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.

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