The Spiritual History of English is Eliotean literary criticism writ large as history proper. And sitting at its heart is a dynamic of intellectual and spiritual freedoms that Thomas Stearns (taking his cue from T. E. Hulme) noted in Second Thoughts About Humanism (1929):
'Most people suppose that some, because they enjoy the luxury of Christian sentiments and the excitement of Christian ritual, swallow or pretend to swallow incredible dogma. For some the process is exactly opposite. Rational assent may arrive late, intellectual conviction may come slowly, but they come inevitably without violence to honesty and nature. To put the sentiments in order is a later, and immensely difficult task: intellectual freedom is earlier and easier than complete spiritual freedom.'
In accordance with Eliot, Thornton-Norris’ account, too, recognizes that only an intellect correctly proportioned alongside all the other faculties (as in the Classical period, which he extends as 'Roman' up to the Reformation) is a healthy one. Or, put bluntly, when reason knows its place, it is capable of apprehending great mysteries, such as the fact sacrifice is a form of fulfilment; truths that lie deeper than its fussy tools can excavate.
Yet, according to The Spiritual History, a correct ordering of the intellect has not occurred for a long time. Instead, from Luther’s conscience arose the Cartesian 'I', from Descartes’ agent grew Bacon’s empiricism, from Bacon’s science sprang bastard Scientism, and from this a postmodern skepticism that has finally brought its scalpel to its own throat in an era which, in the memorable words of the recently deceased V. S. Naipaul:
'Combines high technological advance and low intellectual development'.
In short, it’s hell-in-a-handcart (with Houellebecq) material.
This reading of history leans heavily on a number of Catholics and Anglo-Catholics (M. Cowling, E. R. Curtius, A. Nichols and P. Ackroyd dominate each chapter’s footnotes) and boasts a lineage that stretches back through Chesterton to Campion. Inverting Whig historiography, the medieval period becomes an ideological heaven in which the Renaissance appears impudent and the Reformation hubristic.
In reality, however, there were a number of intractable issues that western theology never solved and eastern theology never broached (wisely preferring to accept the mystery). Augustine’s legacy, for instance, did not appear to allow for religious perfection to be regarded as intrinsic to human moral fulfilment, or for any reconciliation between a plausible theory of knowledge and the immortality of the soul, or for any human anthropology compatible with the incarnation.
Consensus was almost non-existent on these points. Aquinas’ Aristotelianism was contested by Scotus’ emphasis on divine transcendence; Ockham’s arbitrary moral order grated against Erasmus’ semi-Pelagian tendencies. Read properly, the Renaissance and Reformation hardly constituted Luciferian endeavours to jump into heaven’s cockpit than desperate attempts to restore the dignity of Man when the intellectual gymnastics of the Scholastics had rendered God inscrutable.
Perhaps the most distasteful aspect of Thornton-Norris’ argument is his loathing for democracy. It is one thing to assert that nihilism is part and parcel of today’s individualism. It is quite another to imply that democracies are governed more bestially than their competitors. Are countries that lack democratic levers less materialistic than their neighbours? Hardly. Blurring the lines between ideologies and political systems is unhelpful at best and misleading at worst.
Voters aside, when Thornton-Norris has a target in sight, he rarely misses – knowing exactly which thinkers provide him with the largest calibre ammunition. This is most clearly the case with Descartes whose dictum, cogito ergo sum, is dispatched by a number of careful questions from Wittgenstein, including 'Where did you get the language from to formulate the proposition?' Language requires a community to exist, so the Frenchman could not possibly have grounded his epistemology in the thoughts and words in which they appeared in his mind.
The same acuity isn’t always apparent on historical matters. To claim Gregory the Great was the first person to call the English 'Angles' (Anguli) will surprise readers of Prokopios, the Byzantine historian who wrote that Britain was inhabited by 'Brittones, Frisiones and the Angiloi'. In fact, the Pope’s nomenclature may even have been directly influenced by Prokopios’ given the former is known to have occupied the post of papal apocrisarius in Constantinople c.578-585. Moreover, the statement that 'Germanic culture was assimilative, the Arab was not' will startle historians whose understanding is that few civilizations (especially its earliest dynasties) have been more hybrid.
The book sprints through the English literary greats (with an emphasis on verse) from Bede to Naipaul, its base note ultimately resting on Eliot’s assertion that 'The culture of a people is an incarnation of its religion'. For the author, the battle is between orthodoxy (authority and liberty from sin) and degeneration (freedom and liberty to sin), though the binary dynamic is occasionally spiced with asides on how iconoclasts like Ted Hughes immaturely yearned for the authentic in culture to be heterodox in nature.
Take-away points include the fact that Romanticism was 'less a reaction to the enlightenment than an attitude concealed within it' (Scruton), apotheosizing the artistic creative process as our own, pretending the creature (Man) is the creator (God); that Neoclassicism was fundamentally a Jacobist movement which failed to thrive because it was not connected to the living root of the (Latin, European) tradition it was trying to maintain; and, finally, that Modernity tried to act as a brake to the excesses of Enlightenment (which had veered off-piste into Romanticism), bringing technical discipline and realism to its ranks, but only to prosecute its work correctly, not to dispute its decidedly Faustian claims.
Fast-forward to today (according to this narrative) and the consequences of latitudinarianism are rife, growing balkanised micro-cultures on the plots that literary genres once occupied. Thanks to the fact that most historical concepts have been deconstructed as oppressive, all that is left to flourish in these small spaces are feelings. The stigma that attaches itself to all forms of discipline (read 'repression') ensures that even the most obvious parts of downstream Christianity, like the EU, disassociate themselves from it. Hence why Marcello Pera, the former president of the Italian Senate, was seen as provocative when he joked that:
'The EU has become like Columbus’ egg. Its advocates are impressed by its apparent ability to stand on its own, though they ignore or forget the forces which made and sustain its very existence'.
The result is a universe of solipsism and narcissism best displayed in nuce by Twitter. In such an environment, contrary to stereotypes, praising God in prayer is playful, erotic and creative. It is self-praise that is pretentious, manipulative and irrational as mosaics of self-interest and sentimentality permeate every opaque proclamation.
Just as literature vanishes down the plug hole, so does its canvas – the western intellectual tradition – which is written off as ideological politicking rather than a struggle for truth. And when reason is denigrated as an expedient and cynical mechanism, the darker side of the psyche’s id, the murky underbelly of empiricism, fills the plinth that the Enlightenment once laid out for it. In time, graduates begin to think of shamanism as a legitimate endeavor and books about 'magical realism' win critical awards.
As I mentioned in the introduction, it’s all very 'hell in a handcart'. But it’s less the diagnosis than the medication that vexes. It amounts to toeing a Catholic line and adhering to its Magisterium. But two issues stick in the craw.
First, the Catholicism that Thornton-Norris admires seems just as toothless as the remainder of society in opposing postmodernity. The governing ideology of the EU, for instance, could hardly be said to be Christianity (Kantian cosmopolitanism is its guiding light), yet the probability of the Church managing to alter the status quo can safely be registered as nil. More importantly, with kulturkampf in the citadel, it’s barely defending itself.
Second, the question of retrogression. T. S. Eliot famously asked in Gerontion: 'After such knowledge, what forgiveness?' We live forwards and understand life backwards with few if any real powers to return to prior states. Scripture is, of course, for all time, as are the majority of the Church’s teachings. But the author comes dangerously close to setting up Thomism’s stall in a cosy Golden Age – as a kind of master-key – when he is anything but (even his contemporaries preferred Peter the Lombard’s Sententiae), which has the effect of rendering his Catholic answer to the postmodern question slightly facile.