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The Invention of the Modern World 15.

Spring-Summer Serial 2012.


 By Alan Macfarlane.

THE RELIGIOUS SYSTEM which has evolved over the last thousand years on a small island off north-west Europe shares general features of Christianity. It also has a number of distinctive features. I can only touch on one or two elements, singling out a few of those which seem to be expressions of those distinctions into separate spheres of life which is the theme of this book.

As Max Weber realized, there was a strand within Christianity which was important for the development of capitalism. Briefly, this might be said to be early Christianity’s desire to cut out a separate territory for itself and not to enter into alliances with other institu­tions. In relation to the family, Jesus urged his followers to forsake their fathers and mothers and to follow him. The large monastic organizations are an alternative to the family. In the conflict between family bonds of a wider kind and Christianity, Christ must come first. The de-familization of society was one of its consequences.

Christianity early on was an anti‑authoritarian and anti‑political religion. Christ may have suggested that his followers render to Caesar that which was Caesar’s, but he was crucified because his opponents saw him as a political threat. Through the long years when it was persecuted by the State, Christianity developed a theology which put the call­ing of God as higher than the duty to the State. Christians called for ‘liberty’. This was particularly strongly manifested in Protestantism, where the ‘Saints’ opposed the ruling powers ‑ whether in Holland, England or Germany.

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One of the striking features of English society since well before the Reformation, and certainly after it, has been the systematic elimination of ritual, ‘magic’ and icons. As Keith Thomas has documented, a magical worldview was eliminated.1 There was much preaching of ethics and morality, but there were no physical sacrifices, no turning of wine into blood, no ‘miracles’. God was in the heart of the believer, but otherwise the world was subject to natural laws. This formed the basis for modern science, and it helped to eliminate obstacles to economic growth.

If religion and ritual pervade all aspects of life and dominate them, one has a magical world in which ‘ration­al’, that is means and ends related actions, are impossible. An example is in the debate in the West over usury. Lend­ing money is essential for capitalist enterprise but it has been argued that the Catholic Church’s formal ban on lending at interest put a break on growth. Once this religious obstacle was overcome, ‘free’ and rational activity could take place. Weber saw the ‘disenchantment’ of the separation of spheres as one of the essential steps in the growth of modern society.

Keith Thomas has indicated that the disenchantment was early; ‘since Anglo-Saxon times the Christian Church in England had stood out against the worship of wells and rivers. The pagan divinities of grove, stream and mountain had been expelled, leaving behind them a disenchanted world to be shaped, moulded and dominated’.2 Although Thomas is right to point out that it is too simple to see this disenchantment as simply equated with Christianity, there is certainly an ascetic stress in Christianity, and particularly in the northern variety, which was hostile to the interfusion of man and nature, to ‘magic’ and ‘symbolic thinking’.

THE FORM OF Protestantism that grew up in England avoided the compact with the State. The Calvinists made the State a Godly project in Scotland and Switzerland, but Lutheranism in England seems to have stressed individual conscience, to have spawned separate sects and sub-groups, and generally to have helped maintain the break between politics and religion which is the foundation of much of the dynamism of England and America.

The freedom of religion and thought was surprising to visitors to England in the eighteenth century. Saussure wrote ‘that great liberty of conscience and toleration is enjoyed in England’.3 Montesquieu a little earlier wrote: ‘With regard to religion, as in this state every subject has a free will, and must consequently be either conducted by the light of his own mind or by the caprice of fancy, it necessarily follows that everyone must either look upon all religion with indifference, by which means they are led to embrace the established religion, or they must be zealous for religion in general, by which means the number of sects is increased.’4 Or again Rochefoucauld reflected that  ‘All religions are tolerated in England – not by law, but in fact. In my section on London I have already referred to the chapels of the various sects and to the number of them. They are similarly tolerated in other parts of the kingdom. At Bury, for example, there are six different sects, all of which have their tabernacles or chapels and each one of them practises its religion in peace.’5

As Caraccioli sardonically put it: ‘There are in England sixty different religious sects, but only one sauce’.6 The result was a surprising freedom to disagree. Saussure suggested that ‘This is the reason why so many different sects are to be found in England, and also so great a number of persons with deistical opinions, and who, taking advantage of the leniency of the government, occasionally publish pamphlets against the established religion, that in any other country would, together with their authors, pass through the hands of the executioner’.7

