It is always a temptation to find parallels between our own experiences and those of the past. History, that most protean of disciplines, seems on occasion to instruct, almost to beg, us to share its experience. And, dejected by apparently intractable problems, we are, on occasion, prepared to learn.
One particular period, the 19th century in England, appears, as our own century runs its course, to offer more and more parallels - rapid industrialization, pollution, the extension of voting rights, the redistribution of wealth, questions about the responsibilities of a great power, and, not least , the problems of the poor and the unemployed. A country that has declared and waged war on poverty can readily sympathize with England's attempts to deal with it. And in this, the first of a projected two-volume series, ''The Idea of Poverty,'' the noted historian Gertrude Himmelfarb has produced a seminal work on the subject.
It is a comprehensive survey of the underlying ideas about that poverty, which resulted in legislation, in profound changes in terminology, and, partly through the great Victorian ''social novels,'' in defining society's ideas of itself. If the United States has been the great democratic experiment, England historically has served as a ''social laboratory'' for other countries. The first ''Poor Laws'' had been enacted under Elizabeth I, and at least until the end of the 19th century England was seen to be ''in the vanguard of social philosophy and social policy in thinking about the problem of poverty and how to ameliorate it.''
On a visit in 1766, Benjamin Franklin noted: ''There is no country in the world where so many provisions are established for them; so many hospitals to receive them when they are sick and lame, founded and maintained by voluntary charities; so many alms-houses for the support of the poor. . . . In short, you offered a premium for the encouragement of idleness, and should not now wonder that it has had its effect in the increase of poverty.''
Of course, it is the last sentence that encapsulates, right down to the present, the challenge to the moral impulse. The welfare cheats riding round in Cadillacs, the able-bodied young men lounging at street corners while advertised jobs go unfilled, and the cycle of dependency on public assistance that encourages generation after generation of unmarried mothers all combine to raise doubts about the rightness of the remedy.
De Tocqueville on a visit in 1833 had also noted this paradox which continues to puzzle us:
''In England, the average standard of living men can hope for is higher than in any other country of the world. This greatly encourages the extension of pauperism in that kingdom.''
In a prosperous environment not only did the definition of poverty change, but the climate of rising expectations led to dissatisfaction with what was done. Above all, it raised that question, still unanswered, of whether it is possible to ''escape the fatal consequence of a good principle''?
There were further problems with defining exactly who was poor and helpless. The causes of poverty also seemed as varied and the solutions no less diverse, and Himmelfarb examines the political theories that shaped the debate. The optimistic Adam Smith believed that the ''wages of labor are the encouragement of industry which like every other human quality improves in proportion to the encouragement it receives''; on the other hand were pessimists like Malthus and Engels, whose attitudes seemed more shaped by their own respective theoretical assumptions than by the facts.
In a section on the writers of the period, she carefully examines the work of Dickens, Disraeli, Gaskell, Mayhew, and Reynolds, all of whose work did much to affect attitudes, both at the time and subsequently.
''This was the real triumph of imagination, of the moral as well as the literary imagination; to accord to the poor all the complexity of character and situation that had always been the prerogative of the rich.''
In ''The Idea of Poverty,'' Himmelfarb has sought to bring a clinical detachment to a subject that is often colored by emotion. In so doing, she simplifies the subject for us. Our own attitudes to the poor are not dissimilar from those of the Victorians. We alternate between expecting less and giving more, demanding superhuman efforts or resigning ourselves to the existence of a hard-core group of helpless people, living in our inner cities like refugees from another age or country. Like those in the 19th century, we acknowledge the truth expressed by Samuel Johnson that ''a decent provision for the poor is the true test of a civilization,'' and like them we struggle to resolve the dilemma that that test imposes.
Himmelfarb's book is a monumental and significant testimony both to the complexity and intractability of the problem. It does not attempt to solve it, but it is rather one of those rare works that eschew ideology in favor of unbiased and dispassionate truth.