The religious roots of Britain’s Industrial Revolution
By Gwydion M. Williams
The English conquest of Ireland was begun by the Pope, and was completed by Oliver Cromwell.
It is a well-recorded fact that this was how it happened. But not normally treated as a ‘fact of history’, and definitely nothing to do with the emergence of modern Industrial Capitalism. Capitalism ‘occurred’ in 18th Britain for no particular reason, or else it happened because Britain was ‘free’.
Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries was indeed ‘free’, as its own culture defined freedom Free in a sense compatible with commercialised slavery, press-gangs and a brutal criminal law for the poor in the home population, penal law over Ireland, massive displacement of the peasantry by enclosure etc.
Victorians celebrating what they took to be the eternal and inevitable triumph of Christianity and Free Trade defined ‘freedom’ in a way that omits all the faults and includes all the good points in their own actual history. A nice way of proving the especial merits of English freedom, provided you don’t notice that exactly the same sort of reasoning could prove that almost any other society in human history was the ultimate in human freedom.
It was this sort of ‘virtue’ that allowed the Victorians to bust open Imperial China with gunboats and opium. And let them sit back contentedly while the bulk of the Catholic Irish were destroyed in the Great Famine, though this latter act turned out to be stupid as well as wicked. But for a time, at least, British Victorian values looked vastly more secure than the current Anglo-Globalist set-up looks in the modern world. Then as now, the dominant groups were self-righteous on the basis of a rigged definition of freedom.
Freedom in a crude unphilosophical sense – people largely free to live as they wished – was not all that well developed in 18th century Britain, nor in the wider Latin-Christian civilisation of which it was a part. Only Christians set out systematically to destroy all other faiths in the territories they controlled. Jews were a partial exception, the Jewish origins of the Christian faith could never quite be glossed over. So Jews survived despite much persecution and oppression, whereas every other non-Christian faith was successfully rooted out.
As indeed were most minority variants of Christianity. Islam will accept anyone as Muslim if they accept a few general statements of faith, and also allows non-Muslims to live and worship if they are ‘people of the book’. But the version of Christianity taken up by the Roman Empire under Constantine was abnormally intolerant. It defined itself and its vision of God in huge tracts of complex philosophical pomposity, a process that would be comical except that people died for it and were killed for it, far more Christians killed by Christians for supposed heresy than the pagan Roman Empire had ever killed in its own attempts at religious uniformity.
You can well argue that what was done by the Roman Empire under Constantine had very little to do with the actual teachings of Jesus and his immediate followers. Indeed, it was the vast gap between Gospel teaching and the complex philosophical pomposities favoured by the Church hierarchy that allowed for the great schism of the Reformation.
Britain functioned as part of a very singular civilisation, the Latin-Christian. It was unusual in being very expansionist and very ill at ease with itself. Yet Europe in the 18th century was functioning very well with the religious issues unresolved. And Britain’s unexpected venture into industrial capitalism is very much connected with the failure of the Latin-Christian tradition to work as a system of ‘organised virtue’ in the way that happened in all of the world’s other great civilisations.
Critics of industrialism could and did call it diabolical, a sin against ‘eternal truths’. Defenders asked which eternal truths, pointing to the way that each Christian faction undermined their rival’s claim to truth. The upholders of industrial progress and modernisation constantly referred back to the way in which religion had produced chaos and war, not harmony and peace.
Within the Latin-Christian framework, Cromwell and the Pope might seem to be opposites. From a wider viewpoint, the difference was just a factional dispute within a single Modernist world view. A viewpoint that did not seem a sane or honest derivation from the Gospel teachings of Jesus from which all of the rival Christian factions claimed to derive authority.
If none of those claiming to speak for God deserved to be taken seriously, then why not follow the road of industrialisation and anti-traditionalist progress. Tradition had failed, why not see where progress would end up?
England had defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, part of the defeat of the Counter-Reformation attempt to impose a version of Catholicism that was even more extreme and unreasonable that Mediaeval Catholicism. England then merged with its old enemy Scotland through the dynastic accident of James the Sixth of Scotland being Elizabeth Tudor’s heir.
Complex religious struggles followed within both Scotland and England – a process that properly began with the ‘Bishops War’ of 1639 and 1640, and was only really settled with the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden in 1746. A defeat which ended the chances of the Roman Catholic Stuarts, a line called ‘pretenders’ by the English history books, but with vastly more traditional right to rule than those unpopular Hanoverians, Georges I and II.
Britain’s Industrial Revolution occurred at a time when there was an interaction of politics, religion and economics which allowed 18th century Britain to the dominant Industrial power and Imperial power.
Industrial power has outlasted Imperial power – though perhaps not by any large margin, the way British manufacturing has suffered over the last few decades. But in their 18th century rise, their apparent 19th century glory and their 20th century decline, the two have gone very much hand in hand.
But England was also part of a wider Latin-Christian enterprise. Even the long-running attempt to conquer Ireland was initiated by the Papacy, the same institution which had favoured the Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England.
Infiltration of Ireland by Normans like Strongbow might have worked out just as well as the contemporary infiltration of Scotland by enterprising Normans like the Bruce and Wallace families. It was the Papacy that created an unworkable link, with England never strong enough to rule Ireland yet repeatedly strong enough to smash any attempt by Ireland to put its own house in order.
The English Monarchy accepted the Pope as Top Dog in the Latin-Christian hierarchy. Geography meant they naturally preferred Italian Popes to German Emperors who were a little too close for comfort. Murdering the occasional Archbishop and getting the whole country excommunicated were just part of the rough and tumble of politics.
The Papacy also enthusiastically took up the extension of European power to the New World. It was a rerun of their ill-judged attempt to expand via the Crusades, which had no long-term effect except to make Islam more extreme and to weaken the rival Christian centre of Byzantium. With the discovery of new lands, the Papacy sanctified and encouraged the expansion of European religion and social habits.
From beginning to end, the British Empire did not manage any particularly original sins. All of the systems of exploitation were there already, even before the English began pirating Spanish work. Even hijacking the decaying Mogul Empire in India was initially a French idea.
But the various Empires were not identical. Racist exclusion of non-whites was particular to the Dutch and English. The British Empire also dominated the world on behalf of Europe, conquered far-distant lands without ever seriously trying to conquer its neighbours.
The concept of a British Empire was devised by Welsh at the court of Queen Elizabeth. Her successor King James ruled almost as much of Europe as any future British monarch was ever to rule, and much less than some previous Kings of England had held.
Britannia On The Edge
Up until the late 17th century, Britain had done little that impressed any outsider. The Kingdom of England was at times a strong military power, that was the limit. And even on the military front, England or Britain never looked capable of conquering and unifying the continent, as France and Spain and Russia and Germany have on occasions. Culturally, the Arthurian cycle had gained prominence when the conquering Normans took up Welsh legends and changing them a great deal. But that was it, really.
