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September 28, 2005

Maurice Cowling and The Spiritual History of English

Posted by Andrew Thornton-Norris

Further to the consideration by three eminent academic historians and one eminent political scientist of the legacy of Maurice Cowling, Andrew Thornton-Norris argues that Cowling's significance, and especially that of his chef d'ouvre, Religion And Public Doctrine In Modern England, goes far beyond that of academic history or political science. Of particular significance is Cowling's emphasis on the importance of a Christian literature:

as the only plausible link between historic orthodoxy and any orthodoxy which is likely to command the future.
It reveals, argues Thornton-Norris, Cowling as the prophet of a culture whose literary and other achievements lie firmly in the past, whose rejection of its religious inheritance has deprived it of the cultural unity and standards it once upheld, and whose entire classical and cultural inheritance is hence in jeopardy.

It is perhaps unsurprising that a conservative historian should consider contemporary England to be in the midst of a dark age. Indeed, the situation depicted by Cowling echoes that portrayed in the model of monumental English historical writing, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Bede's Ecclesiastical History being of course in Latin). As temples became churches, the guiding spirits of classical civilization and culture dispersed, and with them went the morale, self-confidence and self-belief of Pagan Rome.

In the final volume of a trilogy thirty years in the making, the final emergence of a new dark age, the "post-christian consensus" is described. How this "deliquescence" of Christianity affects the wider culture, whether it was the backbone of a civilization without which the other elements will collapse, or a mere vestige of a benighted middle ages beyond which modernity will flourish with a high culture, morality, order, and even a religion of its own, is the issue grappled with by many of Cowling's subjects. It has been a consistent, if not the central, theme of conservative thought in England since the French Revolution, from Burke, through Newman and Eliot, to Cowling himself: Burke regarding that crucial political event inaugurating modernity as "atheism by establishment".

Cowling defines this dark age as:

the loss of God's and the church's psychological reassurance and an uncertainty in the historic personality which has made coherent feeling difficult to maintain, and has flooded the providential causeway which divides dignity and cosmic confidence from hopelessness, boredom and despair.
And he uses Christianity, and the conservative feeling for it, as a "tool", or more properly a weapon, with which to penetrate the explicit or implicit religious assumptions of key thinkers including Burke, Newman, Gladstone, Salisbury, Eliot, Chesterton, Waugh, Enoch Powell, Edward Norman and Alaisdair MacIntyre as modern proponents of a Christian doctrine; E. M. Forster, Leslie Stephen, Shaw, Wells, Spencer, A.C. Bradley, Russell, Murray, Dawkins, Lawrence and I. A. Richards as enemies. Also discussed are Leavis, Popper, Maugham, Keynes, Bernard Williams and Hayek, as proponents of "post- or anti- Christian doctrine mainly by implication", and Kipling, early Wordsworth, Ruskin, Toynbee, Whitehead, Oakeshott and Scruton as, "assuming, or sliding into, a post Christian mode".

As a series of essays on roughly 120 authors, who are displayed as the masters of the schools into which all of modern English thought can be organised, the result is an encyclopaedic history of nineteenth and twentieth century English thought as it relates more or less explicitly to religion. Cowling's argument is that:

secularization so far from involving liberation from religion, has involved merely liberation from Christianity and the establishment in its place of a modern religion whose advocates so much assume its truth that they do not understand that it is a religion to which they are committed.
This includes "the secular religions which are absorbed at the mother's knee or from the mother's television set" such as "English Socialism", which Cowling describes as:
an intelligentsia attempt to supply the State with a new public doctrine to replace the Anglican and aristocratic doctrines which, since the 1830's, had been made obsolete…
Beatrice Webb in 1884 is exemplary:
Social questions are the vital questions of the day. They take the place of religion.
Other post-christian or liberal religions include the new age or quasi-pagan fumbling characteristic of Yeats and Lawrence, different versions of a more or less scientific rationalism, progressivism or humanism, and the more emotional and less rational aestheticism or epicureanism, which is associated with Romanticism.

