December 25, 2003


A Most Partial Historian: a review of Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England Volume III: Accommodations. By Maurice Cowling (David B. Hart, December 2003, First Things)

With Volume II, subtitled Assaults, Cowling’s project comes into focus, even as the number of subjects expands: Newman, Keble, Pusey, Gladstone, Manning, Ruskin, and Mill; George Eliot, Herbert Spencer, T. H. Huxley, and Leslie Stephen; Gilbert Murray, James Frazer, H. G. Wells, Belloc, Chesterton, and Shaw; W. H. Mallock, Winwood Read, Havelock Ellis, D. H. Lawrence, and Bertrand Russell. (I could go on.) It is in this volume that the case is most strikingly made that the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ struggle between Christian and anti-Christian thinkers for the moral and social future of England was not—as might be supposed—a struggle between religious and post-religious thought, but a war of creeds. The story begins with the Christian attack—by high-church Tractarians and reflective Protestants—upon the post-Christian mythologies of the eighteenth century, and its occasionally confused attempt to turn back the tide of unbelief. But the plot becomes most engrossing where Cowling turns to the tradition he calls “ethical earnestness”: that is, the “progressive” assault on Christianity from the time of Mill, Eliot, and Spencer to that of Russell and Lawrence. It is here that Cowling begins, in scrupulous detail, to identify the sources of the religious consciousness of post-Christian England. “Ethical earnestness,” as he recounts its development, consisted in a profound, often inchoate, but semi-mystical devotion to social improvement and rational morality as alternatives to the superstition, obscurantism, and tyranny of the old faith.

It was not, however, in any meaningful sense “post-religious,” as it demanded of its votaries absolute and fervent devotion to a principle—social cohesion, human development, “Life”—that was itself not susceptible of doubt. In a sense, it was a new cosmology allied to a new moral metaphysics, constantly in ferment, producing movements and sects and new beginnings, but never straying beyond the boundaries of the world in which it believed: a universe of Darwinian struggle that, precisely in its savage economy of “nature red in tooth and claw,” demanded of conscience that it assist evolution in its ascent towards higher ethical realizations of the human essence. In Cowling’s account, one comes to see not only the broad unity of the school of “ethical earnestness,” but the final incoherence of its ethos: the closed order of nature is at once merciless chaos and the source of our ethics; morality is both obedience to nature and rebellion against nature’s implacable decrees; progress demands at once universal brotherhood and (especially among socialists) a ruthless eugenic purification of the race. What unifies this farrago into something like a moral vision is its most obviously religious element: complete devotion to the future as an absolute imperative, requiring in consequence a renunciation of all faith in and charity towards the past—or, for that matter, the present.

This is both the most substantial and most diverting section of Religion and Public Doctrine, thronged as it is with sharply drawn portraits and bedizened with flashes of mordant wit. Cowling is extremely good at showing how, say, George Eliot’s anti-Christian misunderstanding of Ruskin could so easily ally itself to her Feuerbachian ethical humanism, emanating its pale Dorotheas and paler creeds. But more enjoyable, and at the same time chilling, are the accounts of figures like Read (with his Malthusian, Darwinian, Comtean ideology and quaint utopianism of electricity, synthetic nutrition, and obedience to nature) or Ellis (with his worship of Art and Life, and his Nietzschean, Freudian, Frazerian dogmatism). Cowling’s account of the turn of “ethical earnestness,” in thinkers like Wells, Shaw, or Lawrence, towards a grimmer social and sexual vision—less hospitable to liberal optimism, more marked by the influences of Schopenhauer, Wagner, Nietzsche, Ibsen, and Freud—reminds one that a certain cold, pervasive fanaticism in this tradition might have carried “ethical earnestness” towards a politics considerably less fond and feckless than the wan, sincere, liberal secularism of post-Christian Britain. (Indeed, one finds oneself wondering whether the failure of English progressivism to produce some suitably demonic thinker who could have caused the tradition to precipitate into conscious nihilism can be attributed to anything other than the habitual British aversion to bombast and the cautionary example of Nazi Germany.)