Indeed, by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some people were rather scandalized by the way in which religion seemed to be more about life-style, social status and identity, something equivalent to an accent or the style of one’s house, than about any real fervent beliefs in the Deity.  Prince Puckler-Muskau wrote ‘But such is the piety of Englishmen, – it is to them at once a party matter, and an affair of good manners; and as in politics they follow their party implicitly, through thick and thin, reasonable and unreasonable, because it is their party; as they submit to a custom for ever, because it is a custom; so they regard their religion (without the least tincture of poetry) in exactly the same point of view: they go to church on Sunday, just as regularly as they dress every day for dinner; and regard a man who neglects church, just in the same light as one who eats fish with a knife.’   Emerson noted that ‘The religion of England is part of good breeding.’

There was some truth in Rochefoucauld’s observation that with constant separation into sects, and with each person’s opinion their own business, it became difficult to find a common religion. ‘The only point on which there is general agreement is that nearly every Englishman holds a different belief; all of them believe in some particular point peculiar to themselves; some of them (and nearly all the women) refuse to accept the Trinity and shut their books when it occurs in the service.  From which I conclude that the whole body, which is made up of these individual believers, believes in nothing at all.’8 Or as Disraeli put it a century later ‘Where can we find faith in a nation of sectaries?’9 Emerson asked ‘But the religion of England – is it the Established Church? no, is it the sects? no; they are only perpetuations of some private man’s dissent, and are to the Established Church as cabs are to a coach, cheaper and more convenient, but really the same thing. Where dwells the religion? Tell me first where dwells electricity, or motion, or thought, or gesture.”10

Pevsner gives a delightful illustration. ‘If Reynolds exemplifies how a painter can adhere to the Grand Manner without adhering to the Grand Manner, the Church of England demonstrates how one can be catholic without being Catholic, and occasionally protestant almost without being Protestant.’ The final outcome was the statement ‘made by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in the Voysey case of 1871, that clergymen “may follow any interpretations of the Articles, which, by any reasonable allowance for the variety of human opinion, can be reconciled with their language”.11

Coming from Calvinist Scotland, Hugh Miller noted that the religious separations were linked to the individualistic national character; ‘the country of insulated man is the best fitted to be also the country of insulated Churches’; ‘the insulating bias of the English character leads to the fanatic of insulated Churches’.12

It may be thought that this moral relativism, treating religion as a fashion accessory, was an eighteenth or nineteenth century phenomenon, but we see it well described by John Selden in his Table Talk in the middle of the seventeenth century:  ‘it is like the fashion; one man wears a doublett slashed, another lac’d, a third plaine, but every man has a doublett’.13

It would be wrong, however, to infer from this that there had always been open toleration or even apathy. As Rasmussen pointed out. ‘Now tolerance and dispassion about religious questions is an English virtue; but in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the religious struggles were carried on with great fanaticism in England.’14

Religion might be looked at like a serious game – the aim was to lead a good life and to be moderately confident of salvation, if there was indeed a Deity. But the tactics of playing the game was up to each individual. Taine put it in a slightly different way. English religion ‘subordinates ritual and dogma to ethics. It preaches “self-government”, the authority of conscience, and the cultivation of the will. It leaves a wide margin for personal interpretation and feeling. It is not altogether hostile to the spirit of modern science nor to the tendencies of the modern world. Its priests are married. It founds schools, urges action, and does not advice asceticism. Being thus in close touch and sympathy with the lay community, it has influence over it. The young man starting out in life, the mature man in full career, are, up to a certain point, restrained and guided by a body of traditional, popular and fortifying beliefs which provide them with a rule of conduct and a noble idea of the world.’15 The forms, the rituals, were conventional and external and indeed Protestantism sets its face against rituals and miracles.

Many in England, within and without the Church, believed that God, Christ and the after-life, all that was secondary – ultimately it was the ethics – the love thy neighbour, the charity, the justice, the forgoing of violence, all of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ that is at the heart of Christianity and should be retained.

