October 03, 2005

English Exceptionalism -- Yes, but ...

I had a dispute with a friend about the degree of exceptionalism which may be attributed to England and the Anglosphere. While England is unique for a lot of reasons, it is still part of several larger groupings. I put it as follows:

Let us not go too, too far with our exceptionalism, however. England was not part of the planet Jupiter, after all, it was part of the West and of Christendom during times when those terms were accurate descriptions of observable unities. This is a point made by Lord Acton, John Courtney Murray and Brian Downing in various ways and is worth keeping in mind.

Is England a "European" country? Yes and no. As compared to Anglo-Canada or Kentucky? No, in that comparison, it is an Anglospheric country. As compared to Tunisia? Tanganyika? Thailand? Tibet? Yes. If I teleported a Fukienese peasant living in China in 800 A.D. into Picardy for a day, then to East Anglia for a day, then sent him home, would the differences between the places outweigh the similiarities? No. What if I repeated the experiment and plunked him down in 1,000 AD? 1500? 1750? 1950? Probably, in each case he'd see for all their differences, the places were more similar to each other than either would be to China. It is always a matter of degrees of differences. The Anglosphere is a part of the West. In important ways it has diverged from the mainstream of Western culture, increasingly so in the last 500 or so years, in important ways which are not always immediately obvious on the surface, but which have had very important practical effects. Churchill saw this. No one better understood and celebrated the depth of English uniqueness and the ties of the English-speaking peoples -- but he yet saw the unity of Europe as a historical heritage, if not a living fact, and he understood that France was not really a foreign country but a contentious member of one large family. And he saw England as a part of the European system, the offshore power which was the ultimate guarantor of the liberties of the smaller states of Europe. And he was right about all of this.

England was very much part of the West, and in fact it still retains elements of what is oldest and most rooted in the West. Moreover, England grew up as it did because of an ongoing dialogue and exchange and conflict with Europe. English merchants and soldiers and pilgrims and scholars were all over Europe from the beginning, and London in particular was a focal point for foreign contact from all points of the compass for many, many centuries. England, Britain and their daughter polities of the Anglosphere are culturally part of the West. England and the Anglosphere are unique within the West, but to overstate this exceptionalism would be to seriously misstate the facts.

English exceptionalism consisted in large part of preserving things that were once more universal across Europe. Representative institutions and free, self-governing cities and various other things were far more common in various parts of Europe 1,000 A.D. than they were 500 years later, and much less 700 years later. English exceptionalism consists in large part of retaining the synthesis of Germanic folkways which evolved into Medieval constitutionalism, and allowing it to continue and to evolve further. On the Continent the "modern" notion of centralized control and despotism, embodied in the reception of Roman law, gradually choked out everything else.

This is exactly the point made by Lord Acton about a century ago in his History of Freedom in Antiquity and History of Freedom in Christianity. He understood English exceptionalism very well, and he saw it as the continuation of these deeper roots. Just as Macfarlane is teaching us once again to understand the roots and reality of English exceptionalism, and its critical role in the development of the modern world, Rodney Stark appears to be rediscovering the exceptionalism of Christendom, which is a larger and older story, but a necessary though not sufficient condition for the sub-development of English exceptionalism.

Think of it as a pyramid. Christianity in itself was a huge breakthrough. It placed infinite value on individuals, including women, and it defined reason as a God-given capacity which was to be cultivated in the service of God, it asserted that God was reasonable and made the world comprehensible and that we could and should understand Him and it, it said that there were things that belonged to God and not to Caesar, and it defined all persons possessing authority as servants of those place under their authority for the common good. These, and others, were earth-shattering, new ideas. There could be no freedom, no individualism, not even “reason” as we have come to understand these things without the foundation of Christianity. The next layer, the Western branch of Christendom, was the uniting of Christianity with Classical Civilization and Germanic influences. That is the base of the “Old West”, as David Gress calls it. It is distinct from Byzantine civilization, and the Eastern Christian world, which was Caesaro-Papist and had no division of political and religious authority. The Western division of religious and political authority, rendering different things unto God and unto Caesar, led to a unique and decisive increment of freedom. Those portions of Europe under the Western Church which maintained the stronger mix of Germanic personal freedom and legal equality were more likely to develop and sustain free institutions, which evolved into medieval constitutionalism. This added a further increment. This gives us the "Northwestern gradient" in political and economic freedom and dynamism in Europe. England uniquely sustained its medieval inheritance and built on it, due in the main to its "moat" and the creation of naval power to secure that moat, a process N.A.M. Rodger, and here, has described in detail. The English sub-civilization, part of the West, part of Christendom, achieved the “Exit to modernity” and disseminated itself around the world. But it did so not as some alien growth, but as part of the West, of Europe, of Christendom.