You could argue that Shakespeare should have had a wider standing; it is an historic fact that he did not have any such standing, even in England, until rather later. Shakespeare anyway shows the cultural power of Italy in his day, a surprising proportion of his plays are set there. And Shakespeare came to the attention of the world only as part of a very successful package of English-speaking culture that propagated round the world in the 19th century.
People can and do argue about how much Shakespeare merits his reputation as the world’s number one dramatist. It is definite that he didn’t have it until Britain’s rise to global power. And even within Britain, there were arguments in the 18th century as to how far he could match French playwrights like Moliere.
Shakespeare was also notable for his celebration of warfare, and for showing very little interest in the sea. The sea features mainly as a means of getting from A to B. This is individualistic but possible for a Wiltshire lad, born about as far inland as you can get in Britain. He may also have been good at getting people to talk and assimilating their specialist knowledge, maybe chunks of their vocabulary. I find this more likely than a ‘Shakespeare Committee’ of highly-placed politicians who used him to front for things they could not say. Experience politicians who publish under their own name are almost always pompous and long-winded and empty and everything the plays are not.
Regardless, there was nothing recognised as world-class in English culture at the start of the 18th century. Britain had of course participated in the European scientific revolution, most notably with Sir Isaac Newton. Voltaire played a part by translating Newton and generally promoting English values in France.
By the 18th century, it was already certain that some sort of Modernist development would take place. Subtract Britain from the picture and it still happens. Both France and Germany were still full of vigorous intellectual life, as was Denmark, Sweden and much of the rest of Northwest Europe.
Sir Isaac Newton was first with the synthesis of the terrestrial mechanics of Galileo and the celestial mechanics of Copernicus and Kepler. Calculus was discovered independently by Leibnitz and some sort of synthesis would have happened anyway. Though the British contribution was at times distinguished, it was in no sense essential.
The 18th century was the first time in history that anything major had been initiated from the British Isles; yet a most amazing initiative it was.
Europe after the bitter Wars of Religion of the 17th century was discontented with what it had been. Willing to take the best from all of the rest of the world’s old civilisations:
- cotton and regular washing from India
- china-ware and tea and toilet paper from China.
- also from China, a recognition that an educated ruling class could maintain a high culture while curbing superstition and religious enthusiasm.
Western Europe in the 18th century had changed radically. 13th century Europe was already seen as an alien world, whereas most of the other major civilisations were much the same as they’d been 500 years previously. Not hugely different from what they’d been 1000 years previously, and proud of the continuity.
On the basis of this relatively new culture, people were willing to create radically new social forms. In 18th century Europe, odd things were happening. In France, in Germany, in England and in several neighbouring countries, there was a growing ‘revolution from above’. A radical rich, led by a ruling class ready to be radical about everything except its own status as a ruling class.
This was particularly true in England, where the gentry, and even more the aristocracy, had been reshaped and often newly created in the revolutionary upheavals of the 17th century. Yet even gentry with few real roots in ‘time out of mind’ were quite happy to see everything except their own privileges thrown into the melting pot.
Hobbes in Leviathan shows an early understanding of this social melting-pot. 17th century attempts to live according to the Puritan concept of Christianity had failed. Hobbes recognised an existing alternative. He conceived of an entire population merged into a collective creature, an ‘artificial man’, a being that would give greater security and prosperity to individual men than they might get on their own.
Hobbes combined this collectivist view with an uncompromising support for royal absolutism. Having sensibly observed that acknowledged ignorance is better than false doctrine, he then ignored this principle and insisted that representative government was inherently unworkable. He was therefore a strong supporter of the Stuart cause against Parliament.
The English Civil War is normally presented as a struggle by romantic reactionary royalists. Doomed traditionalists up against unromantic but justified, modernist and progressive Roundheads. Now this is just not true.
The royalist cause was certainly supported by many doomed traditionalists. But the Stuarts were highly progressive about everything except their own position as monarchs. A major force in the new scientific order was the Royal Society, dreamt up by Royalist’s in Oxford while it was the headquarters of Charles the First. It was established as a reality in the merry and corrupt England of Charles the Second, with Francis Bacon Lord Verulam as its ‘Patron Saint’. The smooth and tricky courtier in the service of Elizabeth the First justified a radical world-view in terms that seemed to support tradition.
Popes and Puritans between them had made hard-line religion obnoxious. Pragmatism, royalism and science offered a more humane and admirable option.
There was no obvious reason why progress should mean more democracy and individual rights. There was much more democracy in mediaeval society than is normally recognised – even bishops used to be elected by the local clergy, albeit pressurised in many cases by Kings and Popes. Louis XIV had radically restructured France in a way that removed much of what was left of such rights and local privileges. Progress was mostly associated with the aristocracy. Lavoisier, pioneering Chemist, was also deeply implicated in the unjust tax system of pre-Revolutionary France. His execution by the French Revolution, though a tragic loss, was less arbitrary than is commonly supposed. He was involved in the oppressive and unjust tax system of the Old Order. He lived in a time when democracy seemed like a relic of the primitive past and the future was supposed to belong to a progressive and educated nobility.
In the event, ‘Leviathan’ was built with a democratic head rather than a monarchical one. This was the result of various power struggles in the 17th and 18th centuries. It could easily have gone quite differently. As simple a matter as the survival of one of Queen Anne’s numerous children might have made all the difference.
No monarch between the reigns of Elizabeth Tudor and Victoria Sax-Coberg Gotha was especially loved, nor were they much respected. Generally they were accepted as a dull necessity, a position that holds down to the present day.
Charles the Second was the last interesting king of Great Britain. Interesting, but not quite admirable, a greedy cynical rake. People put up with him because the alternatives were worse, and because he was undeniably the legitimate king.
James the Second was no less legitimate, but was hasty and clumsy in the way he tried to undermine the Church of England. The gentry and people united to chase him out, and then by great misfortune his daughters both died childless.
Most historians accept that it was the dubious and alien position of George the First and George the Second that allowed Parliament and the Whig oligarchy to gain unprecedented power. A solidly Protestant Stuart would have been in a vastly stronger position. Consequentially British politics would have been far more unified and traditional. Hence no industrial revolution, or else a much slower and gentler process. By one small change, a completely different world could have emerged.
In most of Europe, the monarch would from time to time protect the peasantry from excessive encroachment by rich aristocrats. But in England, the gentry dominated the Commons and the higher aristocracy were the Lords. The law was what they said it was, and with Enclosure, the aristocracy was able to destroy most of the small independent peasant farmers, the normal basis for social stability. And a mass of depressed or displaced peasants were therefore available to work in factories and destroy the position of the artisans.
