Thursday, 24 December 2015

Rhodes Must Not Fall

Merry Christmas!

I have had my most recent blog post published on History Today's website:

Feel free to get involved in the Twitter debate too! Go to my page @RupertFitzs and you shall likely be thrust into the forefront of this war of words.

I hope you enjoy it!


Monday, 16 November 2015

The Prince Harry Complex

No one likes younger brothers. It is a fact. 

As the oldest of three myself, I can assure you that younger brothers are painfully annoying and irresponsible - they are always aware that no matter how much goes wrong they have their older sibling either to fix their problems or act as a scapegoat. They live their lives without considering consequences, never doing what they should do, only what they want to. I am sure I am generalising, there are probably many brilliant younger brothers out there, but on the whole they just don’t seem cut out for leadership. So, what happens when this sibling dynamic plays out in households that have a duty of leadership? Well, allow me to introduce you to a new historical theory (by 'new' I mean about thirty minutes old at the time of writing): ‘The Prince Harry Complex’.

Similarities are more than superficial!

Henry Tudor, born in 1491, and Henry Windsor, born in 1984, were both nicknamed Harry and brought into this world in second place. Tudor was born with his older brother Arthur already being moulded for kingship and Windsor was born with William already in the public eye. Their formative years were spent not preparing for the great weight of leadership but preparing for the life of leisure. Both excelled in sports, loved equestrian pursuits, and, although evidence regarding Tudor is less obvious, appear to have groaned in the face of academia. This childhood resulted in creating charming but, aside from in military activities, wholly irresponsible young men. For Prince Harry this does not matter and, thanks, I’m sure, to his recent beard, he has become extremely popular. The world accepts him as a playful young royal and recognise his unsuitability for the sort of power his grandmother holds. For Tudor, however, things were not quite so rosy. Shakespeare said “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them” and, with Arthur’s death in 1502, Tudor fits perfectly into this last category. His lack of preparation and instantaneous exposure to responsibility was, I believe, to define his reign and explains his 'greatness'. 

Henry VIII was not a king that wanted to be king. That is not to say he did not revel in the perks of power and wealth, but that he did not want to have to fulfil the daily requirements of a head of state. Signing letters, updating records, collecting taxes, communicating with foreign princes, checking in with the papacy... None of these vital administrative duties of the English king interested Henry, he needed an older brother to do the real work for him. This posed a problem. He could not have a member of the nobility run his kingdom for him whilst he enjoyed the life of leisure he had been brought up to believe was his as, with the Tudor House tenuously and only recently established, it could very easily lead to his downfall. A coup or some other such deposition would be made possible if Henry removed himself from the patronage rings of the nobility whilst still holding his crown. Henry therefore needed a surrogate brother who did not enjoy a similar status to him; one that could be cut down if he got too powerful and who would be kept in check by councillors of high birth when he was busy chasing deer or campaigning. It was therefore in his series of highly intelligent but low born chancellors, Wolsey, More and Cromwell, that he found his answer. They became surrogate brothers capable of fulfilling the functions of a guide and, if necessary, scapegoat, that he had been brought up to rely on and yet who could hold down the fort whilst he was off having fun. For Henry it was the perfect arrangement - or at least it seemed to be until 1540 when he arguably started to grow up.  

Perhaps I am extrapolating too much from my own experience as an older brother. Perhaps I have just drunk too many coffees whilst procrastinating today. Perhaps my gap year is getting to me. Perhaps though, this 'Prince Harry Complex' can be used help illuminate Henry VIII’s (and other younger brother’s) personality when they are faced with the task of leadership. All I can say is that I am pleased that my younger brother, despite possessing the same temper as Henry VIII, does not posses the same power to punish. Otherwise this blog could probably see my head roll like those of Wolsey, More and Cromwell.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

The moralities and consciousnesses of History and why I was wrong.

Prepare for the ultimate “TLDR”. It’s important stuff though, I promise! Also, when it gets a bit philosophical/scientific/generally confusing later on, please forgive me for any mistakes I make when discussing brain anatomy; it’s not really my thing.

Having taken a forced break from blogging in order to focus almost solely on the metaphorical appendage measuring competitions that are public examinations, I have decided it is high time that I return to my pilgrimage to the past. It's been months, a staggering eight in fact, since I last uploaded to this page. That is not to say I have not been writing blogs but that, with so much going on, I have not been able to complete any of them. Now, for my return: I have realised I was wrong (well, partially... This is not an exercise in humility).

E.H. Carr sporting a rather in vogue pair of spectacles.

In my first ever pilgrimage to the past I said "History doesn't matter" and that it were the interactions and skills we gained from the pursuit of the subject that we should attribute value to. This was because the historian’s goal, to discover the truth of what happened in the past, I believed to be fallacious and impossible. I argued that we cannot ever know the truth of most things in the past because, according to Carr, the historian is "rootless and futile" without his facts and, as I demonstrated with the case of Spartacus, we very rarely have the appropriate facts required to construct any watertight histories. Based on this premise I concluded that it really did not matter what historians came up with because they would never be able to come up with anything unilaterally verifiable. With this rather sorry state of affairs I chose to claim all was not lost because we could still enjoy the journey of the historian. 

