January 03, 2006

The Smile of Pelagius

In The Offshore Islanders, Paul Johnson makes much of the early intellectual separation of the English from Continental trends, especially a kind of unorthodox Christian tradition stretching from Pelagius through Ockham to Wyclif, the Reformation, and beyond. Thus his take on what Ernest Gellner calls the Exit from predation to production (forged in England during the industrial revolution) is distinctive (p. 268):

The fact that the English avoided a political breakdown in the early nineteenth century is all the more remarkable in that they were undergoing social and economic changes of unparalleled scope and severity. The English industrial revolution of 1780-1820 is the great watershed in the history of mankind. It liberated the body, as the Reformation had liberated the mind. Indeed the two were intimately connected. It was in the light of the escape from Rome, and the break-up of a static intellectual system, that Bacon saw the Fall reversed and forecast man's conquest of a hostile and grudging environment. He regarded the prospect as stupendous and imminent, and so it might have been, for he wrote on the eve of great events. The collapse of the English republic undoubtedly decelerated the process, but it was beyond anyone's power to halt it. Indeed, we can trace from the middle of the sixteenth century a majestic chain of events, each projecting the next, which made the outcome of the modern world inevitable.

Geography had always placed the English significantly apart from the Continental conflux of societies whose very proximity and interaction secured their conservative elements in possession. The Channel gave us a certain eclectic freedom in the reception of Continental ideas: we could take by choice; we could not be made to receive by compulsion. The act of separation might have occurred much earlier, and the film of history speeded up in consequence. At all events, the change was decisive when it came. The religious revolution made possible a revolution in education, not just in scope but in quality. The new education bred the first scientific revolution, and it was the impact of scientific rationalism on society which brought the political and constitutional revolution of the 1640s. From this convulsion we can date the agricultural revolution, which completed the break with the subsistence economy, and made possible the commercial and financial revolution of the late seventeenth century. The flow of cheap money thus secured, the stability of credit, the rapid development of world trade and, not least, the emergence of a sophisticated consumer market at home, combined, in the 1780s, to produce a revolutionary combination of capital and technology in the mass-production of goods by powered machines. This transformation, paralleled by the administrative revolution in the central organs of government, in turn projected the social revolution of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. English religion died in the process; the Reformation God did not live to see His handiwork. Nevertheless, He was the prime mover in it all. The Gospel according to Karl Marx, or to Mao Tse-Tung, or to Keynes, all spring by direct intellectual descent from the Protestant Bible. And behind it all lies the enigmatic, mocking smile of Pelagius.

(Cross-posted at one small voice.)

Posted by Peter Saint-Andre at January 3, 2006 10:32 PM

"The Channel gave us a certain eclectic freedom in the reception of Continental ideas: we could take by choice; we could not be made to receive by compulsion."

Hopefully the UK will at some future point retrieve this privilege from where it is increasingly firmly lodged at present: in Brussels.

Posted by: ZF at January 4, 2006 12:03 AM

When the chunnel is filled in.

Posted by: Richard Heddleson at January 4, 2006 08:20 AM

There's another way one could construe this issue: That Luther's Reformation in Germany removed potential forces for reform of the unified medieval Church from the inside, and by thus isolating England in a church entirely dominated by those who took the Roman Empire as its social model, made the Act of Supremacy politically unavoidable. It was the medieval church-state balance that made the emergence of civil society in Europe possible in the first place; thus it's possible to speculate that an evolutionary path continuing to shelter civil society might have been possible. Or the dead hand of the Roman model (particularly in the form of the revival of Roman law) might have been already too entrenched. As always, we'll never know.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at January 4, 2006 10:10 AM

"The English industrial revolution of 1780-1820 is the great watershed in the history of mankind. It liberated the body, as the Reformation had liberated the mind. Indeed the two were intimately connected."

It liberated the body? From the land I suppose. But didn't it trade bondage to the land for bondage to the factory? True industrial reform didn't come until the 20th century right?

