August 30, 2008

"The Rhythm that was different": a thought on the English Enlightenment

Edward Gibbon is amongst the greatest historians to have ever written in English- his magisterial history of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has influenced and inspired historians in the two hundred years since Gibbon took up his pen and published his first volume. Gibbon's importance cannot be underrated- a friend of Adam Smith, a colleague of David Hume, a competitor to Samuel Johnson- he was an MP who served Lord North in the Parliaments of the late 1780s and more importantly a key intellectual thinker in what we might term the English Enlightenment. The Decline and Fall was greeted with horror by contemporary Christians- alarmed by Gibbon's account of their faith in Chapters 15 and 16 where he tackled the early Church- the rest of his account argued with some of the main postulates of Enlightenment thinking. John Pocock has just over the last few years published a survey of Gibbon's place in the world- and his survey enables us to turn to a vexed and important question- where did England stand in the Enlightenment? Franco Venturi told us that in England the rhythm was different, that in England the rules of the Enlightenment did not apply. Pocock argues that Venturi was right and wrong- that instead of looking to a hegemonical enlightenment based in France and spreading outwards- we need to look to an enlightenment of Calvinist and Protestant dimensions- and he uses Gibbon as a case study for the argument.

England in the 18th Century faced a key issue which defined most of its politics up until the French Revolution. Lurking in the back of the 18th Century mind, whether it faced Jacobitism in Scotland or Revolution in America, was the events of the seventeenth century. During the previous bloody century, England had gone through an awful civil war (more dead as a proportion of the population than in the First World War) and had been threatened by the spectre of further civil war in 1681, 1688 and so on. The political situation of England was a nervous one- Jacobitism, the belief that the excluded House of Stuart should resume the throne, played a large part in English politics- Gibbon's own father was a Jacobite for example and until 1715 the question of the Jacobite faction played large in politics until it was sublimated with the Hanoverian succession (though not so successfully as that it could not pose a military threat both in 1715 and in 1745). Alongside that there was another terror- the rise of enthusiasm. The troops of Cromwell's army who had pissed in the fonts of Cathedrals and paraded their radicalism through the streets of London were not forgotten- and the spectre of enthusiasm, religious license and the destruction of the national Anglican Church remained a feature of English life right up until 1828.

Positioning an English Enlightenment in this political context might seem odd- but it does make sense. The English Enlightenment was two things- it was a social movement and a religious one. Shaftesbury, the great son of the greater politician, argued in the early 18th Century that England needed to develop a series of political languages that could expel the enthusiast.The purpose of the early Spectator, edited by the Whig partisan Richard Addison, was precisely to develop this argument. The reason that historians often miss the English enlightenment was that for many in England, including Gibbon, the idea of a group of philosophe discussing politics in the arbours of the French academy was dangerous. They preferred that philosophy, that enlightenment was an amateur pursuit- something that united gentlemen in their opposition to the twin evils of enthusiasm and superstition. Evils that David Hume identified in his History of England as those that had swept the nation to civil war in the previous century and to Popish tyranny in the years before. The argument was simple: rather than developing a caste of philosophers, Gibbon beleived that philosophy was dangerous if not combined with the pursuits of a gentleman. When he said that the experience of the militia commander of Hampshire had not proved useless to the historian of the camps of Rome, in part he meant that historians could derive from their experience lessons to apply to the past, but in part he also meant that historians and philosophers should not become a caste apart- but should pursue their studies from the position and pose of leisured gentlemen. Rather than an academy as in France, it was the Club (founded by Joshua Reynolds and of which Gibbon was a member) which dominated the idea of enlightened conversation in England.

When Gibbon arrived in France in the 1760s, it was the separation between the gentleman and the scholar and the contempt for the amateur that enraged him and provoked his first literary excursion. In his essay on the study of literature, Gibbon sought to rebuke the Encyclopediast, D'Alembert, who had argued that philosophy was sovereign over the other subjects and reason over the other faculties. For Gibbon this was too narrow. You had to understand that philosophy was a servant, not a sovereign and that it might share the role of intellectual leader with other great faculties- amongst which the young historian put history. For Gibbon in France it was the Society of Antiquities in particular that he was interested in- and not the philosophe, not the Encyclopediasts. He esteemed Montesquieu because of his vast learning. He also became a citizen of the salons- and in particular attempted to cultivate the notion of a gentleman scholar. From France, with which Gibbon was always intellectually engaged, he learnt to respect the English society that he had left- he learnt the virtue of the polite argument made by Addison and Shaftesbury that rejected the philosophical enthusiasm- the Calvinist feeling- of the intolerant philosophe and atheist.

