How shall we sing the Lord’s song?
- Religion and Public Doctrine in England by Maurice Cowling
Cambridge, 475 pp, £20.00, December 1980, ISBN 0 521 23289 9
This peculiar book belongs to a series called ‘Cambridge Studies in the History and Theory of Polities’, but one should not be misled by the name either of the series or of the book: there is very little about the history of politics and nothing about its theory, and not much direct light is thrown on the subject of the title. Cambridge, however, it very much is. The acerbic parochialism, dislike of the modern world and its cultural effects, a distinct sense of Englishness, indeed put one in mind, oddly enough, of another Cambridge writer, the late Dr Leavis, as do some turgid writing and a violent dislike of Lord Snow. Oddly, since Leavis’s intense moralism is the sort of thing that Cowling most detests: but that only makes it clearer how some spirit of the place managed to affect them both.
Leavis is not mentioned in these pages, but many Cambridge figures, past and present, are. The author relishes the utter inconspicuousness of some of them, and their parochial preoccupations. Welbourne, Smyth and B.L. Manning (author of a chapter on ‘What the Boat Club owes to the College’) all receive considered treatment, alongside better-known historians, and figures such as Whitehead, Toynbee, Eliot, Churchill and Evelyn Waugh. ‘It was not until it began to be said in Jesus that Peterhouse was willing to get rid of Knowles that Butterfield was in a position to persuade Vellacott that Peterhouse had a duty to keep him,’ writes Cowling with relish, and we know where we are.
The parochialism is partly related to an autobiographical intent: the author wishes to introduce us to the formation of his own opinions. However, this is a recessive note, and it comes out rather oddly because the most explicit autobiography occurs in the Preface, in which, by some obscure authorial convention, Cowling always refers to himself in the third person. ‘For as long as he can remember the author has hated these modes of thinking,’ he rather grandly says in the course of it. It must be said that what precedes this remark is not so much an account of any modes of thinking as a list of names (including, I should no doubt declare, my own), and that this sets the tone for quite a lot of what happens later.
Cowling’s idea is to mark out a certain set of dislikes, opinions and attitudes, both by the intermittent element of autobiography, and by an account and assessment of these various writers. The treatment of them is very uneven and often very blank, particularly because so much of it takes the form of fragmented quotations from their writings. The device of quotation and semi-quotation has a function, and allows Cowling to sustain an ambiguous relation to what he is reporting. We shall come back to that. Merely stylistically, it has a deadening effect, particularly when Cowling is trying to deal with philosophical rather than historical writings: the account of Whitehead, for instance, and in good part that of Collingwood, are about as appealing and lifelike as a police photo-montage of a wanted man.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 3 No. 8 · 7 May 1981
SIR: I am grateful for the review which my book Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England received from the Provost of Kings (Mr Bernard Williams) in the London Review of Books (LRB, 2 April), and in particular for his perceptiveness in knowing how pleased I would be at having it described as ‘clotted and ill-natured’, as bearing an equivocal relationship to its chief argument, as using Christianity as a vehicle of Sarcasm, and as having ‘dark associations’ with the ‘scepticism and distrust of all merely secular improvements which can be found’ amongst ‘the more unreconstructed sort of cardinal’ in the ‘unliberated heartland of the Church of Rome’. I hope I shall not seem ungrateful if I make two critical comments.
At various points in his review the Provost states that I am incapable of arguing my opinions. Given that I have a certain articulateness, it is, it seems to me, quite likely that I can argue them. Argument, however, is not what it seems to me suitable to do with opinions. What one does with opinions – all one needs to do with them, having found that one has them – is to enjoy them, display them, use them, develop them, in order to cajole, press, bully, soothe and sneer other people into sharing (or being affronted by) them. To argue them is, it seems to me, a very vulgar, debating-society sort of activity.
Secondly, I find the Provost’s dislike of ‘parochiality’ difficult to understand. We may not all be able to be ‘acerbically’ parochial, but we are all parochial – Sir A. Ayer, Sir I. Berlin, Sir S. Hampshire, the Provost and their ‘conspicuous’ friends no less than the inconspicuous Cambridge friends that I celebrate in two or three of my chapters. Whether a clique, and its claque, becomes conspicuous or not may be related to the quality of its mind and activity, but is equally likely to be related to quite extraneous considerations, like its capacity for self-promotion and mutual admiration, and the contribution that it makes to prevailing fashions. I do not resent the conspicuousness of the Provost’s friends any more than I resent the conspicuousness of the innumerable other groups of friends that constitute the English intelligentsia. But I do rather sense that the Provost resents my attempt to make my friends more conspicuous than they have been in the past.
About three-quarters of Religion and Public Doctrine is concerned with thinkers who are by any standards conspicuous. In the two or three chapters which deal with inconspicuous Cambridge thinkers, I have tried to suggest that these should become more conspicuous, that they dealt with questions which are of central consequence to the understanding of English political and religious thought, and that the conspicuous thinkers I do discuss will be understood better by being considered in association with them. If the Provost’s review has persuaded anyone that this is so, I shall judge it more than worth the pleasure it has given me.
Finally, may I add a few words about the Provost’s claim that Religion and Public Doctrine is neither about politics nor religion. The Provost is evidently quite a clever philosoper, but I have never found him very clever about politics. Indeed, I have always felt that his political opinions had been formed in the 1950s, and were so much the average opinions of their time and place that he had never paid them the compliment of thinking about them. Even if this is so, however, even if the Provost is feeling his age, so to speak, it is absurd to attempt so gross a misrepresentation as is to be found in the first paragraph of his review. Religion and Public Doctrine is laced with politics: it is also laced with religion. Its subject is a political religion.