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A 21st-century Evelyn Waugh shows the flaws of the Enlightenment

AN Wilson’s first novel for five years is a major event

By on Friday, 7 September 2012

AN Wilson: A comic novelist in the vein of Waugh and Wodehouse

AN Wilson: A comic novelist in the vein of Waugh and Wodehouse

AN Wilson, an author for whom I have the deepest admiration, has written a new novel. This is something of an event, as he has not written one for five long years. Recently, he has been producing books on history and theology. I first discovered his novels when I was an undergraduate, so I associate his early novels with a happy period of my life. His early works are richly comic, very much in the strain of Evelyn Waugh and PG Wodehouse, so I do recommend them to all who need their spirits lifting.

Of late his fiction has grown more serious, as is usually the case with authors as they get older. He has now produced a book called The Potter’s Hand, which is about Josiah Wedgwood. In style the novel rather recalls the approach of Hilary Mantel, but whereas we all know all there is to know about the Tudors in general and Henry VIII in particular, Wedgwood, though literally a household name, is probably not as well known as he ought to be. He is, in fact, one of the seminal figures of the English Enlightenment – a practical man, who not only produced ceramics that were the rivals of Meissen and Sevres, but also built canals, was part of something called the Lunar Society, a group of thinkers who met once a month, and also campaigned against slavery. He was, like so many of the great figures of the Industrial Revolution, a Unitarian (or so the book suggests).

There are two things that seem to distinguish the Enlightenment in England. The first is rationality, and the second is universalism. Things will progress, if we take a rational approach; and we can get by without divine help.

Reading the novel, I realise that I do not subscribe to this sensible vision one little bit.

First of all, there are many forms of rationality. Which are we to follow? Secondly, there is something called sin. How are we to overcome it, without the grace of God?

Wedgwood invented the phrase “Am I not a man and a brother?” The question of slavery, which he did not live to see abolished, illustrates my point. There are many rational arguments against slavery, but the “Am I not a man and a brother?” argument seems to me to be a religious argument, rather than a purely rational one. It is an appeal to universal brotherhood (a Christian idea), against the very strong economic argument for the necessity of forced labour. And let us remember that it was the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome who were quite untroubled by slavery (yes, indeed, I know, as was St Paul!) whereas it was the evangelicals of the Clapham Sect who spearheaded the campaign for its abolition in the British Empire.

I do not doubt that Wedgwood was a great and good man, but to my mind this fictional treatment of his life shows up the limits of the Enlightenment as much as its strengths.

  • teigitur

    I am sorry Father, but there is no way Mr Wison can hold a candle to Evelyn Waugh! Just my opinion.

  • Just Sayin’

    Hopefully he’s given up non-fiction after his last book, which was critically mocked by real historians.

  • Parasum

    “First of all, there are many forms of rationality. Which are we to
    follow? Secondly, there is something called sin. How are we to overcome
    it, without the grace of God?”

    ## Maybe the question can be answered by looking at what the Enlightenment – which one, BTW ? – was a re-action to.

    “[Paul Hazard] is known today mainly for two works. The first was The European Mind, the Critical Years, 1680-1715, tr. 1952). This
    work examined the conflict between 17th-century Neoclassicism and its
    ideals of order and perfection and the ideas of the Enlightenment. The
    other was his last completed work La Pensée européenne au XVIIIème siècle, de Montesquieu à Lessing (1946) (European Thought in the Eighteenth Century from Montesquieu to Lessing, tr. 1954) published posthumously in 1946. This work was a continuation of the subject matter disucussed in The European Mind.”


    “The European Mind” is about the unsettlement of “Neo-classical” Christianity – the stately, ordered, official kind of religion represented by a “great Churchman” like Bossuet – by (among other things) the reports of missionaries about other cultures that the classical type of Christianity had not allowed for. It is also about attempts to find a new basis for civilisation, one not weakened by the flaws in “Neo-classical” Christianity. It’s a wide-ranging book, historically, geographically, and in subject matter. 

