The Unexpected Triumph Of Arcadia

For the past couple of days or so I have been listening to an audiobook (review forthcoming) about the long and ambivalent relationship between the Herbert family of Pembroke and Montgomery and the Tudor and Stuart houses between 1530 and 1640.  Although this book was published long before there was any expectation that Great Britain would vote to exit the European Union, the author’s description of the tension between the bureaucratic ideals of the corrupt and centralizing court and the pull of tradition as well as patriotic and local identities and the belief that society should be governed by consent with a respect for history and memory is precisely the same tension that led to the exit of Great Britain from the European Union recently [1] and that led in the 17th century to the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution.  Let us hope that this recent political difficulty does not have the same violence and bloodshed as happened before, but let us look at the connection as a reminder of what could go wrong.

Among the more intriguing aspects of the book, and its more relevant and salient points, is that among the British nobility and gentry (including the Herberts) there was a strong tendency against the court tendency that emphasized elements of culture that were traditional, consensual, and covenantal in nature.  In the face of a corrupt, cosmopolitan elite, these tendencies were never entirely overwhelmed in England, and, perhaps equally important for my fellow American readers, they were brought over the Atlantic and have become an equally important aspect of the American political identity, and analogues of them can be found in many societies and institutions.  In many ways, we ought to expect there to be a tension between continuity and change, between centralization and localization, between coercion and consent.  It ought to come as little surprise that the EU prompted such a response from a nation that, at best, was only reluctantly and partially a part of the European project and that always maintained a separate identity and a deep connection with local history and institutions that has, at least for now, proved to be more powerful than the lure of wealth coming from greater centralization and unity with a larger European Union.

Since this reality is difficult to understand, let us seek to view it with more sympathy than is common.  For one, this pull towards what some would call a sense of Arcadianism, based on the classic 16th century work Arcadia, which praised the rural and local order of an old-fashioned England as a sort of Edenic state free of courtly corruption, is usually treated rather harshly by many cultural commentators.  These commentators, who, as members of the centralizing elite, often find it hard to put themselves in the place of those who are traditional-minded, at least in part, and who are skeptical of grand political programs run by “rational” bureaucrats who are creatures of the court and dependent on large government establishments and lack understanding or sympathy for localities and traditions and the strong pull of historical memory.  Yet if we consider the well-being of the larger people as the highest aim of any authority or any behavior undertaken by any authority, and if we consider continuity and consent as being important aspects of that well-being, by noting that we are not strictly rational beings but also beings of complicated psychological needs, including the needs for safety and security, then we can easily gain understanding for the voice of caution and of a desire to preserve the best of the past that has survived to this day as representing an important brake on the body politic that keeps societies from rushing headlong into their own destruction in the pursuit of narrowly-focused ideals in the absence of widespread consensus.

Rather than be condescending and upset at the rise of populists and principled defenders of traditional identity and culture, we ought to see the existence of political and cultural crises as a sign that elites have failed to gain sufficient buy-in for their cultural and political worldviews and programs.  To be sure, many political authorities and central governments have the power, at least for a time, to push through their program.  Yet in so doing, they end up proving the paranoid fears of those who are quick to rebel, and end up provoking powerful counterforces that often lead to violent conflict.  Political capital gained over decades and even centuries can be squandered in a few years by a few spectacularly bad decisions by leaders who do not realize that the existence of such serious dissent is the signal of great danger, and that building consent for the legitimacy of one’s authority, and the foundation of consensus even where there is disagreement is of the utmost importance.  The proper response to widespread traditional disagreement is not heaping amounts of ridicule and abuse, which will only antagonize matters further, but is rather to spend time and effort on communication and on building bridges, lest the process of building walls reach the level where no communication or cooperation is possible [2].

Yet it seems rare to find leaders and authority recognizing dissent as an opportunity to communicate and to build (or rebuild) a larger sense of consensus and agreement where occasional disagreements do not lead to massive crises of legitimacy.  Disagreement can be tolerated only where there is a larger sense of agreement and unity in which the disagreement serves to recognize the differences between people or groups without threatening anyone.  We have to ask whether we value our own pet ideas or whether we value the well-being of our societies and institutions more.  Sure, we might be ram through one or two controversial decisions or policies but the cost will be the inability to do anything else.  And if we really value our personal and political agendas than we value the other people we share a house with, sit in church with, or who are our neighbors and fellow citizens, we deserve the repercussions we get when many of those people turn out to be so offended by out tyrannical oppression that they rise up against us and demand a return to some earlier and less corrupt age.  We only have ourselves to blame if those who love unity and consensus and continuity throw us over the side of the boat when we have proven ourselves to lack any sort of loyalty to the institutions that we lead.  Let that be a caution to us, so that we serve rather than bully.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, History, Military History, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Unexpected Triumph Of Arcadia

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Althrop | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Audiobook Review: Quarrel With The King | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: The Ghost Of Conversations Past, Present, And Future | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: Audiobook Review: Great Courses: A History Of England From The Tudors To The Stuarts: Part 1 | Edge Induced Cohesion

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