Brian Micklethwait's Blog
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- Rod Green on Boys and Men at the time of Magna Carta
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Category archive: Religion
I’ve already given you Rod Green’s Dangereuse. Here’s another, longer bit from his book about Magna Carta, a bit which he entitled “Boys and Men” (pp. 61-66) I was especially struck by the part near the end, about people who could pronounce Latin words but who didn’t know what they meant. Sounds horribly familiar:
Not so long ago, it was widely assumed that the concept of “childhood” simply didn’t exist in the Middle Ages. The view was that the kind of life led by a modern child - where good health, play and education experienced as part of a loving family environment is seen as the norm - was in stark contrast to the lives of children 800 years ago, who were treated as a burden to be tolerated until they were old enough to be of some use.
Recent research, however, shows that this may not have been entirely the case. Studies of toys from the period have shown that children were encouraged to play. The toys may have been homemade in many cases, but models of mounted knights made out of metal would have been bought or specially commissioned, showing that some parents cared enough about their children’s play time to lavish gifts on them.
Children do not feature prominently in illustrated manuscripts, paintings or tapestries doing anything more than emulating their parents, but in some cases they can be seen playing games like tag or “king of the castle” and riding on hobby-horses. They were, it seems, encouraged to play and enjoy an active childhood, although their lives were set on a predetermined course at an early age.
In the early thirteenth century, a child surviving the first year of life had a reasonable chance of fighting off disease long enough to acquire the strength needed to survive in the harsh and unhygienic medieval world. In fact, 25 per cent of those born to wealthy parents and up to 50 per cent of those born to the poor did not. A whole host of infectious
diseases for which we now have myriad names would then simply have been classed as “fever” or “food poisoning”. Life expectancy was only around 30 years, although anyone from the ruling classes who made it, strong and healthy, to the age of 21, might well have had another 40 years to look forward to. In the fourteenth century, the Black Death was to reduce life expectancy dramatically.
In the days of King John, however, a fit young boy born into a noble family could expect to live in his parents’ grand house or castle until he was about seven years old. He would then be sent off to live in another castle, most likely in the house of a nobleman a rung or two up the feudal ladder from his own parents, perhaps even in one of the king’s
Here he would serve first as a page, running errands and generally waiting on the lords and ladies of the household. However, he would also learn how a large house functioned and how people interacted with one another, as well as learning about customs and proper manners. He might also be taught how to read and understand Latin and, if it were not already his native tongue, the version of French spoken by the Norman nobility.
A young boy would also learn how to ride and, if he showed promise, he might, when he was around 14 years old, become apprenticed to a knight as a squire. They had to train hard to learn the art of combat, which included lifting heavy stones to build muscle, throwing the javelin, fighting with a quarterstaff, archery, wrestling, acrobatics and sword fighting. Swordsmanship was taught using a blunted sword and a buckler, a small shield the size of a pot lid. This trained the would-be knight how to parry sword thrusts and how to use his shield as an offensive weapon without the novice having to start off with a full-sized, cumbersome shield. Similarly, the blunted sword was used against heavily padded protective layers, although the dull blade could still inflict painful wounds.
The squire would learn how to clean and prepare the knight’s armour and weapons, although major repairs had to be undertaken by a blacksmith or armourer. He would also need to help his knight put on his armour, which meant more than simply helping him to dress - the various elements of the heavy steel all had to be strapped into place in the correct sequence to make sure that they overlapped and allowed for movement in the right way.
This, of course, meant that the squire went with his knight to compete in tournaments. He would eventually get the chance to compete in his own right, even before he became a knight, as there were special contests organized solely for squires.
Whether a squire lived in his knight’s house, or whether he lived in a baron’s castle where landless knights also lived as part of the baron’s permanent military force, he would have regular chores to perform, which would include acting as a servant when his masters sat down to eat. Squires were expected, for example, to learn the correct way to carve meat at the table.
The squire’s apprenticeship would last until he was around 21 years of age, at which point he might expect to be knighted himself. However, he might want to avoid that happening - a squire could be made a knight either by his local lord or by the king, but it wasn’t an honour that everyone could afford. The squire’s family, whom he may have visited only a couple of times a year since he was sent away as a seven-year-old, would have to pay for the costly armour, weapons and warhorse that a knight required, as well as funding any forays he might make to tournaments far and wide. Being a knight could be prohibitively expensive, especially if a second, third or fourth son, who might not inherit any part of his father’s estate when he died (the bulk of property often being bequeathed to the first-born).
Around the beginning of the thirteenth century, there was a growing “middle class” of merchants, tradesmen and professionals, particularly in the new cities and busy ports. Trade with continental Europe had expanded enormously since the Norman Conquest, although Anglo-Saxon entrepreneurs are known to have traded extensively with partners as far away as Russia. Clauses 41 and 42 of Magna Carta make special mention of such merchants.