All this greatly puzzled Huizinga from his Dutch Calvinist background, but he finally felt he had understood what lay behind English religion. ‘The first clue I obtained was that the English were not nearly so religious as they looked. They were clearly preoccupied with morals and conduct; their austere and ascetic laws, written as well as unwritten, left no doubt on that score.’ Yet ‘Their puritanism was not to be equated with a deep religiousness in the sense of other-worldliness…Pierre Maillaud had called the religion of the English “almost wholly unmystical, stressing conduct rather than convictions”. Renier had called the English “fundamentally indifferent to religion, indifferent to such a degree that they are prepared to ignore its essence while upholding its externals”.16

Huizinga himself felt that much of their religion was actually more to do with patriotism than religion as understood by most people. He often felt ‘that to the English mind’s eye Caesar and God looked much alike, that Britannia and the Deity seemed one and the same – or at any rate so mixed up with one another and their separate identities had become almost indistinguishable. “For this most nationalistic people in the world,” Madariaga had said, “Britannia is the highest goddess on their Olympus.” “Religious principles,” says Pierre Maillaud …. “are often valued here because of the service they perform in the enforcement of social order … Religion in England … strives to maintain or expand social discipline rather than to enhance the sense and quality of worship.”   Belloc has summed it up in his forceful way, ‘The religion of the English,is not Protestantism but patriotism.’17

The situation in England today is described by the anthropologist Kate Fox: ‘We have no actual objection to God. If pushed, we even accept that He might exist – or that Something might exist, and we might as well call it God, if only for the sake of peace and quiet. God is all very well, in His place, which is the church. When we are in His house – at weddings, and funerals – we make all the right polite noises, as one does in people’s houses, although we find the earnestness of it all faintly ridiculous and a bit uncomfortable. Otherwise, He impinges very little in our lives or our thoughts. Other people are very welcome to worship Him if they choose – it’s a free country – but this is a private matter, and they should keep it to themselves and not bore or embarrass the rest of us by making an unnecessary fuss about it.’18 Even the Anglican Church seems to accept this humble role. ‘In 1991, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, said “I see it as an elderly lady, who mutters away to herself in a corner, ignored most of the time”.’19 Many might nowadays share the caustic view of Lord Melbourne in the nineteenth century that ‘Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of private life.’20

SOME MIGHT BELIEVE that this heterodoxy was the result of the break with Rome at the Protestant Reformation – yet that seems as much an effect as a cause. As Freeman argued, Protestantism was an epiphenomenon of deep-seated features of English society from the middle ages. ‘We did not become free, enterprising or dominant, because we had embraced certain theological dogmas. We rather embraced certain theological dogmas because we instinctively found them to be those which best suited a free, an enterprising, and a dominant nation.’ As he also states the English Reformation, ‘was only accidentally that the Reformation was theological at all. Henry VIII did little more than succeed in doing what Henry II had failed to do’. ‘The Reformation was… a political movement which incidentally became a theological one.’ Protestantism – an epiphenomenon of the deep-seated nature of English society from the middle ages. ‘Nowhere did Christianity become so thoroughly a national, almost a local faith, as it became in England. Nowhere was the Church so truly the nation in one of its aspects; nowhere was the order and discipline of the Church so easily wrought into the old framework of the national institutions.’.21

The fierce battles of Church and State, most pointedly in the struggle between Henry and Becket, placed the Crown above the Church. As Maitland noted, the Church never developed its own separate legal system, just existing on the edges of Common Law. The superior power of the Law and the Crown ‘prevented the development of a body of distinctively ecclesiastical law which would stand in contrast with, if not in opposition to, the law of the land.’22 All were equal under the national law and the Church remained subordinate, like other estates, to Parliament. ‘The whole of this religion is founded upon the principle of political equality. The only superior authority is Parliament. Everyone else is on an equal footing.’23

Church and State did not form the kind of alliance which led to the Inquisition. The wealth and independence of the Church was always treated with suspicion, most obviously by the Lollards, but elsewhere. Then when the Counter-Reformation swept Europe, as Burckhardt pointed out, the Caesaro-Papist alliance was avoided. ‘In the great Western countries, with the exception of England, the Counter-Reformation sealed the “Covenant between the Throne and the Altar” – that is, the Church, to maintain itself, once more made use of the secular arm in the widest sense of the word’.24

This does not mean that ‘religion’ is unimportant in England. There are grounds for thinking that the special variety of religion in England was central to all of English life. The Bishop of Chichester was not exaggerating when he wrote during the Second World War that ‘The Church of England is both the most venerable and the most influential of all the factors which have gone to the making of English history and English character. Broadly and deeply planted in the land, mixed up with all our manners and customs, one of the main guarantees of our local government, and therefore one of the prime securities of our common liberties, the Church of England, in Disraeli’s words, is part of our history, part of our life, part of England itself.’25

