Maurice Cowling: Sceptical even of his own High Tory principles, he loathed self-deception in himself and others
Maurice Cowling's admirers call him a "gadfly political and intellectual historian". He was without doubt conservative, sceptical and polemical. He has been associated with Herbert Butterfield's attack on the "Whig interpretation of history", and, in his early writings on the nature of political science and the "liberalism" of John Stuart Mill, with Michael Oakeshott. Like them, he dissented from the progressive optimism and rationalism that has dominated intellectual life and the academy for a long time, but in the end he departed also from their studied detachment. Butterfield, doubting that history reveals cumulative improvement, achieved detachment in articulating his own version of the Augustinian distinction between sacred and profane history in which the professional historian presents, as far as evidence will allow, how an historical situation looked to the actors in it, both those who "won" and those who "lost". Butterfield thought that what was most important was largely invisible in the temporal flow of events. Oakeshott insisted on distinguishing the "practical past" from the "historian's past," the latter demanding the study of the "past for its own sake," bracketing out the motive to extract practical moral lessons from the past. There is in both Butterfield and Oakeshott an element of stoic detachment, a willingness to look for meaning elsewhere than in the tide of events. Michael Bentley, in the present volume*, captures the sense of this: "Herbert Butterfield and Maurice Cowling shared a Christian cosmology, proclaimed in the one, muted in the other; and if the apprentice came to bite the hand that once had fed, he both ingested and acknowledged its nourishment."
Cowling shared the scepticism of Butterfield and Oakeshott about progress and the "continually improving" society. His well-known and controversial assertion that Mill was something of a moral totalitarian expressed his profound reservation about the prideful claims of modern intellectuals to know not only where history is going but also how to speed us to our destination. This caused shock and outrage in Toronto where the keepers of Mill's flame were producing the definitive edition of his collected works. In the larger context, Cowling saw that the decline of Christianity's public authority in England since the early 19th century was a key element in what he took to be the derangement of modern understanding. Like Oakeshott, he thought that the historian's task was too often misconceived and highly politicised. But in the end, Cowling rejected Oakeshottian detachment for vehement polemics against the intellectual establishment. Cowling had ceased to be a practising Christian, but he nevertheless developed an idiosyncratic version of a Christian critique of immanentist worldliness. It was not clear, despite the vast range of his three-volume magnum opus, Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England (1980-2001), whether Cowling was instantiating the revival of a Christian interpretation of history or lamenting the loss of the Christian orientation in British political and social culture.
Cowling was a central figure in the intellectual life of England for a generation and the titular head of the so-called Peterhouse historical school. He is important but not a household name, not a popular historian or political thinker. It is most useful that a careful and deeply informed assessment of his legacy is now before us: the editors are joined by seven contributors who knew Cowling and his work well. The editors jointly conclude that Cowling was "one of the most important — because so cogently and plausibly contrary — thinkers in modern British life". Cowling rejected the "almost unbearably earnest historiographical tone...so many pious chronicles of unproblematised progress". Beyond this, Cowling stressed the concreteness of historical events and the futility of abstract theorising that remains aloof from the actualities of politics. Thus Cowling was a political historian, a student of how politics actually goes on, concentrating more on the details of what political actors understand themselves to be doing than on abstract theories about what they should be doing or detached explanations that purport to know better than the actors themselves the meaning of events.