You are here:   Anthony Pagden > Decline and Fall of the History Men
 

Thomas Babington Macaulay: Victorian apostle of high culture

Are we living through the end of history? Not in the Hegelian sense that Francis Fukuyama used the phrase in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, meaning that with the triumph of liberal democracy, world history had reached its ultimate goal. As subsequent events have shown, this was a case of wishful thinking by a political scientist, not a historian. 

No, I mean the end of history as the central pillar of high culture and national identity. History in this sense is not the same as historiography or historical scholarship, of which there is more than ever before. Nor is it the same as the popularisation of history, history as pure entertainment, which is also flourishing. What has become problematic is the assumption that general historical knowledge, an informed consciousness of our past, is the essential framework for Western civilisation. It is the decline of history in this sense that lies behind the heated debates about the teaching of history at school and university. The loss of such a temporal dimension has brought about a profound change in the outlook of the West: a loss of organic connection, not only with those who came before us, but with our place in the world. Clive James memorably described this phenomenon as "cultural amnesia", and Eric Voegelin adopted the theological concept of "anamnesis" to describe our attempts to preserve transcendent memories. Yet such remembrances of time past, whether they express rage against the dying of the light of history as a force in intellectual life, or acquiescence in its oblivion, are at best rearguard actions.

That an educated person could lack such historical awareness would not have occurred to the 19th-century apostles of high culture, the Mills and Arnolds, père et fils, or the brothers Humboldt and James. The 18th-century philosophes had tried to create a "philosophical" or "conjectural" history of mankind, as Anthony Pagden writes in his encyclopaedic new book The Enlightenment (OUP, £20). "The purpose of these histories was . . . not only descriptive — it was emancipatory. In providing a proper scientific understanding of the origin and evolution of the human condition, they would, it was hoped, release man from his servitude to . . . prejudice." In the 19th century, however, this emancipatory impetus was allied to the romantic cult of genius, which gave weight to what Max Weber would later call "charisma". History was the story of liberty, but also of the liberator. To be human was to be an actor on the stage of history; the human sciences were those governed by the historical method. To have a place in the history books was not only the definition of fame, but the very purpose and meaning of life.

Among the most remarkable and influential of these Victorian polymaths was Thomas Babington Macaulay. He was among the greatest essayists, poets, orators and historians of an age that excelled in all these accomplishments. Yet it is not for any of these that he most deserves to be celebrated today, according to his latest biographer, Zareer Masani. In his splendid and original Macaulay: Britain's Liberal Imperialist (Bodley Head, £20), Masani evokes a recent birthday party in Delhi for the eminent Victorian, given by the intellectuals of the Dalit community and their liberal supporters. The Dalits, the modern name for pariahs, were (and in some places still are) treated as untouchable by the higher castes. They revere Macaulay as the man who gave India the English language, British education, freedom of the press and the rule of law. English, the world's lingua franca, has enabled India's untouchables to connect with the world. It was Macaulay's famous Education Minute of 1835 that set out to create "a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect." This Anglophone administrative and commercial class became known as "Macaulay's children". Macaulay's Minute, in Masani's enthusiastic words, "outlined an imperial mission more ambitious and global than any since ancient Rome".

View Full Article
 
Share/Save
 
 
 
 
Charles2
August 9th, 2013
1:08 PM
Up to WW2 history was considered our island story . A story of how our geographic location and experiences made us. It was only the marxist who brought in a political interpretation of the past. The Fabian Socialists were largely the public school types who could not cope with the muscular Christianity which used the idea of fit body producing a fit mind to justify sports. 19C education derived much from the Roman and Greek traditions that leaders must befit and strong from hard exercise in order to fight and defend heir country. Those who enjoyed rugby, boxing,rowing, cricket , athletics , tennis , squash , etc etc usually thoroughly enjoyed their time at school. Unfortunately most Fabian Socialists/ Marxists hated sport, especially rugby and those who gave them a hard time on the pitch. Most Fabians /Socialists hatred of the Britain and classical education probably stems the humiliation of being seen as wimp on the rugby field. If one looks at the those who volunteered for the Commandos in WW2 , middle class Marxists and Fabian Socialists are noticeable by their absence, whereas there are hearty types from all walks of life.

Alan Springett
August 8th, 2013
1:08 AM
we have recieved the most dire warnings about the withdrawal of history from disenfanchised Fabian Socialists, such as HG wells and George Orwell. In the 2002 Movie "the Time Machine" it is succinctly put "(they have) no knowledge of the past, no ambition for the future". I see undeniable evidence that histories have been withdrawn, that are supportable, and were once well known and accepted ( example being of King Lear per Shakespearwes day , who reigned in 820 BC). I conclude that it ( withdrawal of true history, particularly where it supports a Biblical tradition or truth) is a fundemental foundation of the Fabian/Global socialist movement.) To much for the purpose of this blog, but if you look at News on my bizz web www.petportion.com.au you will find a 1st draft ( all fully referenced). I am working now on a stronger case ... to be finished by end of year). Any support will be welcome ( to get the message out).

