The Smile of Pelagius


In The Offshore Islanders, Paul Johnson makes much of the early intellectual separation of the English from Continental trends, especially a kind of unorthodox Christian tradition stretching from Pelagius through Ockham to Wyclif, the Reformation, and beyond. Thus his take on what Ernest Gellner calls the Exit from predation to production (forged in England during the industrial revolution) is distinctive (p. 268):

The fact that the English avoided a political breakdown in the early nineteenth century is all the more remarkable in that they were undergoing social and economic changes of unparalleled scope and severity. The English industrial revolution of 1780-1820 is the great watershed in the history of mankind. It liberated the body, as the Reformation had liberated the mind. Indeed the two were intimately connected. It was in the light of the escape from Rome, and the break-up of a static intellectual system, that Bacon saw the Fall reversed and forecast man's conquest of a hostile and grudging environment. He regarded the prospect as stupendous and imminent, and so it might have been, for he wrote on the eve of great events. The collapse of the English republic undoubtedly decelerated the process, but it was beyond anyone's power to halt it. Indeed, we can trace from the middle of the sixteenth century a majestic chain of events, each projecting the next, which made the outcome of the modern world inevitable.

Geography had always placed the English significantly apart from the Continental conflux of societies whose very proximity and interaction secured their conservative elements in possession. The Channel gave us a certain eclectic freedom in the reception of Continental ideas: we could take by choice; we could not be made to receive by compulsion. The act of separation might have occurred much earlier, and the film of history speeded up in consequence. At all events, the change was decisive when it came. The religious revolution made possible a revolution in education, not just in scope but in quality. The new education bred the first scientific revolution, and it was the impact of scientific rationalism on society which brought the political and constitutional revolution of the 1640s. From this convulsion we can date the agricultural revolution, which completed the break with the subsistence economy, and made possible the commercial and financial revolution of the late seventeenth century. The flow of cheap money thus secured, the stability of credit, the rapid development of world trade and, not least, the emergence of a sophisticated consumer market at home, combined, in the 1780s, to produce a revolutionary combination of capital and technology in the mass-production of goods by powered machines. This transformation, paralleled by the administrative revolution in the central organs of government, in turn projected the social revolution of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. English religion died in the process; the Reformation God did not live to see His handiwork. Nevertheless, He was the prime mover in it all. The Gospel according to Karl Marx, or to Mao Tse-Tung, or to Keynes, all spring by direct intellectual descent from the Protestant Bible. And behind it all lies the enigmatic, mocking smile of Pelagius.

(Cross-posted at Albion's Seedlings.)

Peter Saint-Andre > Journal