My thoughts have changed and, with another year of experience, I believe I was being a little naive if not a little pointlessly controversial. Although History remains merit worthy for the journey of enquiry, I now believe the end point also holds value and that it is, in fact, very important that we try our hardest to reach it fully. 

Whilst I still agree that historians cannot ever produce an infallible narrative of the past or an unquestionable judgement on it as a result of the incomplete nature of historical facts I no longer agree that what is produced is worthless in exclusion from the production process. This is because, whilst the truth is still unreachable, I believe that it is our duty to seek it and get as close to it as possible. By this I mean that historians should accept the limitations of themselves and their materials but nevertheless strive to achieve accurate renditions of the past. This alone is a fairly normative approach to the historical method. It is what Carr himself, along with almost all western historians since his musings on the subject, concluded. Even Armitage's "History Manifesto", the most recent serious attempt to redefine the subject's philosophy, holds true to this bastion of 20th century historiography. Where, however, I step off the ‘Carr bus’ (do you see what I did there?) is in my reason for why historians should hold onto this assumption at the heart of the doctrine. Most see the accurate recreation of the past as an end in and of itself without any justification other than it being the core of History and therefore in order to preserve History it must be upheld; in other words, it becomes a matter of circular logic. It is a mere assumption at the heart of one of the most popular academic subjects in the West. A fairly limp and weak keystone that, in my opinion, without supporting timbers is something historians really ought to worry more often about. To further exemplify this, Wittgenstein, although not speaking specifically of the historians’ great assumption, describes the position well with his line: “If I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: "This is simply what I do."”

I mean, come on, “Simply what I do”... History must be able to do better than that!

It can. Returning to my disembarkation of the "Carr bus", I have a justification for this assumption: "duty".

Now, duty is a word that is rarely used in academia outside of the extrinsically focused sciences such as medicine or engineering. These scientists might have a duty to cure a disease or develop a process of water sanitisation and, quite often, are subsidised by states to conduct their experiments and research in a way tying them to the sense of "national duty" felt by those employed in public service. Conversely, the concept of duty is something altogether missing from most historians’ justifications and understandings of the subject. Perhaps worse, for those who do find a place for duty in their philosophies, it is likely to be found in the guise of a duty to make money; a duty to their state to produce histories in keeping with official lines; or a duty to themselves to complete whatever assessment or exercise their history falls into. Why is this worse than having no duty at all? Because these duties may actually contravene the central tenet of truth and accuracy. None of these duties necessitate this tenet and for many - names shall not be named - duties of profiteering can result in atrocious works of poorly researched doctrinaire approaches or superficiality bordering on fiction.

I believe, however, that the historian should recognise and accept a duty of truth. This duty of truth should not be grounded in the circular logic above though but in, essentially, a moral duty to the subjects of history. 

Novel? Absurd? Perhaps, but hear me out. Both of my arguments for this are based on morality and, therefore, are of course subject to attacks. As historians, in my opinion, need to be fairly normatively morally aware (whatever that means) in order to make some of their judgements though, this ought not to be a problem. (Sociologists with their cold hard population statistics might wish to look away now).

Let me put forward my first argument: Imagine you are a person that has lived a good life and is close to death. You do not believe in life after death in any metaphysical sense - or perhaps you do but couch doubts - and you therefore realise the importance of legacy. This is an ongoing existence of part of oneself be it genetic through one’s children or, with greater scope, through ideas and creations. Now, would you be pleased with a historian, the guardian of your legacy, who concludes that it is unnecessary to adhere to truth and accuracy in their recreation of your life? A historian perhaps trained with a public examination (or perhaps more worryingly, a celebrity historian) mindset capable of weaving together a workable fiction for personal benefit. I doubt your collapsing consciousness would be overjoyed by the prospect of your life’s work becoming a puppet for some chap in a library somewhere.

So, why do we have a duty to be truthful in our histories? A duty to try to recreate reality as best we can? As a matter of human decency and dignity for the deceased. 

Of course though, this position can be easily attacked. The same argument, for example, may not seem to stand up to questions regarding the writing of histories for "bad" or "evil" people. How can we have a duty to respect Hitler? Why, if our justification for truth is based on a duty for respect, should we not deliberately treat evil people disrespectfully in our histories? It is a tricky question that appears, at first, to poke a whole in my argument. My answer in support of the argument, however, is that we do still need to adhere to truth when studying those we do not respect because, in some way, they will always be connected to someone we do or should respect and treat with dignity. This is simplistically demonstrable in the case of Hitler; whilst we may not respect him we should still have respect for many he impacted - victims of persecution or war - and therefore need to, for their sake, maintain truth and accuracy. 

My second argument, however, is based in a legacy of its own. The Hegelian legacy. (Warning, this is some pretty zen stuff.) Hegel said man creates art in order to "lift the inner and outer world into his spiritual consciousness as an object in which he recognises his own self". Assuming a broad definition of art that encompasses any creation of humankind that contains meaning, and modernising Hegel’s concept of "spiritual consciousness" to mean what today we might conceive as the "normal" consciousness of the prefrontal cortex, we can conclude that what he is saying is that, in essence, we identify ourselves through our worldly creations. Our senses are external and so to sense ourselves we must place ourselves outside of our inner consciousness. For example, the act of looking at oneself in a mirror is a projection of the self into the outer world such that we can understand ourselves within. This means that if our understandings of ourselves are based entirely on our constructions beyond the self then those constructions beyond the self are in fact every bit as important (if not more important) than the inner self as they are the things from which self-awareness arises. Simply, when one creates something they impart their inner consciousness into something in such a way that it can be taken into an inner self again. 