Many of Cowling's thinkers are writers of literature, while others are historians, journalists, scientists, critics and politicians, and literature emerges as the key activity. The trilogy began in 1980 with a quotation from Carlyle of 1840:

The writers of Newspapers, Pamphlets, Poems, Books, these are the effective working church of a modern country.
Cowling's work therefore:
reaches down to a primordial unity of thought - a unity in which poets, novelists or theologians of a particular experience, formation or generation and all mentalities are religious.
The situation as portrayed by Cowling is thus a development of that most vividly perceived and expressed by literary modernism, and the spectre that haunted the Victorians (Romanticism being largely their attempt to avoid it): the decay of faith, and its implications for a culture and civilization built upon that faith. Each implies that without Christianity the traditions of European civilization and culture are no longer accessible.

This idea of a new dark age resonates beyond Cowling's immediate subjects, and especially among literary writers. In 1982 Phillip Larkin, no churchgoer himself, wrote to Kingsley Amis about contemporary poets:

No, I don't read any of these new chaps. I'd say they were no f***ing good, just from what the reviews say. When will people realise that this is a dead era for writing, like 1500-1580?
Peter Ackroyd has expressed a similar discontent with English learning, reflecting mournfully on the enthusiasm of Alfred the Great, Chaucer and Elizabeth I for translating Boethius, and on the culture and sophistication of the Anglo-Saxons he said:
I think Bede was a greater scholar than any contemporary of ours. I think the intellectual and cultural attainment of the Anglo-Saxons is way above anything we've created in the last 100 years.

In 2000 Sir Vidia Naipaul, an experienced and eloquent observer of failing societies and surely our greatest writer, in an interview with Tatler, exclaimed his own discontent:

Every day you hear on the radio some minister from this appalling government saying something about things no longer being for the privileged few. This, of course, has destroyed the idea of civilisation in this country... To wish to become a writer is to have the idea of a civilisation, to take part in a high civilisation, as contrasted with life in that plantation society, and it has not worked out like that.

In 2004, in conversation with the Financial Times, he elaborated:

Literature is over and it was living until only the other day. It lived right through the war and a little while after but now there are too many things that have eaten it away… there is no room for it now. There is too much television. The art of storytelling and character and all of that has been eaten away. You look at a country like France and literature there is finished. They are quite happy. They don't need it. What is happening today casts a diminishing light on what has gone before. We look back past the commercial writing of the last century. We look back to the golden age and we are aware that we are looking at historical events. Early Dickens is eternal. But very little else - a few poems here and there.
(He continued specifically to dismiss Hardy, Greene, Golding and Waugh.)

Naipaul's major subject is multiculturalism, the element of liberal modernity most apparently threatening to indigenous religious cultures, such as that of England. In The Enigma of Arrival, he described his own arrival, in:

London in 1950 I was at the beginning of that great movement of peoples that was to take place in the second half of the twentieth century …Two weeks away from home, when I had thought there was little for me to record as a writer, and just eighteen, I had found, if only I had had the eyes to see, a great subject.
However the civilization Naipaul yearned for was English, and at that time, Christian:
There was no such human consolation [as the Golden Rule] in the Hinduism I grew up with, and - although I have never had any religious faith - the simple idea was, and is, dazzling to me, perfect as a guide to human behaviour.

Is it then the "deliquescence" of Christianity which is responsible for this decline? Naipaul clearly regards the damage as having been done by the agents of what Cowling calls a secular religion, namely English Socialism. Larkin and Ackroyd are more equivocal, but all certainly prefer the artistic products of an earlier age, where a Christian civilisation and high culture were intertwined. Similarly, there has been a general diminution of respect for those cultural traditions associated with the ancien regime, which Cowling recognises as having been fundamentally unsustainable without Christianity.