    The book brings out a great variety of causes of unsettlement. The irrationality & immorality of much of what passed for Christianity was one, and the ferocity with which dissent was punished was another; not just by Catholics. So the book by Pierre Bayle (d. 1705) on the absurdity of treating comets as harbingers of doom, and his argument from it, that an atheist society would be a much a better society than a Christian one, gets extended mention. There is a chapter about how the sceptical insistence on reason damaged poetry and other works of the imagination; one abbe went so far as to cut out of the Odyssey everything that was not reasonable – not much survived. It is a very rich book, that covers natural law (but in a new sense), the influence of Descartes, toleration as desirable in itself, limited government, “the noble savage”, the rise of Protestant England after 1688, the first stirrings of what became Romanticism, trying to find a sure foundation for rational certainty, the birth of the gentleman as a new type of man, the use of stories of fictional journeys as means of social criticism “the Battle of the Books”, & much more. The unsettlement was caused in part by things in Christianity itself – but the Christian response too often took the form of getting the state to repress difficult ideas.

    Hazard notes that what the rationalists lost sight of, was that although there was a lot to criticise in Christianity, it was not nothing but superstition, cruelty, folly, violence, & ignorance. The rationalist protest was fuelled by moral indignation – and it tended to throw out the baby with the filthy bath-water.

  • Ghengis

    Whichever humans have the most power are the ones that rule; Democracy is an illusion. Modern man works 70% of his week to be able to survive to enjoy the remaining 30%. It is foolish to try to create a heaven on earth; we must strive simply to create as just a society as possible and that requires courage and power. The liberals have the power because they control the media and the schools. If you want a change in that then diminish their power over the media and schools. Otherwise they will always win.

  • JabbaPapa

    I’d probably blow it out if he tried …

  • theroadmaster

    The propagators of “Enlightenment” values in the 18th century took Christian precepts and turned them into humanistic ideals without a religious context.  They proposed that western society could only flourish morally, socially, politically and economically when mankind has fulfilled it’s full potential in purely materialistic and scientific terms.  At least 2 centuries have elapsed since the beginning of that project and the last century conclusively proved that moral development has not kept pace with technological advances.  One cannot credibly remove idealistic aims like Liberty, Fraternity and Equality from their original biblical frame of reference and hope to meet the transcendent expectations which they bring.  George Orwells iconic “Animal Farm” authored in the 1930′s is a salutary lesson in relation to societies, which lead their citizens to believe that they are heading for perfect utopias, when in reality, nightmarish dystopias are in prospect.  After the Bolshevik revolution of 1919-23, communist Russia tried to abolish all references to a Creator God, destroy religion and make the state the arbiter of all values.  But this state of affairs was revealed for the fallacy that it was, when communism regimes fell like ninepins across eastern Europe from 1989-1993 and religion was one of the important factors involved in those momentous events.

  • Alexander VI

    “the limits of the Enlightenment…..”
    So, Father, what do you  propose as an alternative? A  Catholic theocracy?  

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    No, I just think we need to be aware of the limits of reasoning… my position is that of Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas. It’s all in my book…. http://www.amazon.com/Narrative-Theology-Critical-Thinking-Religion/dp/0754656802

  • Alexander VI

    Father, I agree that in relation to some moral judgements we need to be aware of the limitations of reasoning (e.g., in relation to the status of the early embryo) and that these limitations cannot be transcended/resolved by the reference to an authoritative figure or institution.  

  • Apostolic

    I likewise regret to disagree, Father, as I like so much of what you write, but I can scarcely think of anyone more unlike Evelyn Waugh than A. N. Wilson. I would recommend Ian Ker’s The Catholic Revival in English Literature and the excellent essay in it on Waugh in particular if anyone would like to consider the stark contrast for themself.

  • Apostolic

    correction – *him/herself!

  • Johannes

    And this is what is so wonderful about the Catholic Herald! It is a witness to the truth, a witness embedded within the media matrix that is normally, and so casually, hostile to it.

  • Kevin

    Secondly, there is something called sin. How are we to overcome it, without the grace of God?

    For want of a more sophisticated expression, this is good stuff, as is your previous article.

  • Kevin

    In the context of morality, the limitation of reasoning is the is-ought problem. All of us are subject to it – Christians and non-Christians alike. Christians derive the “ought” from God’s will. Non-Christians make an alternative subjective judgment, such as inventing human rights.