Hegel looking slightly less sure of him"self" than Carr.

If this is possible for the discovery of the oneself then it must also be possible for the discovery of others. Returning this philosophical musing from the abstract to the realm of history, it can be suggested (and I believe this is the case) that what historians do is interpret and absorb the imparted consciousnesses of the past. This means that when a historian reads a diary or examines a painting they are, in some way, giving a place in their minds for the consciousness of the creator of their subject. For want of a better analogy, therefore, consciousness is a lot like a dehydrated meal. It is only much use in its hydrated form (when it is in the mind of a host prefrontal cortex) but can be dehydrated (put onto paper, canvas or stone for example) and stored for later consumption (interpretation) by another person years after its initial creation. The outer self, so long as it is not destroyed, is potentially eternal whereas the inner self (the creator of the outer self) is limited by the confines of the human body. Put into historical terms, when I read Edward VI’s diary I am lending part of myself to his consciousness so that I can come to understand him better; I am bringing him back from the outer self into myself.

So, now that it is established that historians are, in some way, hosts for past consciousnesses, what relation does that have to my point regarding duty? Well, because by demonstrating this the historian ought to accept that when they read something written by someone in the past they are not doing anything different to speaking to someone directly. This is because the consciousness imparted into direct speech is essentially the same as that imparted into the written word; they are just different ways of presenting the internal monologue for external manifestation. 
In spite of this, a historian that knowledgeably chooses to play fast and loose with the words of a person they have spoken to face to face will probably feel guilty because they have essentially lied about that person and yet, with the lack of bi-directional interaction, they probably have far fewer quarrels with doing a similar thing with a historical figure with many centuries distance between them. Really though, they should feel no different.  Both interactions are interactions with the creations of humans (the intermediaries between host consciousnesses) and, due to the longevity of a creation, the fact that the historian might read something that was written by an individual who is now dead should not change anything. We should therefore attempt to build our histories as accurately as possible because otherwise we are lying - however indirectly it may feel, although I believe I have shown it to be very direct indeed - about people.

The duty of the historian to seek out the truth is not just in order to respect the legacies of those in the past but in order to respect their continued transcendent consciousnesses in the present (their hosted writings). My justification for the historian’s duty of the truth, long winded, complicated and philosophical as it may be, is therefore a moral one: either the morality of liberating a person’s legacy (be it the subject’s legacy or the legacies of those that they influenced); or the morality of fair representation of a person or group of people who, due to the nature of human creation and its connection to consciousness, is always the same regardless of the distance between the originator and the historian. Returning also to my first ever post that suggested History’s lack of importance too, I can now say that I was wrong. I was wrong because History does matter a lot but through the lenses of morality  but not necessarily for any (or many depending on whether one still accepts my previous argument regarding the enjoyment of the historical process) reasons. 

There is unfortunately still one problem that I see with my approach: the expanding nature of History. Although all histories are connected to people, if they were not then they would be geographies, biologies, or some other science, increasingly historians are writing books that focus primarily on a non-human subject such as an ocean or a region. One example of this is Pye’s 2014 book "The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us What We Are" which I have been dipping in and out of for the past couple of weeks. Although it is a history of the people that have been affected by the North Sea, the true constant in the book is the body of water itself thus detracting from my morality argument by turning the tables and personifying the inanimate and making the people - who are normally histories’ actors - into the receivers of nature’s "actions". It is his central argument, for example, that it was the North Sea that ‘made us who we are’ as opposed to it being us who made ourselves who we are given the limits and opportunities imposed by the natural oceanic formations. Perhaps it is just semantics (perhaps it requires another blog for exploration?) but if he is to be taken literally then it is the Sea that he must be truthful for just as much as the people.

Pye's book. A field of history that represents an anomaly for me.

This need not be a huge problem, one can become some sort of ecologist and conclude that all things are connected by some other "consciousness" (used in a different sense to how I have used it throughout this post) but that is far from ideal. This leads me to concede that whilst I have produced a justification for why we, as historians, must seek out truth that is more substantive than the current circular one used in the Carr School, it does not work across all pieces of history. For some historians, those with subjects other than people at the core of their studies, the Wittgensteinian "simply what I do..." must unfortunately still prevail to keep them telling the truth. Does this detract from the history’s importance? According to my old argument, it does. Histories of this nature, therefore, appear still to be important due to the enjoyment of reading and writing rather than the things they are about.

