A Not-So-Distant Mirror

Does the 18th century give reason for hope in the 21st?
Subscriber Only
Sign in or Subscribe Now for audio version
Editor’s Note

This article was first published by Big Questions Online on November 18, 2010. Reprinted with permission on TheNewAtlantis.com.

I have been thinking quite a bit about a book I read this summer, Roy Porter’s magisterial social history of Georgian England, English Society in the Eighteenth Century. I can’t stop meditating on the portrait he paints of that age, which began about 300 years ago.

Religion, he says, had become more purely moralistic than it had been in the Reformation era, and otherwise was primarily devoted to meeting the needs of the self. Deism was becoming more commonplace. Belief in the essential goodness of humanity became more and more prevalent. English men and women of the time were sure they had a stronger social conscience than their ancestors — more care for children and for the poor — and felt that progress was certain. Of course, the age’s confidence in its own virtue may not have been fully warranted: “Tears for the exploited, the unfortunate and the afflicted flowed freely, but sympathy cost little, and was only occasionally translated into action.”

Certainly there were major changes in child-rearing from the practices of previous ages: “Many ladies abandoned the wet nurse and experimented with breast-feeding; swaddling disappeared, partly in response to mothers’ new-found desire to fondle, dandle and dress their infants. … Though groups such as the Wesleyans kept faith with flogging, enlightened parents laid off the rod, trying reason, coaxing and kindness instead. Infants were hugged and petted more.” The spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child model of parental discipline was increasingly seen as benighted and cruel. But, Porter comments, “In polite society, greater attention towards the young perhaps led to over-protective parental anxiety” — the 18th-century version of “helicopter parents”.

There were few atheists, but also not so many orthodox Christians. “Many Georgians rarely went through a church porch between their christening and burial. Yet practically everyone, in his own fashion, had faith. Much of it was a fig leaf of Christianity covering a body of inherited magic and superstition, little more than Nature worship (the polite, doctrinally correct form of this was known as ‘natural religion’). But everyone had his own vision of a Creator, of a ‘place’ in Heaven, and convictions of Good and Evil, reward and punishment.” One might say that the typical 18th-century Englishman was “spiritual but not religious”.

Is any of this sounding familiar yet?

Many of the ethical norms of the previous century were loosened significantly, and folks tended to have a sense that they were operating in greater freedom than their ancestors (which most, but not all, of them thought was wonderful). Thus traditional Christian self-examination for signs of unconfronted sins was replaced by something quite different: “When educated Georgian polite society examined itself, however, the tone was more subjective, even narcissistic. Diaries and autobiographies . . . show that people were dwelling more on their own psychological make-up, and often indulging, rather than quelling, their humours and passions.” Those diaries and journals also “suggest that, for many, living in Enlightenment England afforded a relaxed, emotionally frank breathing space after the strait-laced patriarchal solemnities of the world of their parents or grandparents.”

In the public realm, the two major political parties became more extreme in their antipathy towards each other: “Factions factionalized, and polarized all arenas of life. In London, even the coffee houses and theatres became sucked into party whirlpools. Tory theatre-goers patronized Drury Lane, Whigs the Haymarket; Tories went to the Cocoa-Tree coffee house, Whigs joined the Kit-Kat Club.”

It was a time of great technological innovation, as the Industrial Revolution got into full swing. While some people expressed concerns about how new technologies were affecting the natural environment and the social order, most seemed to think that the great economic benefits of the new order made the tradeoffs more than worthwhile.

However, Porter contends that by the end of the century significant cracks had appeared in the national confidence. The cracks spread when the nation was forced to give up on an expensive and protracted overseas war, and the dominant classes began to think that the social order was becoming dangerously frayed. Many people began to feel that the century’s reaction against the various strictures of earlier eras had gone too far, and sought to pull back towards the center, or to recover what they saw as the lost virtues of more distant ancestors. The result, eventually, was the strictness and muscular morality of the Victorian era.

Many years ago Barbara Tuchman wrote a book in which she envisioned the 14th century as a “distant mirror” of the 20th, but it seems to me that the 18th century is a nearer and more accurate reflection of our own time. And for those of us who are strongly inclined towards decline-and-fall narratives, there may be in Roy Porter’s history a corrective and a hope.

I think it’s fair to say that most of us living in America today assume that, as we like to put it, “you can’t turn back the clock,” that history always and inevitably moves in a liberalizing direction. And we think that whether we consider such “liberalizing” as the epitome of good or the embodiment of evil or something in between. It seems to be endemic to Americans to embrace the “Whig interpretation of history”, that is, to see the whole of history as marching inexorably towards us, to see everything culminating in ourselves — whether we happen to like that culmination or not.

But when we seriously compare the social world of England in 1750 to the social world of England in 1850, it becomes harder to sustain the Whiggish model. As C. S. Lewis once commented, “as to putting the clock back”:

Would you think I was joking if I said that you can put a clock back, and that if the clock is wrong it is often a very sensible thing to do? But I would rather get away from that whole idea of clocks. We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.

Of course, we can and will disagree about what counts as real progress — about whether the clocks are wrong at all, and, even when we agree that they are wrong, where they should be re-set. But the key point is that history does not move in a single, inevitable direction — or at least, has not done so thus far — and if we imagine our grandchildren’s world as nothing but a continuation of our own, an extension or our own values and inclinations, we may prove in the end to be as wrong as wrong can be.

Alan Jacobs, “A Not-So-Distant Mirror,” Big Questions Online, November 18, 2010.

Delivered to your inbox:

Humane dissent from technocracy

Exhausted by science and tech debates that go nowhere?