How shall we sing the Lord’s song?

Bernard Williams

  • 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.

All these writers, and the teachings of the forgotten dons, whether favourably or unfavourably treated, bear on the question of how the modern world should be viewed in the light of the religious consciousness; and the answer is that, at any rate, it should not be viewed as it usually is – within the pious and fraudulent constraints of liberal and humanist preoccupations. ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ was the title, mentioned by Cowling, of a sermon by Owen Chadwick, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, and the object of some of Cowling’s more condescending comments. In view of the prominent confessional stance that Cowling has chosen to take in this book, the question presses heavily on Cowling himself.

His colleague Edward Norman, who recently voiced in his Reith Lectures prejudices similar to Cowling’s, is criticised for the ‘wavering and inadequate expression that he gives to his conception of the Church of England’, and it is said that he ‘is in danger of abandoning – perhaps wishes deliberately to abandon – the only claims that make it possible to believe that the Church of England is a Church.’ If the proprieties of Peterhouse permit it, Norman might point out that this is a bit thick from one who spends 450 pages in giving barely any idea of what these claims might be, or of the ways in which the Anglican embers might be kept glowing if not with the secularist hot air which he and Cowling jointly despise. Cowling may well reply that the second and ‘larger’ work which he promises will set out all these matters. If so, it will have a hard time.

At the end of this volume, at any rate, it is clear that Cowling’s thoughts, when they extract themselves from the activities of merely quoting, commenting and sneering, are in a state of such abject confusion, and his relation to what he believes is so evasive, that some special infusion of intellectual and spiritual grace will be needed for him to do better than Norman, or to feel his own situation more clearly.

Anglicanism seems indeed to be the preferred form of his ‘Christian conservatism’, and that certainly fits well with his praise of splenetic military men and cantankerous parsons. But the hints we are given of the sentiments at the heart of his religious attitude seem to suggest some different and darker associations – nearer the scepticism and distrust of all merely secular improvement which can be found in the unliberated heartland of the Church of Rome. If all that one’s religion offers is a sense of original sin, imperfectibility, and a recognition that eternity is ‘as significant as time’; if one joins to that a scathing dislike of all liberal improvement; and if one is prepared to say that ‘in face of the transcendence of God, no moral or political system has any authority, and more or less anything will do,’ then one needs some extra agency to keep one from immediate and close association with the more unreconstructed sort of cardinal.

Anglicanism has presumably offered in the past such an agency in the form of certain relations to and within society, ways of going on in a predominantly English style. No dogma or even image of religious truth adequately determines, in this tradition, the religious life: historical contingency, social ‘arbitrariness’ (one of Cowling’s favourite words), must give it substance. But the more that that is true, and the less that there is anything to work with other than what we historically and arbitrarily have, the less room Cowling or any other critic has to object to what we historically and arbitrarily have at any given time – for instance, now.

In a very brief epilogue to his book, Cowling says that Christian conservatism, for the moment, ‘most certainly in England, must primarily exist as dissent, a Jacobitism of the mind, which can do little more than protest its conviction that the modern mind is corrupt.’ But all minds, in Cowling’s lapsarian perspective, are corrupt. In order to show that the modern mind is in some peculiar way corrupt – and in a way of which he, and Christianity, and conservatism, are supposed to give us some improved understanding – he needs a more reflective, more open and less defensive conception of truth than any that he displays here, or indeed, I believe, possesses; and not only of truth, but of truthfulness.

One of Cowling’s objections to the liberal consciousness lies in its pretensions to objectivity, and in particular to historical objectivity. One of the things that the admired Canon Smyth is said to have ‘done’ ‘pedagogically’ is that he ‘implied’ ‘that academic detachment is nonsense and that all academic statements are shot through with prejudice, partiality, and persuasive intention.’ Objections to what is called ‘the constricting positivism of professional historical truth’ – like enemies of liberalism to the left, Cowling uses ‘positivist’ as a fairly general term of abuse – yield a poorly defined relativism, about which we are told not much except that it is a necessary defence of religion. Concerning what he learnt from Sir Edwyn Hoskyns, he writes, in a passage which is fairly typical of this book’s prose: ‘But I do not think, in terms of emotional engagement (let alone in terms of religious practice), that I grasped the connection that Hoskyns was making between the religion he was protecting and the relativism that he was using to demolish the Liberalism he thought was eroding it.’ And of Toynbee, a special and early enemy, he says that he failed to see that ‘what is needed is the realisation that relativism subverts eclecticism, that irony protects religion, and that reactionary bloodiness is needed for survival.’

