The Moral Minority

Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England Vol.II: Assaults

by Maurice Cowling
Cambridge University Press, 375 pp., $49.50

Maurice Cowling, a fellow of Peterhouse, is well known in Cambridge, England, as a modern historian and an advocate of what he calls “intellectual Toryism”—which is very different from the Toryism of practical politics. He has, by now, followers who somewhat pretentiously describe themselves as “the Peterhouse school of history.” Some of these are able, though few of them are very clear writers; they have recently given each other a good deal of publicity; and a newly published book by one of them assures us that they have founded a new tradition in political philosophy.* In the foreword to his own new book, Mr. Cowling, while acknowledging the help of a loyal army of Peterhouse men, darkly suggests that I am not entirely sympathetic to his philosophy. This, I fear, is true. Nevertheless, I shall try to set it out fairly before responding to his challenge and commenting upon it.

In 1980 Mr. Cowling published what we now know to be the first volume of a three-volume work, Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England, expressing his historical philosophy. It was a somewhat odd book: a series of potted intellectual biographies of a miscellany of English worthies of the last century and a half. There were politicians (the third Marquess of Salisbury, Winston Churchill), imaginative writers (T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh), historians (Sir Herbert Butterfield, Dom David Knowles—fellows of Peterhouse). There were also some more obscure Cambridge dons of the 1930s, and indeed since.

Although we are told that that volume “defined the principles according to which the intellectual history of modern England should be written,” most readers were left in some uncertainty about those principles. However, as one read, certain strong personal opinions emerged. The author expressed a general hatred of “liberalism,” which, he insisted, it is the duty of good men to “resent,” even to “sneer” at; and he certainly sneered to some tune. Most of the characters in the book are either condemned for liberalism or found wanting as insufficiently radical opponents of it.

One of the reviewers of that first volume, Mr. Bernard Williams, provost of King’s College, Cambridge, referring to Mr. Cowling’s “distrust of all merely secular improvements,” likened him to “the more unreconstructed type of cardinal…in the unliberated heartland of the Church of Rome.” This comparison has delighted Mr. Cowling. To him it illustrates “the demonology of the liberal mind,” and he welcomes “these flattering accusations” as “wounds which anyone should be pleased to bear,” for they show that “Provost Williams” has understood the purpose of Volume I: that it was “designed to put question-marks against the assault on Christianity.” This is a great help, and we can now read Volume II, which is subtitled Assaults, and is described as self-contained, with an improved sense of direction.

What Mr. Cowling now seeks to show, by the same method of intellectual biography, is the destruction, in England since 1830, of religious orthodoxy as the essential frame, or even dynamic, of political society. He does…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.