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The Invention of the Modern World 16.

Spring-Summer Serial 2012.


By Alan Macfarlane.

ALL ATTEMPTS TO define ‘national character’ are doomed to failure. Whenever we try to describe any nation or country it soon becomes clear that it changes over time, varies over class and region, is inconsistent and people’s character shifts with the situation.

If this is a general difficulty, then defining English character is an extreme case. As David Hume well observed, the only really strong things one can say about English national identity is that the English have no particular identity. ‘We may often remark a wonderful mixture of manners and characters in the same nation, speaking the same language, and subject to the same government: and in this particular the English are the most remarkable of any people that perhaps ever were in the world.’ The result is that ‘the English, of any people in the universe, have the least of a national character; unless this very singularity may appear to pass for such.’1 Elspeth Huxley was right: ‘Take a dozen Englishmen and ask them – “What is England like?” – and you will get a dozen answers…. England is forty million different things to forty million different people; you cannot describe it in a page, or a chapter, or in a dozen volumes.’2

This diversity and contradictory nature is not due to physical factors. ‘As to physical causes, I am inclined to doubt altogether of their operation in this particular; nor do I think that men owe anything of their temper or genius to the air, food, or climate’.3 Hume believed it was the result of a mixed political system – monarchy, aristocracy and democracy combined – and a mixed religion. ‘All sects of religion are to be found among them.’ Consequently, ‘the great liberty and independency, which every man enjoys, allows him to display the manners peculiar to him.’

If we pursue Hume’s line of argument further, we can see that the contradictions of character arise from the separation of spheres or institutions. The central theme of this work is that we are dealing with the strangeness of modernity with its clashing values of hierarchy and equality, individualism and co-operation, tolerance and aggression. When one separates the spheres of life and there is no determining infrastructure, it becomes impossible for any one organizing principle – kinship for many societies, religion for others, communism for others – to make people alike. Chairman Mao for a time imposed uniformity – dress, life style, and gender status – as have other such regimes. Yet England was the extreme opposite to this – a mass of competing fragments, a thousand flowers blooming.

In such a confused situation all I can do is to follow a few outside observers and just note some tendencies and traits which, while not at all uniform, and varying over the past, nevertheless seem to capture something of the quintessence of these strange islanders.4

A True Born Englishman’s a contradiction!
In speech, an irony! In fact, a fiction!5

ONE PRONOUNCED FEATURE of the upper middle-class English was noted by Tocqueville. Married to an English wife, spending some years in the country and seeing its reflection in America, Tocqueville noted English reserve and meditated on the reasons. ‘Many people attribute these singular anti-social propensities, and the reserved and taciturn bearing of the English, to purely physical causes. I may admit that there is something of it in their race, but much more of it is attributable to their social condition, as is proved by the contrast of the Americans’.6

He particularly noted the reserve when two Englishmen met abroad:

If two Englishmen chance to meet at the Antipodes, where they are surrounded by strangers whose language and manners are almost unknown to them, they will first stare at each other with much curiosity, and a kind of secret uneasiness; they will then turn away, or, if one accosts the other, they will take care only to converse with a constrained and absent air, upon very unimportant subjects’.7

He partly explained it by the fear that intimacy might leave a person open to demands from others. In other words, the obligations to help and support a fellow Englishman could not easily be rejected once an approach was made. Furthermore, I suspect, it was difficult to judge the social class and background of another Englishman so far from home.

Tocqueville was probably right that this could not be explained by climate, though Taine wondered about this: he believed that the fog and humidity partly leads to the independence of the English.8 Others thought it might be an ancient trait brought by the Anglo-Saxons, part of an aggressive individualism. ‘The Barbarians brought with them that staunch individualism, as the modern phrase is, and that passion for doing as one likes, for the assertion of personal liberty …’9 Some thought it was related to their religion. ‘Methodism and Protestantism in general prevailing and religious sentiments conform so exactly to the melancholy and taciturn nature of the English.’10

TO ILLUSTRATE A number of contradictory features, here is the picture painted by four observers. The first is the Frenchman Saussure. ‘Englishmen are said to be very proud; certainly many are so, but in general they are more cold and reserved than really proud, and they are taciturn by nature, especially when compared to the French’. He then writes that ‘Though twenty men will be sitting smoking and reading newspapers in a tavern, they talk so little that you will hear a fly buzz; their conversation is interrupted by long pauses, and an isolated, “How do you do?” will alone prove to you that they are aware you are there, and have nothing more to say to you’. As for the character of English women: ‘I must now give you my experience of the character of English women. I find them gentle, frank, and artless, and they do not try to conceal their sentiments and passions’.11

Clicking an image will launch a captioned slideshow.