I hope that before long (after I have got back into some lighter reading material) I will be able to return to my old style of blogging - fast, annoyingly orotund and, one hopes, thought provoking. Even more so, however, I hope that for those who have read this through and taken on board my points regarding the importance of truth and accuracy in history, regardless of which of my two nuanced approaches you accept or prefer, it has been interesting and will help inform you more about the philosophy behind the subject.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

A bar review: not exactly the socialist slosher

I, like many of my peers, recently came to the arbitrarily appointed age of adulthood: eighteen. Now, in spite of maintaining the sense, wit and annoying inquisitiveness of my two and a half year old brother, I am a ‘legal drinker’. Most know that the combination of alcohol and history is never particularly inspiring (I suspect many of my least favourite history books were written under the spell of some fermented beverage) although it can be quite funny when your fellow classmate turns to you after a few too many pink coloured cocktails (you know who you are...) in outrage at the post-Cromwellian Tudor polity. With these two universal axioms in mind, the inevitable happened. A historic pub - or what is now a ‘neo-punk quasi-suave new-look’ cocktail bar - was visited.

In the cold latter weeks of December, I and two friends set off for Soho safe in the understanding of Oscar Wilde’s flowery descriptions of the 19th century aristocracy’s backstreet hangouts, with little plan or purpose other than to enjoy an evening’s pre-Christmas festivities and catch up. After the obligatory China Town meal however, we were stuck - aimless and bearingless in the hostile and seedy neon luminescence of deepest Brewer Street. Oscar Wilde, I suspect, would have been much happier in today’s Soho than in the one of his own age - I however suspect the opposite of myself due to a surely permissible aversion towards the sale of carnal experiences. All of these historical discontinuities brought to the forefront of my consciousness a vague fact. A vague fact that soon became very much part of the ‘class consciousness’, if you catch my drift... 

Karl Marx - the most important political thinker of the 2nd millennium, winner of Badass Beards Annual Award 1870 and overall top-chap - moved to London in 1849 with his fellow renegade philosophers of the Communist League. Unfortunately his relationship with the Communist League was not to last particularly long due to disparities between conceptions amongst the group during their discourses. His resignation from the League came in September 1850 following disputes over the role of the proletariat following the 1848 Europe-wide protest movements. Marx, and his patron (or dare I say matron?) Engels, believed that the proletariat, in order to overthrow the oppressive owners of the means of production - and, to continue with the Marxist jargon, thus the aristocratic alienators of the working and middle classes - would have to work with the bourgeois. This, naturally, caused great cynicism and brought Marx’s convictions into question with the fellow Leaguers because they, with their less developed historical narratives, saw no reason why the proletariat could, with a little motivation, not rise up by themselves and complete the workers revolution that they believed had been abandoned two years earlier. Marx was complicating things - as he often did - and getting in the way of their policy making because he believed that the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ could not be achieved without first entering full-scale bourgeois directed capitalism. It is ironic though, that the majority of the Communist League have now fallen into obscurity, their names recognisable by only a few historians of political thought, and yet the man they made walk away is pursed on the lips of every post Leninist Revolution man and woman at the slightest mention of materialism, dialectics, revolutions or, of course, communism.

Proper history aside and back to the primary attraction: the bar. As it so happened, during that short period in Soho, Marx’s League meetings were held in one - typically Britishly named - ‘Red Lion’ pub. Standing on the corner of Great Windmill Street, the building today is hardly the socialist slosher we (or at least I) had envisaged; ironically it was more of a capitalist cash-nexus corroborator. Instead, as discernible from the picture of my comically formal friend, it is now part of the ‘Be At One’ chain; a high-price low-end cocktail company filled with corporate corpses and married minglers. Inside, selecting from the sticky menu surrounded by the Tuesday night racket and business babble - do people not have jobs to go to on Wednesday mornings? - I struck upon an aptly titled ‘Boston Tea Party’ drink and proudly produced my provisional driver’s licence counter-acting my juvenile appearance. There were no spaces left on the over aesthetic and pathetically impractical slouching sofas leaving standing as the only option available. One of my Marxist bar band happened to have left her ‘I.D.’ at home anyway meaning that, if we were to consume our costly cups of assorted liver poisons we would be doing it outside. This, for me, was of little concern because, in spite of the bitter winter’s chill, the knowledge of the fact that, through the doorway I was hovering by had walked one of my intellectual heroes, brought great warmth. If anything, standing in the cold was the closest we could get to Marx and his championed 19th century proletariat as possible. In hindsight, perhaps this warmth and thought were more to do with the cocktail though...

The other chap had certainly experienced the effects of his Marxist Malibu concoction however and was in the process of reciting - crudely and impartially - the most obnoxious parts of the Communist Manifesto to passersby. Our time had come. It was time to leave behind Karl’s communist haunt and get a softer beverage elsewhere. I highly recommend, be it more for the thrill - and most certainly not for the chill, a visit to the establishment if ever one is feeling particularly nerdy and in need of a tipple. I can also recommend the ‘Boston Tea Party’ but, be warned, it tastes nothing like the Boston sea must have done following the party’s founding action...

If you enjoyed this post you might enjoy my last post, 'The old Boys of our School', commemorating the actions of my School's alumni during the First World War. Also, feel free to share this blog with your friends.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

"The old boys of our School"

This week, as I am sure you probably have been, I have been bombarded by war stuff. It seems everybody wants a piece of a CCF RSM with a passion for History when it comes to Remembrance Day; I wish I was so in demand the rest of the time! The biggest feature of the week, from my perspective, was the giving of an address during my School’s service on Tuesday on the nature of remembrance within the context of the ‘old boys of World War One’ in front of not merely my peers but a number of WW2 veterans... Pretty scary. It seemed to go quite well though because the Headmaster, cheekily, quoted it in his weekly parental bulletin and, although I am not sure whether I see it as the compliment it was intended to be, my delivery was likened to Niall Ferguson's (in other words, slow, deliberate and overly-emphatic). A proper blog on the nature of war will be uploaded shortly. In the meantime, however, I have uploaded the text from my speech. Hopefully it is not found to be too esoteric for the general readership of this blog - it was of course written for a specific audience.