Paxman agrees with this, but also makes the necessary qualification, ‘In developing a sense of national identity, the achievement of the Church of England was not so much what it proclaimed but what it made possible. There is a case for saying that the invention of the Church of England was the invention of England. However, this is not say that the English are a churchy people.’26 For, just like the English family, which is important and yet does not provide the infrastructure, religion became privatized. This was particularly noticeable in relation to the tolerance of varieties of religion. ‘In fact, I never met with an English Catholic who did not value, as much as any Protestant, the free institutions of his country, or who divided morality into two sections, one consisting of public virtues, which might be safely neglected, and the other of private duties, which alone need be observed. … I said only that I breathed freely in a country in which liberty and religion were united.’27

The paradox of extreme individualism and sectarian separation, combined with intense religious belief was obvious to Tocqueville as it is today. Religion, though supposedly separated from politics in a secular State, is everywhere. Yet it is also a private matter. Some thought it left religion almost empty. ‘It was a curious result, in which the civility and religion of England for a thousand years ends in denying morals, and reducing the intellect to a saucepan.’28

Understanding all of this is more difficult in England because of the feature of the conservation of the outward forms.  ‘The English, abhorring change in all things, abhorring it most in matters of religion, cling to the last rag of form, and are dreadfully given to cant.’29 And the cant, or hypocrisy, which amazed foreigners, makes it difficult to penetrate below the surface. I see this every day in Cambridge University, the bells, the processions, the chapels, the rituals, but what do people believe in their hearts?

Religion seeped into everything, as I now discover from my life as a schoolboy or through conversations with Japanese friends who are shocked at how religious even an agnostic like myself is. Christianity is there in English poetry, philosophy, art, music, architecture and every branch of life; yet it is different from the ancien regime religious pacts of the Continent or much of Islam or Confucianism. In Britain,  was a useful first mover, as in the philosophy of Descartes, but not a place where the mind rests. The God of the English was often a relatively tolerant, curious and in the end puzzling deity.

THE TYPE OF modernity of which I see early traces in England is one of moral ambiguity and relativism. Religion is constantly in conflict with pressures from social, political and especially economic forces. One way to examine this is to look at something which is a feature of all religions, namely the concept of radical or ever-present danger or Evil.30 This takes us into many of the more complex areas of religious belief.

Detailed village records, diaries, letters, proverbs and other sources suggest that people in England from at least the fifteenth century do not seem to have been much concerned with the Devil and absolute Evil. A satisfying explanation of the absence of absolute Evil, the Devil and Hell is related to many wider features. It is clearly no coincidence, for example, that England was the only major European nation to have no Catholic Inquisition and no inquisitorial process under law. The terror of evil was not encouraged.

Another part of the solution for the curiously ‘modern’ attitudes from the later Middle Ages at least, is provided by two of those who wrote in England during the period under consideration, namely Shakespeare and Milton. One of the most striking features of  both, making them seem ‘modern’ and relevant to us, is that they are concerned with a grey world where good and evil are interchangeable, where it is impossible to be certain, to have absolute moral standards, where nothing is entirely black or white. This is clearly the case in Shakespeare’s treatment of his central characters – Hamlet, Brutus, Prospero, Macbeth. For them, the choices are difficult, there is no absolute standard, things are not what they seem.

Shakespeare suggests reasons why good and evil have become blurred. Money, he shows, could change one into the other. Here he is touching on a central paradox. In a capitalist society, evil becomes good, good evil. Karl Marx quoted Shakespeare approvingly because he had seen this central feature.

What is here?
Gold? yellow, glittering precious gold? …
Thus much of this will make black, white; foul, fair;
Wrong, right; base, noble; old, young, coward, valiant.
. . .
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions; bless the accurs’d;
Make the hoar leprosy ador’d; place thieves,
And give them title, knee, and approbation,
With senators on the bench…31

Thus, gold transforms everything, from black to white and back again; it brings together as equivalents things that are not really on the same plane and divides things that are naturally together. Man is no longer able to discriminate between what is good, what evil.