Douglas Johnson
July 16th, 2013
2:07 PM
Manasi says British history/culture delivers the goods and so embrace its PROGRESS, whereas Nietzsche says it doesn't deliver the goods, so reject it. The backlash against history starts in Germany, but the backlash manifests itself in England through the modernist thought of writers such as Virginia Woolf and EM Forster for whom history should be rejected by a modern, triumphant relativism. The parallel to the Whig interpretation of history is the Christian heresy of triumphantism or pietism, which is another way of saying "good things happen to good people," which is also false. The corrective, I imagine, is to understand history as a VITAL record of man's fallen condition through which we are unable to save ourselves.

Douglas Johnson
July 16th, 2013
2:07 PM
Manasi says British history/culture delivers the goods and so embrace its PROGRESS, whereas Nietzsche says it doesn't deliver the goods, so reject it. The backlash against history starts in Germany, but the backlash manifests itself in England through the modernist thought of writers such as Virginia Woolf and EM Forster for whom history should be rejected by a modern, triumphant relativism. The parallel to the Whig interpretation of history is the Christian heresy of triumphantism or pietism, which is another way of saying "good things happen to good people," which is also false. The corrective, I imagine, is to understand history as a VITAL record of man's fallen condition through which we are unable to save ourselves.

Floyd Alsbach
July 15th, 2013
12:07 PM
If you will pardon an unpopular American perspective: The author is driving at the distinct lack of depth in current discourse, there is plenty of verbosity, great gobs of language, truck loads of glibness, but the depth of understanding that only comes with a working knowledge of history has become exceedingly rare. This cannot end well.

skeptic
July 15th, 2013
12:07 AM
Michael Gove held up as some noble protector of History? I find that very hard to swallow. His systematic reduction of education in England to nothing more than a business venture with an aim to make every school 'outstanding (as if that is ever possible in real terms anyway)is risible! There are problems with education and society in the UK, but Michael Gove, the elitist psychotic chancer is not the man who will solve them. Inspired teachers can illuminate the past for the next generation, but teaching in England is so results based that it is not a 'lighting of a fire so much as a regurgitation of the facts that guarantees a school's success in unfair league tables. Gove's policies are ad hoc and divisive, as are most of the present government's short sighted visions for the future of Britain.

Malcolm McLean
July 8th, 2013
2:07 PM
Traditionally history wasn't seen as a separate academic discipline. You read "a history", which might be Caesar's account of the Gallic war, or Homer's account of the siege of Troy, or Shakespeare. But if it was in your native tongue, whilst it might still be worth reading, it hardly merited the title of "study". Nowadays, instead of "reading histories", students think of themselves as "studying a period". For schoolchildren, this has a catastrophic effect. Children can't afford to buy books, they can't borrow books from the school library because the class of thirty all want the same topic at the same time, and they can't go to the poorly-stocked public library unless a parent drives the there. So their source is purely the study materials provided by the curriculum designers. Even at GCSE level, the official examining board book is sold as "the only book you'll need". In recent article in the Guardian, a teacher was patting herself on the back for writing "fictional historical sources" of a family sent to a Victorian workhouse. So the children never get to the established historians, but only read the productions of jobsworths and non-entities, or, at best, well-meaning but naive schoolmistresses.

Anonymous
July 6th, 2013
2:07 PM
The past is disappearing into intellectual oblivion. In another generation it will be completely consumed into the beast of popular culture.

DBS
July 2nd, 2013
4:07 PM
The premise is entirely unfounded. The writer merely confirms that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

Hzle
June 29th, 2013
9:06 AM
Seems to me that the overarching interpretation is still more important than the essay implies. You'll notice Msani's book is titled "Liberal Imperialist" - he's practically speaking the fashionable language of our newspapers. One of our intellectual fashions is also a reliance on badly interpreted statistics, which don't have the power to tell us what we want them to tell. And of course the very political obsessions with "patriarchy" and "cultural hegemony" that have infected everything. These, along with a post-modernist alternative to boring old scholarship mean that history is rife with quite meaningless speculation. A final political current of our time is deliberately anti-patriotic. If our sense of identity were linked in any way to our history, it would mean that our children (and new immigrants) might have to learn a thing or two about the culture they were joining. Some teachers would rather forget all that, though they have nothing to replace it with

Post your comment

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.