Anyway, preamble over, here is the script:

When I used to think of World War One, a dark image was formed from the rhymes of Sigfried Sassoon and the landscapes of Nash and Bomberg depicting some shell torn trench on the Western Front. It might be raining, it might be sleeting, it is always overcast but, occasionally, it is lit up by the zip and flash of a stray bullet channeling through the air. Cold, dank and dire. The odd gnarled wrist of a conscripted teenager might hang loosely over a battered, muddy rifle. Perhaps it is still smoking having deposited, for the last time, a chunk of lead into some other conscripted teenager who just happens to be on the other side of some barbed wire. Another teenager, perhaps even younger but laden with a couple of stars denoting a commission, might crouch in a long-coat reminiscing about the peaceful education he has left behind and chewing on some vile cold ration trying to escape the torment of his reality. It is gloomy and horrible; surreal and, to be honest, wrong. By defining the War by these images of mud, blood and melancholy, we are belittling our nation’s war dead and, by focusing solely on their sacrifices, confining them permanently to something they were not. 

As I have grown in maturity throughout the last few years of my life, both as a historian and as a human being, my mental image of the First World War has changed significantly because I have learnt that no person in the world has ever been two-dimensional. People in the past can never be understood through one poetic snapshot or twisted landscape painting. In fact, every man, woman and child has a depth to them as an individual that simply cannot be gleaned from the traditional modes of discovering the War. To understand a person in the past, someone who one cannot speak or form a two-way relationship with is extremely difficult and, normally, requires an incredible level of scholarship and patience. For us trying to commemorate those that fought for our nation one hundred years ago, this hurdle requires overcoming. If we do not bypass it then we are commemorating a mere fiction of our own design; we are not remembering real people but two-dimensional models of them. We just do not know what the war was like, we just do not know what the experiences were like, and we just do not know what the people were like. 

On that last point however - the fact that we do not know what the people were like - I think we have an advantage. As the world outside our School struggles to contemplate the boys out in the trenches, in the fields, and in the woods, we do not have to. We, as RGS boys, can just look around us - we know what the boys were like because they were essentially no different to us. They studied the same subjects, even walked the same corridors and, most importantly, shared the same dreams. They were not the dark, cold and dead images of popular war art, but lively young men. We have a connection to the boys of the First World War that most do not and we can avoid the caricatured understanding. We can see it for what it really was. This is a gift that, if allowed to slip by, would be a tragedy for the memories of the names on the remembrance boards on the other side of the road. We have an insight that allows us to commemorate something real: the old boys of our School. 

So, what should we do? What, in fact, can we do? It is all very well that we have this affinity with a number of boys that fought in that war one hundred years ago, but simply recognising this capacity will do nothing to show our gratitude. I can suggest to you one solution. We could live our lives in the free country that they sacrificed either their youth or their own lives for, dully and boringly, or, we can embrace the freedom they have provided for us. We can live to the fullest extent possible because they could not. We can live out their dreams because, as I have said, we share the same ambitions. The greatest way for us to say thank you to those old boys is to grasp the legacies they left behind with two hands and live out the lives they could never enjoy. 

Thursday, 23 October 2014

What is a renaissance?

Half term has come about and consequently the life of the literate sloth has befallen upon me again. I am experiencing a rebirth of the summer holiday’s perennial languidness and days spent engrossed in the various books I have arbitrarily borrowed from the library - it is a sea of tranquil melancholy only bereft of total harmony as a result of the tides of UCAS emails and burgeoning university interviews and tests. It is fitting, therefore, that the topic of this post, in its most simplified form, is the rebirth of an attitude or - as 19th century historian’s in their wonderfully pretentious latinate jargon have termed it - a renaissance. I intend not to stumble through the overly churned and curdled fields of Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries or marvel at the individualism of Shakespeare however, but to postulate the very notion of renaissance itself. A notion, I believe to be intrinsically linked with the core temperament of humanity - the question of identity. Pretty deep stuff, I know... This blog post - without wishing to sound too much like some sort of drugged up Californian mind muddle - shall attempt to nail down the motivations behind renaissances and explore the quest for identity they reveal. (BONUS CONTENT - make sure you read to the end of the blog for a dodgy photoshop job!)

Jacob Burckhardt - the historian that coined the term "Renaissance" for the period of cultural revival starting in the 15th century. A coining that was detrimental to what the comparative study of renaissances could have been.