This confusion is echoed in Milton’s Paradise Lost, which concerns the battle between good and evil. Yet the struggle is not between two opposed sides, but within the same principle. The poem is an attempt to state the paradox that good and evil are entirely separate, yet also the same. It grapples with the problem of how evil emerged at all, for it arose out of goodness. The problem is given one formulation in the myth of the garden of Eden, where evil was present even in a perfect Paradise. Once evil has emerged as distinct from goodness, having become separated, the problem for both is to prevent their mutual contamination and a tendency to become joined again.

The attempt to foil God’s attempt to bring the fallen angels back into his mercy is the subject of many of Satan’s famous lines.

If then his providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to prevent that end,
And out of good still find means of evil

The world has to be redefined in order to achieve this.

So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear,
Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost; Evil be thou my Good32

Yet, just as evil has emerged out of the principle of good, so it is possible for good to emerge from evil. This is the constant threat to the fallen angels; that God may win them back and turn their evil into good, for the power of goodness is very great: ‘abashed the devil stood, And felt how awful goodness is’.33 Ultimately, good and evil are not separable. Heaven and Hell, the Devil and God are in essence different aspects of the same power.

Milton’s poem could be seen as the eloquent expression of the tragic recognition that the simplicities of a childlike black and white vision were not sufficient. It is all a matter of how we look at things, a subjectivist world in which man cannot depend on any external, eternal, objective, moral laws. Milton needed to justify the ways of God to man; as a result, each man would act as a judge upon God, rather than the reverse. Morality was in the eye of the beholder. As Pope would put it, ‘Pleasure, or wrong or rightly understood / Our greatest evil, or our greatest good’.34

Pascal had summarized this view in the seventeenth century. ‘We hardly know of anything just or unjust which does not change its character with a change of climate. Three degrees of polar elevation overturn the whole system of jurisprudence. A meridian determines what is truth…. There is not a single law which is universal’.35 Alexander Pope took the next step, representing the culmination of a trend towards ethical relativism which argued from growing evidence that every civilization had its own appropriate moral system.

All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good;
And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.36

It is possible only to raise a few questions and hint at an answer to the problem of the origins of the disappearance of pure evil. Both the answer and the problem are encapsulated in St Paul’s warning that ‘The love of money is the root of all evil’ (1 Timothy 6: 10). This dismissal of avarice is one of the central pillars of that Judaeo-Christian tradition upon which western civilization is based. Yet, it could equally well be argued that the love of money is an equally important pillar of this civilization.

Adam Smith most clearly exposed this foundation of modern society, a feature without which modern societies would immediately collapse. As he put it, ‘The division of labour, from which so many advantages are derived, is not originally the effect of any human wisdom, which foresees and intends that general opulence to which it gives occasion. It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual, consequence of a certain propensity in human nature which has the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.’37 This division of labour and all that flows from it is thus based on a propensity, that is, in the ethical terms laid down by the formal theology, evil. The foundations are laid on individual acquisitiveness, the love of money and pursuit of profit. Thus, good and evil are mixed in the roots of modern society.

Yet money, and all it symbolizes, is the root of all evil in a deeper sense than this. Viewed from outside the system, money can be seen to do something even more insidious. It subtly eliminates the very concept of evil. Or, rather it makes it impossible to discriminate between good and evil, throwing people into that confusion that cast the angels from Paradise and afflicted Shakespeare’s central characters. ‘Money’, which is a short-hand way of saying capitalistic relations, market values, trade and exchange, ushers in a world of moral confusion.

This effect of money has been most obvious where a capitalistic, monetary economy has clashed with another, opposed, system. Thus it is anthropologists, who have worked in such areas of conflict, who have witnessed most dramatically the effect of the introduction of a monetized economy. They have noted how money disrupts the moral as well as the economic world. As Kenelm Burridge, for example, writes of the effect of money in Melanesia: money complicates the moral order, turning what was formerly black and white into greyness. Money, he argues, ‘reveals the vice in cultivated virtues, allows no vice without some virtue, concedes an element of right in wrong-doing, finds the sin of pride in an upright fellow…. money invites a complex differentiation and multiplication of the parts and qualities of man.’38 More broadly, it is money, markets and market capitalism that eliminate absolute moralities. Not only is every moral system throughout the world equally valid, as Pascal noted, but, within every system, whatever is, is right.

