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 not as an objective historian (he despises objective history, now “professionalized to the point of imbecility”) but, explicitly, as a propagandist, committed to a certain view: to a belief, not in the truth of that orthodoxy (he shows no belief, or even interest, in any Christian doctrine), but in its necessity. He believes that it should have been preserved, defended, revived; for “a properly entrenched and intelligent orthodoxy is as valuable as any of the skills which produce industrial and commercial revolutions.” By an “intelligent orthodoxy” he appears to mean one that knows how to maintain itself by “a cunning religious acerbity,” “reactionary bloodiness,” and is proof against “degenerate philosophising.”

The orthodoxy that has been disintegrated in England since 1830 is, we are led to understand, the Anglican “public doctrine” of “the ancien régime.” Whether such an orthodoxy ever effectively existed, outside the ideology of the old Tory party, except possibly in the 1630s, can be questioned; but we will let that pass. It is certainly true that, legally, the Anglican Church was not only established and privileged but possessed, in some respects, a monopoly. That monopoly (which did not guarantee anything so narrow as an “orthodoxy”) was broken in 1829 when the Tory politicians Sir Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington, yielding to Irish disaffection, Whig pressure, and liberal ideas, introduced the Act of Catholic Emancipation which gave the parliamentary vote to Roman Catholics. This was the beginning of a process which ended in the opening of Parliament, the universities, the services, the professions, to Catholics, Dissenters, Jews, and unbelievers.

Catholic Emancipation was not, in itself, a religious or intellectual surrender. It was essentially an affair of Irish politics. But it led, in England, to a religious reaction, and that reaction was intensified by the next important stage in the process, which was also Irish: the Irish Church Temporalities Act, passed by the Whig government in 1833. By this act, the vast revenues enjoyed by the (often absentee) Protestant bishops in Catholic Ireland were reduced in order to finance local improvement. Its enactment drew cries of horror from English Tory churchmen, already exasperated by Catholic Emancipation, and one of them, John Keble, publicly denounced it, in an assize sermon in Oxford, as “national apostasy.” Keble had previously attacked Peel as a traitor on account of Catholic Emancipation. Now he and his Oxford friends launched a series of “tracts” in defense of their threatened Church. That sermon and these tracts marked the beginning of the “Oxford” or “Tractarian” movement: an attempt to redefine and refortify the Anglican Church so that it might reassert, and perhaps reclaim, its threatened monopoly.


The Tractarian movement is central to Mr. Cowling’s book. It gives, he says, “significance to a history which would be insignificant without it.” It was “the only constructive assault on the 18th century Enlightenment,” “the most powerful attempt that has been made in England in the last century and a half to create a coherent Christian intellectuality.” The Tractarians, and the post-Tractarians, are in fact his heroes. Therefore it is necessary to look them in the face.

The Tractarians were university men who sought to regenerate Anglicanism by withdrawing the Church from dependence on the State (now at the mercy of Whig politicians), cleansing it of liberal ideas (which meant of Protestant ideas), and returning to the Anglo-Catholic tradition of Richard Hooker, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, and Archbishop William Laud. They even went further than Laud, who, having the support of the Crown, could afford to be, in some respects, moderate in practice, liberal and rational in theology. Lacking that support, depending only on themselves, they demanded for the Church (or rather, for their sect in the Church) absolute authority to declare unquestionable dogma: dogma that was to be reinforced and decorated by ritual, not weakened by argument. This was particularly necessary since argument—especially German argument—was at that time eroding the very foundations both of authority and of dogma. Geology, archaeology, philology, and other sciences were undermining the divine inspiration of the Scriptures and the Prophets, the literal truth of the Gospels, the infallibility of the Fathers and Councils.

From the security of their Oxford colleges, the Tractarians denounced Whigs and liberals in unmeasured terms. The Whigs, said Hurrell Froude, had taken up “all the filth that had been secreted in the fermentation of human thought.” John Henry Newman, the charismatic leader of the movement, described them as “vile vermin” and in a note on “Liberalism” (afterward published in his Apologia) implicitly defined his own credo, viz.: that only one religion can be true; that its truth is established by the authority which declares it; that that authority rests on the truth which it declares; that any argument which questions either the authority or the truth is necessarily invalid; and that any other religion, being necessarily untrue, must not be publicly authorized. This credo, though circular in form and impenetrable by reason, is at least internally consistent. The question was, could it be imposed, as an exclusive orthodoxy, on a lay-controlled Church and, through it, on a plural society? After a decade of effort, Newman found that it could not. So, after having split his university, he split his movement by abandoning his Church and seceding to Rome. In the Rome of Gregory XVI there was no danger of surrender to liberalism.

