Addendum on the Elizabethan Conception of Civilization

21 October 2019


Akhenaten (formerly Amenhotep IV) worshipping Aten.

In The Elizabethan Conception of Civilization I examined some of the nomothetic elements of the otherwise idiosyncratic character of Elizabethan civilization. In that post I emphasized that the large-scale political structure of European civilization in the medieval and modern periods entails an ideology of kingship in which the monarch himself or herself becomes the reproducible pattern for his or her subjects to follow.

There is another source of nomothetic stability in the case of idiographic Elizabethan civilization, and that is the long medieval inheritance that was still a living presence in early modern society. The classic exposition of the Elizabethan epistēmē (as perhaps Foucault would have called it) is E. M. W. Tillyard’s book The Elizabethan World Picture, which emphasizes the medieval heritage of Elizabethan society. The elements of the medieval world view that Tillyard rightly finds surviving into the conceptual framework of Elizabethan England could be understood as the invariant and continuous elements that constitute the nomothetic basis of Elizabathan civilization.

Peter Saccio in his lectures Comedy, Tragedy, History: The Live Drama and Vital Truth of William Shakespeare (this was the first set of lectures that I acquired from The Teaching Company, which has since changed their name to The Great Courses, but it was as The Teaching Company that these lectures were first made available) briefly discussed Tillyard’s book and its influence, which he characterized as primarily conservative. Saccio noted that recent Shakespeare scholarship has focused to a much greater extent on the radical interpretations of Shakespeare. As goes for Shakespearean theater, so it goes for Elizabethan society. We could give a conservative Tillyardian exposition of Elizabethan society that portrays that society primarily in terms of its medieval inheritance, or we can give a more radical exposition of Elizabethan society that portrays that society in terms of the rapid changes and innovations in society at this time.

While Elizabethan civilization retained many deeply conservative elements drawn from the medieval past, the underlying theme of Elizabethan civilization — the consolidation of the Anglican Church as a state institution — was in fact among the most radical changes possible to a social structure within the early modern context of civilization, and may be compared to Akhenaten’s attempt to replace traditional Egyptian mythology with a quasi-monotheistic solar cult. But whereas Akhenaten’s religious innovations did not endure, with the kingdom reverting to traditional religious practices after Akhenaten’s death (i.e., the central project of Egyptian civilization survived Akhenaten), the religious innovations of Elizabeth I did endure.

Up until the Enlightenment, almost all civilizations had, as their central project, or integral with their central project, a religion (or, more generally, a spiritual tradition). If we regard the Enlightenment as a secularized ersatz religion (or, if you prefer, a surrogate religion), then this has not changed to the present day. Regardless, changing the religion that is identical with, or is integral to, the central project of one’s civilization, is akin to making changes to the center of the web of belief (to employ a Quinean motif) rather than merely making changes at the outer edges of the web.

The Protestant Reformation in England, then, can be understood as the opening of Pandora’s Box. While retaining the forms of tradition to the extent possible, the establishment of the Anglican Church demonstrated that even the central project of a civilization can be changed out at the whim of a monarch, and this was as much as to demonstrate that everything hereafter was up for grabs. Subsequent history was to bear this out. One might even say that regicide was implicit in the fungibility of early modern England’s central project, but it took a hundred years for that to play out (on civilizational time scales, a hundred years is a reasonable lead time for causality). If you can change your church, why not cashier your king?

Many years ago in the early history of his blog, I wrote some posts about Christopher Hill’s book The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution (in The Agricultural Paradigm and The World Turned Right-Side Up; cf. also the links embedded in these posts), which book is a somewhat sympathetic history of the radical movements in early modern England represented by groups like the Ranters, the Diggers, the Levelers, and the True Levelers. Hill imagined that a much more radical revolution might have emerged from Elizabethan England and the revolutionary movements that followed. Now, in the spirit of what I wrote above, I can ask whether, if you can change the central project of your civilization, cannot you also go down the path of the kind of radical revolution that Hill imagined, toward communal property, disestablishing the state church, and rejecting the Protestant Ethic?

This question points to something important, I think, but I will not attempt at this time to give an exposition of what all is involved, because it has only just now occurred to me while writing this. While I have come to see the Protestant Reformation as opening Pandora’s Box in England, I think there is also a limit to the amount of revolution that a population can stomach. As wrenching as it is to replace the central project of your civilization, or to execute your king, it would be even more wrenching to attempt to uproot the whole of the ordinary business of life. Certainly you wouldn’t want to attempt to do both at the same time. If I am right about this, how then would be draw a line between the ordinary business of life, that is to remain largely undisturbed, and the extraordinary business of life, in which a population can tolerate violent punctuations and periods of instability?

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