A mediaeval village was self-sufficient, but at a very low level. It was self-sufficient because it had to be. There had been too many wars and plagues and disruptions since the Fall of Rome. There was no future for any way of life that could not hunker down and survive as if the rest of the world did not exist.
This was an extreme version of the trap humanity had been caught in ever since the Neolithic Age. Farmers with crops to grow and animals to look after found it almost impossible to resist warrior-aristocracies who took away their surplus as ‘protection money’.
The 18th century in Britain was an age of cynical perplexity, and also a time of great material and power-political success. The Devil paid the best wages, and God had not in fact looked after His own. No one wished to upset the 1688 settlement, which was a compromise between two rival visions of Christian Holiness that had clashed violently.
The Anglican and Monarchist vision under the Stuarts had one notion of Britain’s future – and it would not have included a strong independent parliament.
Parliament, and especially the House of Commons, was the focus for a rival vision, an amalgam of several different versions of Puritanism. The amalgam operated as a united front at the start of the English Civil War, because all of its constituent parts correctly suspected that the Anglican and Monarchist vision had no place for them. They believed that dissident Protestants would be gradually squeezed out of existence by an Establishment that might in the end be reconciled with Rome.
It was not the split between feudal-aristocrat and rising-bourgeois that it has sometimes been presented as. The gentry split both ways, with some supporting the idea of the King as the ultimate power in the state, while others denied the need for this.
The English Civil War occurred because there was not room enough for two different versions of England’s future. The Puritan minority feared for its long-term survival if it could not curb royal power, just as the powerful French Huguenots were later to be destroyed and driven out by a Rationalist-Catholic amalgam organised by the French monarchy. So the various sorts of Puritan held together while the war might be lost, and then fought with each other when it seemed to be won.
Power passed to Oliver Cromwell, a rather ordinary Member of Parliament and an unsuccessful gentleman-farmer who turned out to have a genius for warfare. He managed to take power but had no coherent idea what to do with it. So there was little choice but to restore the King after Cromwell’s death.
The Industrial Revolution was the Civil War continued by other means. Many of the pioneering industrialists were Quakers, a Puritan extremist sect during Cromwell’s time. This sect later had a very unexpected conversion to pacifism, and also reconciled itself to commerce, which the more strict Puritans saw as anti-Christian. But not all Puritans were strict, and there were ways round Biblical injunctions. Love of money was the root of all evils, but if you and money were just good friends, that was OK. Just because you happened to have acquired a huge pile of money and spent most of your waking hours scheming to gather more did not mean you were guilty of any sinful love of money.
Thus transformed, the Quakers and other Nonconformists helped bring about a much bigger and more decisive overturn than Cromwell had ever managed.
Neither King Charles nor Cromwell had succeeded in reconciling the nation to any one definite and workable vision. Either of them might have managed it Had Charles the First been luckier in his campaigns, he might have established the same sort of supreme monarchy that Louis the Fourteenth established in France. Had the Scottish politicians left military affairs to the experts, General Leslie and his force of dedicated Scottish Presbyterians might have defeated Cromwell, and a stable Presbyterian order might have resulted. Presbyterians were also strong and numerous in England, they just never had a general like Cromwell.
There were other alternatives. Had Cromwell’s gifted son-in-law Henry Ireton lived longer, he might have consolidated the Commonwealth. Or had the unimpressive Richard Cromwell died sooner, Henry Cromwell as the next son of the Lord Protector might have kept the show on the road. Or else, the chaos after Cromwell’s death might have produced a renewed Civil War, leading to an eventual consolidation of royal power, as occurred in France and many other European kingdoms.
I see no reason why the great three-cornered conflict between Catholicism, Monarchy and Puritan Democracy had to end in stalemate. Had Mary Tudor borne a son to Philip of Spain, her restoration of Catholicism would have succeeded. It might have happened, she was not yet 40 when she married him, yet that is not how history went. History would also have gone otherwise had Mary Tudor been born a boy: Henry the Eighth would then have had no need to break with the Pope.
Equally, Mary the Second might have borne a son to William of Orange, consolidating a Protestant monarch and linking Britain to Holland and continental affairs. Prince Rupert might have fathered a legitimate male heir. Or one of Queen Anne’s numerous offspring might have survived. With a reliably Protestant Stuart succession, there would have been no need to bring in a minor German dynasty, English Kings unable to speak English, a dynasty so unsure of its position that it let the Whig lords do as they please out of fear of Tory-Jacobite treachery and treason.
The decline of monarchical rule, with the Hanoverian/Windsor dynasty gradual sinking to the status of figureheads, was a fluke or run of accidents rather than the logical outcome of constitutional developments. And the immediate result was not democracy, but oligarchical rule by a Parliament that would have been offended to have been called democratic. It was an indirect and unexpected product of the constitutional upheavals of the previous century, and not the programmatic stage on the road towards modern life that it is so often depicted as.
In dozens of different ways, the power struggle might have resolved itself. But it did not. This failure led to political arrangements that were convenient but sinful, as sin was defined in those days. The legitimate Stuart dynasty was set aside, even though legitimacy and fair inheritance were seen as the foundations of civilised life. To avoid any more civil wars, while keeping Britain Protestant, a minor German princely family were imported to replace the Stuart dynasty. No one liked the Hanoverians, they were just less obnoxious than the alternatives.
A process of social and political development was necessary for British commercial development, went hand in hand with it and preceded it. The process lacks a standard name, but is intimately related to the religious and social turmoil around the English Civil War. Since Thomas ‘Leviathan’ Hobbes was a notable and influential thinker in the period, ‘building Leviathan’ would make a useful label. A label that insists human opinions and ideas had a continuous and complex relationship with a developing economy.
‘Building Leviathan’ was a necessary precondition for the commercial advance that Smith celebrates and which he presents as a natural outcome of the division of labour. It was anything but a natural process, and there was no reason to expect the growing sophistication of production in Europe to produce different results than happened in the equally sophisticated Roman Empire and in sophisticated foreign civilisations like China, India and the Muslim World.
Britons in the 18th century knew they were doing well, in material and economic terms. But they were unable to reconcile this to their official ideology, respect for tradition and Christianity. The spirit of the age is well expressed in the pictures of William Hogarth, an intense observer of rampant corruption. Yet Hogarth could be seen as a critic protesting at the low state of modern morals. Bernard Mandeville was something else entirely.
Bernard Mandeville was a Dutch writer and philosopher, settled in England and with some powerful patrons. He caused a stir by stripping the sinful 18th century of its pretence of virtue. The infamous Fable Of The Bees mocks the idea of British society ever trying to live by its own official notion of virtue. The ‘grumbling hive’ of his notorious poem is given virtue by an Act of Divine Grace. And with quite disastrous results.
