A great revew of Maurice Cowling's Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England.
Maurice Cowling (b. 1926) has never gained wide celebrity in Britain and is all but unknown beyond its shores, even though he is arguably among the twentieth century’s most accomplished historians. In part, this is a neglect attributable to something indefinably elliptical in his work—his concern for topics that often excite only other scholars, perhaps, or the simultaneous subtlety and diamantine hardness of his prose—but in far greater part, I suspect, it is attributable to the unfashionable cast of his ideas. His intellectual convictions are conservative and Christian, if idiosyncratically so in both respects, and neither quality endears him to those many British academics and assorted savants to whom this can mean only that he is a dangerous reactionary. Even among the Christian intelligentsia of those isles, his importance may occasionally be acknowledged, but often with more than a little suspicion or even hostility.
I, for one, can attest to the latter reality. I was a postgraduate student at the Divinity School at Cambridge University in the mid-1980s, at some remove from Cowling’s haunts but still within range of many of the ripples that spread from him, and while there I learned how pronounced was the distaste earnest English Christians—students and faculty alike—were capable of feeling towards whatever it was they imagined Cowling represented. Occasionally the rhetoric he inspired was positively frantic, if not slightly lunatic. No one denied his reputation for erudition, clarity of mind, and impatience with vagary—as well as for the profound influence he had on those who chose to expose themselves to his thought—but somehow this reputation was taken as something sinister. In the minds of certain of my colleagues, he seemed a kind of Klingsor in his castle, weaving unwholesome spells with which to ensnare innocent souls (an impression given added strength by the fact of his being a fellow of Peterhouse, of all the colleges the most cordially loathed, regarded by all right-thinking persons as an impregnable citadel of criminal nostalgias).
Not that any of my acquaintances had been Cowling’s student or, as far as I could tell, knew him personally. The real scandal of Cowling for those of my fellow theologians who had any sense of him was not simply that he was in some undefined sense a man of the right, or even that he was by all accounts a rather severe personality, but that—in addition—he presumed to present himself as a Christian thinker. Devout and studious British Christians, after all, are as a rule creatures of the left, and there is rarely any form of social meliorism that the clergy and theologians of England are not eager to embrace, whether or not it has any of the actual effects they desire from it. But Cowling has the temerity to demur from the cozy consensus, to cast a cold eye upon the facile equation of Christian morality with sentimentality, sincerity, or “activism,” and to do so with a power of argument that is disturbingly difficult to resist. And this is one reason, I imagine, for the relative obscurity in which his work languishes.
Which is a pity, most especially for Christian thinkers, who could profit much from an unprejudiced encounter with his work. Were they to grant him more of a hearing, they might find him to be a thinker intelligently and skeptically absorbed in vital questions, and an interpreter of Christian culture who, whatever one makes of his politics, deserves the attention of anyone concerned to understand the fate of faith in the modern age.
If the time for a proper critical appreciation of Cowling’s importance is ever to come, it may as well be now. With the publication in 2001 of the third and final volume of his immense magnum opus, Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England, Cowling has completed a work of history not only in many ways sui generis, but truly magisterial. Its focus is quite rigorously limited, unquestionably, but its scope is vast: it is an attempt to gain an encompassing perspective on the transition of England’s cultural consensus, over a little more than a century and a half, from that of a Christian country to that of one decidedly post-Christian, and to do so entirely by way of the literary remains of the intellectual classes.
Indeed, this last aspect of the trilogy is in a sense its governing logic and its most significant challenge to historiographical conventions. From the first, Cowling eschews all social or material history, sequesters his study from political, economic, or class theory, refuses every invitation to subordinate ideas to events, and fixes his gaze with almost ascetic intensity on the published beliefs, speculations, fantasies, convictions, and modest proposals of the caste of literati who mold the opinions and prejudices of their times. His interest is, as his title announces, “public doctrine,” by which he means the entire spectrum of orthodoxies and heterodoxies propounded by the literature of popular, literary, and scholarly discourse in the public forum; today, as Cowling remarks, “reading, viewing, and reflecting are more central than prayer or worship,” and so it is exclusively of texts and their authors that he chooses to write.
