The Glory Days of History

There is much to be learned from a book of essays recently published by my good friend and former colleague Paul Crook, Intellectuals and the Decline of Religion (2017), which deals with a range of English authors from Newman to Joseph Needham. The first essay asks whether the theory of development in Christian doctrine expressed in a book published by Newman in 1878 was Darwinian. Faced with the undeniable truth that aspects of the teaching and practice of the Roman Catholic Church seemed hard to find in the Bible, Newman proposed tests that could be used to determine whether various developments could be seen as the drawing out of things that had already been latent and  therefore valid. (The issue has received searching analysis from an Orthodox perspective by Andrew Louth, in his essay ‘Is Development of Doctrine a Valid Category for Orthodox Theology?’, in the Festschrift for Jaroslav Pelikan, Orthodoxy and Western Culture (2005).) Crook concurs with the judgment of other scholars that the parallel between Newman and Darwin is ultimately misleading. But it reminds us of how seriously people then took change across time. It was the time when Marx and Engels were busy dividing history into periods, each based on a mode of production which which developed tensions that led to its revolutionary overthrow and being supplanted by the next in the sequence. More ambitious than a mere description of a series of periods, this theory purported to account for moves from one to another.

Such interest in the past was reflected in universities, and in 1871 the University of Oxford established a School of Modern History.  The Regius Professorship in History had been established in the preceding century , but in 1871 its occupant at the time, William Stubbs, published a pivotal book, the first volume of his Constitutional History of England, which was followed by a collection of documents, Select Charters and Other Illustrations of English Constitutional History. His concerns may now seem dry, but for Stubbs and his contemporaries they were exciting, for these people were  caught up in the enthusiasm generated by the widening of the franchise granted by the great Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, and 1884. They took pleasure in peering into the distant past and contemplating what they believed to be the origins of English government in Anglo-Saxon times. History also flourished at Cambridge at the time, where another famous Regius Professor, Charles Kingsley, was an enemy of Newman. (More than once it has occurred to me that the Newman/Kingsley animosity may have reflected the different styles of the two great universities.)

That is the way things used to be! Today there is less confidence that understanding of the past has anything to offer. Fewer students study history in established universities; new universities tend not to offer it. The feeling that the world was moving in the right direction that encouraged people like Stubbs to investigate its past has gone; while feelings of cultural pessimism were developing across the twentieth century (Paul Crook writes engagingly on T. S. Eliot, among others), the current fears of imminent environmental catastrophe scarcely encourage complacent interpretations of the past along Whiggish lines. And the stunningly rapid rise of social media has made even the recent past seem distant and irrelevant, this being the first time in history when young people have to explain to their elders how society’s technology works. Perhaps the feeling that the past has nothing to offer has conclusively answered the old question as to what the point of history is in a negative way.

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