The secession of Newman and his friends to Roman Catholicism was a great blow to the Tractarians, but a faithful remnant did not despair. They had their saint in John Keble; they found their strategist in E.B. Pusey. Pusey had begun as a Whig in politics and a liberal in theology. He had studied German biblical criticism. But soon he felt the ground quaking beneath him and turned sharply around. He declared an absolute ban on all inquiry unless it could be made to confirm Anglo-Catholic dogma, ritual, authority. As a professor in Oxford, he maintained that the function of a university was not to advance knowledge but to resist its advance, and meanwhile to train a crops of clerical coast guards who could protect the threatened island from invading “German” ideas. The greatest intellectual achievement of this learned Orientalist was to push back the date of the book of Daniel so that it could be regarded, once again, as an authentic, inspired prophecy of the Church. Later commentators tactfully ignore this feat of perverted ingenuity.

Such was the Tractarian challenge which, to Mr. Cowling, is the most powerful and constructive intellectual effort in 150 years. Contemporaries did not think so. They were repelled by such abject obscurantism. This was not because they were anti-Christian but because they took account of those intellectual developments which the Tractarians, recognizing the danger, were resolved to ignore. “How different the fortunes of the Church of England might have been,” exclaimed Dean Stanley, “if Newman had been able to read German!” But would Newman have paid any attention to what he could then have read? Pusey knew German, but how did he respond to those guttural Sirens beyond the Rhine? Like that other resourceful pilot, Ulysses, he stopped the ears of his men and tied himself firmly to the mast.


One man who did listen to German voices was Carlyle. He too had been disconcerted by the intellectual erosion of orthodoxy (in his case, Presbyterian orthodoxy) and he looked anxiously for an alternative faith. He tried the socialism of Saint-Simon. He listened to the waffle of Coleridge. But he did not find help in any of these quarters. Least of all did he find it in “spectral Puseyisms,” and he dismissed Newman as having the mind of a half-grown rabbit. Others, having at first yielded to the Tractarians, afterward rebelled against them. The historian J.A. Froude revolted against the task they had set him of editing—not as historical documents but as works of edification—the infantile early lives of the saints. Mark Pattison recalled with disgust the time when he was “deeply tarred with the Puseyite brush.” In 1848, when all Europe was in revolution, he was shocked to think that the intellectual elite of Oxford had wasted their time “debating any matter so flimsy as whether England were in a state of schism or no.”

Mr. Cowling does not include Carlyle, Froude, or Pattison in his intellectual portrait gallery, or many others who might reasonably appear in it. But he does exhibit two men who, like the Tractarians, sought to defend the threatened “public doctrine,” and who had been exposed, as undergraduates at Christ Church, Oxford, to Pusey’s influence: Ruskin and Gladstone. Ruskin, who had been brought up as a strict Protestant, had no use for Tractarianism, but he valued religion, in a medieval semi-Protestant form (just as the architect A.W. Pugin did in a medieval Catholic form), for the sake of the art and society which it informed, and he found his ideal in Gothic Venice. Gladstone, originally a High Church Tory, changed his political but retained his religious loyalty and tried to reconcile what he knew of science with the threatened parts of the Bible. But neither of these proved effective, and Mr. Cowling reverts to his Tractarians as the only “constructive” enemies of liberalism—only to find himself gradually driven over toward the view of Newman: that Roman Catholicism, which Sir Robert Peel had been castigated for emancipating, is “the only form of Christianity that is capable of resisting” infidelity.

This appears clearly in his treatment of H.E. Manning, the Oxford Tractarian who seceded to Rome in 1851 and became cardinal archbishop of Westminster. Manning, like Pusey, was a strategist, not a saint: an uncompromising advocate of “authority.” As the English agent of a particularly reactionary papacy, he persecuted Newman “for the residual traces of private judgment that he discerned” in him. He would have liked to see Acton, the greatest of liberal Catholics, excommunicated. He wished, says Mr. Cowling, to escape from “the gentry-style Catholicism by which he was surrounded”—the “old Catholics” like Acton, the aristocratic friends of Newman; he recognized “the need to mortify both the intellect and the will”; he expressed, far more strongly than Newman, “that contempt for the higher mind which made Tractarianism so subversive”; and he “supported the Vatican decrees because papal infallibility would subvert critical Catholicism as Acton and Newman were developing it,” and because “authoritarian Catholicism” would effect “a democratic subversion of the secular influence which Liberal Catholicism wished to appease.” In short he was a “mitred revolutionary” who wished “to blow up the English establishment” and reduce England to the abject Catholic docility of the Irish peasantry.