What this method produces, one must immediately say, is in no sense a work of impartial history. Indeed, Cowling regards such impartiality as a pretense, and views the opinionated historian as the more honest and probative practitioner of the craft. In the trilogy’s first volume—which is something of an intellectual autobiography—he speaks of his desire to “describe the contours of a narrow mind” and in the final volume confesses to being “a cynical conservative who has never had the slightest enthusiasm for the rhetoric of progress, virtue, and improvement.” Not that he needs to inform his readers of these things: his treatment of writers is frequently, as he freely concedes, venomous, and he is not the sort to suffer from any excessive anxiety over the prominence of his own personality within his commentary. While the range of his investigations is huge—making no distinctions among philosophers, psychologists, historians, novelists, or any other tradesmen of the written word—the range of his sympathies most emphatically is not. He is a Christian by intellectual conviction (though not necessarily, he ruefully acknowledges, by virtue of devout observance), and a conservative by philosophy and temperament, and it is only where these two currents fruitfully intersect that he is obviously at peace with his subjects.
That said, no one should mistake Cowling for a rigid dogmatist, much less for an apostle of reaction. There is not even any sense in which he could be said to cling to any particular conservative “theory.” He is, in other words, a pure exemplar of H. Stuart Hughes’ maxim that conservatism is “the negation of ideology.” Not the sort who vests his confidence in any general political or economic principle equally applicable to—and equally abstracted from—all societies, he represents a conservatism of the concrete, historically and socially specific. One is tempted to characterize it simply as an attachment to certain traditions, memories, customs, habits of usage and association, cultural forms, and even perhaps particular landscapes; or as a belief in the organic integrity of civilization, and of the adherences upon which civilization depends, and a stern distaste for the damage done when the coherence of culture is carelessly or callously assailed. He is a royalist, naturally, a believer in the established church, a defender of worthy institutions and traditions, and is unimpressed by those who think in terms of grand designs for refashioning the social order from the top down or bottom up; but it would be imprudent to assay an account of his political “philosophy.”
Most importantly, though, Cowling’s conservatism is Christian—a sober fidelity to English Christian culture. He sees that the decline of Christian belief and the disintegration of the social authority of the state-church accommodation have been ruinous to “the historic English personality” and have “flooded the providential causeway which divides dignity and cosmic confidence from hopelessness, boredom, and despair.” And since this is the moral concern with which his history is engaged, his intellectual alliances and enmities are not necessarily at the beck of his personal loyalties and aversions. When, at the end of his history, he lists the figures he has discussed for whom “the reader will detect anything resembling sympathy,” he does not simply name fellow conservatives. He mentions, for instance, the resolutely socialist theologian John Milbank because Milbank is so blithely uncompromising an enemy of modernity, as unwilling as Cowling to grant secularity any of the intellectual, moral, or historical claims it makes for itself. At the same time Roger Scruton, whom an inattentive reader might expect to appear in the same company, is excluded from it, and is treated earlier in the text as, in some sense, an accomplice of that “post-Christian consensus” upon which Cowling’s trilogy pronounces so damning a verdict.
That verdict, incidentally, is one not so much of apostasy as of heresy. It may be the case, Cowling believes, that the Christian epoch has descended deep into its twilight and that when the sun rises again it will be—at least in England—upon a world evacuated of transcendence, but he refuses to concede that this is a result of natural necessity, advances in cultural rationality, social progress, or (certainly) “enlightenment.” In fact, Cowling treats belief in progress as itself little more than a sordid superstition, and he excels at exposing the secret little fideisms (many of them parasitic on religious habits of speech and thought) that inform the minds of “advanced” thinkers and the rhetoric of triumphalist secularism. Religion cannot be escaped, he argues, even if Christianity is now in retreat, and “whatever post-Christian and anti-Christian thinkers may have thought they were doing, they were in fact contributing to a transformation within religion.”
The structure of Religion and Public Doctrine is elegantly simple, for all the vastness of its exposition; the longueurs are surprisingly few, the narrative rarely flags, and the work as a whole succeeds at being exhaustive without being tedious (though, admittedly, opinions on this last point are likely to vary).
