The Public Doctrine of Maurice Cowling

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. 

Cowling also argued that no one is free from assumptions and practical motives. Oakeshott’s ideal type of the detached historian, in love with the past for its own sake, is just as impossible and misleading as is the Marxist aspiration to a “scientific” explanation of history’s direction uniting theory and praxis. Marx might have been shrewd about the distortions of one’s views in accordance with one’s social position, but Marx and the Marxists needed to turn the analysis on themselves, too. One makes an existential choice of orientation and proceeds accordingly, but one should never forget that this is what one has done. There is a Socratic quality to what Cowling did (although he would not have accepted such a lofty association) in showing the weaknesses of what are taken to be strong arguments, and the strength of arguments taken by the establishment to be marginal. Cowling thought that we all have hidden agendas, himself included. He tried to make these unhidden and then overwhelm the opposition by the prodigious thoroughness of his excavations. Thus, in the first volume of Religion and Public Doctrine, he goes out of his way to unmask his own prejudices, treating, sometimes generously and sometimes not, those through whom he formed his own intellectual life. This was preparation for the broadside assault on nearly every important thinker in modern England. 

Cowling was fearful above all of self-deception. He loathed it in others and he turned this loathing on himself as well. There was in him an Augustinian sense of sin though little sense of the grace of redemption. Cowling clearly saw the importance of religion for public life, and he documented this more assiduously perhaps than any other modern historian, but he himself apparently could not make a leap of faith. The historian’s task is to face the brutal actualities of life without flinching. Like Machiavelli he wished to show the “effectual truth” of things, not lingering over imaginary republics, much less the “end of history”. 

Cowling had a profound sense of the evanescence of dominant perspectives. The progressive view could and will come to an end, to be supplanted by something different. The Christian perspective, as he appropriated it, could return to prominence. Secularisation is a highly misleading term. It certainly does not mean the disappearance of religiosity from the world. The decline of traditional Christianity’s authority leads to the translation of the quest for religious meaning into alternative vocabularies that disguise the ever-present religious motive to find meaning. Cowling chose to document this in English history over the past two centuries, and one can easily see this in the efforts of thinkers such as Kant, Hegel, Mill and Marx to compose a story of history’s direction which is fully apprehended in the study of history as unfolding progress, replacing what is alleged to be the outmoded notion of God’s providential rule with a “religion of humanity”. 

His attack on this 19th-century development parallels Nietzsche’s assault in the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, a classic rage of disenchantment with progressive thought. But Cowling was a conservative, not a Dionysian revolutionary. Oakeshott had said that to be conservative was to enjoy the opportunities of the present moment, to be preoccupied neither with guilt for the past nor anxiety for the future. This reserve, this cultivation of detachment, was not for Cowling. He was an activist of a certain kind as Oakeshott was not. This seems paradoxical in that one lesson to be taken from Cowling’s work might be to retire to the contemplative life. But this is not what he did. There is anger in his work that must in part explain his political argument and indefatigable scholarship of a sort rarely seen. Even those who detested his views had to admit that he was tireless in his research, and that he read through archives and documents in a way to rival Namier. On the other hand, there is in Cowling distance from practical politics: to the extent that liberal progressivism remains dominant in the politics of modern democratic societies — a sort of civil religion — it is hard to see a way to present Cowling’s views effectively in today’s practical political context. Cowling’s work is essentially deconstructive. The reconstruction, whatever it may be, is for others to figure out. That does not make him any less important. On the contrary, his importance lies in the fact that he was willing fearlessly to pave the way for something new to emerge, to hint at a promised land to which he would not gain entrance. 

The editors of this volume call Cowling a Christian conservative. There is something to this, of course. But it is ironic considering the current condition of the Church of England that is bent on moving further and further away from traditional Christianity, where the gospel message has been translated into millennium development goals. It would be of considerable interest, no doubt eliciting both amusement and outrage, to have Cowling’s analysis of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Is there a political party or an ecclesiastical community that could conceivably be the vehicle for Cowling’s ideas? The current Conservative Party? It was sometimes suggested that the only plausible candidate might be the Roman Catholic Church. It was proposed that Cowling’s natural direction should be towards Rome. He would respond to this by saying that there was something to that but it would never happen. Cowling was not the recently-beatified Cardinal Newman. 

At the same time, the editors describe him as “a Tory Marxist jester with a sharp eye for absurdities and pretensions”. Both of these descriptions fit some part of what Cowling said and was. But this also reveals the difficulty of defining him. Those who wished him to be more recognisably Christian than he was were disappointed. But they should remain grateful to him for putting spiritedness back into Christian analysis and for insisting that there is a religious voice which cannot be absorbed into the mushy rhetoric of fellow-feeling and “love”. This avoids reality in a way that traditional Christianity never allowed itself to do. There are today among us thinkers who have offered parallel advances in faithful scepticism (and who are both continental and Catholic): Pierre Manent in his criticism of the assumptions of the EU and Rémi Brague in his defence of the “Romanitas” of the Western tradition come to mind. Eric Voegelin in his critique of modern gnosticism offers another insightful parallel. These are political philosophers as much as intellectual historians and they broaden the context of the issues Cowling addressed to a scale the issues ultimately require, without compromising the particularities of historical experience. Cowling downplayed political philosophy in his historical analysis (not because he was unaware of it). The authors of the essays in this collection properly emphasise his contribution both to the methodology of historical study, and to the substance of modern British history, sensing, without altogether admitting, that political philosophy has a role to play in systematising what Cowling has done even as their loyalty to him makes them hesitant. James Alexander approaches this when he writes:

The assumption that God is dead is one of the most objectionable assumptions of modern, secular elites. In assuming that it is false, Cowling has dramatised more effectively, if negatively, than anyone else has the continuities that lie behind the apparent discontinuities of the last few centuries; and in doing so he has sketched the elements of a philosophy of history that restores difficulty where others have judged — wrongly — that difficulty is now something of the past, only of concern to historians.