Firstly, for the more alert amongst you, you shall probably be wondering what I mean by renaissances (in lower case plural) and need some sort of qualification behind my assertions that they are not merely confined to ‘the Renaissance’. Arnold. J. Toynbee took a very pragmatic approach to renaissances in his ‘A Study of History’ - a book I have ‘arbitrarily borrowed’ permanently from my grandfather’s study and yet I doubt will ever read - in which he defined them as ‘the evocation of a dead culture by the living representative of a civilisation that is still a going concern’. This is the definition that I personally subscribe to which provides us with the possibility of identifying renaissances all over the world throughout history and, therefore, examining them as phenomenon in their own right just as one might study war, politics or revolution. It can be seen as a sub-strand of comparative intellectual history - if only one of the universities I have applied to offered it as a course... (any lecturers looking for a new module?). Now, to demonstrate renaissances as a genuine feature of history, we should have a look at some particular events that fit the definition. Of course, we have the Renaissance, the resurrection of antiquity by highly erudite scholars (humanists, although not to be confused with modern day materialist atheists) who, in their quest to avoid mere antiquarianism, tried to synthesise their own culture with the one they discovered through ruins and dusty books in monastic libraries. Less obvious, however, is the revival of Confucianism in Ming China following the horrendous Mongolian Yuan Dynasty. The Yuan had sought to persecute and eradicate  (just at one might badly argue the Roman Catholic Church did to the Ancients during the Dark Ages) the ethnic Chinese culture which, as things turned out, happened to incorporate a pretty efficient method of state running. As the Yuan Dynasty perished in 1368 following bureaucratic travesty extenuated by harvest failure and all manner of social uprisings, the Ming came along to regenerate their own lost culture. Perhaps less obvious again, one might even point towards the Gothic movement from the late 18th century as a renaissance or, if we really want to labour the point, a counter-renaissance opposed to the Renaissance and the Age of Reason. This particular renaissance, more than the other two which had more characteristics, is best looked at solely through the dual avenues of architecture and literature. The privileged upper orders of society had plenty of spare time (for writing) and plenty of spare cash (for building) and, as it were these fuddy-duddies who were so ‘artistic’, they really went pedal to the metal reviving - a particularly elitist and romanticised - pre-reformation England. Each renaissance, in its own way, is a rebirth of a dead culture (although, as I am sure is evident, it is not necessarily a total revival of the past - the Gothics certainly didn’t recreate the peasantry, although perhaps they would have liked to...)

More interesting than definitions and examples, however, are the motivations. Aside from the obvious factors of genuinely believing that things were better in the past or, as perhaps was the case for many of the more artistic renaissances, pure enjoyment, a deeper continuity can be drawn out. Every time a renaissance happens a society is experiencing a crisis of identity. By harking back to the past, a time which, thanks to the power of retrospect, can be understood more clearly than contemporary existence, one can re-establish a workable societal hierarchy and sense of belonging which may, in a society experiencing rapid restructuring or political turmoil, seem to be disappearing. Of the case studies given above, the most obvious example of this is the Ming Dynasty’s revival of Confucianism to combat the anarchy of the Yuan Dynasty, however, each of the three examples can be understood in this way. The Renaissance men of the 15th and 16th centuries felt that, following years of corruption in language and law, they had lost sight of their origins, the Ancients. With the evaporating state of Renaissance Italy - the Church experiencing the Schism, Florence’s Republic going to the dogs and the external powers of the Hapsburg and the Valois families toying with invasion - identity was being lost. The only way to ensure stability again was to return to the texts that had been forgotten for so long. Baroque too, the architectural style, was another identity reinforcing device. By building the strong oblique columns, domes and triangles of classical pagan temples and Pythagorus’ dreams, the patrons could stand amidst the turbulence and feel definitively established and identifiable. The Gothics too, feeling the last remnants of medieval European noblesse oblige and entitlement slipping from them through the writings of Locke, Voltaire and Rousseau and the actions of the American and French Revolutions, sought to reinstate as much of their heritage as possible. Although they did mess up slightly considering that their attempts essentially just resulted in, as my English teacher once described Dracula, ‘pornographic chick lit’ and weird mock-gothic castles... Anyway, whenever an identity crisis is prevalent, a renaissance is the natural response. Renaissances, therefore, play a very important role in the pan-conscious of history’s societies. 

An advertisement for the British Museum's current exhibition on Ming China. It is definitely worth going to see for everyone irrespective of their pre-existing knowledge of Chinese history. It was certainly inspiring for me! 

Throughout history then, not merely the move from Late Medieval Christendom to Early Modern Europe, renaissances have been the dominant features of the progression (or regression depending on one’s point of view) of societies. Humans, despite our ingenious facades, are often more involved in reviving past excellences than inventing new ones; it has become somewhat of a trend, whenever people start to lose touch with, or feel they are losing touch with, the past, to have a renaissance. So, perhaps it is of little surprise that we, in the UK, are currently experiencing a renaissance. Although an unlikely candidate for something as high and mighty as a renaissance, Farage has spotted the slipping identity of the ethnic Briton and, therefore, is leading a charge back in time! Many in the country feel their race and ideology to be being diluted by immigration - the British identity, for some, is in crisis. (I never said renaissances were always a good thing).

Farage's face transplanted onto the epitome of Renaissance political theorists: Machiavelli.

Okay, so Photoshop isn't my strongest attribute...
If you enjoyed this post you might enjoy my last post, ‘Why is Britain conservative?’. Also, feel free to share this blog with your friends. 

I must apologise for the inconstancy of the posting recently, the mounting pressure of school work and university preparation is squeezing the time I have available to produce blogs regularly of genuine quality. So, I suppose, if you are really missing Pilgrimage to the Past (and who isn't?), you can blame the education system...