As I have noted, Volume I (Cambridge University Press, 1980) is in a sense autobiographical, though it records few details of Cowling’s life. Rather, it situates his project within the field of intellectual forces that exerted an influence—for good or ill—over the evolution of his opinions. Hence it is governed by no chronology except that of Cowling’s own formation: the first two major treatments in the volume are of Alfred North Whitehead and Arnold Toynbee, but the last drifts well back into the nineteenth century, to Lord Robert Cecil (Salisbury). And, by any standard other than the author’s own peculiar intellectual history, the assortment of subjects is an eccentric one: in addition to the figures just named, it includes the “three Anglican reactionaries” Kenneth Pickthorn, Edward Welbourne, and Charles Smyth, as well as T. S. Eliot, David Knowles (whose works this book, one hopes, will revive), R. G. Collingwood, Herbert Butterfield, Michael Oakeshott, Winston Churchill, Elie Kedourie, and Evelyn Waugh; and, inter alia, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Christopher Hill, Lord Acton, Norman Sykes, Owen Chadwick, and Enoch Powell.
Though it introduces most of the themes that will recur throughout the trilogy, the chief pleasure this volume affords—being more diffusive than its successors—lies in the judgments it renders upon individual authors. Here, as elsewhere, Cowling’s willful defiance of the dull, dry, judicious manner of the modern historian is absolute—as is, in consequence, his critical candor. It would be difficult to find a more pitiless dissection of Whitehead’s “organism,” or of the emptily idealistic optimism that allowed it to float with such beguiling buoyancy above the solid earth of human reality; and there is something at once discomfiting and exhilarating in Cowling’s ruthless exposure of the banality, and of the immense intellectual amorphousness, of Toynbee’s philosophy of history and “resentful, self-destructive, post-Christian liberalism.” And Collingwood, for all his obvious brilliance, comes across as perhaps a mite demented, a sometimes unhealthily self-important scholar who “allowed philosophy and history a quasi-religious authority which no sensible man will allow, except inadvertently, to any academic subject.”
Nor are Cowling’s most penetrating criticisms aimed only à la gauche. It is clear, for instance, that he finds Oakeshott’s thought finally somewhat fruitless. For all the insight it provides into the “practical” ubiquity of religion, and of the irreducible richness of moral intercourse in human society, it cannot provide the thing most needful, and seems fatally contaminated by a powerful current of “Nietzschean or Hobbesian amorality.” And he is unsparingly honest about Churchill, who emerges as a redoubtable champion of civilization, without question, but also as a man whose mind was shaped by materialism, Darwinism, and a semi-pagan and even nihilistic pessimism, to whom “Christian reactions . . . should be . . . mixed.” Eliot’s observations on the decay of Christian culture in England are presented as very accomplished expressions of suspicion, dismay, melancholy, or foreboding, but mostly devoid of concrete content; and even of Eliot’s poetry Cowling predicts that “very little of it will be durable once the generations that have learnt to follow it have passed away. Eliot will not speak directly to the future.”
With Volume II, subtitled Assaults (Cambridge Unversity Press, 1985), Cowling’s project comes into focus, even as the number of subjects expands: Newman, Keble, Pusey, Gladstone, Manning, Ruskin, and Mill; George Eliot, Herbert Spencer, T. H. Huxley, and Leslie Stephen; Gilbert Murray, James Frazer, H. G. Wells, Belloc, Chesterton, and Shaw; W. H. Mallock, Winwood Read, Havelock Ellis, D. H. Lawrence, and Bertrand Russell. (I could go on.) It is in this volume that the case is most strikingly made that the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ struggle between Christian and anti-Christian thinkers for the moral and social future of England was not—as might be supposed—a struggle between religious and post-religious thought, but a war of creeds. The story begins with the Christian attack—by high-church Tractarians and reflective Protestants—upon the post-Christian mythologies of the eighteenth century, and its occasionally confused attempt to turn back the tide of unbelief. But the plot becomes most engrossing where Cowling turns to the tradition he calls “ethical earnestness”: that is, the “progressive” assault on Christianity from the time of Mill, Eliot, and Spencer to that of Russell and Lawrence. It is here that Cowling begins, in scrupulous detail, to identify the sources of the religious consciousness of post-Christian England. “Ethical earnestness,” as he recounts its development, consisted in a profound, often inchoate, but semi-mystical devotion to social improvement and rational morality as alternatives to the superstition, obscurantism, and tyranny of the old faith.