Later the Scotsman Miller in his First Impression gave the following account. ‘Lay-out of fields and houses. Englishman’s home is his castle – separateness and individualism of the English.’ ‘Unlike the English, the Scotch form, as a people, not a heap of detached particles, but a mass of aggregated ones’. The non-neighbourliness and separateness of the English struck him:  ‘neighbour seems to know scarce anything of neighbour’. Likewise the individualism of the English when compared to the Scots, for example ‘the Englishman stands out more separate and apart as an individual…Englishmen some what resemble in this respect particles of matter lying outside the sphere of the attraction influences, and included within that of the repulsion. The population exists as separate parts, like loose grains of sand in a heap, not in one solid mass’.12

D’Eichtal also noted this contrast. The Scots were not at all ‘starchy, formal and fastidious like their neighbours, whose lack of free-and-easiness often makes them very tedious’.13 Taine found the same. He noted that ‘there are men of education, even learned men, who have travelled, know several languages and yet are embarrassed in company’. While  ‘this kind of awkwardness and shame, entirely physical, is normal to the Germanic peoples’, he noted the special English features, ‘Reserve, caution and understatement. Specially English features – complete self-mastery, constantly maintained sang-froid, perseverance in adversity, serious-mindedness, dignity of manners and bearing, the avoidance of all affection or swaggering…’14

Pevsner gives another example of understatement and a low-key approach.

Thus the English portrait also keeps long silences, and when it speaks, speaks in a low voice… Or, to put it differently, the English portrait conceals more than it reveals, and what it reveals it reveals with studied understatement. These men and women illustrate what Jane Austen in Emma calls “the true English style” by “burying under a calmness that seems all but indifference, the real attachment”.15

This was somehow English and not carried to America in the same way. It seems to be something to do with the English in their own class and club system. Emerson noted ‘A Yorkshire mill-owner told me, he had ridden more than once all the way from London to Leeds, in the first-class carriage, with the same persons, and no word exchanged.’ Or again ‘In short, every one of these islanders is an island himself, safe, tranquil, incommunicable. In a company of strangers, you would think him deaf; his eyes never wander from his table and newspaper.’ They were vigorous, but ‘This vigor appears in the incuriosity, and stony neglect, each of every other. Each man walks, eats, drinks, shaves, dresses, gesticulates, and, in every manner, acts, and suffers without reference to the bystanders, in his own fashion, only careful not to interfere with them, or annoy them.’ In sum, on this island, ‘Cold, repressive manners prevail. No enthusiasm is permitted except at the opera. They avoid everything marked. They require a tone of voice that excites no attention in the room.’16

I have noticed some of these characteristics through my middle-class life. My grandfather and my uncles had a strong reserve, shyness almost, despite being highly accomplished and successful. It was something that strikes me in many English autobiographies. John Stuart Mill observed of his own father, ‘I believe him to have had much more feeling than he habitually showed, and much greater capacities of feeling than were ever developed. He resembled most Englishmen in being ashamed of the signs of feeling, and by the absence of demonstration, starving the feelings themselves.’  He added, ‘…in truth, the English character, and English social circumstances, make it so seldom possible to derive happiness from the exercise of the sympathies, that it is not wonderful if they count for little in an Englishman’s scheme of life.’17

The reserve is shown even in the gestures – or lack of them – of the English, as an Italian visitor noted with puzzlement. ‘Why is it that the English gesticulate so little, and have their arms almost always glued to their sides? For the same reason, I believe: the rooms are so small that it is impossible to wave one’s arm without breaking something, or inconveniencing somebody.’18 While south­ern Europeans and even the French gesticulate a lot, communicat­ing as much with their hands and faces as with words, the English are normally rather passive, inscrutable, stiff upper‑lipped.