Manning is Mr. Cowling’s hero: the only man in all this procession whom he praises without qualification. To him, he is “a great man,” who, having “an accurate sense of the English situation,” realized that the liberal establishment must be “blown up” and replaced by an ideological dictatorship based on unthinking, passive masses. One sees what “Provost Williams” meant by that phrase, which Mr. Cowling took as a compliment, about an unreconstructed Roman cardinal.

So there we are: the battle lines are now clearly drawn, and in the rest of the book we follow (always by the same method of selective biography) the fluctuating campaign. The next two sections are an account of “the assault on Christianity”: that is, of those men who, instead of supporting or improving the Tractarian reconstruction of a religious ideology, sought to substitute a secular religion of “ethical earnestness,” or, when that began to pall—about 1870—of “pessimistic illusionlessness” (“illusionlessness” being, in Mr. Cowling’s vocabulary, a dirty word. It is certainly an ugly one.). The ethically earnest party is represented by J.S. Mill, Richard Buckle, G.H. Lewes, George Eliot, Herbert Spencer, Leslie Stephen, T.H. Huxley, John Morley; the illusionless pessimists by Gilbert Murray, J.G. Frazer, Shaw, Wells, Havelock Ellis, D.H. Lawrence, Somerset Maugham, and Bertrand Russell.

All these “assailants of Christianity” pass before us in brisk procession and are duly condemned, the judgment becoming sharper toward the tail of the queue. The ethically earnest were, at best, like Lewes, “deeply muddled” except in their demand for a “total subversion of historic Christianity.” However, they are not altogether “contemptible.” Their error, it seems, was their elitism: their belief that “naturalistic or subjective sanctions” for morality could replace supernatural sanctions and preserve the dominance of the educated classes. To their successors no such indulgence is shown. J.G. Frazer and Gilbert Murray, we are told, “produced only mule-like reassertions” (Mr. Cowling has evidently known some unusual mules); they are also suspect as classical scholars: Hellenists with a dangerous liking for genial paganism, “Greek enlightenment” (“enlightenment” is also a dirty word), Ciceronian deism. Shaw’s socialism was “rooted in illusionlessness.” Maugham is characterized by “uncompromising illusionlessness.” However, a certain condescending tribute is paid to Russell, who, though at times “fluent and superficial,” had, we learn, “many talents”; if only he had suffered a little “adversity,” he might have been more aware of the “difficulty.” I do not know how “adversity” is measured by fellows of Peterhouse.

So we have now reached our own time, and the “post-Christian consensus” which will be described, we are told, in Volume III, due to appear in 1988–1990. Meanwhile Mr. Cowling turns from “the assailants of Christianity” to “the assaults on the assailants”; that is, to the “Christian counter-revolution” launched by the modern heirs of the Tractarians. For always we come back to the Tractarians. Their analysis, we are told, though “untrue” in respect of their own time, “has become true about the 20th century.” They saw that, unless frontally challenged by their generation, “the assault on Christianity” would succeed in “institutionalizing the post-Christian consensus with which we live now.”

And who, we ask, are these modern counterrevolutionaries, these epigoni of the Tractarians, who have accepted their “analysis” and inherited their mission? Those who answer the summons are Coventry Patmore, W.H. Mallock, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Christopher Dawson, Graham Greene, and the Jesuit philosopher F.C. Copleston. Evelyn Waugh and Dom David Knowles would have been included, we are told, if they had not jumped the gun and got into Volume I along with Lord Salisbury and the Cambridge dons. All these (although there is some doubt about Mallock) ended, if they did not begin, as Roman Catholics. Thus the heirs of the Tractarians appear to be the heirs not of the Anglicans Keble and Pusey, whose tradition is implicitly regarded as extinct, but of the Roman Catholics Newman and Manning, and the “public doctrine” recommended to us no longer has any continuity with that of the staunchly anti-Catholic “ancien régime.”