It was not, however, in any meaningful sense “post-religious,” as it demanded of its votaries absolute and fervent devotion to a principle—social cohesion, human development, “Life”—that was itself not susceptible of doubt. In a sense, it was a new cosmology allied to a new moral metaphysics, constantly in ferment, producing movements and sects and new beginnings, but never straying beyond the boundaries of the world in which it believed: a universe of Darwinian struggle that, precisely in its savage economy of “nature red in tooth and claw,” demanded of conscience that it assist evolution in its ascent towards higher ethical realizations of the human essence. In Cowling’s account, one comes to see not only the broad unity of the school of “ethical earnestness,” but the final incoherence of its ethos: the closed order of nature is at once merciless chaos and the source of our ethics; morality is both obedience to nature and rebellion against nature’s implacable decrees; progress demands at once universal brotherhood and (especially among socialists) a ruthless eugenic purification of the race. What unifies this farrago into something like a moral vision is its most obviously religious element: complete devotion to the future as an absolute imperative, requiring in consequence a renunciation of all faith in and charity towards the past—or, for that matter, the present.
This is both the most substantial and most diverting section of Religion and Public Doctrine, thronged as it is with sharply drawn portraits and bedizened with flashes of mordant wit. Cowling is extremely good at showing how, say, George Eliot’s anti-Christian misunderstanding of Ruskin could so easily ally itself to her Feuerbachian ethical humanism, emanating its pale Dorotheas and paler creeds. But more enjoyable, and at the same time chilling, are the accounts of figures like Read (with his Malthusian, Darwinian, Comtean ideology and quaint utopianism of electricity, synthetic nutrition, and obedience to nature) or Ellis (with his worship of Art and Life, and his Nietzschean, Freudian, Frazerian dogmatism). Cowling’s account of the turn of “ethical earnestness,” in thinkers like Wells, Shaw, or Lawrence, towards a grimmer social and sexual vision—less hospitable to liberal optimism, more marked by the influences of Schopenhauer, Wagner, Nietzsche, Ibsen, and Freud—reminds one that a certain cold, pervasive fanaticism in this tradition might have carried “ethical earnestness” towards a politics considerably less fond and feckless than the wan, sincere, liberal secularism of post-Christian Britain. (Indeed, one finds oneself wondering whether the failure of English progressivism to produce some suitably demonic thinker who could have caused the tradition to precipitate into conscious nihilism can be attributed to anything other than the habitual British aversion to bombast and the cautionary example of Nazi Germany.)
In any event, Volume II concludes with an examination of those Christian apologists who applied themselves to the task of thwarting the march of secularization to ultimate victory: Mallock, Coventry Patmore, Chesterton, Belloc, Christopher Dawson, etc. Sadly, however, Cowling finds little here to encourage or detain him; however sympathetic he may be to one or all of these figures, none of them to his mind provides a very substantial riposte to the forces of modernity. Chesterton, for instance, quickly exhausts Cowling’s patience with his jollity, paradox, and alternating appeals to common sense and to fairyland irrationality. Of the much-revered The Everlasting Man, Cowling concludes that its attempts at a philosophy failed through its author’s incapacity, and that all its virtues taken together “did not stop the structure of the book cracking under the strain of its own weightlessness.”
Thus, if Volume II chronicles the war waged for the future between Christian and post-Christian intellectuals, Volume III, subtitled Accommodations, is a somber survey of the aftermath, and tells of one side’s resigned retreat from the field of battle and of the other’s consequent relaxation from a posture of arrogant triumphalism to one of mere contemptuous complacency. It is an immense volume, which takes a huge variety of figures into its capacious embrace—Carlyle, Kingsley, Burke, Disraeli, Darwin, Matthew Arnold, Dickens, Tennyson, Browning, Pater, Wilde, Macaulay, Acton, Inge, Shaftesbury, Tawney, Gore, Figgis, C. S. Lewis, Alasdair MacIntyre, Aldous Huxley, Elgar, Parry, Keynes, Hayek, Eagleton, Koestler, and George Steiner (to name a few)—but its form is fairly elementary: it addresses, in order, the accommodationism of English Christian latitudinarians, attempting to adjust themselves to the supremacy of secularist public doctrine; the reaction of more traditional Christian thinkers against the innumerable little apostasies and capitulations latitudinarianism entails; and the final victory of the public orthodoxy that now nourishes the imperturbable sanctimony, hectoring moralism, tender authoritarianism, and infinite dreariness of post-Christian Britain.
