The Origins of English Individualism

2003-11-24

Over the weekend I finished two more books recommended by James C. Bennett in his essay the Anglosphere: The Origins of English Individualism by Alan MacFarlane, and Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer. The latter is 900 pages long and deserves dedicated reflections, so first I'll write a bit about MacFarlane's book (one of many he's written: The Culture of Capitalism and The Riddle of the Modern World look especially interesting to me). MacFarlane's thesis is that the traditional Marxian-Weberian analysis of English history is wrongheaded, because England did not progress neatly from peasantry to feudalism to capitalism. As far back as historical records go, England was not a peasant society. Its customs and laws of property ownership, inheritance, work, marriage, and the like were far too individualistic (even in the twelfth century) for medieval Englishmen (and women) to qualify as peasants. Indeed, England seems to have been positively capitalistic (though pre-industrial) at a surprisingly early date. The hard facts of English history prove troublesome to those who would seek in the English experience a template for modernization in other nations, for the culture in which English industrialism grew long pre-dates modernization. Unfortunately, MacFarlane does not answer the question posed in his title, for he does not go back far enough to discern the true origins of English individualism. Do they derive from earlier Saxon cultures? From the Angles and Jutes who settled in England? From the historical mixing of Picts, Romans, Celts, Saxons, Angles, and Normans? Why was the English brew so individualistic, when each of those groups was not (seemingly) individualistic on its own? Perhaps the answers to these questions are lost in the mists of time. But one thing is certain: English culture provided a distinctive breeding ground for modern society, which has been successful not only in England but also in the farther reaches of the Anglosphere -- especially in America. But more on American culture when I get a chance to write about Albion's Seed.


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