Mandeville had a better understanding of economics than Adam Smith. He was the originator of some of the examples of productive ‘division of labour’ that Smith used – without acknowledgement – in The Wealth Of Nations. The logic of his argument is that the ‘wasteful’ expenditure of the rich was creating employment and keeping everyone prosperous.
Mandeville’s arguments on the usefulness of luxury consumption resemble Keynes’s later opinion that it would be worthwhile for the government to hire people just to dig pits and fill them in again. The idea behind the most successful period of economic growth and full employment that Europe has yet seen.
It’s a pity that Mandeville used his clever insights to ridicule the existing order, rather than to seriously propose something better. People can live cynically for a lone time, a generation or three, but some form of moral order will always assert itself in the end. If not yours, then someone else’s.
Then again, what was he going to offer? Apart from a vague reverence for Classical antiquity, the 18th century suffered from a general feeling that attempts at living virtuously had not worked and would not work.
“The 1714 edition of Mandeville’s most important work, The Fable of the Bees, was subtitled Private Vices, Publick Benefits and consisted of a preface, the text of The Grumbling Hive, an “Enquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue,” and “Remarks” on the poem. The 1723 edition included an examination of “The Nature of Society” and provoked a long controversy. The 1729 edition remodeled the entire argument to suit Mandeville’s philosophical commitment but nevertheless retained something of the original purpose of diverting readers.
“Mandeville’s argument in The Fable, a paradoxical defence of the usefulness of “vices,” is based on his definition of all actions as equally vicious in that they are all motivated by self-interest. Yet while the motives must be vicious, the results of action are often socially beneficial, since they produce the wealth and comforts of civilisation.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica CD 1999)
Mandeville defended vice as more useful than virtue. And the mainstream of society did not know how to answer him.
The blame or credit for starting a global pattern of sea-born imperialism does not belong to Britain. Italy, Spain and Portugal started it, with the French and Dutch close behind. Had Britain stayed out of it, one of those countries would have dominated the world regardless.
Dropping out of the game was an option. Sweden did this, opting to be a comfortable nation-state rather than the core of an empire that might have pre-empted Prussia and prevented Russia for pushing as far west as it did in the 18th century.
Sweden and England both had enough geographic protection to exist as themselves without being much bothered by the outside world. Sweden decided one way, Sweden dropped out and it was definitely nice for them, much more moot if the world was net gainer or loser.
It is also hard to guess if the world was net gainer or loser by Britain’s success. For sure, there was nothing inevitable about it. Before the 18th century, Britain was a minor player in the game of Imperial expansion. Imperial Britannia had a substantial run of less than 200 years. Only in 1759 did it achieve its sea-dominion, and it was decidedly an ex-Empire by 1959.
England as a distinct entity has existed for maybe 14 centuries, Britain’s heritage goes back thousands of years. Imperial Britannia had a substantial life of maybe two centuries, nothing in the life of nation, even a relatively new one like England. I rate its age as 14 centuries because the fate of the settlement of future English was moot in 500 AD, fairly definite by 600 AD, with no further possibility of the settlers being either thrown back or else absorbed by the Romano-Celtic Britons as the Franks were absorbed by the Romanised Celts of Gaul. It may have been that the British resistance was the determinant, not strong enough to win but strong enough to compel the first settlers to bring in more of their own people rather than set themselves up as a small ruling class in the way other wandering Germanic tribes had done and were to do again.
It is also thought that huge numbers of Romanised Britons were absorbed into the new English identity. Early English settlers proved surprisingly resistant to Celtic words, but took numerous place names, presumably from a conquered British underclass who later raised themselves into the ranks of ‘superior people’ by discarding their older heritage. Both Celts and the various Germanic tribes had slaves, let it be noted, but slaves were also part of the society and it was always possible for them to better themselves.
We may never know the exact important in the unsuccessful British resistance of a man sometimes known as ‘Artorius Dux Bellorum’. What is remarkable is the way he has been incorporated as an English hero. (See BBC History Magazine for June 2000, for instance; this educated and well-informed source calls him “the quintessential English hero”.
Britain in its sudden 18th century emergence was an unlikely Empire, sitting as it did at the far western end of ‘civilisation ally’, the chain of cultures stretching off into India, with the more detached cultures of China and India and Japan etc. beyond that.
Up until the 17th century, neither England nor any of the other cultures of the British Isles had made any huge difference to European culture. Irish monks had played some part in bringing Christianity to the various pagan Germanic people, including the English. The Welsh legends of Arthur became popular, stripped of their original anti-English context (just as the Song Of Roland is a wild romance bearing little resemblance to the minor skirmish against Christian Basques in which the real Roland actually died.). Anglo-Saxon scholars like The Venerable Bede were recognised as preservers of Christian values in a world where they had almost been overrun elsewhere. But in the main, Britain was a backward fringe of Latin Christian culture. The English had a formidable reputation for piracy and warfare, but not for anything else.
As I noted earlier, Shakespeare did later become a very considerable world influence, but only after Britain became a world power. Up until the 18th century, his reputation was mixed and doubtful even among English speakers. Before the 17th century, the English were sometimes noted for their military success, but had always been tail enders in the realms of culture, science and exploration.
British culture in the 18th century world has aspects of liberation, just as American culture now has. Also Britain managed the seas in the collective West European interest. It could sometimes cut communications during a war. Britain helped enforce a brutal stalemate, misleadingly called ‘balance of power’. But stalemate was always welcomed by the side that would otherwise have lost.
Wilkes and Britanoskepticism
From James the Sixth and First down to his great-grandaugher Queen Anne, the British Isles were three kingdoms which just happened to share a single monarch. Rather, it was two different but merged political traditions: Scotland on the one hand and the rest of the British Isles on the other. Everything outside of Scotland had been swallowed up by the English Monarch, Ireland by Papal gift and the disorganised small principalities of Wales had long been unofficially incorporated. (Though Prince of Wales has not proved a very lucky title. Edward the Second was its first possessor, and was not just deposed but also murdered in the least dignified fashion that any British king is known to have suffered.)
Scots were another matter. Scots had not been dragged forcibly into England, despite the best efforts of Edward the First. It was only the dynastic accident of James the Sixth of Scotland succeeding Elizabeth Tudor that finally created a useful union.
1688 saw an alliance of English and Lowland Scots kick out the Stewarts and bring in an obscure German dynasty that had the best Protestant claim to the succession. This was seen as doubtful by almost everyone, but only the Highland Scots saw took the matter seriously enough to go to war over it. The Irish for once were quiescent, the Cromwellian conquest had proved decisive.
George III had the advantage of being English-born, and British in his instincts. The Stewarts were almost forgotten, ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ never did manage to produce an heir to carry on the Catholic line, nor did he age well. Meantime George III in his early years seemed a fine person to preside over an era of rapid change, with a political system that was the nearest thing then existing to the aristocratic republics celebrated by some Greek and Roman writers.
