Tuesday, 2 March 2010

English virtue, English vices

In my ramblings around the issue of tolerance, I may have stumbled across the source of Englishness.

You see, tolerance is about putting distance between your personal views - whether concerning religion, politics or whatever - and your civic status. We agree to disagree on some things - perhaps those things that we believe most strongly in - whilst rubbing along together, observing the law, voting occasionally and generally going about our business.

This principled distance opens up a gap. Into it rushes hypocrisy: the believing one thing and doing another. And irony: isn't the distance between what we say we are and what we actually are amusing? And reserve: best not to disclose - or reveal - too much about each other as that way lies a disputatiousness that may bring the whole fiction down.

(I suspect this is all a product of the particular English outcome of the religious and civil wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. England emerged with its modern foundational institution - and vat of lukewarm Thirty-Nine Article-flavoured fudge - the Church of England. In contrast, most places on the Continent didn't find fudge to their taste: they went with the clarity of cuius regio, eius religio, finally established by the Peace of Westphalia, and perhaps receiving its most sweeping demonstration in Louis XIV's revocation of the tolerant Edict of Nantes, the source of some of our first and most fruitful asylum seekers, the Huguenots.)

So that's why toleration may be the prime English virtue: it gives rise to the characteristic English vices of hypocrisy, irony and reserve. Not sure how spanking fits in though...

2 comments:

mahlerman said...

Spanking can be ironic, and thus very much an English virtue. Beethoven believed that Rossini, a great tunesmith, could have been a great composer 'if his teacher had spanked him enough on the backside'

Gaw said...

I suppose it's difficult to imagine spanking done without irony. Certainly old Max Mosley's adventures appeared to have an element of sending-up to them. And how that episode confirmed the cliché of the Englishman! Too stock to be true, almost.