The consequences of money and the mentality associated with it are equally apparent to the major sociological thinkers. One of the most eloquent descriptions of the way in which money destroys moral polarities, qualitative difference is by George Simmel: ‘By being the equivalent to all the manifold things in one and the same way, money becomes the most frightful leveller. For money expresses all qualitative differences of things in terms of “how much?” Money, with all its colourlessness and indifference, becomes the common denominator of all values; irreparably it hollows out the core of things, their individuality, their specific gravity in the constantly moving stream of money. All things lie on the same level and differ from one another only in the size of the area which they cover.’39

The consequences of this moral revolution were already apparent to people in the most developed capitalist economy, England, by the eighteenth century.  What had happened was that capitalism had fully triumphed. It has now become clear that what was considered to be the root of all evil, namely the love of money, was also the root of all that was good, namely the bargaining, market principle of Adam Smith. This paradox was so horrifying in its implications that, when it was pointed out starkly, there was fierce condemnation. The man who made the unspeakable truth known was Bernard Mandeville, a Dutchman who had settled as a doctor in London, in his Fable of the Bees. The sub-title of the work summarized the theme: it was ‘Private Vices, Public Benefits’. The work was first published in 1714, alongside a doggerel poem entitled ‘The Grumbling Hive: or, Knaves Turn’d Honest’, first published in 1705. The theme of the poem was that it was out of the private passions and vices of the citizens – their lusts, acquisitive spirits and aggressive competition – that public benefits flowed. As Mandeville rhymed,

Thus every part was full of Vice,
Yet the whole Mass a Paradice;
Flatter’d in Peace, and fear’d in wars
They were th’Esteem of Foreigners,
And lavish of their Wealth and Lives,
The Balance of all other Hives.
Such were the Blessings of that State;
Their Crimes conspired to make ’em Great;
And Vertue, who from Politicks
Had learn’d a Thousand cunning Tricks,
Was, by their happy Influence,
Made Friends with Vice: And ever since
The Worst of all the Multitude
Did something for the common Good.40


In other words, out of vice and evil passion came forth wealth and goodness. Evil lay at the heart of good in a capitalist society, just as evil had lain at the heart of good when the good angels had arisen to build a new world in the midst of Paradise. Mandeville’s message was that, if one tried to be privately virtuous, the public world would collapse. Right at the end of the Fable Mandeville concluded that:

After this I flatter my self to have demonstrated that neither the Friendly Qualities and kind Affections that are natural to Man, nor the real Virtues he is capable of acquiring by Reason and Self-Denial are the foundation of Society; but that what we call Evil in this World, Moral as well as Natural, is the grand principle that makes us Sociable Creatures, the solid Basis, the Life and Support of all Trades and Employments without exception: That there we must look for the true origin of all Arts and Sciences, and that the moment Evil ceases, the Society must be spoil’d if not totally dissolv’d.41

This was Mandeville’s central message, and it was incorporated in the great work that was written by the very moral Adam Smith, and which would outline the basis of the capitalist system: ‘Without any intervention of law, therefore, the private interests and passions of men naturally lead them to divide and distribute the stock of every society, among all the different employments carried on in it, as nearly as possible in the proportion which is most agreeable to the interest of the whole society.’42

Thus private vice, passions and interests have merged into public good and ironically, the foundations of Paradise were laid in Hell, and Hell in Paradise. The serpent of desire propped up the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Or, to put it another way, the serpent was also the tree. By being that tree, he led to the ultimate confusion, the inability to distinguish between good and evil. When the fruit was tasted, it was found that, rather than containing the new knowledge that enabled man to discriminate good from evil, it contained the deadly knowledge that it was now impossible to distinguish the two.