In any event, Volume II concludes with an examination of those Christian apologists who applied themselves to the task of thwarting the march of secularization to ultimate victory: Mallock, Coventry Patmore, Chesterton, Belloc, Christopher Dawson, etc. Sadly, however, Cowling finds little here to encourage or detain him; however sympathetic he may be to one or all of these figures, none of them to his mind provides a very substantial riposte to the forces of modernity. Chesterton, for instance, quickly exhausts Cowling’s patience with his jollity, paradox, and alternating appeals to common sense and to fairyland irrationality. Of the much-revered The Everlasting Man, Cowling concludes that its attempts at a philosophy failed through its author’s incapacity, and that all its virtues taken together “did not stop the structure of the book cracking under the strain of its own weightlessness.”

Thus, if Volume II chronicles the war waged for the future between Christian and post-Christian intellectuals, Volume III, subtitled Accommodations, is a somber survey of the aftermath, and tells of one side’s resigned retreat from the field of battle and of the other’s consequent relaxation from a posture of arrogant triumphalism to one of mere contemptuous complacency. It is an immense volume, which takes a huge variety of figures into its capacious embrace—Carlyle, Kingsley, Burke, Disraeli, Darwin, Matthew Arnold, Dickens, Tennyson, Browning, Pater, Wilde, Macaulay, Acton, Inge, Shaftesbury, Tawney, Gore, Figgis, C. S. Lewis, Alasdair MacIntyre, Aldous Huxley, Elgar, Parry, Keynes, Hayek, Eagleton, Koestler, and George Steiner (to name a few)—but its form is fairly elementary: it addresses, in order, the accommodationism of English Christian latitudinarians, attempting to adjust themselves to the supremacy of secularist public doctrine; the reaction of more traditional Christian thinkers against the innumerable little apostasies and capitulations latitudinarianism entails; and the final victory of the public orthodoxy that now nourishes the imperturbable sanctimony, hectoring moralism, tender authoritarianism, and infinite dreariness of post-Christian Britain.

The final paragraph of another review makes Mr. Cowling sound even more appealing, -REVIEW: of Maurice Cowling. Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England Volume 3: Accomodations (D. L. Le Mahieu, American Historical Review):
 Underlying the malice and professed cynicism lurks a curious naïveté. Cowling believes that Anglicanism remains the default position of intellectual life in England. Christianity, it seems, buttresses even the most secularized discourses. Socialists enunciate a vision of the future that remains profoundly religious. Revisionist Liberals such as John Maynard Keynes may be brilliant economic technicians, but in their allegiance to the power of ideas they express a "compelling and pervasive" religiosity (p. 492). Cowling claims to accept the intellectual hegemony of the "post-Christian consensus," but the tone and prodigious scope of his three-volume project suggest otherwise. By showing how things went wrong, he implicitly seeks to make them right and to arouse what he calls "the Christianity which is latent in English life" (p. xi). In this nostalgia Cowling is not really a Conservative in the mould of Edmund Burke but a reactionary. Like a beached eighteenth-century Tory washed ashore at the millennium, he judges the past two hundred years of English intellectual history from a fixed standard that refuses to be relativized. An immense spiritual labor, this book is an act of faith from an angry man born out of his time.

One wonders what sensible Briton would choose to be of this time.

-ESSAY: The Case Against Going to War (Maurice Cowling, Finest Hour)

In the light of Powellism and Thatcherism it is easy to see that the equality of sacrifice and state-mobilisation of resources necessary for conducting the war lent patriotic respectability to punitive taxation and state economic con-trol. It is even easier to see that the war was debilitating politically and intellectually, and that it took the British a very long time to recover from it.

A thinking Conservative may draw two sets of conclu-sions. First, that moral indignation in virtuous causes was a dangerous luxury for a precarious Empire and that patience and prudence could hardly have been less successful than moral indignation. Though the balance is a fine one, Russian (and American) domination of Europe after a long war, the destruction of Germany and the emasculation of the British Empire, were probably worse for Britain than German domination of Europe might have been if that had been ef-fected without war or the emasculation of the Empire. Is it inconceivable, moreover, that patience with Nazi Germany might have been rewarded in the long run by military takeover, economic breakdown or a Gorbachev coming to power there?