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Why is Britain conservative?

Britain is a conservative country. TORY TORY TORY!!! RAH RAH RAH!!! (I joke)…

The Conservative party trying to demonstrate their inherent Britishness

Before I am attacked by hordes of Millibandites, let me clarify that; Britain is, in its cultural outlook, conservative with a small ‘c’ – conservative in its populous’ general disposition. This is seen in our general skepticism of new ideas such as the HS2 rail network or, as characterized by the growth of UKIP and overall wealth of quasi-racist humour, of acculturation that in any way changes the socio-racial makeup of the Kingdom. We have been referred to as a ‘nation of shopkeepers’, perhaps the most bourgeois – and thus conservative - of professions and we are the one country in Europe so ambivalent towards modernity that we maintain a completely uncodified constitution built primarily on tradition and convention. Furthermore, we are not embarrassed by this old fashioned modus operandi. We in fact embrace it as a loveable eccentricity (like how we all adore the floppy ear of puppy – ultimately it is a defect but we see it as symbol of identity). Regularly we nationalistically venerate the Queen, obsess over the utility of various teapots and pretentiously stride around quaint villages in Barbour jackets all with a deliberate sense of ‘Britishness’ (or is that just me?). We just love being, as an American friend of mine put it, ‘a bit different’. 

Having identified the source of both my American and Canadian cousins’ behaviours in previous posts I feel I now have a nationalistic obligation to attempt to create a hypothesis for our own, past-orientated, state of nature. It is time to trace back the cause of our conservatism (with a small ‘c’).

Perhaps the most obvious reason why we persist as such a conservative nation is because our entire social framework is an evolved form of an essentially conservative ideology – Christianity. Britain, despite the much refutation of David Cameron’s claim, is a Christian nation - a cold and feisty island on the edge of a dying Christendom – with a long history of religious intervention within society. Christianity, or at least the Christianity of the commons of our island up until the de facto completion of the Reformation (whenever that was) was a fundamentally backward looking ideology. It took, for its basis, an ancient collection of documents which, because of their divine inspiration demonstrated through their antiquity, were taken as axiomatic doctrines for all aspects of humanity. Beyond this, however, many of its core practices can be seen to be echoes of Burke’s famous - founding quotation of conservatism and – definition of society as ‘a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’. Considering this is the summation of conservative society in a single sentence, it is quite significant that theological analogs can be drawn. For the average fifteenth century commoner, Christianity provided a mental safety-net and world construct in which he could happily live his life believing that those who mattered most to him – his family - were, even after his demise, to be under the paternal guidance of God. The living were looked after by the local clergy – many historians paint the parish priest as one of the most important men in society – and their extended family of Godparents and, if one is really pushing the boat out, the saints. Through these societal edifices they could make their way to an infinite heaven once their earthly toils of penance had been completed. The dead too were looked after through the church. Firstly there was the obvious comfort of knowing that your loved ones were destined for salvation – they were going to a ‘better place’. On earth too, however, the dead were helped, especially once the myth of purgatory became common doctrine, through the saying of masses in chantries (prayers for the dead), the buying of indulgences (get into heaven free cards) and trying to convince a saint to have a word with Jesus on the deceased’s behalf to try to get on the admittance list – a bit like how I am currently trying to weasel my way onto an eighteenth birthday invite list… Those to be born too were of the utmost importance; if they were not redeemed of their original sin as soon as possible (with an exorcism followed swiftly by baptism) then they could, as a result of the horrendous mortality rates, die without having been spiritually cleansed. If this happened then the child would be subject to eternal torment – according to the Church – in the form of Hell. Preparations for newborns, therefore, were central to the lives of to-be-parents and it was a common occurrence for priests to be dragged from their beds in the early hours of mornings to bless – through ritual dunking in holy water – any baby. Considering Burke is widely regarded to be the originator of conservative ideology, it would be wrong to ignore the similarity between his definition of society and the proto-conservative practices of the pre-Reformation Church. Unfortunately, it is not so simple. Following the Reformation a great number of the conservative practices of the pre-Reformation Church were abolished due to their lack of scriptural justification (although many did remain and, therefore, a continuity can still be established providing reason to maintain the origin of British conservatism to be found in the Roman Catholic Church). 