Just how free it was remained to be seen. George III had felt confident enough to drop the Whig Oligarchy and accept support from Tories and even some Catholics. Meantime popular democracy was still predominantly Protestant, and apt to be much more extreme than the gentry were. Also the gentry were by then increasing a British gentry, intermarrying freely within their own class and also accepting the newly rich in a way that was not remotely possible in most of the rest of Europe – most of the rest of the world, indeed.
John Wilkes tested how far this liberty could go. But his concept of ‘liberty’ included liberty to exclude the Scots despite the Union of 1715. And he was eventually to find that he was drawing on just the same reservoir of support that the Parliamentary rebels of the English Civil War had roused up and then failed to control. He was one of them, in a sense, and also grown beyond them in a sense.
Wilkes was the second son of Israel Wilkes, a successful malt distiller. He was educated at an academy at Hertford and afterward privately tutored. His marriage on May 23, 1747, to Mary Meade, heiress of the manor of Aylesbury, brought him a comfortable fortune and an assured status among the gentry of Buckinghamshire.
A profligate by nature, Wilkes became a member of the congenial society of the “Medmenham Monks,” members of the so-called Hell-Fire Club who met occasionally in the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey at Medmenham, Buckinghamshire, to indulge in debauchery and the performance of Black Masses. (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Standard CD 1999.)
They are wrong about the ‘Hell-Fire Club’ actually going as far as Black Masses, stories of serious Satanism are total fictions. It was basically about sex, with a hint of blasphemy that could be justified as no more than mockery of ‘Romish superstition’, and definitely very attractive to the wives of Puritans who wished to discretely lapse from virtue. And while the club included some powerful politicians, they remained political enemies despite their social connection.
In 1754, at the suggestion of Earl Temple, Wilkes stood for election to Parliament for Berwick-upon-Tweed–unsuccessfully, despite his bribing a captain to land a shipload of opposition voters from London in Norway instead of at Berwick. In 1757, after an election campaign said to have cost him £7,000, much of it in bribes to voters, he was returned to Parliament for Aylesbury. Recklessly overspending, and ever deeper in debt, he hoped to retrieve his fortunes by political advancement.
In 1762, as author of a political newspaper, the North Briton, he began to give rancorous journalistic support to Earl Temple’s campaign against the ministry of Lord Bute, not hesitating to evoke popular English hatred for the Scots and to write libellous innuendos about Bute’s relations with George III’s mother. His incitement of antiministerial feeling was partly responsible for Bute’s decision to retire in April 1763. Temple, equally hostile to the new ministry formed by George Grenville, encouraged Wilkes to publish (April 23) the now famous “No. 45” of the North Briton, a devastating attack upon ministerial statements in the King’s speech, which Wilkes described as false. The new ministers, anxious to rid themselves of so vituperative a critic, and encouraged by the King’s personal animus against the traducer of his mother, instituted immediate proceedings against him. A general warrant (one that did not name the persons to be arrested) was issued. Forty-eight persons were seized in the search for evidence before Wilkes himself was arrested. He was thrown into the Tower of London, but a week later, to the public delight, Lord Chief Justice Pratt ordered his release on the ground that his arrest was a breach of parliamentary privilege. Wilkes and others instituted actions for trespass against the secretary of state, the Earl of Halifax, and his underlings that led to awards of damages and established the illegality of general warrants. Assuming his immunity, Wilkes prepared to continue his campaign. Asked by a French acquaintance how far liberty of the press extended in England, he said: “I cannot tell, but I am trying to find out. (Ibid.)
He eventually found out, when he faced up to the ‘Gordon Riots’, which were a mix of anti-Catholic and anti-Irish bigotry along with democratic support for the American War of Independence.
Reelected for Middlesex in 1774, after pledging himself to the radical program, he spoke on a number of occasions against the American Revolutionary War and once (1776) in support of parliamentary reform. He soon acquired a reputation for insincerity and was reported to have admitted that his speeches against the ministers were solely to retain his popularity in London. From about 1779 his popularity noticeably waned. In 1780, during the Gordon Riots against Roman Catholics, he took firm action to put down the rioters, from whom a few years before he had been glad to receive support. In Middlesex he remained popular, being reelected on his radical platform in 1780 and in 1784. In 1782 the expunging from the Commons journals of the resolution of 1769 against him vindicated his defense of the rights of parliamentary electors. After 1784 the issues that had made him popular were cold, his fire was spent, and in 1790 he found so little support in Middlesex that he declined to fight the election. He died in London in 1797. (Ibid.)
The Gordon Riots are the ‘missing link’ between the religious wars of the 17th century and the era of secular republicanism begun by the American Revolution and the French Revolution.
In 1779 Gordon, previously considered insignificant, organized and made himself head of the Protestant associations formed to secure the repeal of the Catholic Relief Act of 1778. He led a mob that marched on the houses of Parliament on June 2, 1780, to present a petition against the act. The ensuing riot lasted a week, causing great property damage and nearly 500 casualties. For his part in instigating this violence, Gordon was arrested on a charge of high treason but was acquitted on the ground that he had no treasonable intentions. His life thereafter was a succession of unlikely political and financial schemes. He was excommunicated from the Church of England in 1786 for refusing to bear witness in an ecclesiastical suit; in the same year, he became a convert to Judaism.
In 1787 Gordon was convicted of libeling the queen of France, the French ambassador in London, and the administration of justice in England. After a period of exile he returned to England, and in January 1788 he was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in Newgate. In prison he lived comfortably, giving dinners and dances. Because he could not obtain the securities for his good behaviour at the end of his sentence, he was not allowed to leave Newgate and died there. (Ibid., entry for Lord George Gordon.)
To understand Wilkes, don’t think of him as a radical, he was much more a populist defender of the old English order against the progressive British monarchy of George III’s early years. Rather like Lord Tebbit in his public position (if not in private life).
Wilkesites used the slogan ‘45’, both for the issue of Wilkes’s journal that had cause so much controversy, and for the Jacobite rising of 1745. It was in some ways an objection to progress and modernisation, or at least the forms that progress and modernisation were taking in the 18th century.
But when the heirs of Wilkes did take power in the 19th century, they were to be worse in many ways than George III and the gentry had been. Certainly much meaner to those below them in the class hierarchy.
Byron – with Lucifer in the sky
Britain ceased to be a backwater without being quite sure what it should become. There was the glib rationalism of the Augustans, the sudden passionate emotions of the Romantic, and a substratum of Puritanism appalled by its loss of purity.
The Industrial Revolution made by people who also read tales of mystery and imagination. And I do not thing this was an accident.
