Wednesday 14 November 2018

An English Virtue

A virtue that used to be associated with the English was reticence which included self-deprecation. Even if this was not always practised to perfection, it was respected and aspired to. You did not draw attention to yourself and, if praised for a particular out of the ordinary action, you shrugged it off as the sort of thing anyone would have done. This attitude went hand in glove with a self-control, understatement and emotional restraint which could be mocked as buttoned-up suppression but was actually a sort of humility and understanding that giving way to emotion was ostentatious and self-indulgent. In my opinion, these characteristics were based on a true spiritual understanding, though unlikely to be expressed as such, which had its origin in an awareness of the right manner for a created being to behave in the light of the reality of its Creator.

I don't think this approach as to how to behave exists very much anymore. It has been ridiculed too many times and, since the 1960s, rejected as insincere and false not to mention repressive or even inhuman. It was none of these things though, as most things have the defects of their qualities, it may have tipped over into those occasionally. But, essentially, it had a dignity and a sense of honour that are very much missing nowadays. It was based on both self-respect and a respect for others that you rarely find now in this age of vulgarity and self-expression.

Most people behave according to the standards of the society in which they find themselves. It takes a rare soul to stand apart from the conventions of their time. But these conventions, like the stars, incline, they do not compel. The great value of this traditional English virtue was that it strove to rise above emotion, not in an unfeeling way but in a way that saw the over-expression of emotion as behaviour centred on 'me'. Self-control is control of the self. It is the refusal to see yourself as the most important thing there is or life in terms of your own feelings. That is why I say it is a form of humility.

Since the English have lost touch with this quality they have become a second-rate people. I say this as a lover of my country but also as someone who recognises that it has been the object of a relentless attack over the last several decades and this attack has corrupted it. It's a familiar pattern. The people who build up a strong and unique culture leave heirs who take what has been won by their forebears for granted and fritter it way. They cannot make the sacrifices their ancestors made because they already have the status and comfort that has been won for them by those ancestors. They become sophisticated, and sophistication practically always leads to decadence as what you might call the pioneer spirit is replaced by urbanity. As I say, it's a pattern that has been acted out time and time again in many places. The energy of the English that created their Empire has dissolved into loss of confidence and self-indulgence. No doubt in some ways we are better than our forebears, but it seems to me that our virtues are often the virtues of weakness rather than strength.

The past is gone and cannot be revived. Nor should it be. But a healthy future is more likely if some of the traditions of the past are respected and not just discarded as old-fashioned and redundant. Not all traditions, of course, but it doesn't take much intelligence to sift the good from the bad. For the English, foremost among the good was their old virtue of dignified self-restraint which nevertheless stood firm in the face of adversity and opposition. If we could start to recapture that we might become worthier successors to our ancestors than we currently are.


Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I agree with your main point. I would, however, suggest that before the 19th century, and even the case so before the Civil War - the English were known for a more emotionally expressive, impulsive temperament than in more recent generations; and this may well be closer to our natural character.

Chaucer and Shakespeare are clear examples of what I mean - and some writers born at the beginning of the 17th century, such as Thomas Traherne and Thomas Browne, are other examples. There was a warmth and spontaneity which was diminished in the 18th century (eg the Georgian era) and then again during Victorian times.

My interpretation of these recent corruptions you describe is that something of this sort was necessary - in other words a greater Romanticism; BUT within a Christian context. The culprit is (as usual) a perverted Romanticism; the perversion being Christian Apsotasy.

Without Christianity, Romanticism (spontaneity, impulse, emotionality, enjoyment etc) just degenerates to selfish hedonism (e.g. late sixties); and then to mere self-assertion and sensation-seeking via inversion and systematic degeneracy (as in the current sexual arena).

William Wildblood said...

Yes Bruce, I know that the virtue I'm talking about is not historically one that the English have always possessed. But it is one they acquired or developed during what may have been their heyday and it may have been a factor in their accomplishment. It's one they were known and admired for but which they have subsequently lost. It certainly could become a stiff inability to express feeling but at its heart it had a kind of self-abnegation.

Brick Hardslab said...

The demeanor of the English is what allows for fair play, sportsmanship, humble champions, and contented players. It allows the greatest achievement to find it's true place as well as the simplest of good things to be understood.

I see this every day in America, which I regard as one of Albion's children. We gave up our sense of decent behavior in sporting events acting like clowns or petulant children while pounding our chests like Tarzan every time we do something mildly well. We certainly do all we can to humiliate our opponents. That is the mark of low culture.

One way this is expressed in America is the behavior of police officers. Polite, courteous, stoic, used to be what was drilled into an officer. Mocking someone was reserved for those who might actually benefit from it. My grandfather said, "Say sir to everyone, even the wino in the gutter. You might be the only man who calls him 'sir' all day long and mean it." Now on tv, movies, and especially those 'reality' shows, the police act like well actors usually bad 'misbehaving' actors in a low comedy. It is something I warned my son about when he became an officer.

William Wildblood said...

Good comment. Thanks Brick. Your grandfather sounds like the sort of man who exemplified just what I was talking about.