The reserve, separation and modesty is clearly linked to the clash of loyalties – one has to step carefully in the minefield for one is pulled by economic, religious, kinship and political ties, yet never a slave to any one of them. Hence the delight of the English in those moments of relaxation, when things are suddenly certain, as in war, sport, hobbies, music, or in any endeavour which suddenly galvanizes the English so that they are doing things together and have something to share. I found this at school and throughout life – when participating in some ‘game’ one felt at ease with people. Otherwise, what could one talk about with passion?

Some of the ambivalences are again caught by Emerson. ‘The manners and customs of society are artificial – made-up men with made-up manners; – and thus the whole is Birminghamized, and we have a nation whose existence is a work of art; – a cold, barren, almost arctic isle, being made the most fruitful, luxurious, and imperial land in the whole earth.’  He wrote that ‘…here exists the best stock in the world, broad-fronted, broad- bottomed, best for depth, range, and equability, men of aplomb and reserves, great range and many moods, strong instinct, yet apt for culture.’ ‘They are positive, methodical, cleanly, and formal, loving routine, and conventional ways; loving truth and religion, to be sure, but inexorable on points of form.’ They were individualistic and private people. ‘The motive and end of their trade and empire is to guard the independence and privacy of their homes.’ ‘The English have given importance to individuals, a principal end and fruit of every society. Every man is allowed and encouraged to be what he is, and is guarded in the indulgence of his whim.’ Yet there was another side, for ‘These private reserved mute family-men can adopt a public end with all their heat, and this strength of affection makes the romance of their heroes.’19

The caution in straying outside one’s competence and the division of labour I have so often witnessed in Cambridge is linked to the irony, understatement, modesty already alluded to. Shyness, diffidence, arrogance and conceit make up a curious blend.

There are a number of other characteristics. One is the self-confidence and arrogance, the feeling that the English are the best people in the world and indeed that they are normal and everyone else is odd. Saussure commented. ‘I do not think there is a people more prejudiced in its own favour than the British people, and they allow this to appear in their talk and manners. They look on foreigners in general with contempt, and think nothing is as well done elsewhere as in their own country, and certainly many things contribute to keep up this good opinion of themselves, their love for their nation, its wealth, plenty, and liberty, and the comforts that are enjoyed’.20 Or as Tocqueville noted, England ‘has less sympathy than any other modern nation; that she never notices what passes among foreigners, what they think, feel, suffer, or do, but with relation to the use which England can make of their actions, their sufferings, their feelings, or their thoughts; and that when she seems most to care for them she really cares only for herself’.21

The self-confidence may be galling but it also had positive effects. As Laing observed ‘The self-respect, the sentiment of individual worth, the mutual confidence between man and man in the fair dealing and integrity of each other, which are both the effects and cause of a sound moral feeling in society, and of a high social character adapted to independent action …  form the basis of civil liberty and constitutional government.’22 Emerson also noted that ‘the English stand for liberty. The conservative, money-loving, lord-loving English are yet liberty-loving; and so freedom is safe: for they have more personal force than other people. The nation always resist the immoral action of their government.’23  Montesquieu connected individualism and liberty: ‘every individual is independent’, ‘this nation is passionately fond of liberty’.24 ‘Every Englishman is an island’, observed the German poet- philosopher Novalis at the end of the eighteenth century.25 So it is no surprise that Robinson Crusoe alone on his island was the national model. ‘Marx already observed that Robinson was a favourite character with the economists, but he is present even more in the backs of the minds of philosophers, even if they did not so frequently invoke him by name.’26

It was this pugnacious, self-confident, independent character which many thought was the secret of English success in the nineteenth century. Tocqueville wrote ‘seeing the Englishman, certain of the support of his laws, relying on himself and unaware of any obstacle except the limit of his own powers, acting without constraint; seeing him inspired by the sense that he can do anything, look restlessly at what now is, always in search of the best, seeing him like that, I am in no hurry to inquire whether nature has scooped out ports for him, and given him coal and iron. The reason for his commercial prosperity is not there at all: it is in himself.’27 Emerson felt the same.  ‘You cannot account for their success by their Christianity, commerce, charter, common law, Parliament, or letters, but by the contumacious sharp-tongued energy of English naturel, with a poise impossible to disturb, which makes all these its instruments.’28