(Others on this blog may differ with me on these points, in general or in detail.)

[Cross-posted on ChicagoBoyz.]

Posted by Lexington Green at October 3, 2005 10:03 AM

For many centuries, Britain was viewed as more Scandanavian than European due to it's cultural and political ties there. And for those concerned about the growing, inevitiable expansion of Latino/Hispanic culture into the United States, look to the spirited Anglo/Scots-Irish/German/Mexican blend of Central and West Texas.

Posted by: Ted B. at October 3, 2005 01:42 PM


This essay touches on an area I've researched over the past few years.

I submit that England actually suffered at the hands of the Frankish oligarchs between the years. Between 350 and 954, England (in particular Northumbria) engaged in trade relations with Ireland and the Judean coast. A flourising community in which men and women were equal, and knowledge was valued. It was only when Augustine arrived to bring the metropolitan Roman form of Christianity that England slipped into the Dark Ages. In my view, the Synod of Whidby (AD 954) marks the end of English Exceptionalism.

The prominance accorded to Charles Martel (Charlemagne)and the emphasis on the Papacy ensured England's transformation.

I'm happy to discuss this topic more at length.


Posted by: SeniorD at October 3, 2005 01:58 PM

Synod of Whitby was 664AD, not 954, which makes a difference. England traded with Ireland in 500-600AD because there was nowhere else much to trade with -- France was a mess and barbarians were rampaging around the Continent, whereas Ireland had maintained Celtic Christianity and was relatively settled and (for the period) wealthy.

The Ancient Greeks had individualism, and Tyre had traders. The big leap forward came with the Renaissance, and the revival of classical learning. In Britain the key figure was Henry VII, who was centuries ahead of his time in actually regarding a healthy economy as important, and proto-Elizabethan in encouraging foreign discovery.

It wasn't anti-Christian (Henry was a good devout Catholic) but was independent of it. Henry's good example was dissipated under Henry VIII, but partially restored under Elizabeth, and intellectually resusciated by Francis Bacon's biography of Henry, a best seller at the end of James I's reign.

GDP per capita declined sharply from 1500 through 1640 or so; the real commercial leap forward came under Charles II, not noted for his religious devotion.

Posted by: Martin Hutchinson at October 3, 2005 02:53 PM

We have a congeries of views about English exceptionalism. "(AD 954) marks the end of English Exceptionalism" says Senior D, but Mr. Hutchinson tells us it really got going with the era from Henry VII to Charles II, a long period. For myself, I'll stick to what I think of as the Macfarlane/Maitland thesis, which puts the exceptionalism back with the Germanic tribes and the survival of medieval constitutionalism and the Common Law. This in turn allowed England to make the "Exit to modernity" in the 18th Century, which allowed an escape from the Malthusian trap, or to change the metaphor, to break through the Malthusian ceiling, which had existed for all prior civilizations.

Despite this disagreement, this question of the origin and nature of English and Anglosphere exceptionalism is a worthy source of argument. I am sure that the people on this blog will weigh in with more detail in future posts.

Posted by: Lex at October 3, 2005 03:09 PM

When considering "exceptionalism" and where meaningful degrees of exceptionalism might be found, I think in terms of reversibility. Despite the northern European/Germanic origins of cultural individualism, at the end of the Counter-Reformation, only Holland, Switzerland, and England remained. Of these three, only England had the potential to withstand continental absolutism after 1700. England/the United Kingdom made the first "Exit to modernity" and had the economic and strategic strength through the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries to enforce its worldview on the rest of the planet. A case can be made that the Anglosphere has exported stability and prosperity outside itself but only tenuously exported its values. To the extent that no nation or 'sphere outside the Anglosphere shows signs of independently resisting statism or despotism (to this day), I prefer to think of the English exceptionalism as a unique experiment still under evaluation. Granting that English exceptionalism came from somewhere isn't an admission that northern European/Germanic exceptionalism was/is sufficient to lead all nations onto the "runway" of modernity. I therefore take the minimalist view ... that the Anglosphere shares history but not much nature with the rest of planet. Having erased its cultural competitors methodically over the last 1,000 years, we struggle to see clearly the degree to which Anglosphere dominance of the oceans, science, technology, global economy, and war have suppressed the values of other cultures. As such cultures reach higher levels of prosperity, I would submit that statism and despotism will again be presented as the "natural" form of a modern society.

