Poverty in the Mind

Poverty in the Mind

At the very beginning of this meticulous essay in intellectual history, Gertrude Himmelfarb employs Samuel Johnson and R. H. Tawney to make a point
of importance, that attitudes toward the poor in England have changed less in the last two centuries than the remaining adherents to the Whig conception of history as a record of spreading enlightenment and social progress might be willing to concede. In 1770 that stalwart Tory Samuel Johnson, who after all knew something about poverty from first-hand experience, declared that “A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.” As an egalitarian socialist, R. H. Tawney was moved to insist in 1926 that “There is no touchstone, except the treatment of childhood, which reveals the true character of a social philosophy more clearly than the spirit in which it regards the misfortunes of those of its members who fall by the way.”

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