This independence was combined with a love of eccentricity. ‘They were grateful to me for the eccentricity of my escapade. The English are always attracted by eccentricity.’29 They were rather informal – which could lead into what might be thought of as bad manners. ‘It would be impossible to be more easy-going in good society than one is in England. Formality counts for nothing and for the greater part of the time one pays no attention to it. Thus, judged by French standards, the English, and especially the women, seem lacking in polite behaviour… they hum under their breath, they whistle, they sit down in a large arm-chair and put their feet on another, they sit on any table in the room and do a thousand other things which would be ridiculous in France, but are done quite naturally in England.’30

Thomas Burke notes a small example of the eccentricity in the naming of inns and pubs. ‘Letting themselves go in their true current of emotion and sentiment, they found such names as the Who’d Have Thought It?Mrs Grundy’s ArmsThe Old FriendsMagnet & DewdropDarby & JoanHorn of PlentyBaker & BasketSun in SplendourRent DayMortal ManMerry Month of MayBel & the DragonLabour in VainTippling PhilosopherGood IntentCastle of ComfortCat & MuttonWorld Turned Upside Down.’31

THE CONTRADICTIONS COULD lead to a complete disjuncture between words and actions which seemed hypocritical. ‘There is one point in which the English seem to me to differ from ourselves, and, indeed, from all other nations, so widely, that they form almost a distinct species of men. There is often scarcely any connexion between what they say and what they do’.32 It could lead to a provincialism which had its good and its bad side. ‘Instinctively the Englishman is no missionary, no conqueror. He prefers the country to the town, and home to foreign parts. He is rather glad and relieved if only natives will remain natives and strangers, and at a comfortable distance from himself.’33

It also seemed to be tied to a certain perpetual childishness, gaucheness, refusal to grow up. ‘But if you get to know them closer, they are very kind and gentle; they never speak much because they never speak about themselves. They enjoy themselves like children, but with the most solemn, leathery expression; they have lots of ingrained etiquette, but at the same time they are as free-and-easy as young whelps. They are as hard as flint, incapable of adapting themselves, conservative, loyal, rather shallow and always uncommunicative; they cannot get out of their skin, but it is a solid, and in every respect, excellent skin.’34

The fact that a good deal of the most widely read children’s literature in the world over the last two centuries, from Alice in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh to the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter novels have been written by English authors is intriguing. ‘This unwillingness to grow old is an essential feature of the English folk lore of the twentieth century. When the learned scientists of the future endeavour to trace the origin of the Peter Pan myth, as no doubt they will, they will be obliged to recognise that it is peculiar to this island. Every continental Tom Thumb is a kind of dwarf, a quaint being which retains the body of a child, while possessing the intelligence of a man, but Peter is neither a monster nor a precocious imp, he is merely the Eternal Babe which every Englishman carries in his breast.’35 It may even be linked to the love of games; ‘Sport allows children to become Men and Men to Remain Children longer.’

AS I POINTED out at the start, every one of these characteristics has its obverse. The reserve goes alongside another aspect noted by Saussure. ‘I have also remarked that the passions of this nation are extremely strong and violent; they cannot bear failure, and customs and example are, I think, a great incitement to them’.36 Provincialism and self-esteem also go with anxiety and restlessness. As Karl Werner noted, if we are looking for the quintessence of modern capitalism, we might choose one word ‘Unruhn, which means “in perpetual movement”, but also anxiety, agitation – the English word ‘unrest’, but also ‘restlessness’…’37 They tend always to be busy – except when they appear immobile, gazing at a fishing float or a cricket ball.