The Augustan / Romantic dualism ran strong within Byron. In one sense he was the last substantial Augustan within British culture, yet also an articulator of the new Romanticism. Also the substratum of Puritanism appalled by its loss of purity was always present in him. He was the little Scottish schoolboy suddenly promoted into a powerful and cynical British aristocracy. Inheritor of a grand title and a half-ruined estate at the age of ten, as in some fairy tail, yet this was real.
I would not claim that Cain: A Mystery is on a level with Byron’s best work. But it is worth studying for the interesting mix of pagan, biblical and scientific imagery.
In Act II, Scene II, Lucifer shows Cain the former superior inhabitants of our own world. Denying Genesis as mere Divine Propaganda, Lucifer gives an account of human evolution out of something else. Humans came from reptiles, and before that slime. This was one of the rival scientific views in Byron’s day, when no one was very sure if life on Earth had risen or fallen or cycled interminably.
Byron, not surprisingly, opts for a fall. But in his version, the Garden of Eden is not the original purity. It was merely another part of a fallen world, where God has been tinkering with some of the inferior creatures of a downfallen Earth.
- Regarding past creatures, Lucifer explains the nature of this fall:
- “By a most crushing and inexorable
- Destruction and disorder of the elements
- Which struck a world to chaos, as a chaos
- Subsiding has struck out a world : such things,
- Though rare in time, are frequent in eternity –
- Pass on, and gaze upon the past…
- “Their earth is gone for ever –
- So changed by its convulsions, they would not
- Be conscious to a single present spot
- Of its new scarcely harden’d surface – t’was –
- Oh, what a beautiful world it was”.
- These – or perhaps something inferior – are identified with:
- “That which
- The Mammoth is in thy world – but these lie
- By myriads underneath its surface”.
Byron accepts natural descent – though not the biological evolution that Lamark had proposed. He preferred to believe in degeneration followed by partial recovery. Later one has reference to:
- “Mighty pre-Adamites who walk’d the earth
- Of which ours is the wreck : thou hast pointed out
- Myriads of star worlds, of which our own
- Is the dim and remote companion, in
- Infinity of life…”
Lord Byron supposed that the world as he knew it was a decline from something superior. He was not just talking about the newly discovered truths of geology when he spoke of our world being built on the wreckage of several former worlds. He presumably knew that James Hutton had challenged the existing notion of a created world and had proposed a long cycle of creation and destruction. These ideas were already around, a coherent explanation of why sea shells were found on mountain tops. Hutton correctly described the basic process. Land eroded below sea level and new land raised up by mountain building, all driven by forces which we could see at work every day.
Yet in human and social terms, Byron’s world was also being built on the wreckage of several former worlds. The human world turned upside down by commercial power. Power praised by Adam Smith, who was the close friend of Hutton the subversive geologist.
Byron intended that the tale of his hero Childe Harold should end up with the aristocratic adventurer being guillotined in the French Revolution, which would have been a fitting episode in an age of confusion. The famous radical pamphleteer Tom Paine only just escaped the guillotine. The Jacobins condemned him because of his links with the Girondins, the less extreme faction of French Republicanism.
The French Revolution was supposed to establish politics based on reason, which was also the Augustan ideal. The trouble was, when politics broke out of familiar political forms in France, it was found that no one was agreed quite what ‘politics based on reason’ actually were. So that lots of people who had taken a utopian view of ‘politics based on reason’ thought it wiser to retreat into traditional forms.
Byron himself was moved by these forces. He even contemplated converting to Catholicism, something that similar intellectual and literary rebels did do later on in the century. None of the calibre of Byron, except perhaps for Cardinal John Newman. Cardinal George Byron? – it’s a horrible thought, but not quite unthinkable. Perhaps Byron’s death in Greece was actually a blessing.
Capitalism did not only alter the economic relations of society. It also altered its social life. Above all, it undermined the morality inherited from earlier times.
Daniel Defoe was both a product and a promoter of this breakdown. Of Puritan origins, as Wilkes was, he shared Wilkes’ feeling that vice was much more interesting that virtue. Robinson Crusoe is the first novel to feature The Individual, the peculiar entity that the secular heirs of the Puritan / Nonconformist tradition dreamed up to explain the world. In this novel, a standard unit of The Individual is isolated on an island and prospers in a way that real castaways never ever did.
Bunyan’s hero in his Pilgrim’s Progress is looking for the City Of God. Crusoe may on occasion have resort to the Bible, but the main interests are secular and economic. And in such works as Moll Flanders, Roxanne and Captain Singleton, Defoe shows a great fascination with all of the things that Puritanism was supposed to be against. Whereas Crusoe is at least virtuous in Puritan terms, some of his other heroes and heroines manage to break all the rules and then return to apparent virtue without giving up any of their ill-gotten gains.
Yet to see Defoe as a hypocrite would be a gross misunderstanding. He was a complex man in complex times, and did risk his own life and freedom for the Protestant cause in the Monmouth Rebellion.
Defoe’s father, James Foe, was a hard-working and fairly prosperous tallow chandler (perhaps also, later, a butcher), of Flemish descent. By his middle 30s, Daniel was calling himself “Defoe,” probably reviving a variant of what may have been the original family name. As a Nonconformist, or Dissenter, Foe could not send his son to the University of Oxford or to Cambridge; he sent him instead to the excellent academy at Newington Green kept by the Reverend Charles Morton. There Defoe received an education in many ways better, and certainly broader, than any he would have had at an English university. Morton was an admirable teacher, later becoming first vice president of Harvard College; and the clarity, simplicity, and ease of his style of writing–together with the Bible, the works of John Bunyan, and the pulpit oratory of the day—may have helped to form Defoe’s own literary style.
Although intended for the Presbyterian ministry, Defoe decided against this and by 1683 had set up as a merchant. He called trade his “beloved subject,” and it was one of the abiding interests of his life. He dealt in many commodities, traveled widely at home and abroad, and became an acute and intelligent economic theorist, in many respects ahead of his time; but misfortune, in one form or another, dogged him continually. He wrote of himself:
- No man has tasted differing fortunes more,
- And thirteen times I have been rich and poor.
With Defoe’s interest in trade went an interest in politics. The first of many political pamphlets by him appeared in 1683. When the Roman Catholic James II ascended the throne in 1685, Defoe–as a staunch Dissenter and with characteristic impetuosity—joined the ill-fated rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth, managing to escape after the disastrous Battle of Sedgemoor. Three years later James had fled to France, and Defoe rode to welcome the army of William of Orange–“William, the Glorious, Great, and Good, and Kind,” as Defoe was to call him. Throughout William III’s reign, Defoe supported him loyally, becoming his leading pamphleteer. In 1701, in reply to attacks on the “foreign” king, Defoe published his vigorous and witty poem The True-Born Englishman, an enormously popular work that is still very readable and relevant in its exposure of the fallacies of racial prejudice….
