If Naomi Klein and a generation of North Americans coming into adulthood just as the Communist world collapsed in 1989-90 could feel that they were living at the end of history, people in Victorian Britain heard a very different message, and Professor Plumb contrasts the hopeless situation portrayed by Edward Albee with the enthusiasm with which Thomas Macaulay wrote about the Great Exhibition of 1851. “Progress- the results of the application of human reason to observation- was for Macaulay the unifying theme of history” (Plumb) But Macaulay was writing in an age when there was a sense of relief and optimism at having come through a difficult and challenging period, into calmer times. However in 1869 the students turning up to the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford to hear John Ruskin’s inaugural speech as Professor of Poetry were left in no doubt that they would be living in really challenging times once more.
Ruskin said:“There is a destiny now possible for us, the highest ever set before a nation to be accepted or refused. We are still undegenerate in race; a race mingled of the best northern blood. We are not yet dissolute in temper, but have still the firmness to govern and the grace to obey... Will you youths of England make your country again a royal throne of kings: a sceptred isle, for all the world a source of light, a centre of peace: mistress of learning and of the Arts, faithful guardian of time-tried principles, under temptation from fond experiments and licentious desires: and amidst the cruel and clamorous jealousies of nations; worshipped in her strange valour, of goodwill towards men? ....This is what England must either do, or perish: she must found colonies as fast and as far as she is able, formed of her most energetic and worthiest men: seizing every piece of fruitful waste ground she can set her foot on, and there teaching these her colonists that their chief virtue is to be fidelity to their country, and their first aim is to be to advance the power of England by land and sea: and that, though they live on a distant plot of ground, they are no more to consider themselves therefore disenfranchised from their native land than the sailors of her fleet do, because they float in distant seas... If we can get men, for little pay, to cast themselves against cannon-mouths for love of England, we may find men also who will plough and sow for her, who will bring up their children to love her, and who will gladden themselves in the brightness of her glory, more than in all the light of tropical skies.”
THE DREAM OF THE PAX BRITANNICA
Felix Gross in his biography of Cecil Rhodes, who was one of those students, observed- “In the fortieth year of his life... Ruskin, the hot-house reared genius, discovered the existence of poverty, dirt, and misery amongst England’s underprivileged class. He detected the evils brought about by mechanization and found the cause of the rottenness of modern society in the existing economic system.” His message to his students was that “They should with their own hands contribute to improving the miserable conditions of this world”
Here was a vision of a glorious British future rooted in British history: and it was the kind of new gospel that Rhodes, one of the students present, had been looking for . As Felix Gross put it “It was the language of imperialism to intoxicate the youth with the idea of belonging to a master-race destined to save the world.” It was the creed that inspired Rhodes’ career that did so much to shape African history over the next few decades of the spectacular “Scramble for Land”. And for Rhodes, like many of his generation, the history of Rome was a great inspiration in his work.
Rhodes’ constant guide throughout his adventures and travels was the writings of Marcus Aurelius, and his Imperialism could be justified by the greatest and quite recent work of the German historian Mommsen. Moomsen had shown that, though the “Decline and Fall” of Rome described by Gibbon in his classic eighteenth century study may have portrayed what happened at the core of the Roman Empire, the basis of law and order, peace and security that underpinned everyday life in its provinces continued to the benefit of masses of the ordinary people. In fact German historians, while not always agreeing over the precise balance between Roman and Teutonic traditions, had shown that even after the Imperial power of Rome had collapsed the apparent chaos of the Dark Ages was not sheer anarchy with life being “brutish and short”. The legacy of Roman rule meant that there was an enduring effort to maintain some fundamental legal foundation to life. The problem was not the absence of an understanding of the concepts of law and order and justice but a lack of powerful agencies to capable of turning the aspirations into realities.
And History said that no country was better placed than Britain to undertake the task of spreading peace, order and security around the world of the late nineteenth century in the style of the Ancient Romans.
The pioneering German historian Barthold Niebuhr had produced the history of England that helped to kick-start the Prussian revival that raised the country up from its humiliation by revolutionary France. And in his 1913 study of “History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century” Professor G.P. Gooch wrote of Niebuhr:
“In his conversation with Lieber at Rome he often remarked that without his study of England he could never have understood the history of Rome. ‘The ever-growing perfection of the British constitution and freedom since 1688,’ he wrote, ‘affords the noblest picture of collective national wisdom and virtue that history can offer. Without a single form being altered or abolished, the possession of freedom has gradually spread through the whole nation. The greatest freedom existed in all things, the greatest freedom a people ever enjoyed. Never perhaps was a land in better circumstance than England at the time of the French Revolution. She was the pride and envy of the world.”
Clearly the young men with this inheritance and heritage were better suited than most to undertake the challenge of trying to “make this world a better place” and Rhodes took that dream to Africa. But others applied it to Britain. Ruskin was only too cruelly aware that Niebuhr’s picture of the happy state of England that he witnessed first hand in 1799, was certainly not appropriate to the Britain of 1869. So there was a palpable sense of urgency behind Ruskin’s message, a conviction that things needed to be put right now at home and abroad, or perhaps never. Why the urgency?
THE BIRTH OF AN UTOPIAN SOCIALIST
In part Ruskin’s passionate views were the result of a personal experience not dissimilar to that which changed the life of Buddha. Like that the Buddha, John Ruskin had been brought up in an excessively sheltered life. Both of his parents were Scottish from one extended family. But they lived at Herne Hill in South London with John being safely secluded from the sins and distractions of this World in a childhood dedicated to Christ by his mother. therefore.
