The Wrong Side of History

The idea of inevitable progress is worse than folly: it is a positive impediment to thought, leading to decrepitude.

Finding patterns in things, Isaiah Berlin observed, is a human trait (“To understand is to perceive patterns”) but he know it was all fantasy, like seeing the shapes of animals in the clouds. History, viewed from a distance shows few examples of constant motion in any direction: short of the social changes brought about by the discovery of metal and new materials, the invention of wheels and writing, it is hard to place any ‘inevitable’ thread in the human story, but for one, which Thomas Hobbes observed:

it is evident that dominion, government, and laws, are far more ancient than history or any other writing.

Things may change in any society in a way we perceive, from tyranny to freedom, from oligarchy to democracy, but all these concepts have come and flourished and decayed and fallen many times in recorded history. There is no inevitability. Berlin again said:

Historians of ideas, however scrupulous and minute they may feel it necessary to be, cannot avoid perceiving their material in terms of some kind of pattern.

There is no pattern though, and there is no set idea of progress, whatever the Whig historians thought or Marx wrote. As to inevitability, consider the Augustine Age of the Roman Empire; universal peace, prosperity, law and cultural continuum – and compare it with the situation in Europe just 500 years later. Europe did not match the achievements of Rome until the Renaissance, if then. The Renaissance was not to last either: it posited a stable relationship of crown, mitre and scholarship, but it just took a monk nailing his theses to a church door showing the falsehoods on which that culture was built, and it came crashing down.

If you who believe that the process of modernity is proof of rightness, consider these:

In 1642 the Civil War began in England. It is seen today as a modernising struggle for democracy, but it was the opposite. Parliament was old, mediaeval and progress in that age, demonstrably, was to enlightened despotism as demonstrated by Europe’s most advanced monarch: Louis XIII of France. King Charles gathered young and energetic advisers, while those who opposed him were the older generation. John Pym was 58 in 1642 (four years older than Thomas Hobbes); John Hampden and Cromwell spritely at 47 and 43 respectively. The coming men would dispense with the mediaeval hang-over that was parliament. The Civil War was reactionary, a rebellion launched by the passing generation quickly before it was too late, before the young pups could take over. Democracy was against the tide of history.

In 1688, James II & VII tried again. He had lived in exile in France, seeing the spectacular achievements of his cousin, Louis XIV, who excelled his father (and bankrupted his nation, but that was unseen). The old ways got in the way and had to go; the reformation was a past enthusiasm to be replaced by the modern counter-reformation. King James removed the old guard from their positions and appointing new, younger men steeped in the ideas of the Sun King. Parliament was dismissed and royal authority over state and church established. It was the way all the world was going. Democracy was reactionary and old-fashioned; it survived only by a rebellion of the old guard.

The Whig Interpretation of History which followed the Glorious Revolution tried to recast the reactionary rebellions by imagining a general progression towards freedom and democracy. It served well: it gave a rousing national story to encourage us to ever-greater achievements and it ensured that future developments in Britain and its Empire followed that idea, but it was based on wishfulness, not fact.

In the 1850s, slavery in the southern states of America was perfected as a system, as the local establishment thought, such that the Manifest Destiny of these states was to expand over a ‘Golden Circle’ embracing Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Led by the Democratic Party, the bold new vision declared that “We will expand, as our growth and civilization shall demand – over Mexico – over the isles of the sea – over the far-off Southern tropics – until we shall establish a great Confederation of Republics – the greatest, freest and most useful the world has ever seen.” To bring it to reality, private armies invaded Mexico and conquered Nicaragua (until an attempt to conquer the rest of Central America caused a reverse). In Congress, a proposal was debated to establish slavery as the law in any new territory acquired by the United States to the south, in anticipation of this expansion. It was the future. Only the Civil War and the merciful abolition of slavery ended this vision of ‘progress’.