But if historical truth is relative, and religious truth either is totally remote from the world or is embodied in circumstances which are themselves relative and arbitrarily shaped, then it becomes utterly unclear, not merely what the exact objection to liberalism is, but why there is an objection at all. It has, after all, been rather successful, a point which Cowling in his rather unconvincing guise of defiant Jacobite is only too ready to make, and he has left himself with little alternative to being overwhelmingly impressed by that fact. Cowling’s own historical work mainly consists in illuminating the very small-scale politics of British history in this century by detailed use of quotations from documents, in a manner broadly unflattering to the motives of the agents involved. These studies, and the view of men and politics which is suggested by this book, hardly permit him any room for surprise that public life, particularly English public life, contains a high measure of humbug, and if that humbug is indeed effective, there is not much left, on Cowling’s own premises, for the knowing and disillusioned old warrior to do, except to straighten the medals on his shabby greatcoat and salute it.

Perhaps, at the end of the line, it is not any public inadequacy of liberalism which Cowling has the right to deplore, nor even a public deceitfulness, but rather that the high-minded propounders of liberal ideals, the self-satisfied advocates of ‘procrustean virtue’, as he occasionally puts it, are self-deceived. But, once more, if that implies, as it surely must, that they are blinded to the reality of the world, then we need a rather more adventurous and certainly less relativist account of the reality that they conceal from themselves.

Cowling’s posture, assumed with a self-conscious reticence, is one of realism, irony, courage, patience and withdrawn anger; and it implies, as against the liberal pieties, a style of personal truthfulness. It is, then, interesting to see what happens when Cowling gets near, for once, to an opinion which is indeed unacceptable in enlightened circles, which is more specific than his usual target of humanitarian claptrap in general, and which he himself residually suspects to be odious. Here his unheroic use of quotations can give itself away: a clear example is provided by what, in his discussion of Enoch Powell, he euphemistically calls the question of ‘immigration’.

In discussing immigration, Powell was careful not to express hostility to immigrants. In demanding a reduction in their numbers, he claimed to be defending their interests. He did not propose forcible repatriation, nor was his position a ‘racial’ one. He claimed simply that the national identity was in danger ...

In the first sentence of this, Cowling is for once outside his usual hedge of quotation, and the robust commentator on this rough world immediately finds himself explaining, with an unction worthy of the purest liberal, what Powell was careful not to express, as opposed, presumably, to what his words were taken to express. In the next sentence, however, Powell only ‘claimed’ to be defending the immigrants’ interests, while, in the sentence after that, the word ‘racial’ collects a pair of quotes, the moral and intellectual force of which remains wonderfully unexplained. Finally, Powell turns out to have claimed ‘simply that the national identity was in danger’. That ‘simply’ is unambiguously Cowling’s, and it would be worth knowing in more forthright terms how simple a matter this sceptical historian of political behaviour takes ‘national identity’ to be.

There is nothing very remarkable in someone’s entertaining these opinions, and Cowling’s doing so is less important (as Cowling would certainly admit) than Powell’s. What is tiresome is the tone of heroic truthfulness with which Cowling throughout this book invests an undertaking of sustained equivocation: often, in an evasive relation to what he quotes, and all the time with an implied reliance on views of society, salvation and history which he smugly holds, rarely states and could not coherently defend.

Cowling seems to have the odd belief that (leaving aside the workers, who are thought to have got a number of things right) only he and the various reactionaries, famed or dim, whom he praises have noticed that much liberalism is optimistic and high-minded claptrap which carries its own intolerances, that survival needs irony, that values conflict, that most things in the world are determined by force and fraud, that political moralism is often self-indulgent, that progressivist utilitarianism is a barren creed. He should be better-informed: these things have got out, and many have noticed them. There are, however, two differences at least between others who have noticed these things, and Cowling. One difference is that some others regard these facts as part of the present historically-given problems of political thought and action, and in trying nevertheless to think and act, exercise that irony which Cowling so much commends – with the aim, for instance, of defending the conceptions of truth and objectivity which he himself both needs and despises. Cowling indeed admits that modernity has, in effect, to be accepted. It is merely superficial of him to suppose that those who equally ‘accept’ modernity, but instead of sitting in colleges writing clotted and ill-natured books, seek to shape its requirements in slightly better rather than worse directions, are necessarily victims of its more flatulent ideologies, or any less command the ‘toughness, subtlety and illusionlessness’ which he claims to use merely in living out the modern world.

Another difference is that those others may extend their lack of illusion to eternity, and to the supposed meanings provided by Christianity. It is indeed one of the oddest, and no doubt in this case consciously acknowledged, ironies of Cowling’s outlook that the ruthless critic of complacency should want, so it seems, to slump onto the dusty hassocks of an older Anglicanism. But I wonder, in fact, how far he does want that, or how far some larger irony may encompass that advocacy as well. The religion in question is so little defined, and its relation, even potential, to our society – that relation mentioned in the title of the book – is so underdetermined, that one may legitimately wonder how far it may not be the vehicle rather than the inspiration of Cowling’s rancour. His repeated claim is that irony is now necessary to Christianity: but it may merely be that the deployment of Christianity proves useful to sarcasm.