At their best, they are as Cobbett described them. ‘Never servile; always civil. This must necessarily be the character of freemen living in a state of competence. They have nobody to envy; nobody to complain of; they are in good humour with mankind.’38 Some even find them steady, honourable, reasonable and good masters of mankind during their moment in the sun. ‘His adventures are all external; they change him so little that he is not afraid of them. He carries his English weather in his heart wherever he goes, and it becomes a cool spot in the desert, and a steady and sane oracle amongst all the deliriums of mankind.’39

Others found them odd and inscrutable – particularly in their humour. ‘You may well believe, my very dear mother, that these people have another kind of mentality, another kind of taste, a different way of thinking and feeling. The sort of wit which pleases them most is what they call humour, it does not consist in making witticisms but of seeing things from a new point of view and that depends more on the oddity of personality than on a prolific mind.’40

They were certainly a mixed bunch. ‘My opinion on the whole of Englishmen is, that among them you find more sensible, thoughtful, trustworthy, and noble-hearted men than in any other nation; but, on the other hand, a great number of them are whimsical, capricious, surly, and changeable, being one day devoted to one thing and next day caring for it no longer.’41 They were often prudish and guilty about sex. ‘At the London Zoo a lady went up the Keeper of the hippopotami. “Tell me,” she said, “is that hippopotamus a male or a female?” The keeper looked at her in a shocked manner: “That, ma’am,” he replied, “is a question which should only interest another hippopotamus.”42 But they were also licentious and bawdy, as many cartoons by Rowlandson or the poems of Rochester show.

They could be earnest, but also tended to be happy to compromise. Speaking of the rise of the Whig party, Acton wrote that ‘The very essence of the new Party was compromise. They saw that it is an error to ride a principle to death, to push things to an extreme, to have an eye for one thing only, to prefer abstractions to realities, to disregard practical conditions.’43 Nothing was worth killing for and the deepest offences were not moral or political but to do with etiquette, as in the public school motto – ‘manners makyth man’. ‘Of all offences against English manners which a man can commit, the three following are the greatest: to put his knife to his mouth instead of his fork; to take up sugar or asparagus with his fingers; or above all to spit anywhere in a room…’44

They were narrow, but focused. ‘What you say of the simple character of the English is true. Their perception is just, somewhat narrow, but clear: they see only what they look at; they do well only one thing at a time’.45 Their hero was the White Rabbit with his large watch, hurrying to ‘The Duchess, the Duchess’. ‘The Englishman is not covetous of money, but he is supremely covetous of time. It is wonderful how exactly the English keep to their appointments. They take out their watch, regulate it by that of their friend, and are punctual at the place and hour.’46  A strange mixture of deference and obsession with time.

AFTER THIS CONTRADICTORY set of observations let me just jot down a few thoughts of how this odd set of characteristics, still recognisable today, but in its hey-day in the sixteenth to twentieth century, and in the middle class, fits with the argument of modernity and its separations.

The English, as we have seen, seem to have been a turbulent mix of contradictory characteristics. When he visited Manchester, Tocqueville found that ‘Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish; here civilisation works its miracles, and civilised man is turned back almost into a savage’.47 Emerson wrote that ‘The English composite character betrays a mixed origin. Everything English is a fusion of distant and antagonistic elements. The language is mixed; the names of men are of different nations, three languages, three or four nations; – the currents of thought are counter…’48 He continues, quoting Bacon:

“Rome was a state not subject to paradoxes”; but England subsists by antagonisms and contradictions. The foundations of its greatness are the rolling waves; and, from first to last, it is a museum of anomalies.49

The outcome in English character was the result of conflict and compromise. The Englishman, wrote George Orwell, ‘is a symbol of the strange mixture of reality and illusion, democracy and privilege, humbug and decency, the subtle network of compromises, by which the nation keeps itself in its familiar shape’.50

Many writers have pointed to the contradictions built into the very essence of a modern world. Bruno Latour suggest in We Have Never Been Modern that by artificially segmenting the unity of reality which modernity has to do, it does not banish tensions, but rather creates more hybrids as he calls them. In Mary Douglas’ terms, we just push the dirt, the blurred boundaries, under the carpets or into corners. It is still there.51

Or again Tocqueville highlights the monstrous confusions and inconsistencies of the legal and bureaucratic system of Britain. It is a terrible muddle, a hall of mirrors, terribly ‘unprincipled’ – yet Tocqueville in the end prefers it to the clear absolutism of France. Veliz points to the same muddle in aesthetics. Drawing on Ruskin’s Stones of Venice, he points to the clutter, the inconsistency, the absence of purity in the Gothic world, the muddle of English cities and streets, the sweet disordered English rose, the winding English road, as others have put it.52