Cowling’s account of the internecine, twilit struggle between accommodationism and a more defiant Christian orthodoxy begins with a trenchant treatment of Carlyle, makes its way through mires and over ridges of “sweetness and light,” liberal race theory, social theologies, and many other halfway houses between the cultures of faith and of disenchantment, sojourns for a time with the last generation of Christian apologists who had any cause to hope for a public hearing, and concludes with an interlaced treatment of Alasdair MacIntyre’s retrieval of the rationality of “tradition” and the aforementioned Milbank’s militant, quixotic campaign to drive back all of modernity into its lair (except, notes Cowling, for socialism, which “stands out like a sanctified sore thumb”). But the book draws to its conclusion with an account of the concrescence of England’s new religious consensus into its present form: the arrival of Darwinian science, the rise of the “science” of psychology, the ascendancy in literature and the arts of post-Christian theories and practices, the development of macroeconomics, the evolution of British socialism and imbecile academic Marxism, the triumph of analytic philosophy, and many other of the broad currents that have subtly combined to replace faith in Christ with an (equally dogmatic) faith in sincerity, common sense, and social evolution.
It would be dishonest to deny that the great (and palpably wicked) pleasure that Religion and Public Doctrine affords its reader comes from the constantly flowing stream of caustic wit and surgically precise vituperation that runs through the entire work. The commentary rarely takes leave of any subject without leaving saber scars behind. This is, as I have said, part of Cowling’s method; he sees the writing of history not as the impassive recording of neutral facts, but as an act of interpretation that speaks out of the preoccupations and experiences of the present by filtering the past through the prism of the historian’s sensibility and reason. Still, principled method or not, it makes for very entertaining reading.
At times, the invective is bruisingly terse. Macaulay tended “to slobber over Bentham as a legal reformer”; “In his later years [Shaw] became a bore, windbag, and licensed clown”; “Orwell had a nasty mind and, probably, a nasty body”; “[Anthony] Kenny’s philosophy is derivative, middle-rank, and wanting in the higher creative power”; and so on.
At its best, however, it is an invective of anfractuous fullness, which compresses large verdicts into small spaces. For example:
[Raymond] Williams wrote at two levels—colloquially and self-confidently in confirming for audiences of his own persuasion the truths that they shared with him; opaquely and mistily in establishing the truth and coherence of those persuasions.
As a religious thinker, [Matthew] Arnold had an attractive sadness and resignation towards inevitabilities. . . . But there was an unattractive aspect to this as well—a fatalism which made a strategy out of testing the wind and blowing with it, and a bland, accommodating, acquiescent Anglican grandeur which, while regretting the inevitability and lamenting the loss, was perfectly willing to accommodate away its own grandmother.
Or this uncomfortably accurate pastiche:
[C. S.] Lewis bore the marks of Inkling-speak—the language of the pipe-smoking, beer-drinking “jolly middle earth” whose idea it was that Christ had avoided “idealistic gas,” that mankind had got into a “terrible fix,” and that it had to avoid “religious jaw” and “cut out” the “soft soap” which had been “talked about God for the last hundred years.”
Or (one more example) this:
The courtroom scenes [in Forster’s Passage to India] were . . . quintessentially Hollywood. . . . The Indian magistrate was a Hollywood hero, “Esmiss Esmoore’s” memory a Hollywood effect, and Miss Quested’s withdrawal of her allegations a vindication of Hollywood truth and right.
And then there is Cowling’s trick of striking several targets at once. “[Ellis] was a bore, though less of a bore in socio-religious matters than Forster, say, or Auden”; “In reading Collingwood’s later political ravings, one is reminded of Popper’s The Open Society . . . which was written at the same time as The New Leviathan, and was subject to the same sort of hysteria”; and so forth. Allied to this, moreover, is a talent for ambiguous praise: “[Owen Chadwick’s] strength, like that of his brother, Henry, is that combination of blandness, dignity, and learning which have been a special characteristic of the Anglican clergy.”
The great strength of such writing is that it makes light reading out of 1,600 pages of close textual analyses. Its only weakness is that it can produce so dominant an impression in the reader’s mind as to obscure the prudent care and moral seriousness of the argument being advanced. And it is an argument that demands a hearing. Nothing could be more important for an understanding of modernity (even if it is reached through a study only of the intelligentsia of England) than to recognize that we are not living in an age in which religious adherence has simply withered away before the parching wind of Enlightenment reason, but in one in which a new evangel has—over the course of a few centuries—displaced the old, and with it the cultural energy and rationale of Christian Europe: a new religion, whose most devout believers are as zealous, intolerant, and absolutist as any faith has ever produced, and whose vast silent constituency is as unreflective, passive, and pliant as any enfranchised clerisy could desire. It is good for Christians to grasp that, even in this hour, we struggle not simply with disillusion and demystification, but with strange gods.