In 1912 the first of the International Conferences of Eugenics met. This was a vigorous scientific discipline, promising an improvement of all mankind. Chairs in Eugenics were founded at universities, the imagined benefits became a staple of futurist literature, because this was the certain future. Those who opposed eugenics were ignorant, superstitious reactionaries, so the world was assured by its ‘enlightened’ minds. The opening of the Nazi death camps wiped this grotesque future from our future.

In the 1930s, democracy and ideas of individuality seemed to be winding to their end. Socialism was the future, the nations were assured, and the only struggle was between factions of socialism: Communism or Fascism. Pliant journalists shown the new Soviet Union came back to say “I have been over into the future, and it works.”, even as Ukrainian peasants starved in their millions. Anyone opposing socialism was behind the times, ignorant of modern thinking, harking back to an anarchic system incompatible with modern life. A modern, mechanised age required a modern, ordered, mechanised system of rule, and both fascism and communism promised order and effective action. We saw how that went.

In each case, the widespread acceptance of inevitability sapped resistance. It narrowed the scope of the imagination. Those who opposed socialist takeovers, as Franco did, just imposed their own versions; because that was modern.

Belief in today’s enthusiasm as a universal, timeless ideal drives out constructive thought. From this will come only stagnation and collapse.

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Fill(et)ing the Lords – 1

It is only a few months since we were comparing the House of Commons to its behaviour before the Civil War. Now we have a Cavalier Parliament in the Commons, but with Cromwellian disdain for the House of Lords.

It is not that the Lords are positively rebellious, blocking the Commons, but they are either potentially threatening or useless. The live question is whether to attempt to reform it. The last person who did was Tony Blair, and while his changes looked as if they could shrink the House to a manageable size and fill it with experts, it has swollen even more and been filled with cast-off cronies. That was always going to be the end of the Blair reforms: William Hague said as much in an infamous speech he made at the time.

The remedy is harder, because no one can agree on what the ideal House of Lords would be.

We in the general public may see it the way Oscar Wilde did in A Woman of No Importance: “We in the House of Lords are never in touch with public opinion. That makes us a civilised body.”

That is not a satire though: it is the ideal. In America, the Senate was devised to be the elder, learned body restraining the passing enthusiasms of the popular house; the “fickleness and passion” as Madison put it. Bagehot thought it valuable as “formidable sinister interest may always obtain the complete command of a dominant assembly” needing a second chamber of an opposite sort to oppose the captive chamber; but he also observed that “The cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go and look at it.”

Idealism fails. The Commons may be captured by an enthusiasm for a few years, and often are, but in the Lords it may be embedded for a generation. The best characterisation of the House in its reality is one of Tony Benn’s observations: The House of Lords is the British Outer Mongolia for retired politicians.

The Liberals wanted to replace the Lords with an elected chamber back in Gladstone’s day, and it has never happened, because MPs will not brook a rival set of chancers like themselves. Every parliament has those promising unspecified reform, or abolition, election or goodness knows what.

Until the ideal is determined, the remedy cannot be. Most other countries have a second chamber, because they follow at a distance the Westminster model. We can look at what they have done, and that is enough to put us off reform. No other though has our Outer Mongolia for retired or failed politicians (Outer Mongolia by the way has no second chamber).

Pound-shop peerages handed out like toffee have made the House of Lords intolerable or embarrassing. Boris Johnson has promised to consider reform, but did so just after handing out more toffees.

What to do? Another article, I feel.

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Mill, Calvin and Hobbes

John Calvin, and Calvinism, have drawn many interpretations, few recognisable to the Great Reformer himself. Our vision is shaped by the sight of dour ministers of the Kirk pronouncing thundering condemnations from the pulpit, and those schismatic free churches which shake the dust of their feet when they leave divide from the Church of Scotland and its over such matters as scandalously allowing music in worship. The word “Calvinist” is associated with joylessness and Christianity stripped to bare essentials.