The son of a merchant would live an entirely different life from that of a boy born into the nobility. From a very young age, he would learn about the family business, in order to play a full part as soon as he was old enough. A boy might also become apprenticed to another merchant or tradesman, a privilege for which his family would have to pay, and be sent away from home to live with his new master.
Merchants, especially those dealing in foreign trade, had to be able to speak and read Latin, which was the international language of commerce, the legal profession and the Church. The sons of the middle classes learned Latin either through private tuition or at one of the new schools that were beginning to appear.
Merchants donated money to set up schools in the most important trading towns and boys would be sent to school to learn arithmetic and Latin grammar, the institutions becoming known as grammar schools. The schools were allied to a particular trade, making them private schools, although fee-paying schools would later be established that were open to anyone who could pay, such establishments being termed “public” schools.
There would have been few if any books in schools. These were hugely expensive, hand-written items - the first printed books didn’t begin appearing until the mid-fifteenth century. Boys learned their lessons verbally, repeating their Latin phrases time and time again, and earning themselves a beating if they got anything wrong.
Some might learn mathematics or become proficient in the use of an abacus, but few would continue their formal education beyond a basic level or contemplate attending one of the new universities.
As the oldest university in the English-speaking world, Oxford University had been growing in stature since the latter part of the eleventh century and the colleges of Cambridge University can trace their history back to around the same time.
Peasants, still by far and away the largest portion of the population, could not afford to send their sons to school. A peasant boy was expected to do chores as soon as he was old enough to learn how to feed chickens or help to herd livestock. When he was strong enough, he would help with the back-breaking work in the fields and perhaps spend some time working in the local landowner’s house or castle, if such was required by the terms of his family’s tenure.
The Church played a major role in everyone’s lives and even the most lowly peasants attended church on a regular basis. However, all services were conducted in Latin, so most people couldn’t understand what was being said - sometimes not even the priest. Despite being the most educated man in the village, while the priest might be able to pronounce written Latin, the chances are he did not understand it. For a lucky few, a well-educated priest might teach boys how to read, but even as late as the fourteenth century it has been estimated that 8 out of 10 adults in England were unable even to spell their own names.
I keep wanting to write about music, but (a) it isn’t easy, unless both you and your readers know all the technical terms of your preferred sort of music. And (b) whereas words go fine with music, words about music, especially if they are attempting to be descriptive of a particular piece of music, can be devilishly hard to contrive in a way that is comprehensible without being banal and superficial and generalised.
A specialist blog or website devoted to a particular sort of music, with musical illustrations supplied to click on rather than only descriptive verbiage, whose writer(s) and readers are united by their taste in that particular sort of music, that makes perfect sense to me. I don’t read any such blogs, but it makes sense. I do read old school paper magazines (I see that there is a new one of those out that I’ve not yet seen) exactly like this. But a blog about other things which from time to time goes musical, not so much. I have no problem at all with my favourite bloggers (6k and Mick Hartley spring to mind) doing postings every so often about music that they happen particularly to like. Their gaffs, their rules. But I mostly skip such postings. I possess a lifetime and more of music in the form of a vast CD collection that I already want to listen to.
So, I do not wish myself merely to do postings about bits of music that I happen to like, hoping - implicitly or explicitly - that others will be infected with my tastes. I love Western classical music more than life itself, often a lot more. But most people don’t these days, and that’s fine with me. If I thought that western classical music was about to be completely expunged from the earth any time soon, I might feel differently about trying to infect others with the love of it, but it isn’t. Meanwhile, this music is, for me, mostly a personal thing. It is not an evangelical religion. If I meet a fellow devotee, we exchange enthusiastic exclamations of love for this or that piece or performance, but I mostly refrain from inflicting such True Believer talk on non-believers.
I am evangelical and anti-evangelical about some things. If you are not a libertarian, I want that to change. You should become a libertarian forthwith. If you are a Muslim, I want you to know, now, that I think you should stop being a Muslim, now. But if you hate Beethoven and adore hip-hop, that’s fine with me, so long as you have no plans forcibly to stop me listening to Beethoven or to force me to listen to hip-hop. If you merely want me to adore hip-hop, or even to stop adoring Beethoven, again, fine. Just so long as you don’t recommend the use of sticks or stones to make those points. Insofar as you do, then shame on you. But exactly the same point applies to people who force Beethoven upon those who resist Beethoven’s charms. I am evangelical about that sort of behaviour also. Are you threatening others with Beethoven? Stop doing that, now. Do you favour such behaviour by others. Don’t even think that.
However, more general postings about music (this one being an example) about the different ways we listen to it and enjoy it, how love of music spreads or should spread (that is what this posting has partly been about), about how those who contrive it contrive it, and so on, of the sort that all music lovers can read and tune into, even as they are hearing in their own heads quite distinct musical illustrations concerning whatever is being said, that makes more sense to me, and - memo to self - I want to do more of such postings here.
The rise and (I now fondly hope) fall of Donald Trump continues to fascinate.
