The Outsized Role of Britain in the Modern World

[B]y a singular chance, the expansion of that small society from Elizabethan times onward became increasingly identified with the central movement in the history of the modern world. No mere book can hope to do justice to the theme: it is written in the lives of men, in their work and arts, in the creations of their minds, in science and industry, in the busy tracks of the ocean, upon the landscape and on the face of the outer world. It was an extraordinary, an unimaginable, fate that befell the island people. Wherever we look in the world, or in modern history, we come upon evidence of the contribution they have made. Whether it is at sea, in the arts of navigation or maritime warfare from Drake to Nelson to our own time; whether it is in voyages of discovery from the Cabots to Cook and Scott of the Antarctic, in methods of planting and colonisation from Humphrey Gilbert and Ralegh, Captain John Smith and the founders of New England to Gibbon Wakefield and Cecil Rhodes; or in industry, trade, finance; whether it is in the experience of self-government, laid open for all to see, or in the essential traditions of the free world — personal freedom for the citizen, liberty of opinion and speech, the sanctity of individual life (the arcana of civilized society); or in the example of an instinctive and generalised morality of common sense and toleration, with its precious message of individual responsibility; whether it is in the gradual unfolding of the resources of industrial and mechanical power (the basis of modern industrial civilisation, worked out in this island), with its subsequent developments in atomic energy and in the air; or in the unceasing proliferation of its genius at once for literature and science — the experience of the island people has been more and more closely bound up with the essential achievements of the modern world, the most significant and certainly the most fruitful movements of the human spirit in the modern age.

A.L. Rowse, The Expansion of Elizabethan England (1955).

In our upcoming book, America 3.0, Jim Bennett and I trace the roots of American freedom and prosperity back through British and English history to the conquest of the island by Angles, Saxons and Jutes fifteen centuries ago. But our focus is on America.

The quote from A.L. Rowse sketches a much larger theme which our (already large) book could not contain: the English impact on the entire modern world. A book on this subject may yet appear from Jim Bennett’s hand, and it will be the Big Book, which we have discussed for years, a history of the entire Anglosphere from its oldest Indo-European roots down to today and outward into the future.

In the meantime, much of the story exists in the writings of Alan Macfarlane, especially his Modern World series, which can be found as a set of ebooks, here., as a series of studies of major thinkers, Baron de Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Frederick W. Maitland, Yukichi Fukuzawa, and Thomas Malthus.

Prof. Macfarlane recently gave series of lectures entitled The Invention of the Modern World, with videos here. A book is forthcoming.

All of the foregoing have my highest possible recommendation. I could easily write twenty posts merely scratching the surface of what Macfarlane has accomplished. Instead, I suggest you trust me on this, and start reading him yourself.

Another book which gives a glimpse of the larger picture is Claudio Veliz, The New World of the Gothic Fox: Culture and Economy in English and Spanish America (1994), which contrasts the British and Spanish settlement of the Americas. Prof. Veliz is working on a new book on the English role in the modern world, which we eagerly await.

Also on this theme, V.S. Naipaul’s short essay Our Universal Civilization (1990) sees the world-civilization of today as originating in England. In the last twenty-three years since that lecture the universality of our civilization — which at least in in its ideals is one of personal freedom for the citizen, liberty of opinion and speech, the sanctity of individual life, as Rowse put it — is less obvious. And its future as a universal civilization is far from clear. The realm of freedom and progress may yet retreat to its core areas. Movements of such magnitude are almost beyond the realm of human agency. Time alone will tell. For now, we should focus on preserving what we have here, and even our success at that is far from foregone.

Cross-posted at America 3.0

4 thoughts on “The Outsized Role of Britain in the Modern World”

  1. A hearty second to the recommendation to read Macfarlane. I have yet to read anything from him that was not both enlightening and enjoyable.

  2. Dan, Jim’s book is in the talking stages, but I hope that sometime soon it will become an active project.

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