The second conclusion a thinking Conservative may come to is that British politics since 1939 divide themselves into two phases — up to the mid-1960s, when collectivism and socialism came to be in the ascendant, and since the mid-1960s, when they have come to be in recession — and that Mrs. Thatcher’s achievement was a necessary and pain-ful reversal of almost every domestic assumption that the Churchill-Attlee coalition stood for.

In matters like this, dogmatism is demeaning. It is equally demeaning, in the decade of Thatcherite realism, to present defeat as victory long after it has become clear that it was defeat.

-ESSAY: Joseph Needham & the history of Chinese science (Maurice Cowling, February 1993, New Criterion)
-ESSAY: Raymond Williams in retrospect (Maurice Cowling, February 1990, New Criterion)
-THINK TANKS: Politeia (The Guardian)
-EXCERPT: Chapter Nine: Mill and Liberty -- Introduction (Chin Liew Ten, Professor of Philosophy, National University of Singapore)
The great interest shown in Mill's moral and political philosophy in recent years has produced some illuminating results. In moral philosophy he has been rescued from some of the crude mistakes attributed to him. In political philosophy the results have been less clear, but there is an increasing belief that the essay On Liberty is a more complex piece of work than is generally supposed. Until very recently, however, both critics and admirers of the essay have never doubted that it is a defence of individual liberty. They disagreed, about its value, but not about its liberal intentions. But even this unanimity has now been broken with the publication of Maurice Cowling's Mill and Liberalism, a fierce repudiation of Mill, who is accused of "more than a touch of something resembling moral totalitarianism", and of intellectual "jealousy, and a carefully disguised intolerance". In his comprehensive attack, Cowling does not spare the essay On Liberty, which is, according to him, only superficially a sustained plea for individual liberty. The individuality Mill defends is a selective one: it is the individuality of the elevated, and Mill's doctrine is really designed to detract from human freedom, and not to maximize it. The evidence Cowling accumulates to support his interpretation of Mill stretches over a very long period of Mill's life, from the early essays of 1831 on The Spirit of the Age to his Inaugural Address to the University of St. Andrews, delivered in 1867, and the posthumously published Three Essays on Religion.

-DISCUSSION: Has Christianity been vanquished in Britain? (Radio National, 17/10/01)
-ARCHIVES: "maurice cowling" (Find Articles)
-ARCHIVES: Maurice Cowling (NY Review of Books)
-REVIEW: of Maurice Cowling. Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England Volume 3: Accomodations (D. L. Le Mahieu, American Historical Review)
-REVIEW: of Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England, volume III: Accommodations (Church Times)
-REVIEW: of Mill and Liberalism by Maurice Cowling (Gertrude Himmelfarb, NY Review of Books)
-REVIEW: of The Impact of Hitler: British Politics and British Policy, 1933-1940. Maurice Cowling (Fritz Stern, Foreign Affairs)

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 25, 2003 1:13 PM

Don't know Cowling, but either the reviewer is a goofball or Cowling is pretty weird. Most of Ellis's publication was done more than 10 years before Freud began writing, so ascribing "Freudian dogmatism" to him is idiotic.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 26, 2003 3:18 PM

Even if Cowling were right, and it would have been in Britain's best interests to sit out WW II, how likely is it that it would have been possible ?

Hitler initially thought that Britain would quickly fall, and he was only wrong by a wee bit.
The Battle of Britain could have gone either way, and it was truly a time when individual acts of courage and sacrifice affected history.

Also, if Hitler had held off a bit on his Russian idiocy, he might yet have overcome England.

Further, from the point of view of England, Germany had just brushed aside most of the armies and defenses of Europe. Why would they sue for peace, and trust that Hitler wouldn't turn on them ?

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at December 26, 2003 10:51 PM

Quite possible. Hitler had no racial quarrel with the Germanicized folk of the British Isles, but pathologically hated the Slavs. Instead of cutting a deal with Stalin to attack West, he'd gladly have cut a deal with Britain to attack East.

Posted by: oj at December 27, 2003 12:17 AM