Willey Thinking

The English Moralists

by Basil Willey
Norton, 318 pp., $6.95

This book has emerged from a course of lectures which the author gave, as he rather dauntingly informs us in the Preface, for more than thirty years in the University of Cambridge. The course of lectures and the examination paper that it serves were conceived at a time—as Willey mentions—when the remnants of a pure aestheticism made it less than fashionable to attempt to relate literature and morality. They continued—though this he does not mention—through a period when his colleague in Cambridge, F. R. Leavis, was indeed relating literature to morality, but in a way that still gave little scope to the reflective history of moral ideas: the morality to which Leavis relates literature is a morality, a particular kind of outlook which, being identified with the essence of creative literary sensibility itself, becomes the basis of a peculiarly timeless kind of criticism.

Thus Willey, in more than one climate of opinion, has kept alive the connections between the study of English literature and the history of ideas. From his efforts there has come a string of sturdy and not unworthy books: the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Backgrounds, the Nineteenth Century Studies. They, too, got some of their matter from this persistent course of lectures, and the lecture-room tone, it must be said, is often present in their helpful summaries of reported writers. Now, in the year of his retirement from the King Edward VII Chair of English Literature, Willey has cleaned up the rest of his accumulated notes and published them as The English Moralists, both as a memorial of the years’ activities, and with the hope (typical of a certain Cambridge introversion) that the book may help his successors, “if only as a historical atlas or as an awful warning,” in guiding the future course of these same lectures.

It would be ungracious of Willey’s successors, whoever they may be, to take him up too peremptorily on the second, at least, of these proferred interpretations. Yet perhaps it will be better if they do. There is, very obviously, no recipe for valuable writing in the history of ideas, no substantial maxims to make sure that what is written will be helpful or illuminating. But there are at least a few crude necessary conditions that one may look for, such as accuracy (to a reasonable degree) and absence of prejudice (of an unreasonable sort), and these conditions Willey satisfies only intermittently. This is because there are two substantial matters which, in quite different ways, he has not got under control: philosophy and Christianity.

Philosophy he puts down right at the beginning with some bravado:

The “English Moralists” paper has been criticized as “amateur moral science,” but I find it difficult to take that criticism seriously. It has been demonstrated over and over again that the “history of ideas” is not something which people with a literary training cannot grasp. They do not need to be professional philosophers in order to attain such knowledge, or enough of it to…

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