However in theological terms Calvinism is just one of the branches of the Reformation, sitting beside Lutheranism. The Thirty-Nine Articles which define the doctrine of the Church of England, with its robed priests and mitred bishops, is Calvinist.

John Stuart Mill in On Liberty wrote of his idea of it:

It is so, on the Calvinistic theory. According to that, the one great offence of man is self-will. All the good of which humanity is capable is comprised in obedience. You have no choice; thus you must do, and no otherwise: “whatever is not a duty, is a sin.” Human nature being radically corrupt, there is no redemption for any one until human nature is killed within him. To one holding this theory of life, crushing out any of the human faculties, capacities, and susceptibilities, is no evil: man needs no capacity, but that of surrendering himself to the will of God: and if he uses any of his faculties for any other purpose but to do that supposed will more effectually, he is better without them. This is the theory of Calvinism; and it is held, in a mitigated form, by many who do not consider themselves Calvinists; the mitigation consisting in giving a less ascetic interpretation to the alleged will of God; asserting it to be his will that mankind should gratify some of their inclinations; of course not in the manner they themselves prefer, but in the way of obedience, that is, in a way prescribed to them by authority; and, therefore, by the necessary condition of the case, the same for all.

….

It may be better to be a John Knox than an Alcibiades, but it is better to be a Pericles than either; nor would a Pericles, if we had one in these days, be without anything good which belonged to John Knox.

He got it wrong – he hits the mark on how many ministers treated morals, but that is not Calvinism, properly defined. The idea Mill identifies is “whatever is not duty is sin”, and duty is in the eyes of the minister. There is no such doctrine in the Scriptures. I have not read in intense detail Calvin’s own Institutes of the Christian Religion, but though it frequently mentions duty, and it certainly emphasises the total depravity of mankind (with which Thomas Hobbes would not dissent), I can see no suggestion that he believed that a Christian must follow a script – he contradicts it.

The problem, the prescriptive idea, comes from after Calvin- from a distortion brought by fanatics so convinced of the reform that they wanted to take it further, like riding to the destination and then riding fast beyond it and away from it.

Hobbes lived through the Puritan revolution. He observed:

these took upon them not only a Divine right, but also a Divine inspiration. And having been connived at, and countenanced sometimes in their frequent preaching, they introduced many strange and many pernicious doctrines, out-doing the Reformation, as they pretended, both of Luther and Calvin; receding from the former divinity or church philosophy (for religion is another thing), as much as Luther and Calvin had receded from the pope; and distracted their auditors into a great number of sects, as Brownists, Anabaptists, Independents, Fifth-monarchy-men, Quakers, and divers others, all commonly called by the name of fanatics

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Books

Titus Oates

Titus Oates was in a short time the most feted and hated man of his time. Few would understand him today, apart from Tom Watson.

In Good King Charles’s Golden Days there was an infamous scandal brought about by the abiding fear of the age, and promoted by one man into a frenzy alleging a sickening conspiracy suffusing the corridors of power.

He was a man whose manner made men listen, as he told them what they wanted to hear, what they wanted to believe, and he gave a justification for their darkest desires for blood. In the end he fell from his lofty perch and met a form of justice, but only after many innocent men had suffered the destruction of their reputations and death.

It is impossible to put a character on Titus Oates as he was above all an actor and dissembler.  We know he was born in Rutland and after the Restoration was educated in Cambridge for a while. He followed the wind: when the Puritans were in the ascendant he became a Puritan, but when they fell he reconciled to the Church of England. Like some in our time he rose to public office despite his obvious unsuitability; in the manner of his time it was within the Church. He had no reputation for intelligence, which has never been a bar to public office, but could speak.

Oates was a survivor on the edge; on one occasion as his career stalled he sought advancement by accusing a fellow cleric of abusing young men in his care, which was a gross slander and he fled London to avoid charges. Soon he was himself accused of a capital offence, and survived the noose only by the privilege attaching to his position. He joined up with a popular actor in a new enterprise, and failed at that also.