However, Cowling’s readers might protest, such knowledge is of little use if one does not—as Cowling refuses to do—lay out what the political and economic implications of Christian adherence should be. But, on this, Cowling is clear: he sees no legitimate liaison between Christian culture and a particular ideology. No less than the liberal religion that has captured the high ground of public doctrine, Christianity is a cultural and spiritual ecology, an impulse towards the ideal or ultimate that takes form in the bones and sinews (the cultural grammar) of a civilization, as well as a corporate and private habit of orientations, limits, practices, and possibilities—all of which allow for various social philosophies to arise and flourish, but which cannot be reduced to any of them. And this leads Cowling to make an assertion that, to idealistic Christians, might seem mildly perverse:
A religion ought to be habitual and ought not to involve the self-consciousness inseparable from conversion. What Christianity requires is a second-generation sensibility in which . . . struggle has ceased to be of Christianity’s essence. This is not a situation which can easily be achieved in the contemporary world; indeed, the religions which can most easily avoid self-consciousness in the contemporary world are the secular religions which are absorbed at the mother’s knee or from the mother’s television set.
In one sense, this might seem a counsel of hopelessness. Still, the burden of Cowling’s argument is that, if indeed secularization is not what happens when religion withdraws, but is itself the positive artifact of an irrepressible religious agitation within human culture, then “it would be absurd to assume its permanence,” because “the instinct for religion that lurks beneath the indifference of the public mind may yet surprise by its willingness to be led astray by Christianity.”
Which leaves me, at least, with only one (unexpected) question: whether, despite Cowling’s keen understanding of England’s cultural quandary, his method of writing history has not led him towards something like faint and undue optimism. His only suggestion for how a second-generation Christian cultural sensibility might be recovered, apart from some cultural crisis that would spark a new generation of conversions, is “the slow influence which might be exerted by a Christian literature.” At this point, though, I wonder whether Cowling’s study might not profitably ballast itself with some element of material history. By all means, we should always be guilty of what Marx called ideology, and recognize that ideas shape culture at least as decisively as material conditions shape ideas, but one must ask whether, by confining his work to the rarefied atmosphere of intellectual discourse, Cowling does not allow himself to keep artificially alive debates that history has already decided.
At the level of general culture, England is post-Christian in ways that no one with a finite life should have the patience to enumerate—the deepening coarseness of popular culture, the spreading violence, Britain’s pervasive malice towards its own cultural inheritance, demographic inanition, infantile politics, an almost total desiccation of a hunger for transcendence. While it is commendable that Cowling denies himself the glamor of the unheeded Cassandra, or of the dour encomiast possessed of desolate omniscience, one must observe that an ancient and syphilitic demimondaine is unlikely to revert to virgin purity again. There is a qualitative difference between the savage energy of the pagan heart and the paralytic morbidity of the post-Christian. Each comprises in itself a kind of nihilism, but the former is frequently unconscious of this, moved as it is by the vitality of natural appetites, dreads, and elations that can carry it from the world of the gods into the Kingdom of God; the latter is not only conscious of its nihilism, but proud of it, and easily converts private despair into general resignation, incuriosity, sterility—both animal and spiritual—and the pitiable charade of a kind of wry, disabused urbanity.
And yet, no doubt, Cowling is right. Can these bones live? It would be impious to say they cannot, and Christianity has perhaps triumphed over crueler gods than these. Cowling understands quite well the magnitude of what has been lost to secularization, and the grim prospects for any attempt to rebuild the edifice of Christian culture on English soil. Nonetheless, he also understands that at the heart of secularity are a thousand arbitrary and fanatical cultural decisions masquerading as realism, ethics, or progress; and, by relentlessly exposing their arbitrariness, his history makes conceivable the ultimate collapse of the religion they sustain. Which suggests that—as my divinity school friends of old would never have credited—Cowling’s very aloofness from the political enthusiasms of the moment, and his severe and solvent habit of critical suspicion, allow him to see the cultural situation around him not so much as a wasteland as a, perhaps, fallow field, and so to regard the present and the future with neither pessimism nor optimism, but with something like a wisely diffident charity. Copyright (c) 2003 First Things 138 (December 2003): 34-41.