This bloke says it very well, I think:
Trump is powerfully illustrating the fraud at the core of his case for the nomination. He claims that because he is a successful businessman he would be much more adept than conventional politicians at mastering the intricacies of problems and processes. He will, he brags, figure out how to deal with challenges in a way that maximizes American interests, assembling the best, most competent people to execute his plans of action. As a result, we are told, American will “win, win, win” with such numbing regularity that we will be bored to tears by all the success.
But look what is happening. The process of choosing a Republican nominee for president, while far from simple, is not as complicated as many of the challenges that cross an American president’s desk. There are, moreover, countless experienced hands who know how the process works and how to build an organization nimble enough to navigate the array of primaries (open and closed), caucuses, party meetings, varying delegate-allocation formulas, etc., exploiting or mitigating the advantages and disadvantages these present for different kinds of candidates. Yet, Trump has been out-organized, out-smarted, and out-worked by the competition – in particular, Ted Cruz, whom I support.
Trump is not being cheated. Everyone is playing by the same rules, which were available to every campaign well in advance. Trump simply is not as good at converting knowledge into success – notwithstanding the centrality of this talent to his candidacy. Perhaps this is because he is singularly good at generating free publicity (and consequently minimizing the publicity available to his rivals). Maybe he underestimated the importance of building a competent, experienced campaign organization. But he can hardly acknowledge this because it is a colossal error of judgment – and his purportedly peerless judgment is the selling point of his campaign.
My first reaction to Trump was guilty pleasure, and the belief that he would win. Now it looks like he won’t win. Now it looks as though he has done America the huge favour of (a) destroying everyone in the Republican race except the man I support, Cruz, and then (b) showing himself to be unfit to run for President, let alone win, which means that Cruz could now be President, if he can beat Hillary Clinton (or whoever). Would Cruz now have such a good chance of becoming President without Trump having flailed about like a wrecking ball, wrecking everyone except Cruz?
It is said that Cruz is a Bible Thumper. (Trump worships only himself.) But for me, frankly, Bible thumping just now is a feature rather than a bug. I reckon the Western World could damn well do with a bit more Bible thumping than it has been doing of late.
Yes, I’m talking about Islam. The rich Christians right now are turning poorer Christian’s cheeks a hell of a lot too much at the moment.
On that subject, I also recommend this posting at Mick Hartley’s, where MH has this to say:
What I’d like to see is more robust criticism of Islam itself. Given the role Islam now plays globally in ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda; its insistence that the Koran is the immutable word of Allah; its general refusal to accommodate to the modern liberal scientific world; its misogyny; its violence, this shouldn’t prove to be that difficult. What stands in the way - apart from lack of courage - is that this comes at a particular post-colonial moment in history when we in the West seem to have lost confidence in our own liberal secular tradition.
There is also, perhaps more importantly, a general confusion about a belief and the people who hold that belief, which is perfectly exemplified in the term “Islamophobia”.
It’s a key part of our secular culture that we distinguish between the person and their opinions and beliefs. I think we inherit this to some extent from our Christian tradition - freedom of conscience, “love the sinner, hate the sin”, and all that - but however it was arrived at, it’s a key enlightenment concept that underpins our sense of justice and our sense of democracy. So we should be quite comfortable criticising Islam while maintaining a proper respect for individual Muslims. ...
Or: Spoughts thoughts? You choose.
Sport (spought) has been good to me of late. Last summer, England won the Ashes. My local cricket team, Surrey, got promoted to division one, and also got to the final of the fifty overs county knock-out tournament. England then defeated South Africa in South Africa. England (a different England but still England) won the Six Nations rugby Grand Slam. And now (back to cricket again) England have got to the last four of the twenty overs slog competition, alongside the Windies, India and New Zealand. Few expect England to win this. But then, few expected England to get to the last four. No South Africa (beaten amazingly by England). No Australia (beaten today by India (aka Virat Kholi)). No Pakistan or Sri Lanka. But: England still involved.
Concerning the Grand Slam, the best thing about it was England winning all its games, but otherwise it was … a bit crap. The recently concluded World Cup, in which England did rather less well loomed too large over it. The World Cup featured no Six Nations sides in its last four, and when watching our local lads stressing and straining against each other you couldn’t help (a) thinking that the Southern Hemispherians would murder them, and (b) that a lot of the best Six Nations players seemed to be Southern Hemispherians themselves. I mean, what kind of rugby world are we living in when the most threatening French back is called Scott Spedding and was born in Krugersdorp, South Africa?
The Six Nations was worth it just to hear Jonathan Davies, a man whose commentating I have had reason to criticise in the past, say that a certain game is “crucial”, and that Wales have “matured”:
As for the twenty-twenty slogfest now in full slog, well, I have been rooting for England (England’s best batsman being a bloke called Root), but also for Afghanistan. You might think that as a devout anti-Islamist, which I definitely am, I would be rooting for the Muslim teams to lose. But actually, I think sport is one of the leading antidotes to Islamo-nuttery, and it is my understanding that the Islamo-nutters regard sport and sports-nuttery not as an expression of Islamo-nuttery, but rather, as a threat to it. Sports nuttery ultimately causes fellowship with the infidels rather than hatred of them, underneath all the youthful antagonisms which it does indeed inflame. It’s hard not to get pally with people when you play or follow games with them and against them, especially as you get older, and remember previous hostilities with fondness rather than anger.