The clearest master of this school of thought is of course T. S. Eliot. While Naipaul may be more authentically the voice of Anglo-Saxon pragmatism and empiricism than Eliot, with his almost continental, "intellectual religion" (as Cowling describes it), Naipaul adheres to a secular religion that is essentially the Romantic aestheticism or epicureanism of Larkin, and possibly Ackroyd, for whom literature itself is a religion. This recalls Cowling's judgement on Roger Scruton who, in his Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture:

gives way too readily to the idea that the Enlightenment has put an irreversible end to Christianity's plausibility, and he defends Arnoldian high culture rather as religion's successor than because of its Christian residues.
These are thus contemporary versions of the liberal romanticism that identifies art and religion, which Eliot had worked so hard between the wars to distinguish.

Cowling sympathies are of course with Eliot, for whom:

poetry was no substitute for anything else and that if men wanted to have a religion, they had to get it in religious terms, just as, if they found that they had to do without it, they should not expect to put poetry in its place.
He wanted,
a literature which would be unconsciously Christian rather than deliberately and defiantly so, [just as] he wanted, not so much a world in which Christianity could be believed as a world in which it would operate as something deeper than belief, a kind of behaviourism in which men would act in an unconsciously Christian fashion at the substratum of collective temperament.
Cowling concludes that Eliot in the final phase of his career was resigned and depressed about the prospects of this, in a way he had not been at, least outwardly, before the war: no doubt a consequence of the emergence of the "post-christian consensus" that Cowling describes. Cowling, while not quite so depressed, at least recognizes that while:
the Christian phase of European civilization may be over… secularization is a phase of intelligentsia life, that it would be absurd to assume its permanence and that the instinct for religion which lurks beneath the indifference of the public mind, may yet surprise by its willingness to be led astray by Christianity.

This possibility is itself indissolubly linked to the fate of the Church for:

...Catholic, ecclesiastical Christianity…is Christianity, which gives Christianity such continuity as it has in the salvation of souls and the evaluation of civilizations and which has had as its problem over the last two hundred years to know its own mind, to understand the difference between itself and the secular mind and to know how to address the secular mind while yet anathematising the heresies which have been conjured up by separating out and exaggerating the centrality of specified aspects of a fragmented orthodoxy.
And it may well be that the current debate over women bishops will return the final fragment of orthodoxy within the Church of England to the place from whence it came five hundred years ago, with all the implications for English and European culture that that implies.

Andrew Thornton-Norris is writing The Spiritual History of English. To read further reflections by Social Affairs Unit authors on Maurice Cowling and his influence, see Maurice Cowling (1926-2005).


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I have read this through several times (it’s a good article), and if I read it aright, Cowling bemoaned the loss of Christian values, Christian culture, Christian this-and-that while saying

the instinct for religion which lurks beneath the indifference of the public mind, may yet surprise by its willingness to be led astray by Christianity.

Cowling thus seems to saying that something he does not believe in is nevertheless a good thing. This fallacy was recently echoed by another of your writers who suggests that, even though he does not believe it, it might be a good thing if Creationism were to be taught in schools because of the moral values that go with it.

Even the least of Old Testament prophets, were he to visit us today, would regard that as a deeper blasphemy than the entire output of the BBC and Channel 4 put together. He would find it small wonder that, 2700 years after the Assyrians, God is this time using the Muslim world as his hatchet man to chastise the West.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at October 8, 2005 05:30 PM
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## The fallacy skewered by the first poster amounts to attempting to have the social advantages that are the by-products of Christian faith, while not bothering with the God without Whom they can have no lasting foundation. This amounts to using God for worldly ends, and is an inversion of the type of religion typical of the Bible, in which God is man's Lord, & man is the servant of God. The approach complained of is more like that of pre-Christian Roman religion, the religion of which was concerned with keeping the gods "on side"; but not with conversion of heart or holiness of life. In that sense at least, the attitude complained of is pagan to the core, & inimical to Christian faith. Take away the faith, and the desired social results will not come about.

If Christianity has built cultures, this has been because it was concerned with things more important than culture. Maybe it can have that kind of constructive effect only if it is unaware of having it; Christianity as it exists now may be too self-aware to have that kind of effect.

Posted by: Michael B. at June 15, 2010 05:10 AM
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