The negativity of Cowling, Alexander says, must be rendered positive but that was not for Cowling to have done. Whether he would have accepted the idea of a “philosophy of history” is an open question. The modern intellectual problem is precisely with “philosophies of history” which obscure the realities of the human condition as revealed in the basic experiences of human beings which precede philosophising. This surely is Cowling’s point. Cowling as an historian would only reluctantly, if at all, ascend from the details to generalisations. Moreover, once a tradition becomes self-consciously reflective in having to defend itself, it can hardly avoid translating its meaning into principles, propositions and catechisms, into arguments over the correct philosophy of history. This is what Cowling realised when he insisted that everything is argument under our circumstances. Nothing is taken for granted. He might lament this, but he did not find a way out of it and, in the end, he accepted the ground rules of discourse in our time, albeit far more honestly and aggressively than most. To prescind from modern atheism may be to anticipate a post-secular world, but it is not clear what kind of world post-secularity entails, much less whether a return to the faith of a more innocent age is possible. 

What eludes Cowling is a sacramental sense of man’s historical existence, the sense of the truth that persists inviolate through the vicissitudes of time and change. To believe that would mean that we could lose a tradition of understanding but we cannot lose the substance that persists through all the gains and losses of traditional formulations. 

Perhaps Cowling believed something like this, but it would be hard to find conclusive evidence for it. Ian Harris approaches something on this order in suggesting that Cowling interpreted English politics and religion “in ways that corroborated the mystery through historiography by using it as an instrument in historical understanding — and ways too that implied not only the past but also the future may belong to ‘historic Christianity'”. This is a use of Cowling’s work in ways that he did not undertake himself. 

Philip Williamson, in a very comprehensive essay, points out that Cowling insisted on taking arguments seriously. He did not try to reduce arguments, even the arguments of those with whom he disagreed most intensely, to sociological explanations. He did not take arguments to be mere epiphenomena of underlying, impersonal processes. In this respect, a way is paved for philosophic reflection to take flight; Cowling was no reductionist, reinforcing Alexander’s implication that philosophic reflection is not ruled out by what Cowling did. But one can see, in comparing these essays to each other, that there are two directions which Cowling’s legacy is likely to promote: one is towards a comprehensive philosophic argument “from above”; the other is to use minute historical analysis in an effort to demythologise all intellectual flights in fear and suspicion of their pretensions. 

Thus Robert Crowcroft writes: “It is impossible for scholars to separate their work from their assumptions. Cowling was right in that respect…Political practice generates resentment and brutality, ambition and competition…” and what we must do is “search for the realities of public life, and its sole requirement is an Oakeshottian scepticism”. Perhaps it is fair to say that Butterfield, Cowling and Oakeshott all had to live in the tension constituted by the modern loss of faith in philosophy and the rising but misplaced hope for certainty in ideologies of which “philosophies of history” are notorious examples. All three rejected ideology, but they also paralysed the reconstitution of philosophy (and theology) for fear of lapsing into ideology. Cowling criticises many of his fellows for this, but he does it himself. 

Simon Green sees this in referring to Butterfield’s exhortation to hold fast to Christ and otherwise remain uncommitted, arguing that Cowling subscribed to this in Religion and Public Doctrine:

The abiding merit of Cowling’s efforts lies in the fact that by fulfilling his religious duty so idiosyncratically and his historical calling so faithfully, he simultaneously furnished all open-minded readers not merely with a decent range of argument for and against all or any such sacred and profane commitments, but also with sufficient evidence to reach their own conclusions about whether or not ‘secularisation’ is truly ‘just a phase of intelligentsia life’, whose ‘permanence it would be absurd to assume’. Thus informed, they might also fruitfully ponder whether or not ‘that instinct for religion which looks beneath the (contemporary) indifference of the public mind may yet surprise by its willingness to be led astray by Christianity’.

Kenneth Minogue, on the other hand, puts the problem this way: 

The process of secularisation meant that many people had discarded the sacred half of the secular/sacred distinction on the ground that it was merely a superstitious survival from less enlightened times. That explanation would leave us with two problems. The first is what is left of Cowling’s view that religion is the central core of public discussion. And the second is that if Christianity disappeared from the scene, has something else taken its place?…Cowling was concerned with the practical question of finding a commitment that would restore a sense of national identity to British life. Such a commitment would find expression in the doctrinal centrality that should at least be culturally accorded in European states to Christianity, but which no longer corresponded to the actual beliefs and some current practices of the English.

Green is more hopeful in his interpretation but Minogue’s may be closer to what Cowling actually argued for. What he could actually argue for certainly has some foundation in traditional Anglican thought, namely, a commitment to values that are taken to have profound merit even if belief in a compelling metaphysical foundation for them dissolves. Inasmuch as cultural tradition is both a ground but also developmentally open-ended through time, it is a fundamental issue whether what Cowling wanted can be pursued without a serious philosophical/theological effort requiring another kind of genius than historical study by itself can produce. 

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