In 1667 came the turning point for Oates: this former Puritan Baptist and Protestant preacher embraced the enemy and was received into the Roman church. He left for France to enter a Jesuit College, and was in Spain also. The next year he was back in London, renouncing Rome and with a list of names.  These were men from the cream of society whom he accused of a foul and widespread conspiracy of which he had learned amongst the Jesuits.

This was an unsettled time – the Restoration was only eight years in an those who led the Civil War and Cromwell’s dictatorship were still there, but in the reaction to the Puritans was another danger, of emboldened papists drawing strength from Louis XIV revitalising France and the Roman clergy across the Channel. In 1666, London burned and some were quick to blame a papist plot (which was even inscribed on the Monument). The fate of the nation was in the balance as three factions circled the seat of power looking for advantage. There were plots of some sort, but no excuse as yet to strike with deadly force against the rival.

In stepped Oates with his revelation of a Popish Plot he learned of in France and a list of names.

Oates spoke well before the Privy Council, which was always on the look-out for conspiracies against the realm. They wanted to believe him. By chance, one of the names he first put forward, Edward Coleman, was found to have corresponded with King Louis’s personal priest, which gave credibility to the tale. Colman was hanged. Oates knew that the more he accused, the longer his fortune would last. More names followed and more elaborate plots were ‘revealed’.

Oates suffered an early check when he had an education from King Charles – the King was no fool and when he examined Oates he saw through him at once and locked him up – but Parliament wanted to believe in the Popish Plot and forced his release.

There were well-publicised raids on the homes of accused men and anyone in the public eye could be accused, and no doubt some stood by Oates to avoid accusation. The gallows began to fill. In the meantime, Oates was given an apartment in Whitehall, a noble coat of arms, and rumours of a marriage into nobility.

After three years of blood and destroyed reputations, the acquittals began and it became clear that Titus Oates was spinning fantasies. His fall was rapid and brutal, and his final wild accusations against the King himself let to prison and poverty, and this as the reign of King Charles II was drawing to a close and the heir was known to be a papist himself, and the new King James II had Titus Oates dragged back before a judge, to be stripped, pilloried, whipped through the streets and thrown in prison (where he remained until the papist King was himself chased off the throne in 1688).

It could happen today. We have seen it, when a politician without principle of discernment makes wild, unfounded allegations about the frenzy of the age. The question for us is how we deal with it, to resist or be driven along with the popular mood of hatred and accusation.

One thing for the immediate moment – such a man as Oates, and we know who stands in his shoes today, must never be feted or honoured. Now one such has been put forward for elevation to the House of Lords, where he would have honours, titles, arms and lifelong privilege to accuse whomever he wishes without consequence. It does not matter what his party leader promised him in return for resignation: no such man should be considered for that place.

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Treaties bedevil a wayward parliament, 1644

In this same year the Parliament put to death Sir John Hotham and his son, for tampering with – the Earl of Newcastle about the rendition of Hull; and Sir Alexander Carew, for endeavouring to deliver up Plymouth, where he was governor for the Parliament; and the Archbishop of Canterbury, for nothing but to please the Scots; for the general article of going about to subvert the fundamental laws of the land, was no accusation, but only foul words.

They then also voted down the Book of Common-prayer, and ordered the use of a Directory, which had been newly composed by an Assembly of Presbyterian ministers.

They were also then, with much ado, prevailed with for a treaty with the King at Uxbridge; where they remitted nothing of their former demands.

The King had also at this time a Parliament at Oxford, consisting of such discontented members as had left the Houses at Westminster; but few of them had changed their old principles, and therefore that Parliament was not much worth. Nay rather, because they endeavoured nothing but messages and treaties, that is to say, defeating of the soldiers’ hope of benefit by the war, they were thought by most men to do the King more hurt than good.

(Behemoth)

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