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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 enrich and illuminate their literary studies.

(“Moral science,” I should perhaps explain, is Cambridge’s term for philosophy.)

What Willey says here is not exactly untrue; but the extent to which it is true depends very much on what sort of history of ideas is in question, both the sort of ideas, and the sort of history. The kind of approach that comes from a concentration on philosophy will not perhaps be at a premium in studying ideas whose chief and most influential expression is not to be found in philosophers: the idea of progress, possibly, or the contemporary idea of honesty with oneself as a supreme moral ideal (the history of which is not yet written). Again, there may be a point for the history of ideas in not approaching even philosophers too philosophically; too nice a concentration on what they actually meant may disguise the influence that derived from their being misunderstood, and with some philosophers, Rousseau for instance, this is all-important. Yet while this is so, there will be some paradox in ignoring philosophy too much; for how is one to chart the misunderstandings, without philosophical understanding of what the philosopher really meant? At this point, there emerges the shallowness of Willey’s approach, with its academic classifications of “literary training” and “professional philosophers.” The truth, though simple, is more complex than the syllabus: that philosophical insight is not something separate from the literary understanding of philosophical writing, because it is not separate from understanding philosophical writing at all. Nor can there be a history of ideas without identification of ideas; and to identify what ideas are embodied in a text, particularly a philosopher’s text, is no less a matter of philosophical comprehension than of anything else (which does not mean that those with “a literary training” are debarred from reaching it).

Willey in fact adopts, of all possible courses, the one for which his professed lack of philosophical knowledge, and his evident lack of philosophical sense, least suits him: he gives up a good part of his book to trying just to state, as briefly as possible, the views of various philosophers. This is not a fruitful activity at best; under the present auspices, the outcome is a sustained exercise in missing the point. Two of the more important sufferers are Locke and Hume. Locke’s views on primary and secondary qualities, on substance, on revelation, and on the will, are variously mis-stated, misunderstood, or over-simplified; while some dark hints about “moral relativity” in his ethics are left untroubled by any statement of the fact that Locke actually aspired to make ethics into an a priori science. Locke is a confused thinker, indeed, but not boringly so, because his confusions are those of a highly intelligent and honest man trying to stand upright on intellectual ground that is shifting under his feet; Willey’s disservice is to make him dreary.

Hume inspires a rather more lively treatment, but it is no more accurate: important arguments (on the sense of duty and on miracles) are so stated as to omit precisely the basic idea, and Willey seems ignorant of important work on the interpretation of Hume, notably Kemp Smith’s on the Dialogues on Natural Religion. Hume is not in any case likely to get discriminating treatment, since, apart from the subtlety of his philosophy, he is an ironist, and irony seems in general to jam Willey’s apparatus: both Gulliver’s Travels and Candide are very crudely handled.

Willey’s insensibility to irony is equally apparent in his dealings with Aristotle, whose Magnanimous Man he takes for the ideal of the system. This interpretation has been accepted by some people; but it is surely mistaken and it scarcely gains much authority from Willey, who is prepared to say that the Ethics is one of “the world’s most boring classics.”

Aristotle is in fact the victim of something more interesting than misinterpretation: he is the prime casualty to Willey’s ideology, a sternly Protestant Christianity, which is expounded, relied on, and—consistently with its own spirit—very little analyzed. It sets the tone for the whole historical enterprise, the basic tradition of our civilization being found in a Platonic-Augustinian dualism, very disadvantageous to the flesh: man is a composite being, torn between impulses towards the higher and the carnal. No wonder that Aristotle, of less Manichaean disposition, gets such short shrift. Bad luck on the history of ideas that identifies either of these traditions as the guiding thread of Western thought. Even in the Middle Ages, the doctrine is in trouble, trouble which Willey gratuitously compounds for himself by claiming that “throughout the Middle Ages [Aristotle] was not merely an authority, but the authority.” This falsehood is mildly qualified on a later page; but Aristotle stays in the center, and it remains obscure whether Willey allows the Middle Ages to have been Aristotelian, because they were Christian, or is ready to admit that they were Aristotelian, because he himself is Protestant.

The ideologue can write history, even the history of what he rejects; the Enlightenment, for example, can be effectively studied by one who, as Willey does, regards the doctrine of Original Sin as a sure demonstration that all its ideals are hopeless. But such a study requires a complex feat of self-denial, a willing suspension of belief, a determination not to preach. In this Willey totally fails, with the result that parts of his book read like the grotesque sermon of a school chaplain warning the senior boys against the spiritual shortcomings of purely secular writings.

It is an ironical point that another of Willey’s Cambridge colleagues, Herbert Butterfield, shares Willey’s religious outlook, but bases on it an attitude to history which is totally, indeed extremely, the contrary: because of the pervasive sinfulness of man (as well as for other reasons) the historian must make no moral comment. A word from Butterfield would be valuable to any zealot who succeeds Willey in that famous course of lectures.

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