A.P. Herbert points out the same in relation to the inconsistencies and confusions and crossed principles of English law. Are snails wild or tame, is a flooded footpath a road or a river, is a woman within the judgement of the reasonable man? F.W. Maitland also points out the inconsistencies in English law, the various compromises and counter-pressures.53

The reason for these outcroppings of inconsistency is obvious. When there is a determining infrastructure it brings everything into line. If kinship underpins everything, as it does in tribal societies, or religion in Hinduism and Islam, or politics in Communism and Fascism, or the market in extreme forms of neo-liberal American thought, then everything can be read off from it. There is consistency because there is a common base, or lowest common denominator. The cost, of course, is that it leads to the loss of liberty, oppression, the imprisonment of the soul and the mind. The world of Brave New World or 1984 are at least internally consistent.

On the other hand, the essence of the modern world is that there is no defining infrastructure. Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is not loosed upon the world, but certainly chaos and confusion is often there. Basically the four spheres of our life are constantly in productive tension – politics, religion, economy and society. So there is an everlasting struggle, with no sphere triumphant.

In such a situation adults have to live in a world of endless compromise, of endless situations where the best is the enemy of the good, in an Einsteinian world of relativity where all principles can be bent by some other force. It is a Dirac or Schrödinger quantum world where a cat can be both alive and dead at the same time. It is a world perfectly caught by the Oxford mathematician Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) when he took a child, full of absolutes, into the magical world down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass.

What people have to do, therefore, is to create escapes, pools of consistency, a sense or meaning outside the contradictions in arenas of ‘sanity’. These are sometimes the hybrids of which Latour writes. Sometimes it is captured in humour, irony, satire, ridiculous invention – the Goons, Monty Python, Gulliver’s Travels, Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw, Shakespeare and so many others.

Or there are retreats into bounded areas – love, nature, games, children’s stories and other parallel worlds with their own rules. The Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite movements are classic examples of all this – Wordsworth, Keats and Coleridge are the great exponents, and later Tennyson and Matthew Arnold follow the same theme. These are not escapism – they are absolutely essential to rest the doubting and conflict-facing mind.

All these are important and generated by modernity and its tensions. Life after the invention of modernity is an endless oxymoron, ‘both/and’ as the Japanese would put it. It is there in all the great poets and novelists and playrights in the British tradition over the last thousand years.

In the usual run of societies, an individual lives in an embedded world where all the currents – economic, kinship, religion, and politics – are flowing in one direction. So the flow is swift, certain and can be reasonably well described. There are ‘patterns’ to the cultures, as the anthropologist Ruth Benedict put it in the title of her book.54

Modernity is different. In order to help us to understand the contradictory forces, Tocqueville uses an image of a pool in a rushing stream where contrary flows meet and swirl. ‘When one examines what is happening in the United States closely, one soon discovers two contrary tendencies; they are like two currents flowing in the same bed in opposite directions.’ At other times he described more than two contrary flows. For instance he talked of ‘…the great American fight between the provinces and the central power, between the spirit of independence and democracy, and the spirit of hierarchy and subordination.’55

The restless, swiftly changing cascade is what struck him forcefully. ‘Restlessness of character seems to me to be one of the distinctive traits of this people. The American is devoured by the longing to make his fortune; it is the unique passion of his life; he has no memory that attaches him to one place more than another, no inveterate habits, no spirit of routine; he is the daily witness of the swiftest changes of fortune.’56 He comments that ‘Often born under another sky, placed in the middle of an ever moving picture, driven himself by the irresistible torrent that carries all around him along, the American has no time to attach himself to anything, he is only accustomed to change and ends by looking on it as the natural state of man.’57 Although Tocqueville saw this tendency in its extreme form in America, he constantly states that much of its inherent logic was taken from England. The result was a paradox which is one of the central features of modern capitalism, that desire always outstrips achievement.

CERTAINLY I FOUND ‘learning to be English’ through the twelve or so years of boarding school and university, not an easy task. Like the language itself, it could only be picked up by example and painfully brought into the inner habitus. Few people could explain how you do it, how you ‘Become a Brit’, the title of George Mikas’ book. An anthropological lesson might have helped, but no-one talked about it. You learnt the identity like cricket or dancing or riding a bicycle, by constant practice of the movements.