An intimate depiction of a medieval baptism from a Lincolnshire Church window (I particularly like this image for its ability to humanise the relatively obscure and distant commons of England during the High to Late Middle Ages).
In the post-Reformation Church, however, we also find some of our innate conservatism. Whilst the doctrines changed and many of the more superstitious (and largely conservative) practices were eliminated due to having no scriptural justification, the country, or at least the country's elites, felt that success had been achieved. This concept of success is one of the key sources of conservatism; if one achieves their goals then their new goal becomes to maintain their accomplishments - an athlete does not break the world-record and then suddenly stop training, he tries to maintain his title. For Henry VIII, at least, this is particularly obvious. Having got rid of the Roman Catholic Church by 1536 he then turned to the most important issue of his life - the succession. For Henry the succession was about two things, maintaining the Tudor dynasty and maintaining the Tudor dynasty's ethos - the ethos being the Royal Supremacy over the Church of England. This is seen in the careful manner in which he selected individuals to act as a regency council after his inevitable demise in 1547 with Edward being left perched on the throne not yet tall enough for his feet to reach the floor. He chose evangelical leaning officials such as the Earl of Hertford, Thomas Cranmer and William Paget to maintain the religious changes in England and not allow the Bishop of Rome once again to meddle with his kingdom's internal affairs. The aim of conserving the reformed Church in England, because it had been so difficult to attain, was a clear and obviously identifiable feature of Henry's thinking - it is perhaps more difficult to identify this conservatism within the majority of the country during this period (they still sought to rebuild and conserve the old Church as shown by their support of Mary I during the Devise of 1553). Personally I believe that this part of the conservatism of Britain spread through the Church was not really identifiable until after the Civil War. Henry had fought his own battle to attain the religion he wanted to conserve but the commons had been left largely unaffected by the struggle. The sheer devastation of the Civil War, however, brought the achievement of the Reformed Church into the understanding of the commons - they had now fought and died for it. They now sought to conserve it as much as possible.

Perhaps even more importantly than the continuity between the Church and Burke – because it fuels the continuity itself - however, is the British lust for myth and legend. We hold an inherently Romantic view of our nation based on past glory. The glorification of the past – the assumption that it was better than our mundane existences today and that it should be returned to – is a core part of conservatism. Last week I was on the train coming back from School and, sitting opposite me, were two first years (being upper sixth former I often find myself listening to their conversations and reminiscing about those wonderful days of blissful ignorance) whom, I think, demonstrate this concept brilliantly. They were playing the classic ‘would you rather be x or y’ game, which after twenty minutes became quite tiresome to listen to, but one particular ‘x’ struck me as interesting. One boy asked the other whether he would rather be ‘Robin Hood or Spiderman’ and, instantly, the other replied in an almost indignant tone – suggesting the other’s naivety in asking the question – ‘ROBIN HOOD, DUH!’. The question was repeated with ‘y’ being replaced each time with other notable first year heroes but the answer remained consistent – Robin Hood was the clear winner. This preference of the mystical, the myths of national history, is not only found in the conversations of twelve year olds though; it is a prominent feature of all of our country’s collective thoughts. We speak highly of St George slaying a dragon, we speculate about the veracity of King Arthur, we compare greatness of King Alfred to Richard the Lionheart, and we are convinced that the 1920s were a time of exuberance. Myth is a core feature of our world-view and, almost always, it seeks to promote the Romantic ‘back in my day’ mentality – the belief that before our time of global conflict, nasty bankers and nastier politicians, we lived in a state of near perfection. The past, for the British, is the refuge of greatness – even if it was not always actually so great. Classic conservatism…

How I envisaged Robin Hood for the first five years of my life

Of course, I have missed out one key, and final, contribution to the conservative nature of the British: wealth. When compared to other nations we are a well off bunch. We have the fastest growing economy in the developed world, London is the centre of the financial world, our median wealth per adult is sixth highest in the world and if we cannot afford an Iphone we only have to settle for a Samsung instead. We are rich. This means that we are in a relatively happy position – we might want to be richer but ultimately we are content. This is the central strain of thought within conservatism: ‘we seem to be doing okay so let’s keep it like this’. This is not to say, however, that we are unique in this respect - similarly rich nations such as Germany and America are drawn to conservatism in the same way. What does, however, separate us from the riff raff of European and American conservatism is our long history of continuity as discussed above - continuity provided mainly through the national edifice, the Church. For the British, however, wealth too contains value beyond its mere material presence. It is mythic for us in a way that it can never be for the Germans or Americans. Money implies tradition - the tender is marked with the bastion of British continuity, the Queen, and is associated with the equally anachronistic class system. Further, it harks back to the - somewhat neglected by modern 'politically correct' history - glory days of the Empire. British wealth, by the mid 19th century, was by far the largest in the world. It excelled above all other states due to the colossal size of its empire; its head start in the race of capitalism as a result of the Industrial Revolution's British origins; and, as is demonstrable by the mess known as 'France', its relative by-passing of the Social Revolution (instead we managed to simply employ our age-old conservative practice of slow evolution). When one compares the psychological nature of wealth in Britain to the one of America of Germany instantly we see a difference - here, we define wealth through its links with our past whereas 'over there' they define it through nothing more than cold, hard and clinical 'business'. It has no mythic value, no sentimental attachment; we "were" rich because we "were" the best - our wealth is directly relatable to past glories whereas theirs is down to nothing more than the present. Our wealth, however strange it may seem, is the most conservative wealth in the world.

Britain, therefore, is conservative firstly because it always has been thanks to the Church, secondly because we are suckers for a good story and thirdly because we are wealthy and ascribe mythic value to it. I doubt this blog, even though I specify conservative in this context comes with a small ‘c’, will be particularly popular among some of my leftist-leaning peers - to be a socialite one must be a socialist after all – but hope they appreciate the history anyway. 


If you enjoyed this blog you might enjoy reading my two similar posts on American capitalism and Canadian benevolence. If you were riled by my Francophobia then you might enjoy reading 'Drunk, Hungry and Revolutionary' or simply perusing through other posts - there tends to be a bit of good old English 'Frog-hating' in most of them. Also, please feel free to share this blog with your friends!