So, in short: go Afghanistan! The Afghanistan twenty-twenty cricket team, I mean. Afghanistan gave England a hell of a fright and nearly beat them. And yesterday, they actually did beat the West Indies, even though it didn’t count for so much because the Windies had already got through to the semis and the Afghans would be going home now no matter what. But, even so, beating the Windies was a big deal, and the cricket world will have noticed, big time.
Here is Cricinfo, at the moment of Afghan triumph:
I love it when a T20 game really boils up, and they put “dot ball” in bold letters, the way they usually only write “OUT” and “FOUR” and “SIX” and “dropped”, or, as in this case, “an amazing, brave, brilliant running catch!”
And soon after that climax to the game, came this:
Chris Gayle is quite a character. Having scored a brilliant century against England that won the Windies that match and put England in the position of having to win everything from then on, his commitment to the West Indian cause is not in doubt, as it might have been had he celebrated like this with the Afghans without having done any other notable things in this tournament. He has quarrelled with West Indian cricket bureaucrats over the years, and has definitely seemed to have like playing for the Bangalore Royal Challengers more than for the West Indies.
His demeanour after today’s Afghan game is in sharp contrast to his lordly impassivity after taking the wicket of David Miller of South Africa, which reduced South Africa to 47-5, a predicament from which they failed to recover
One of the delights of virtually following this tournament is that it has been possible to watch little videos of dramatic moments, like the one of Gayle taking this wicket and then not celebrating very much. The graphic additions to this posting are merely screen captures. Clicking on them accomplishes nothing. But if you go to the original commentary from which I took my graphics, you can click on the little black video prompts, and get a little video of the drama just described.
Also: Happy Easter.
I have been reading Martin Geck’s biography of Bach (translated into English by Anthea Bell).
The question I now bring to Bach is: What did he think he was doing? Worshipping God? Being Beethoven before Beethoven? More the latter than I had realised, it would seem.
Here is an excerpt not from the book itself, but from my English paperback edition’s introduction, by John Butt:
One idea that immediately emerges from his biography is that Bach’s relatively provincial Eisenach background was something that he never fully relinquished. In other words, he plumbed the greatest depth of experience from a relatively modest environment. Ironically, this gave his music much value in later centuries. Had this music been truly fashionable or cosmopolitan in its own age, over- filled with local relevance, it would surely have sounded dated in later years. But Bach’s strikingly profound exploration of a limited world somehow translates well to subsequent eras. The historical material is relatively easily assimilated by any to whom it is alien, yet Bach’s treatment of it is the most penetrating and challenging imaginable.
Another point that rendered him such a ‘hardy traveller’ in later ages is that he did not cultivate a deliberately idiosyncratic personality. This biography shows us that his principal means of learning was the traditional one: study and improving exemplars. As Geck observes, Bach spent many years working on the same few works, and the exact beginning and ending of the process cannot (and should not) necessarily be traced. It is as if the composer is aiming for a perfection that is not humanly achievable. The very openness of these works, coupled with their intense perfection, somehow gives them a momentum that carries them into the future.
Idiosyncratic his compositional personality may not have been, but there is no doubt that Bach’s personality was extremely strong. Geck reveals an extravagant, ‘virtuoso’ character in Bach’s fiery encounters with the council of Arnstadt. As a virtuoso, Bach seems to wish to say as much as possible all in one moment, and this develops into a more mature dialectic, between the cultivation of the greatest intensity of expression and the greatest degree of order in his music. Geck discerns Bach’s search for ultimate truth in his basic compositional philosophy of ‘all-in-one’ and ‘all-from-one’ (his deriving of the entire composition from as small a number of elements as possible). Once again, this relates to Bach’s development of the most intense musical vision from a straitened environment.
Did Bach thus cultivate a sense of individuality, a sense of autonomous art, within the context of what was basically a traditional craft-like activity? Geck suggests that there was a real sense in which Bach’s music performed a covert social function somehow sublimating, his professional problems and the various contradictions of his age, such as between church and art. In this way, Bach’s music does indeed relate to the German tradition of the following century, not least the art of Beethoven, which similarly articulates a special kind of humanity by transcending the difficulties of life.
Art as social climbing. Discuss.
It certainly worked for Bach. (And Beethoven.)
I have begun reading Matt Ridley’s latest book, The Evolution of Everything. Early signs: brilliant. I especially liked this bit (pp. 7-10), about modern ideas in the ancient world:
A ‘skyhook’ is an imaginary device for hanging an object from the sky. The word originated in a sarcastic remark by a frustrated pilot of a reconnaissance plane in the First World War, when told to stay in the same place for an hour: ‘This machine is not fitted with skyhooks,’ he replied. The philosopher Daniel Dennett used the skyhook as a metaphor for the argument that life shows evidence of an intelligent designer. He contrasted skyhooks with cranes - the first impose a solution, explanation or plan on the world from on high; the second allow solutions, explanations or patterns to emerge from the ground up, as natural selection does.