Although Mr. Cowling does his best for these new paladins, they do not serve him very well. Patmore thought Christianity an “unpleasant” religion which had to be pickled in dogma in order to disguise its nasty taste. He only qualifies for inclusion among the elect because of his “contempt for modern thought.” Mallock’s contribution to the cause was “insubstantial”; and “the same must be said” of all the rest. Mallock avoided the battle by refusing to allow “the rot” of science to touch religion, which, he maintained, was an independent “science” with its own rules—and apparently too delicate to be exposed to competition. Chesterton and Belloc, like him, were “negative,” and resorted to paradox to divert the enemy from the weakness of their case. Dawson was “a learned but glib thinker,” Copleston “repetitious and at times crude.” No wonder such a ragged squadron proved unable to “insert itself into the fabric of English life and thought” and achieve “the institutional impregnability upon which a predominating religion depends”: in other words, to replace the lay-controlled Church of England by an established, intolerant, dominant Roman Catholic Church.

Such is the frame within which, according to Mr. Cowling, the intellectual history of England since 1830 is to be placed if it is to be intelligible. The case is vigorously presented: the author is wellread, has a tough mind, and commands, as we can see, forceful language. He makes no concessions to the enemy and few to potential critics. Like his Tractarians, he ensures that his philosophy is self-contained, internally consistent, and impervious to argument.

His rejection of argument is emphatic. In his private language, “thought” means orthodoxy, and heresy, or private judgment, is a disease with which “thought” can be “infected.” “Belief” has no dependence on reason. The best thing one can do with beliefs, he says, “having found that one has them, is not necessarily to argue them but to explore and enjoy them, or to affront other minds into considering them.” “Opinions” should not be rationally discussed but “used in order to point accusingly” at the enemy. In other words, “beliefs” are prejudices and “opinions” insults. Though not exactly Socratic, this shock treatment may be one way of teaching (or indoctrinating) the young, though I suspect that the effect may be similar to that produced by one of Mr. Cowling’s Tractarian heroes, W.G. Ward, who, we learn, “through the vigour of his personality,” exercised “a confusing influence on his pupils.”

Religion may dispense with reason and argument, but can history? Mr. Cowling’s “intellectual history” of modern England seems to me questionable in many ways. Though full of interesting material, it is narrow both in method and in scope. However much one may dislike all modern thought, it is naive to suggest that its development since 1830 is an aberration which could have been halted by an obscurantist clerical movement within one church in one country. Nor is intellectual history to be seen as a series of personal “assaults” described by a partisan. That is to trivialize a European crisis of conscience and to omit its primum mobile—the irreversible advance, and the intellectual challenge, of science.

Most Europeans who faced that challenge in the nineteenth century saw themselves as Christians. They recognized that any religion is more than its theology, and they asked themselves how the spirit, or the moral teaching, or the cultural deposit, of Christianity could be preserved, or should be adjusted, or reinterpreted, when its hitherto accepted theological justification was shown to be untenable. Their efforts and agonies receive no sympathy from Mr. Cowling, who, however, will not reveal his own position. Glowering fiercely through the narrow, heavily fortified aperture of his Adullamite cave, he guards its darkened content: the nonrational “beliefs” which, having “found that he has them,” he enjoys and explores, but will not disclose.

And yet, since those beliefs are the substance of that enigmatic “intellectual Toryism” of which he is a declared prophet, ought we not to try to discover them? Perhaps if we strain our eyes and become accustomed to the opacity by which they are protected, we shall discern something of them. Although he never defines his favored orthodoxy, or suggests that it is true or rationally defensible, Mr. Cowling insists that it be defended; and he defends it, apparently, as an “illusion” (a good word in his vocabulary) justified by, and justifying, an undefined “authority.” In other words, it is a “myth”: not an innocent, naive, primitive myth, consecrated by history, preserved in tradition, reinterpreted as allegory, but a “necessary lie,” a belated English equivalent of the atheist—or at least nihilist—political Catholicism of Charles Maurras.

Herein lies the continuity of Mr. Cowling’s story. It is the story of the outer shell of an exploded orthodoxy artificially repaired and reinforced in order to contain not a living faith but an accumulation of old resentments. The Tractarians reconstructed that empty shell out of its own broken pieces in order to hold together the dissolving Anglican monopoly; which however ran out through the cracks caused by the unsympathetic English climate. Manning sent it to Rome to be stiffened and strengthened, so that he could fill it with explosive matter and “blow up” the liberal establishment of England; but the technology was unsound and the bomb did not go off. Belloc and Chesterton breathed into it the revived spirit of anti-Semitism, and thereby showed that it could become the envelope of a new clerical fascism. That stage is now past. What the modern Cambridge apostles would put into that hollow shell, I do not know. They do not tell us. I am not sure that they know themselves.

This Issue

March 13, 1986