Such enlightened conversation embodied an attack on religious enthusiasm. And that is the second real issue in England in the 18th Century. From Samuel Gardiner in the sixteenth century onwards, Anglican intellectuals had sought the origins of the English church in the history of the early Church- they argued for what historians now call caesero-papism, the argument that the powers of Constantine had descended upon the civil sovereign of England- Henry VIII was as the act of succession proclaimed him, an emperor and his title was imperial. But what happened when as in 1688, the monarch fled and was replaced. Some Anglicans argued the issue was simple- divinity rested in the apostolic Church even under a false King. The King's flight changed nothing. But this doctrine came close to an argument that the Church was independent of the King, that it might exist without him and approached Catholic arguments that the Church had jure divino authority. Other Anglicans argued that the Church had no authority to do this: some like Conyers Reade at Oxford went further and argued that the Church was not a divine body. This tendency threatened to lapse into socinianism- the belief that Christ was not himself divine, for as soon as one suggested that the body of Christ, the Church, might not be divine what did that do to Christ himself. The threat was implicit: 1688 might turn the Church of England Catholic or force it to resign the Trinity. The problem, as Pocock understands, for the Englishman of the eighteenth century was the relationship between the Church and the King: ultimately their question was what kind of person was Christ and what kind of person was Leviathan? The key here for the young Gibbon was the doctrine of miracles. Conyers Reade had argued that no miracles were performed after the time of Christ himself and his apostles. Gibbon converted to Catholicism at Oxford because he sought to cut the Gordian knot of Anglican theological controversy- by acknowledging the authority of Rome, he could escape from the problem of the authority of the King by denying it, and from the problem of the authority of the Church by assuming it on the basis of the authority of Peter. The rock upon whom Christ built his Church was the same rock upon which Gibbon built his adolescent faith.

Catholicism was one exit from this dilemma. Others embraced other exits. John Locke and Isaac Newton argued for various versions of adjustments to the Trinity. Into the nineteenth century, John Henry Newman took the same steps as Gibbon- whereas Pusey danced the tightrope of High Anglican belief in the authority of the King and the unity of Church and King for evermore. The problems have not gone away either. But the events of 1688 made them visible in a way that they are not today- given the security of the current Governor on her throne and the way that she has become elevated beyond theological conflict. The events of 1688 pressed Englishment to a dilemma, was the church social or spiritual, was its role to create religious enthusiasm or to support the civil peace? Questions such as these dominated the English enlightenment- they were shared by thinkers on the continent. The radical Pierre Bayle was uncertain in religion but certain about the authority of the crown and advised French Huguenots to support the French crown no matter what: ultimately Paris as Henri Navarre said was worth a mass. Catholic thinkers faced a variety of the same problem when considering the role of the Jesuit. But it is worth bearing in mind this issue when one comes to analyse why the early Church was so crucial in the enlightenment debate- settling whether the Church was divine or not said something both about the divinity of Christ and the stability of the civil sovereign.

Where does this leave the English Enlightenment? I hope I've brought out here the way that the English enlightenment saw a different rhythm because of the different situation in the Kingdom- the problem of peace was the centre of British political thought, it had been since Hobbes, and it continued to be right up until the French Revolution and beyond. In many ways the English Enlightenment through the lens of Gibbon both shares and does not share aspects of the French and European Enlightenments. England was where the rhythm was different- but aspects of the English situation could be found in France and in the Protestant world of the Netherlands and of Lausanne- to where Gibbon himself retired to write the Decline and Fall.

I have taken Gibbon as my starting point in this thought because he is the subject of John Pocock's recent volume on Gibbon and his Enlightenments but I hope what I have demonstrated is that there are reasons why Gibbon, so long thought of as atypical, should be interesting to us all when we examine whatever the English enlightenment was or was not. The movements of eighteenth century Europe which Pocock describes in the same rich volume (and by the way it is worth reading, I have barely transcribed a mite of what is there and that I have almost certainly imperfectly understood) are not the subject of today's article, but the argument of his piece about England is interesting. It demonstrates a continuity with earlier preoccupations- going back to the civil war, to the Constantinian settlement of the Anglican Church and ultimately to the early Church of Christ which are an important backdrop to the English experience of the 18th Century. They are not all that was going on- but they are important and Pocock's vast erudition brings out themes that I had not considered- and that are important.