to her Bradley Lecture subject. Burke was not, contra early Himmelfarb, falling prey to superstition or unthinking veneration of the past. He was exercising epistemic humility, as Himmelfarb explained, emphasizing that “thoughtful men, instead of exploding prejudices try to discover the latent wisdom which prevails within them, and think it wiser to retain the prejudice with the reason involved than to cast away the coat of prejudice and leave nothing but the naked reason.” Our own rationality is useful, but pales in comparison to the accumulated wisdom of ages. That wisdom should be given serious deference."