What is clear is that, at least at the popular level in England, the ambivalences and contradictions were present back to the start of the sixteenth century. It is possible to argue that ordinary people in England had for centuries been accustomed to a world not of absolutes, but of relative good and evil, where all could be changed by money. It is appropriate and hardly fortuitous that Shakespeare should have provided the most exquisite expressions of that uncertainty in the midst of the period, or that in its full flowering in the eighteenth century Alexander Pope should have summarized the indecision and confusion so grandly:

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
. . .
He Hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
. . .
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!43


THIS SET OF never-resolved oppositions was beautifully reflected in the Anglican Church. It seems to have operated very much like English law – as a form of oil which lay between the different spheres of English life. It tolerated ambiguities and conflicts and adjudicated between them. Jeremy Paxman, who quotes several writers to this effect, recognizes this. ‘“The via media is the spirit of Anglicanism,” wrote T.S.Eliot of the sixteenth century. “In its persistence in finding a mean between Papacy and Presbytery the English church under Elizabeth became something representative of the finest spirit of England of the time.”  Paxman continues, ‘Dr Robert Runcie saw the vagueness for which it is castigated as a strength. “There are other churches in Christendom which take pride in their lack of ambiguity – in doctrine or leadership, or in monolithic interpretation of the Gospel. Anglicanism, by contrast, is a synthesis which necessarily unites thesis and antithesis.”44

The political theorist D.W.Brogan also describes the creative inconsistency of the English church, its refusal, like the law, to be intolerantly based on certainties, its role as a religion which is not fundamentalist. He notes that many are irritated by the impossibility of defining the doctrine or practice of the Church of England and they  ‘are appalled by the toleration of incompatibles that is the genius of Anglicanism. To treat Christianity thus is very English…

Before the Reformation, the central authority might impose order and doctrinal coherence. But once that control was removed, the absence of any English appreciation of the attractions of consistency, of the repellent character of anomalies, made it certain that whatever form organized religious life took in England it would not be coherent and consistent as it was in the Europe of Geneva or the Council of Trent … The Church of England may only be the Church that the majority of English people stay away from. But they want it to be there to stay away from; it is their spiritual home whenever (which is not very often) they feel they want one. They would not be at home in a more functional institution, in a Church which knew its own mind and followed out to their logical conclusions the generally accepted premises of its doctrines. Such a Church would be, in one sense, a more respectable institution, but it would be very much less an English institution.’45

We might add that again it is like the English family – which may also be the only one where the majority of English people stay away from – but as with the Church, they want it to be there to stay away from.

The lecture on which this chapter is based:

2012 Serial Index: Introduction and Contents | Preface | Bibliography.

Chapter 15 of The Invention of the Modern World by Alan Macfarlane.

© 2012 Alan Macfarlane. All rights reserved.

NOTES (please see the bibliography for citation details):

  1. Thomas, Religion
  2. Thomas, Natural, 22
  3. Saussure, Foreign, 317
  4. Montesquieu, Spirit, I, 312
  5. Rochefoucauld, Frenchman, 95
  6. Quotations, 97
  7. Saussure, Foreign, 191
  8. Rochefoucauld, Frenchman, 92
  9. Disraeli, in Quotations (Oxford), 129
  10. Emerson, English, 175
  11. Pevsner, Englishness, 66
  12. Miller, First, 397
  13. Pollock quoted in Campbell, Yeoman, 289
  14. Rasmussen in Wilson, Strange, 258
  15. Taine, Notes, 290
  16. Huizinga, Confessions, 70
  17. Huizinga, Confessions, 76
  18. Fox, Watching, 356
  19. Quoted in Fox, Watching, 354
  20. Quoted in Paxman, English, 101
  21. Freeman, 4th Essays, 290, 287, 289, 240
  22. Maitland, History, I, 21
  23. Rochefoucauld, Frenchman, 85
  24. Burckhardt, Reflections, 121
  25. Bell, English, 7
  26. Paxman, English, 100
  27. Tocqueville Memoir, II, 398
  28. Emerson, English, 188
  29. Emerson, English, 174
  30. This is based on Macfarlane, Culture, chapter 5
  31. Timon of Athens, Act IV, scene 3 (quoted by Marx, Grundrisse, 163).
  32. Milton, Paradise Lost, book I, line 157; and book IV, line 108
  33. Milton, Paradise Lost, book IV, line 846
  34. Pope, Essay on Man, epistle 2, line 91
  35. Pascal, Pensées, II, 126ff,
  36. Pope, Essay on Man, epistle 1, line 289
  37. Smith, Wealth, I, 17
  38. Burridge, New, 45
  39. Simmel, Sociology, 414
  40. Mandeville, Fable, 67-8
  41. Mandeville, Fable, 67-8
  42. Quoted in Hirschman, Passions, 110–1
  43. Pope, An Essay on Man, epistle 2
  44. Paxman, English, 100-1
  45. Brogan, English, 104-5

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