Posted by: james mccormick at October 3, 2005 05:30 PM

"... northern European/Germanic exceptionalism was/is sufficient to lead all nations onto the "runway" of modernity..."

Agreed. What I do say though is that Northeastern Europe earlier and more completely made much of the transition, and other parts of Europe later and less completely. This demonstrates a degree of aptitude which is, I would assert, related to shared historical origins. This can be compared with the performance of, say, Morocco, which is not much farther away than parts of Germany are. Of course, Japan showed a precocious aptitude for various important aspects of modernity, for reasons unique to itself which Prof. Macfarlane has written about.

"...erased its cultural competitors ..." Erased is too strong if you are talking about France or Germany or Russia or certainly China, which may yet run the world on its own principles one day. England, then Britain, then the USA and its Anglophone allies have been the frontrunners, but the race is not over and may never be.

Also, rhetorically, I do not think it is helpful or accurate to say to people who talk about "the West" but have never heard of "the Anglosphere" that they are wrong when they talk about freedom, capitalism, etc. They are not wrong. They just lack a more complete set of facts.

Posted by: Lex at October 3, 2005 05:42 PM

"... Also, rhetorically, I do not think it is helpful or accurate to say to people who talk about "the West" but have never heard of "the Anglosphere" that they are wrong when they talk about freedom, capitalism, etc. They are not wrong. They just lack a more complete set of facts."

While we can certainly point to small city-state republics in "the West" - Greek, Roman, Italian, south German, Dutch, etc. the unique "trick" of the Anglosphere is to have sustained such republican values at national and continental levels for centuries. Courtesy and restraint is admirable, of course, when faced with people talking about "the West"'s values but it is the *Anglosphere's values* ultimately that get under the bureaucrats' skins around the planet, not "Western" values, per se. Japan seemed to find it quite workable to ally with Germany. China will find EU "realism" entirely to its satisfaction.

I'm sure I make the argument for distinctiveness too forcefully, and too over-broad, but one might say that a noteworthy aspect of the Anglosphere "exceptionalism" is just how exceptionally unpopular it is in the rest of the world. In contrast, a cultural confection, can be very popular without being very significant:


As someone pointed out ... every culture has had slaves, but only one has really sacrificed to abolish slavery. It is in the "going against the grain" that we see, to my mind, the real, profound exception.

To reiterate my earlier comment, we must (per Macfarlane and Tocqueville's insights) try to imagine Europe without the Anglosphere (but leaving it the rump of northern Europe) to see whether a counterfactual 21st century would have had much role at all for the individual, whether the northern European traditions from which England drew its individualism survive to any great degree. I'd say the "transition" has by now become so profound that it wipes away its predecessors (the ancien regime)and the present seems inevitable rather than contigent. The success of either Napoleon or Hitler would have left us with no trace at all of Germanic values. Indeed, with the complete and continuing dominance of Roman civil law on the continent, the architecture for absolutism has never gone away ... the legal structure is ready for use.

As for "erasure," apart from the metric system, is the 21st century beholden to France, Germany, or Russia for anything that it would not have received just as likely from some other country? Let alone the Danish, Welsh, Cornish, Irish, and Scottish traditions that tried to stand against the English armies. Again, making the case with over-simplification, from double-entry accounting to dual-house parliaments to binary computing, which 'sphere now sets the tone and terminology for the others? No guarantees, of course, but "frontrunners" and early-adopters have a powerful advantage ... until they no longer do. And all cultures on the planet must currently cast their goals in terms that draw not from European values but from post-WW2 Anglosphere arguments about the the nature of society. The UN is a classic example. A continental (yet fully Western) model of global governance would have foreign ministers esconced in a fine hotel somewhere to draw lines on maps. Sort of like what happens in Brussels.

All chickens hatch from eggs but not all eggs contain chickens. And in some sense, the Anglosphere discussion does rotate around "just how unique is it?".

Posted by: james mccormick at October 3, 2005 07:25 PM