John’s main experience of the outside world involved accompanying his father on the annual tours that Ruskin senior made around the great country houses of England in selling sherry. On these trips young John got ample opportunity to see close at hand the splendour of that fabulous world of country houses.
Oxford University did not change things much for the young Ruskin and soon this precociously talented young art expert was in print. This naturally led him to spreading his wings to make similar visits to the beautiful artistic heritage on the Continent.
Eventually, however, Ruskin came face to face with the historical reality that lay behind such historic treasures, all the more so when he became a friend and disciple of Thomas Carlyle, by this time a famous British historian and a caustic critic of the evils of the age.
Carlyle had started his writing career as a commentator and translator of German poets, and regarded himself as a disciple, and eventually son, of Goethe. Concern for the state of the British people during the “Hard Times” that informed his pamphlet on Chartism, led him to produce his great and original work on “The French Revolution”. But with personal success he lost sympathy and belief in ability of “the masses” to achieve progress. His series of lectures on Heroes in history signalled a shift in emphasis to the idea that change will only be accomplished by great and powerful men. His next great work of history rescued Oliver Cromwell from the execration that had followed on from the Restoration in 1660. Carlyle’s Cromwell fitted his idea of a modest man of destiny thrown into great responsibility by his talents, and by his determined and ruthless sense of spiritual and moral values.
Ruskin was not of quite the same mettle, but, at his father’s death, he inherited a small fortune that he resolved to give away in “good works” in pursuit of his own brand of Utopian Socialism, setting up an order of St. George. Herne Hill is blessed with a Ruskin Park for the people of South London, and Oxford University is blessed with Ruskin College dedicated to giving working men access to the University.
THE VASTNESS OF THE VICTORIAN ABYSS
But that sense of urgency in Ruskin’s speech also reflected the fact this year of 1869 was a year on the cusp of significant change.
In a perceptive study published in 1962 Professor Burns explored the special characteristics of the period of British history between 1852 and 1867. He called it “The Age of Equipoise”, not a period of quiet and calm, but a welcome period when Britain could focus on progress after more than half a century of having to worry about the implications of the external tides of revolution and reaction. In many ways, however, it seemed almost a golden age of progress, not least as the spirit of scientific enquiry produced revolutions in thought that were as striking and important as the more obvious technological innovations.
As a result we have become accustomed to looking at apparent confidence of Victorian Britain, the size and solidity of so much that the Victorians built as indicating a stiff, smug, vainglorious, ‘pomp and circumstance’ self-satisfied culture. But that solidity was, like the solid constructions of Ancient Egypt that were being excavated, a conscious and deliberate effort to defy the inevitable ravages of time and change. For, if politics seemed to quieten down relatively speaking, giving people more time to think anout things in the round and explore new ideas and projects, the Victorians found themselves in a thought- world of chaos, revolution and disorder.
It was an age when History was at times all the rage, and a popular History like Macaulay’s “History of England” could be a best seller, but the comprehension of more recent times was all the more welcome because Modern History had to compete with a growing body of authoritative and “scientific” studies of Ancient History, Medieval History, Archaeology, Palaeontology, Zoology, Botany, and Biology, all of which conspired to shatter the comfortable man-centred time-frame that had been supported by Christian theology for more than a thousand years. There was newly discovered geological time too that seemed totally inconsistent with the words of the Bible; and the Victorians were fascinated by the fact that there had been an age of the dinosaurs, great creatures which had become extinct because they could not adapt. ‘Adapt or perish’ the fossilised bones seemed to say; and mighty Nature “raw in tooth and claw” caught the public mood more.
But the nineteenth century excavations went on to reveal the human faces of Ancient Rome and Egypt, and the new and unexpected mysteries of Assyria. People had long known about Rome and Egypt ; but the discovery of the Mesopotamian civilizations like Assyria, great empires that had been lost without trace was a reminder of “home truths” in a society obsessed with death.
Evidently ancient history agreed with Biology. Life is a fight for the survival of the fittest - and Humankind along with every other species needed to be capable of taking bold action. It was Germany, however, that was to really launch the new age. Niebuhr had been inspired by the strength of England/Britain. But Britain in 1799 was still a small country. Other German historians like Ranke, however, had “excavated from records” the History of a strong and vital Medieval German Empire, while Mommsen, as has been mentioned, had also shown the working reality of the Ancient Roman Empire. Empire were obviously the way forward.
As a young man Mommsen had manned the barricades in 1848 ; and he wrote a strong and admiring account of the way that Julius Caesar had swept away the old and corrupt Republic. “Caesar was the man of destiny, seeing and doing what was needed, desiring neither to conquer the world nor to call himself King. His aim was the political, military, moral and intellectual renaissance of his degradated nation.” (Gooch)
When this fitted in too well with the “realpolitik” of Bismarck as he drove through the unification of Germany, an older Mommsen explained that his defence of Caesar was not a defence of ‘Caesarism’. He went on “By the same natural law that the least organism is far more than the most skilful machine, so is every imperfect constitution which gives room for the free self-determination of a majority of citizens more than the most humane and wonderful absolutism.”
But the Prussian School of historians had its own star in Treitschke. In 1870 he watched with admiration as Bismarck’s doctoring of the Em’s telegram pushed France of The Second Empire- and a “third” Napoleon- to declare war on Prussia. In the subsequent war Treitschke’s “Ode to the Black Eagle” was the best war song as France was humiliated, and Paris occupied. At Versailles , the stage that the Sun King had built in order to provide a stage from which he could “shine” on the whole of Europe a new German Empire was declared.
“Victory”, Treitschke declared”, “opened up infinite perspectives for Germany, who, with her rich moral culture, would become the instructress of the nations.” ( Gooch)