Posted by: j23jadj3j23aqj at January 4, 2006 02:10 PM

I dunno much of the English heterodoxy hasn't been exactly positive. Pelganism caused a lot of havoc in early Christianity and St Augustine had to spend years refuting its central claims. I regard Ockham's nominalism with horror which then opened the path to a pernicious ideology: utilitarianism.
If we studied English heterodoic thought we could also find the seeds for political correctness and the other unpleasant santimony that occasionally plague the Anglopshone

I don't regard the revival of Roman law as a pernicious influence. I cite the abuses of medieval constitutionalism as the real culprit that led to centralist militarism. Those abuses soured continential Europeans equating medieval constitutionalism with anarchy, aristocratic santimony, etc.
It's only recently that continential Europeans are rehabilitating their medieval constitutional heritage. And Roman law or its derivatives can play a positive role by establishing clear rules and structures that help overcome the unease about medieval constitutionalism as experienced (and remembered) by the Europeans. So please don't be too quick to dismiss Roman law.
Here's an interesting article about the Germanic invasions and 'Romanism'

Posted by: xavier at January 4, 2006 06:39 PM

"bondage to the land for bondage to the factory": but bondage to the land ended with the Black Death, and bondage to the factory is figurative, not literal.

Posted by: dearieme at January 4, 2006 09:34 PM

People forget (or more likely never understood) how dangerous, famine-prone, and generally unpleasant pre-industrial life was. N.A.M. Rodger has an interesting discussion, in Command of the Ocean, of how life as a common sailor in the pre-industrial Royal Navy, even in wartime, was safer, better (and more reliably) fed, and less disease-prone than life in the equivalent social strata on land. Many of not most of the industrial classes in the early Industrial revolution were leavinga worse life in the countryside.

Xavier, it is true that Roman law and its Napoleonic deivatives provided the stable framework of rules that enabled the modernization of the Continental economies. And to some extent the imposition of centralized monarchical order ended the local tyranny of the nobility. (Downing argues this was essential for military effectiveness in the land-army competitive environment of the Mauritian military revolution.) It may be that the Continental medieval structure reflected the divide between the Frankish tribes (ancestors of the Continental nobility) and their subject populations, who remained separate, while the English situation, with substantially more mobility between gentry and commons, was more flexible. Could this situation have been resolved without resorting to the inflexibilities of Roman law? Montesquieu seems to argue that this was in process at least in Normandy and perhaps elsewhere in France, by an evolution of the medieval coutoumes into something like common law, when it was squashed by centralization and Romanization.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at January 4, 2006 11:47 PM

I also had a great admiration for Pelagius (actually a Briton named Morgan) at one time. Later, his doctrine of mankind's perfectibility by human effort alone began to bother me. In secular terms, it is not a big step from that idea to Rousseau's noble savage and the "New Soviet Man."

Posted by: Mitch at January 5, 2006 02:59 PM

As far as I can see, Pelagius did not advocate the perfectibility of mankind by human effort alone. If anything he would have argued for the perfectibility of the Christian community (not all of mankind), but it seems that his focus was more personalist, if you will: that any given person can achieve salvation through a kind of cooperative effort with God. His denial of original sin is of a piece with that. But perhaps I'm missing something in his thought (I admit that books about him are on the way to me via inter-library loan, but I have not read them yet).

Posted by: Peter Saint-Andre at January 5, 2006 03:16 PM

Thanks again. I'm not really sure because Germanic influence on the continent was uneve. In the case of France, we would've continued to see the divide between northern France and the
Don't forget that one of the pernicious consequences of the Catar heresy was the interefence by the Franciens in the langue d'oc regions. Already in the 1100 (before the discovery of the Justinian code) the troubadours were already mocking the centralist tendencies
In Spain, the Germanic influences were weak and Claudio Sanchez Albornez wrote what I consider conclusive about the permenant tension between Castile, Portugal, Basque, Galicia and Catalunya. The 8 century war with Islam did much to stifle the development of medieval constitiutionalism (at least in Castilla; in Catalunya-Aragon which booted them out earlier and faster seemed to develop a healthy constitutionalism.
In Italy like the Germanies, forget it. The city states were too small and too vulnerable to outside interference as witnessed by being Europe's convenient battlegrounds.
I honestly conclude that the continential Europeans have never recovered from the loss of pax Romana and have tried ever since to retreive it. I think that had Volkwandering been less chaotic and destructive, the Roman empire would've evolved its own dcentralized constitutionalism.

Here's the article about the Germanic invasions and Romaness: http://www.occidentalis.com/article.php?sid=2797&thold=0
Mind you I don't view the Germanic invasions as totally negative; I've always admired the parlamentary traditions that the Germanics brought with them (once the Christian missionaries and the Roman traditions smoothed the original roughness) that are part of the foundations of Western civ.

We'll have to catalogue the positive and negative legacies that the Germanic tribes contributed to the classical world. That'll be a big help.


Posted by: xavier at January 5, 2006 04:42 PM