The history of Western thought is dominated by skyhooks, by devices for explaining the world as the outcome of design and planning. Plato said that society worked by imitating a designed cosmic order, a belief in which should be coercively enforced. Aristotle said that you should look for inherent principles of intentionality and development - souls - within matter. Homer said gods decided the outcome of battles. St Paul said that you should behave morally because Jesus told you so. Mohamed said you should obey God’s word as transmitted through the Koran. Luther said that your fate was in God’s hands. Hobbes said that social order came from a monarch, or what he called ‘Leviathan’ - the state. Kant said morality transcended human experience. Nietzsche said that strong leaders made for good societies. Marx said that the state was the means of delivering economic and social progress. Again and again, we have told ourselves that there is a top-down description of the world, and a top-down prescription by which we should live.
But there is another stream of thought that has tried and usually failed to break through. Perhaps its earliest exponent was Epicurus, a Greek philosopher about whom we know very little. From what later writers said about his writings, we know that he was born in 341 BC and thought (as far as we can tell) that the physical world, the living world, human society and the morality by which we live all emerged as spontaneous phenomena, requiring no divine intervention nor a benign monarch or nanny state to explain them. As interpreted by his followers, Epicurus believed, following another Greek philosopher, Dernocritus, that the world consisted not of lots of special substances including spirits and humours, but simply of two kinds of thing: voids and atoms. Everything, said Epicurus, is made of invisibly small and indestructible atoms, separated by voids; the atoms obey the laws of nature and every phenomenon is the result of natural causes. This was a startlingly prescient conclusion for the fourth century BC.
Unfortunately Epicurus’s writings did not survive. But three hundred years later, his ideas were revived and explored in a lengthy, eloquent and unfinished poem, De Rerum Natura (Of the Nature of Things), by the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus, who probably died in mid-stanza around 49 BC, just as dictatorship was looming in Rome. Around this time, in Gustave Flaubert’s words, ‘when the gods had ceased to be, and Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius when man stood alone’. Exaggerated maybe, but free thinking was at least more possible then than before or after. Lucretius was more subversive, open-minded and far-seeing than either of those politicians (Cicero admired, but disagreed with, him). His poem rejects all magic, mysticism, superstition, religion and myth. It sticks to an unalloyed empiricism.
As the Harvard historian Stephen Greenblatt has documented, a bald list of the propositions Lucretius advances in the unfinished 7,400 hexameters of De Rerum Natura could serve as an agenda for modernity. He anticipated modern physics by arguing that everything is made of different combinations of a limited set of invisible particles, moving in a void. He grasped the current idea that the universe has no creator, Providence is a fantasy and there is no end or purpose to existence, only ceaseless creation and destruction, governed entirely by chance. He foreshadowed Darwin in suggesting that nature ceaselessly experiments, and those creatures that can adapt and reproduce will thrive. He was with modern philosophers and historians in suggesting that the universe was not created for or about human beings, that we are not special, and there was no Golden Age of tranquillity and plenty in the distant past, but only a primitive battle for survival. He was like modern atheists in arguing that the soul dies, there is no afterlife, all organised religions are superstitious delusions and invariably cruel, and angels, demons or ghosts do not exist. In his ethics he thought the highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.
Thanks largely to Greenblatt’s marvellous book The Swerve, I have only recently come to know Lucretius, and to appreciate the extent to which I am, and always have been without knowing it, a Lucretian/Epicurean. Reading his poem in A.E. Stallings’s beautiful translation in my sixth decade is to be left fuming at my educators. How could they have made me waste all those years at school plodding through the tedious platitudes and pedestrian prose of Jesus Christ or Julius Caesar, when they could have been telling me about Lucretius instead, or as well? Even Virgil was writing partly in reaction to Lucretius, keen to re-establish respect for gods, rulers and top-down ideas in general. Lucretius’s notion of the ceaseless mutation of forms composed of indestructible substances - which the Spanish-born philosopher George Santayana called the greatest thought that mankind has ever hit upon - has been one of the persistent themes of my own writing. It is the central idea behind not just physics and chemistry, but evolution, ecology and economics too. Had the Christians not suppressed Lucretius, we would surely have discovered Darwinism centuries before we did.
I have been reading Peter Foster’s book, Why We Bite the Invisible Hand: The Psychology of Anti-Capitalism. And very good it is. Here are some of the things Foster says about Robert Owen (pp. 86-69, pp 92-95:
After he built Cromford, Arkwright became involved in the development of another even more spectacular water-driven venture, at New Lanark in Scotland. The fast-flowing river below the beautiful Falls of Clyde made the site ideal. Arkwright’s partner there was David Dale, a respected Glasgow merchant. The notoriously prickly Arkwright fell out with Dale, reportedly over a triviality, and withdrew. Dale took control and continued to expand, but the reason New Lanark is so well preserved today is not that it is seen as a monument to capitalism. Quite the contrary. Dale’s son-in-law, Robert Owen, turned New Lanark into the promotional centre for a Utopian dream, where he nurtured anti-capitalist sentiment. A fair amount of anti-capitalist sentiment still seems to pervade the site today.