Perhaps Defoe’s most remarkable achievement during Queen Anne’s reign, however, was his periodical, the Review. He wrote this serious, forceful, and long-lived paper practically single-handedly from 1704 to 1713. At first a weekly, it became a thrice-weekly publication in 1705, and Defoe continued to produce it even when, for short periods in 1713, his political enemies managed to have him imprisoned again on various pretexts. It was, effectively, the main government organ, its political line corresponding with that of the moderate Tories (though Defoe sometimes took an independent stand) … With George I’s accession (1714), the Tories fell. The Whigs in their turn recognized Defoe’s value, and he continued to write for the government of the day and to carry out intelligence work…
A man who made many enemies, he has been accused of double-dealing, of dishonest or equivocal conduct, of venality. Certainly in politics he served in turn both Tory and Whig; he acted as a secret agent for the Tories and later served the Whigs by “infiltrating” extremist Tory journals and toning them down. But Defoe always claimed that the end justified the means, and a more sympathetic view may see him as what he always professed to be, an unswerving champion of moderation. At the age of 59 Defoe embarked on what was virtually a new career, producing in Robinson Crusoe the first of a remarkable series of novels and other fictional writings that resulted in his being called the father of the English novel. (Encyclopaedia Britannica, entry for Daniel Defoe).
Defoe was part of an emerging view of the world, lapsed Puritans not quite sure what they wanted to be, but fairly positive about the changing world they saw about them.
Defoe certainly served his masters with zeal and energy, traveling extensively, writing reports, minutes of advice, and pamphlets. He paid several visits to Scotland, especially at the time of the Act of Union in 1707, keeping Harley closely in touch with public opinion. These trips bore fruit in a different way two decades later: in 1724-26 the three volumes of Defoe’s admirable and informative Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain were published, in preparing which he drew on many of his earlier observations. (Ibid.)
The Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain does give an excellent picture of a society already moving in the direction of later 18th century industrialisation.
The saying ‘From Hell, Hull, and Halifax, Good Lord, deliver us’ is commonly supposed to come from the later period of intense industrialisation, yet I found it much earlier in Defoe. He explains how Halifax had a flourishing wool industry with unusual legal protection.
“…The errecting of woolen manufactures here was about the year 1480, when King Henry 7th by giving encouragement to foreigners to settle in England, and to set up wollen manufactures, caused an Act to pass prohibiting the exportation of wool into foreign parts, unwrought, and to encourage foreign manufacturers to come and settle here…” Defoe, Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, letter 8.
Note that the people who gradually raised Britain from a European backwater to a global power had no notion that state power was a burden on them or that they were emerging spontaneously out of some economic vacuum.
When thus trade began to settle, nothing was more frequent than for young workmen to leave their cloths out all night upon the tenters, and idle fellows would come in upon them, and tearing them off without notice, steal the cloth. Now as it was absolutely necessary to preserve the trade in its infancy, this severe law was made, giving the power of life and death so far into the hands of the magistrates of Hallifax…
The county people were, it seems, so terrified at the severity of this proceedings, that hence came that proverbial saying, which was used all over Yorkshire, (viz)
From Hell, Hull, and Hallifax
Good Lord, deliver us.
How Hull came to be included in this petition, I do not find; for they had no such law there, as I read of. (Ibid.)
Before you can have a manufacturing society, you have to first manufacture the correct sort of human raw material. We are not spontaneously born as creatures who will go to a crowded workplace and work long hours for wages and under command. All of that had to be drilled into us, often imposed with great brutality, before right-wing economists could declare it natural
Defoe lived in the days when that particular view of the world was being hammered into the population, hammered in so well that it might seem natural to later generations. Defoe was less smug, though he was just as credulous in his own way. One of his other works was a Political History Of The Devil, and he wasn’t kidding either.
Of course Defoe and other lapsed Puritans managed to avoid looking at the places where the devil might be expected if there were really devils. Someone who took their Puritanism serious would see capitalist industrialisation as a highly successful Satanic conspiracy, a trick meriting a ‘Fiend of the Millennium’ award. But Puritans were in decline after their political bungling of their military victory in the Civil War. Ignoring the Bible, ‘free markets’ were defined as Godly. Foreign imperialism including smuggling opium into China just so long as their religion could go with it – one of many reasons why ‘western spirituality’ did not impress many people.
Gods Must Be Kept On A Leash
Society can be seen as the Extended Self. New-born humans have no very fixed identity, and all known human socities have a complex and careful process to humanise them into their own particular society.
The Puritan ideal is an oddity, supposing that there should be nothing between Self and God, who takes the role of Extended Self. Mrs Thatcher’s ‘there is no such thing as society’ is a secularised version, her own background is Methodist. The phrase originally came from Ayn Rand, a right-wing atheist who was also for a time mentor to Alan Greenspan. But the phrase had influence because it touched on some of the society’s deepest feelings.
People are supposed to freely choose to be Puritans. The trouble arises, because so many of them freely choose not to be Puritans
Puritanism – and its derivative Liberalism – cannot cope with this straightforwardly, but must continuously pretend that by preventing people from freely choosing not to be Puritans (or maybe Liberals) they are in fact freeing them rather than coercing them. But doesn’t every coercive system see its own way as best?
Puritans in Britain, North American and elsewhere lost actual hegemony in the societies they nominally controlled, precisely because they did not properly understand what a society was supposed to be doing. This loss of power was masked by the rise to world power of Western Europe, based firstly on science and global sea travel and then on industrialisation.
Science and global sea travel began within Catholicism and were only later copied by people in the Puritan and general Protestant tradition. And in Britain, Industrialism happened under the rule of a gentry that was officially Anglican but often privately sceptical.
The actual entrepreneurs were often Nonconformist, but not necessarily Puritans. Quakers played a large role, and Quakers are notably for following the actual Gospel teachings rather than the Puritan norm.
Scots were all officially Presbyterian unless they declared themselves something else. But a lot of those were Britanophile, keen to abandon this Puritan culture and much more in tune with Anglicanism. Adam Smith and David Hume were notable products on this odd social tension, a tension which forced them to think about things that the English just then were mostly taking for granted.
By the mid-18th century, they were secure enough. The original Imperial power of Spain and Portugal and the powerful challenge of France had been hijacked as a bit of rather cheeky enterprise by a small nation on the fringes of Europe. A nation that wasn’t going to be left alone, regardless, and so decided to be Imperial in its own right. It was when the Victorians added their pomposity and pseudo-morality to Georgian cheekiness and enterprise that things turned very badly wrong. The creative gentry of the 18th century might have privately agreed that they’d ‘stolen the waves’, nipped in and taken advantage of the rivalries of other European nations.
