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. 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.

[Cross-posted on Albion’s Seedling.]

2 thoughts on “English Exceptionalism — Yes, but …”

  1. “And was Jerusalem builded here
    among these dark satanic hills?”
    William Blake

    Like Blake, I imagine, England was not special because it was “part of the West, Europe, and Christiandom” but rather because of the ways in which it was different. An evolutionary step away from them, perhaps, and different much like a son is different from the father. So perhaps “alien growth” is a bit strong but still….

  2. Tyouth, I do not disagree. It is one thing to say England was unique. It was. It is another to deny that much of its history was shared with its near neighbors. This fact contributed to the relatively rapid economic development of the rest of Europe, for example, by adopting the Industrial Revolution which originated in England. The farther afield you go, other places, with the noteworthy exception of Japan, have found this process much more difficult.

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