Owen’s New Lanark was very far from being an experiment in socialism understood as collective ownership and control. Workers had neither shares in the mill nor much - if any - say in how it was run. Nor was Owen a political revolutionary. What he did share in common with more radical socialists was opposition to religion; belief that human nature was an indeterminate clay ("blank slate"), there to be moulded by men such as himself; distaste for the “individual selfish” competitive system and private property (even though they enabled him to promote his muddled ideas); demonization of money; and a generally woolly notion of how economies - as opposed to individual businesses - work. Owen rejected Adam Smith’s idea of gradual improvement under a system of “natural liberty.” For him, cotton masters, the men who owned and ran the mills, were (except for himself) greedy and selfish, while workers were oppressed sheep to be led, with himself as the Good Shepherd.
Adam Smith had shrewdly noted that people by nature give far more deference to the ideas of the wealthy than they deserve. Of few people was this more true than Robert Owen.
Owen was born on May 14, 1771, in Newtown in Wales, five years before the publication of The Wealth of Nations. He received only a rudimentary education before being shipped off by his parents to work in the drapery business. He proved an assiduous employee and developed a keen interest in the then-booming textile industry. He started his own business but soon returned to employment as a mill manager in Manchester. Close to his 20th birthday, he was reportedly managing 500 workers, at the then substantial salary of £300 a year. Owen soon found investors to help him start his own mill. He also became interested in education and social reform (which was the rule rather than the exception for industrialists of the time). However, when he visited New Lanark he saw a place where he might indulge a nascent vision of industrial harmony, a New Jerusalem in which he would be the secular Messiah.
Owen courted David Dale’s daughter, Anne Caroline, married her on September 30, 1799, and took over New Lanark early in 1800 on what seemed generous terms, essentially promising to pay Dale out of the mill’s future profits. New Lanark was the basis for the fortune and reputation that enabled Robert Owen to indulge his ideas. The scale of New Lanark seems extraordinary even today, but to visitors from the present, if they could travel back to Owen’s time, the most arresting feature of the place would be that most of its employees were children, supplied by orphanages in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Child labour has become one of the great fixed images of the Industrial Revolution, but it is inappropriate to take our modern sensitivities back to earlier times. Child labour was common - as it still is in many poor countries - because it was, and is, necessary for the survival of both the children and their families. It was most necessary for orphans. Indeed, orphanages paid cotton manufacturers to take their charges off their hands. David Dale reportedly treated his young employees well. By 1796 he was employing 16 teachers at the site.
Owen’s desire to prevent children under 10 from working appears wholly admirable, until we remember that this might have led them to starve. His desire to educate children and provide an early equivalent of daycare was worthy but ultimately self-interested in business terms, since these measures increased the skills and contentment - and thus productivity - of the workforce, as did his organization of medical insurance, savings opportunities, food and other provisions. There was no conflict between good business and morality. Indeed, Owen himself constantly, at least in the early days, stressed the importance of these measures for increasing profitability.
The village shop that Owen set up at New Lanark was reportedly an inspiration for the modern cooperative movement, which was founded in the town of Rochdale in Lancashire. According to a potted history at the New Lanark site, when Owen arrived, there were lots of small traders in the village, “selling poor quality goods at high prices.” He was able to buy in bulk, lower the prices and still make a profit. But of course this is exactly what supermarkets and big-box stores do today, even as they are castigated for putting the “little guy” … out of business.
Robert Owen put the little guy out of business too. He also made sure that no other traders could survive in the village, by paying his workers with “tickets for wages,” which they could spend only at his village shop. Elsewhere such enforced commitment to the company store would be cited as evidence of corporate villainy, but Owen declared that his own motives weren’t “selfish.” The important thing was not what was good for him, but what was good for mankind, although he clearly expected a little kudos for showing mankind the way.
At New Lanark, Owen in fact displayed more of the enlightened capitalist than of the Utopian dreamer. One might not doubt his good intentions when it came to spreading education and advocating factory reform, but he seemed eager to bury the fact that many other cottom masters, and businessmen of the time more generally, were enlightened and reform-minded.
As the Napoleonic Wars drew to a close, both mill owners and authorities were disturbed by Luddite riots that resulted in the breaking of new machinery, which was seen as destroying jobs. Robert Owen claimed that what had brought about these awful, and worsening, conditions was economic liberalism and the competitive system, which, he declared, was based on “deception.” He came forward with a series of bold proposals for “villages of unity and co-operation,” which struck many as workhouses by a more glorified name.
