Ten years after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, transformed Great Britain into a massive spasm of emotion—something Time magazine’s Michael Elliott approvingly puts down to Britain’s emergence as a “modern” nation--Elliott is beginning to wonder whether it was really such a good idea to trade “the virtues--the Roman virtues, an earlier generation would have called them--of restraint, stoicism and quiet, private mourning” for Venting Unlimited. Here’s his conclusion:
“I thought modern Britain showed the best of itself in the week after Diana died: a feeling and a compassion and an openness to emotional expression that it had for too long kept bottled up. But perhaps--as stock markets stumble and wars drag on--these are sterner times than the mid-1990s, ones when the virtues of reason, reserve and order become apparent. You can't fuel a society on flowers alone.”
Hmmm. Are these thoughts the sober stirrings of a revitalized appreciation of the virtue of restraint? Not exactly. The plus-side of “reason, reserve and order” may have suddenly become “apparent” to the Time writer in these “sterner times,” but that’s not quite the same thing. As historian Gertrude Himmelfarb has pointed out (and darned if I don’t mention it in my book on p. 216) virtues—as opposed to shifting “values”—do not simply bob into and out of focus according to shifting national outlooks.
“The ancient virtues were not the Christian virtues, and they were certainly not the Victorian virtues,” Himmelfarb said. “But what was common to all these virtues, to the very idea of virtue, was a fixed moral standard—a standard by which all people at all times and under all circumstances would be judged.”
In other words, if “reason, reserve and order” are to see us through “sterner times,” they must be prized in the society at all times. Sure, “you can’t fuel a society on flowers alone,” as Elliott writes, but it doesn’t sound as if he’s calling for anything besides a change in window dressing.