A few elementary rules were there, but otherwise it was a style, a posture, and an internalized and instinctive habitus. And like learning to ride a bicycle, falling off and hurting oneself was part of it until you suddenly did it.

Thoughtless and selfish, careful and caring – it is all there in my mother’s account of my childhood character at the age of seven. I was deeply flawed, riven, conflicted, and yet was being trained to be self-confident and a leader of men.

How could it be otherwise? ‘Ah what a dusty answer finds the soul when hot for certainty in this our life’, is a line from Meredith which I loved at University. ‘The best lack all conviction, the worst are fully of passionate intensity’ (Yeats) – we were the best. We were cynical – ‘democracy was the worst of all political system, except for the rest which were even worse’ as our great war leader Churchill put it. We were hypocritical – believing in equality yet for decades playing a central part in the slave trade and forcing opium on the Chinese in the name of religion and liberty. We were devout, yet we did not really believe in anything. We were sceptical and realist, yet also very trusting of others. We had a low opinion of human nature, as intrinsically evil, violent, which needed curbing and always sceptical of the gap between words and actions and talk of the general good. And yet also idealist, grown up children, full of philanthropy.  Indeed a strange set of beings who flattened the earth and gave birth to the modern world from this small island of Britain – for good and bad.

The lecture on which this chapter is based:

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

Chapter 16 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. Hume, Essays, 122
  2. Huxley, East, 229
  3. Hume, Essays, 118-9
  4. An excellent account of English character is given in Langford, English.
  5. Daniel Defoe, quoted in Paxman, English, 58.
  6. Tocqueville, Democracy (abridged), 222.
  7. Tocqueville, Democracy (abridged), 221
  8. Taine, Notes, 61
  9. Arnold, Culture, 102
  10. D’Eichtal, French, 106
  11. Saussure, Foreign, 177-8, 205
  12. Miller, Firsts, 398, 399, 395
  13. D’Eichtal, French, 76
  14. Taine, Notes, 54, 145
  15. Pevsner, Englishness, 79
  16. Emerson, English, 100-1, 83, 83, 89
  17. Mill, Autobiography, 43 128
  18. Count Pecchio in Wilson, Strange, 177
  19. Emerson, English, 78, 104, 84-5, 86, 232, 79
  20. Saussure, Foreign, 177
  21. Tocqueville, Memoir, II, 416
  22. Laing, Observations, 268-9
  23. Emerson, English, 110
  24. Montesquieu, Spirit, I, 308, 309
  25. Quoted in Singer, Sword, 44
  26. Gellner, Thought, 104
  27. Tocqueville, Journeys, 106
  28. Emerson, English, 230
  29. Benjamin Constant in Wilson, Strange, 127
  30. Rochefoucauld, Frenchman, 34
  31. Burke, Inns, 37
  32. Tocqueville, Memoir, II, 352-3
  33. Santayana in Wilson, Strange, 242
  34. Capek in Wilson, Strange, 247
  35. Cammaerts, English, 148
  36. Saussure, Foreign, 198
  37. In Hall and Mann, European, 173
  38. Cobbett, Cottage, 122
  39. Santayana in Wilson, Strange, 243
  40. Bonstetten in Wilson, Strange, 106
  41. Saussure, Foreign, 195
  42. Maurois in Wilson, Strange, 261
  43. Acton, Modern, 217
  44. Prince Puckler-Muskau in Wilson, Strange, 175
  45. Tocqueville, Memoir, II, 365
  46. Count Pecchio in Wilson, Strange, 178
  47. Tocqueville, Journeys, 96
  48. Emerson, English, 42
  49. Emerson, English, 75
  50. Orwell, Lion, 46
  51. Latour, Never; Douglas, Purity
  52. Veliz, Gothic
  53. Herbert, Law
  54. Benedict, Patterns of Culture; yet when describing Japan she had to use a contradictory metaphor – The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.
  55. Tocqueville, Democracy, I, 477, 483
  56. Tocqueville, Journey to America, 182
  57. Tocqueville, Journey to America, 183

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