Although the great and the good expressed polite interest in Owen’s solutions to what were, after all, pressing problems, many were profoundly skeptical. John Quincy Adams, then U.S. ambassador to Britain, described Owen in his memoirs as “crafty crazy ... a speculative, scheming, mischievous man.”
Owen managed to draw the ire of both radical reformers, the political economist heirs of Adam Smith, groups that rarely saw eye to eye. The radicals saw Owen’s communities as oppressive, while the economists viewed them as impractical and counterproductive. The reformer William Cobbett described them as “parallelograms of paupers.” The political economist Robert Torrens said it ws difficult to decide whether Owen was a “knave” or an enthusiast “in whose brain a copulation between vanity and benevolence has engendered madness.”
Owen welcomed a steady stream of “philanthropic tourists” at New Lanark. Their number included Grand Duke Nicholas, future czar of Russia. Some - although presumably not the grand duke - found disquieting authoritarian overtones to Owen’s operation. After watching Owen’s child labourers drill like little soldiers at the mill’s Institution for the Formation of Character (which has been lovingly restored with taxpayers’ money from the European Union), the poet Robert Southey compared the place to a slave plantation.
Parliament ultimately rejected Owen’s scheme. One member suggested that “this visionary plan, if adopted, would destroy the very roots of society.” Owen responded to criticism by making his schemes more grandiose. Undaunted, he set off to proselytize in the New World, and not merely to lecture but at last to put into effect his grand plan. He bought an existing cooperative community in Indiana, which he renamed New Harmony.
Owen attracted a large number of settlers, described by one of Owen’s sons, Robert Dale Owen, as a “heterogenous collection of radicals, enthusiastic devotees to principle ... and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in.” Owen Sr. soon went back to Britain to spread the word of his success. Another son, William, confided dolefully to his diary, “The enjoyment of a reformer, I would say, is much more in contemplation, than in reality.”
New Harmony soon started to fall apart. Skilled labour did not feel inclined to have its income, under Owen’s plan, “equalized” with the unskilled or, worse, with those who did not wish to work at all. A collectivist scheme such as Owen’s could in effect work only if powered by either religious conviction or forced labour, a lesson that would not be lost on Owen’s more revolutionary successors.
The abolition of money led to a bureaucratic nightmare. When even lettuce had to pass through the company store, it inevitably wilted before it reached the plate. (Moscow McDonald’s would encounter analogous problems in trying to get supplies through the collapsing Soviet system almost 200 years later.)
After an absence of two months, Owen returned to New Harmony, arriving by river with intellectual reinforcements dubbed the “boatload of knowledge.” He forced the community through numerous reorganizations, all the while churning out portentous exhortations such as the “Declaration of Mental Independence:’ which promised to free man from the “slavery” of private property, religion and marriage.
One visitor, the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, wrote, “He looks forward to nothing else than to remodel the world entirely; to root out all crime; to abolish punishment; to create similar views and similar wants, and in this manner to abolish all dissension and warfare ... He was too unalterably convinced of the result to admit the slightest room for doubt!’ Every other member of the community to whom the duke spoke acknowledged that Owen was “deceived in his expectations!’ The final blow to the community was a falling-out between Owen and William Maclure, a wealthy emigre Scotsman, which led to the two men suing each other over property, the concept New Harmony was meant to transcend.
The one undoubted benefit Owen did bestow upon the former colonies was his children, who turned out to be a good deal more level-headed than their father and who would become prominent in American affairs. Owen then set off on an even more quixotic scheme: to persuade the government of Mexico to grant him a huge swath of land on which to test his theories. He required Mexico first to abandon Catholicism. Mexico demurred. Owen returned to London and embarked upon expansive new ventures. He became the first president of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, an organization that lasted a year. Seeking to trump both the pecuniary root of all evil and “unnecessary” middlemen, he set up “labour exchanges,” whereby merchandise was exchanged for “labour notes,” whose value was meant to be calculated according to the hours of sweat embodied in each product. The administrators found that they could not possibly calculate values this way and were forced to copy market prices. The labour exchanges collapsed too.
Owen staunchly opposed the “superstition” of religion, and yet his own views were at root profoundly religious, based on a “New Moral World” set up in opposition to a demonic set of greedy capitalists. He founded the Rational Society, complete with Halls of Science instead of churches, and “social hymns.” Sample verse:
Outcasts in your native soil,
Doom’d to poverty and toil,
Strangers in your native land;
Come, and join the social band.
Owen’s acolytes founded another Utopian community, at an estate called Queenwood in Hampshire, whose collapse Owen hastened by spending it into the ground. One of his more clear-sighted disciples noted that “Mr. Owen was no financier, and had no idea of money.” Queenwood, like New Harmony, imploded amid lawsuits, yet again over property.
Robert Owen represented a psychological type that would persist throughout the business world. Although such businessmen have a good grasp of their own business, they fail to understand the nature of markets more generally and believe themselves to be morally exceptional in a world marked by short-sighted greed.