Puritanism in general and Britain in particular developed a schema that began within the Latin Christian church, but was in many ways hostile to it. The aspects of Catholicism favoured by thinkers like Isidore of Seville were the first Modernism. And both Puritanism and this Modernist trend within Catholicism were equally a war on the older values of the civilization. The radical papal elements promoted Modernism within traditional forms, of course, and Puritans also invoked the name of tradition, looked to a supposed Primitive Christianity that would cure papal distortions. It sought to be Primitive, but as it worked out it was not at all Christian. Primitive in its methods but very Modern in its aim and organization.
Cromwell’s well-known phrase – ‘trust in God and keep your powder dry’ – was a nice slogan, but I can’t help feeling it embodies two contradictory ideas of the world. God is present and all-powerful, but also remote enough that material means like dry powder need to be relied upon. And later scepticism was a logical development in reaction to Cromwell’s mix of military success and political incoherence. ‘Enthusiasm’ was feared, ‘trust in powder and keep your God dry” might have been a decent watchword. Except it was never so overt, the forms of Christianity were kept, but reduced to hollowness.
Gods must be kept on a leash. Or rather, people claiming to speak for God must be duly limited. The results of letting religious enthusiasm run free in the 17th century had not been good.
Besides, was the enthusiasm really based on the original creed, as it so loudly claimed? The teachings of Jesus, as set out in Gospel, praise wine and condemn both violence and commerce. The so-called Fundamentalists praise both violence and commerce and prohibit alcohol. Christian? Not really. Read Revelations, there is fighting, but nothing to say any living human could or should get involved in it. Jesus seems to be organizing the matter, so if you believe that stuff, you should logically trust him to take care of it. And the fighters seem to be an army of the blessed dead anyway, which suggests that those of us still alive should be concentrating on piety rather than military matters.
In fact these Puritan visions pay little attention to what’s in the Bible and concentrate on what they want to find. God as OverSelf, Superego in Freudian terms. (Which itself is probably wrong or limited.)
But history has not gone their way. Henry the 8th looked to suppress English Puritanism just as effectively as it was suppressed in Spain and France, until the lack of a male heir forced him to challenge Papal Power. Let Mary Tudor be born a boy, and there would have been no problem.
It was equally possible for a solid and acceptable Protestantism to be established by Edward the Sixth living at least long enough to father an heir. Or Mary Tudor’s return to Catholicism could have been consolidated had she born a child to Phillip of Spain. All in all, the pattern of births and non-births among English monarchs was very destructive of all the alternative versions of Christianity. Is God a Deist? Should one imagine, Voltaire and Diderot at the feet of a Deist deity, laughing at the religious who are assigned to a suitable low place in the Deist afterlife. It’s a less absurd notion than a Divine Providence of Christian intent that keeps marring Its’ Divine Purpose by giving unreasonable bad fortune to the English succession.
Whatever the reason, there were always limits to Puritan power. They could not consolidate their power even though they had already reversed Christian traditions on force and violence, even more thoroughly than Catholicism had. (Quakers are notable exception among a scattering of sects that take Gospel teachings on non-violence seriously, everyone else wriggled round the point.)
Likewise on commerce, Jesus’s rejection of the limited commerce of Roman days did not stop most Puritans from succumbing to the lures of Mammon, with just a few small sects holding out, and even the Quakers becoming very commercial in their viewpoint. You got a curious heresy within Puritanism, that whatever was purely commercial was virtuous. Historically or doctrinally it makes no sense, the Christian vision was anti-commercial, and gained credibility as the complex trading civilisation of the Mediterranean came apart at the seams.
The only matter on which ‘Puritans’ were at all strict was sex. They tried and still trying to impose official sexual standards, which is no longer allowed. But they are allowed to be personally neurotic. Which is part of the human condition, also found sceptics and atheists. In a religious person it may take religious form but remains a superficial faith.
The Mediaeval Catholic Church had been ‘wholesale grace-mongers’, finding ways to peddle the religious comforts that earlier generations had genuinely believed in.
Puritans privatised gracemongering. The earlier and more genuine religious vision would see the creation of a complex material culture as an incidental. But a commercial society is one means of regulating a complex material culture. And a neat way of dropping your principles in practice without doing so overtly.
Hence its usefulness to Puritanism.
The Puritan pattern of ‘privatised gracemongering’ allows lots of people claim a direct line to God. The Old Testament is often blamed, it can be blamed for much else, but not that. The Biblical account supposes that a rather small number of people would be delegated some sort of prophetic authority from God. But not many, no more than one or two validly in each generation, and sometimes none. Thus the potential for disruption was limited and religious enthusiasts were kept within forms which had been shown to work over a large number of generations.
Under traditional rule, if you stayed in your place and did not outrage traditional values, you could live much as you pleased. Generally it was the reformers who engaged in the big interference with people’s lives. Preaching in a bare ‘purified’ hall, was a prototype for the factory system which the same people later spawned.
The last serious angel in English literature is St Michael in Byron’s comical Vision of Judgement. Someone should do a comic book version of Byron’s Vision of Judgement. It would go naturally into such a form and would become part of the culture again. Most poetry gets locked up in twee sentiments, and even writers like Byron are seen in that light. Absurdly but actually.
Along with the highly heretical Blake, Byron produced the last serious Christian-influenced work in English literature. Both combined interesting bouts of religious passion with a suspicion that the Devil had actually had a valid point of view.
I do know of the existence of later writers who invoked classical angels, I just don’t take them seriously – and nor do many other people. Tennyson, who’s about the best of the Victorian era, could not take traditional religion even as seriously as Byron had. It was “nature red in tooth and claw” that obsessed him. C. S. Lewis did managed excellent devil in Screwtape, but even reading him as a child I found his god-lion ‘Aslan’ to be an arrogant bully. One finds another approach in Tolkien, who is correctly taken seriously by everyone except the clique of literary critics whose ‘wisdom’ he defied. He did claim in one of his letters Gandalf was actually an angel, but at the level of literature Gandalf functions as no more than a benevolent wizard. You can sympathise with him, precisely because he has no infinite fund of heavenly power to draw down on the heads of the evil powers, and because he carries on a principled fight which he rather expects to lose.
Pilgrim’s Progress began innovation of adapting the traditional adventure tale to the Puritan view. I’d class Raymond Chandler’s works as a descendant, most American fiction shows an awareness of a decay from Puritan values.
Maybe someone should try a synthesis, Marlowe’s Progress, with Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled’ American detective encountering the people and places described by Bunyan.
Or would a ‘hard-boiled’ American detective melt like ice in face of the original allegories of good and evil, allegories that get a late and decadent showing in the work of American thriller writers?
First published in Problems of Capitalism & Socialism, No. 60 Summer 2000