On Friday November 27th (i.e. exactly one week from now), my friend from way back, Antoine Clarke, will be giving a talk at my place entitled “Herding cats, or lessons from drunks about organising anarchy”.
These talks happen every last Friday of the month, and before they give one of them, I ask each speaker to supply a paragraph or two about what they’ll be saying, so I can email my list of potential attenders. Antoine has just supplied me with ten paragraphs on his talk:
It would be hard to imagine any more dysfunctional organisation than a leaderless group of drunks promising among themselves to quit drinking and to help other drunks to quit.
And then I realized that there is a similar organisation for narcotics addicts, one for cocaine addicts, crystal meth addicts and even “sex and love addicts” - whatever that may mean.
Alcoholics Anonymous has been described as a “benign anarchy” by one of its founders and manages to organize over 100,000 groups worldwide with between 1.5 million and 2 million members. Its power structure has been described as an “inverted pyramid”.
AA operates by having almost completely autonomous branches, no publicity, no professional class of “charity workers” and no set fees. It has a “12-step program” and “12 traditions” which have been described respectively as “rules for not killing yourself” and “rules for not killing other people”.
The effectiveness of AA at curing or controlling alcohol addiction is not clear cut. Because of anonymity, self-selection and the difficulty of known if someone who stops attending meetings has relapsed or simply found he can lead a functional lifestyle. The fact that over a dozen other organisations have copied AA’s 12-step and 12 tradition system suggests at least some level of success, unlike, say the UK’s National Health Service which has fewer imitators.
One particular problem for AA is that any 12-step program will only really work if it is voluntary, but in the USA especially, courts mandate that convicted criminals attend AA meetings as a parole condition. I think this reduces recidivism among the criminals (compared with them NOT following a program), but it surely dilutes the effectiveness of AA groups (more disruptive attendees, people going through the motions, possible discouragement of others).
I shall be looking at the elements of AA’s structure and organisational culture to see what lessons can be learned about the possibility of anarchic institutions especially at handling social problems.
What interests me is the “anarchy with table manners” aspect of AA and the contrast with truly dysfunctional libertarian organisations, like the Libertarian Alliance.
I’m also interested in the issue of government interference and the ways in which well-meaning interventions make matters worse. I shall also take a look at the spiritual element of AA’s 12-step program, noting that it claims to work for atheists and agnostics as well as for theists.
Hopefully, this is an attractive alternative to binge drinking on a Friday night in central London.
Indeed. There will be no binge drinking at the meeting.
Antony Flew on the Terrors of Islam
Steven Pinker on the (im)moral message of the Old Testament
Sorry! No Photo’s!
Church not dwarfed by anything
Big Thing alignments from the top of Westminster Cathedral
January newspaper pages
A feline Friday at Guido
Charlie Hebdo demo in Trafalgar Square
Old Quimper Cathedral
Christmas Day photos
The Magic Flute at the RCM
On not letting either God or (the other) God do everything
Confirming my String prejudices
A Sunday ramble
Sacred architecture and profane roof clutter - a speculation
Church really dwarfed by modernity
Conquer the Pillars of Islam
Craig Willy on Emmanuel Todd
Wedding photography (6): The Wedding and the Reception
Steven Pinker’s description of The Enlightenment
Are Christian social conservatives using the Tea Party to impose social conservatism?
Don’t vote Democrat!
Malta Day procession
Natalie Solent at Biased BBC
Emmanuel Todd’s latest book - in English
Richard Dawkins on university debating games
Scientology enthusiast is now Climate Change Minister
Defeating Islam (2): Conversion to Christianity will trump higher birth rates in Islamic countries
St Matthew reinterpreted
Links to this and that
Everybody draw Mohammed every day!
God is not One
Gaddafi looking rather like Alan Rickman
How building St Peter’s Rome split the Catholic Church and how marzipan was invented in Luebeck
God is killing cinemas!
Signs of the times in Belfast
God moves in mysterious ways
Truth is true
The impossibility of God but the possibility of Michael Flatley’s cure and of super-super-flees
Jesus above the keyboard instead of beyond it
“I will cause a boy that driveth a plough to know more of the scriptures than thou dost.”
“It’s only a parable!”
Modernity dwarfed by church
Stuff God Hates
I’ve been busy today so here’s a nice picture of the tower of Westminster Cathedral
The Lord is watching
Fifty million Bible bombs
Hear ye hear ye
Mark Holland on believing in something and believing in nothing
Richard Dawkins on the Muhammad cartoons affair
Islam was peaceful and tolerant until the Christians attacked it
Glenn Gould on the hereafter
Emmanuel Todd (1): Anthropology explains ideology
Islam is evil - and that’s me carrying on normally
Top tips from Viz
Theodore Dalrymple is an Islamic Fundamentalist and so am I
A car called Jesus
I won’t be doing any television myself in the near future but in the meantime have a watch of this
A Happy Christmas to all my readers
I am an atheist but I often prefer the Christians
iPods From Space
How can intelligent decent people be so badly mistaken? And did 9/11 make you more opinionated?