06 September 2013

South Place Ethical Society

For another look at Victorian progressivism, let’s take the South Place Ethical Society. Like the Boden Professorship, it is something I tried to discuss on twitter as a demonstration of the pre-Marxist flowering of harmful progressivism, but I was not able to make my case clearly, and I also made a serious factual error, which I will come to below.

In this instance my route to the subject is not a Featured Article, but my own reminiscences: twenty years ago, I considered myself a Secular Humanist, and went so far as to join SPES (as it then was).

The history of the Society is recorded on both its own website and Wikipedia. It started as a non-conformist church in 1787, became unitarian, and then discarded any belief in a personal god, becoming an “Ethical Society” in 1888.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, the society was associated with campaigns for free education, abolitionism, and womens’ rights. The central aim was to encourage the major churches to follow their example, rejecting belief in the supernatural in favour of secular ethics.

If Max Müller was at the prestigious, respectable mainstream of intellectual progressivism at this time, South Place was the slightly iffy fringe. Think of it as Chomsky to Müller’s Krugman. You could suggest that the members were perhaps taking things a bit too far, without losing your own standing as a right-thinking person, but it was still influential. From its website:

'The great and the good'! It would take up too much space here to list all the famous people who have occupied the Society‘s platform and been reported in its journal during all these years, but here is a more-or-less random selection: Felix Adler, Norman Angell, William Archer, A J Ayer, Annie Besant, C Delisle Burns, Herbert Burrows, W K Clifford, John Drinkwater, G W Foote, John A Hobson, Laurence Housman, Fred Hoyle, Julian Huxley, T H Huxley, Cyril Joad, Margaret Knight, Peter Kropotkin, Joseph McCabe, William Morris, Gilbert Murray, H W Nevinson, S K Ratcliffe, John M Robertson, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, Leslie Stephen, Graham Wallas, Sidney Webb, Rebecca West and Israel Zangwill.

My original intent in bringing up the society on twitter was to make two points — first, that today’s progressivism was approaching at a rapid pace throughout the nineteenth century, and wasn’t something triggered in the twentieth. I think that is well supported: the destruction of the family, of the church, of the idea of hierarchy, were all deliberate projects embarked on by influential people in the Victorian era.

My second intended point was that the evolution of a protestant sect into atheist leftists was something home-grown in Britain in the 19th Century, and not a foreign import. That claim is not borne out by a study of the society’s history. On the contrary, from 1864 to 1897, which includes the period when it ceased to be a nominally Christian church and became an explicitly non-religious society, it was run by two American ex-Unitarians: Moncure Conway, after whom the society’s premises and now the organisation itself is named, and Stanton Coit, who organised the wider “Ethical” movement in Britain. Their intellectual inheritance comes straight from Emerson’s Transcendentalism, and their activist background was abolitionism. Conway “was asked by American abolitionists to go to London to convince the United Kingdom that the American Civil War was a war of abolition”.

I never heard about the Society’s American roots during my membership, but then US connections were not popular with British leftists during the administration of the first Bush, so it is not that surprising they preferred to emphasise Fabian connections — which were close: this quote is from the Ethical Movement article:

The short lived Fellowship of the New Life, established in 1883, furnished the London Ethical Society with much of its membership when it disbanded. Those who did not join the Ethical Society made their way to the much more politically active Fabian Society, which was itself a direct offshoot of the Fellowship.

Though I am backpedalling on my claims that Britain produced a form of extreme leftism in isolation, the importance of the Fabian Society is hard to exaggerate.

Ultimately, the Ethical Movement slightly overreached — its aim of explicitly converting churches to open atheism was not quite subtle enough. That, perhaps, is the purpose of the “slightly iffy fringe”, to make the progressive mainstream look moderate. But all its practical goals were accomplished in the long run.


A Nonny Mouse said...

I really should comment on this, and the previous article, before both disappear from view. To understand Oxford in the Victorian Era, you have to realise that it was basically an Anglican Seminary, and a rather archaic one at that. (Education throughout the world tended to follow this pattern, though of course the religion varied) To be a fellow, i.e. a don, a University Lecturer, you had to be not merely C of E, in Anglican orders, but also unmarried: this last a pre-reformation touch. The master of the college was allowed to be married.

Thus Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll had to take orders in order to teach logic and mathematics there: he did not advance beyond deacon, pleading his stutter as an impediment. He wrote his most famous but least serious work to Alice Liddell, the daughter of the Master of the College, who with her sisters and mother were the only females about the place. (Prostitutes though did abound, and did good business.)

Newton got royal permission to escape ordination before taking up his professorship in Cambridge: he argued that the terms of the post rendered this unnecessary, though actually his unconventional beliefs in Spiny Norman or whatever would have rendered him an embarrassment.

So, given a competition between Monier-Williams and Müller, we can immediately see that M-W was the right candidate and Müller quite the wrong sort: I suppose it was having a German Queen that put him in the running. I have M-W’s dictionary and it is excellent: but Müller was definitely a force to be reckoned with. In a sane world, the players of Manchester United will come from Manchester, or very close: but when we give way to the cult of winning and popularity, there is no end to the atrocities that can be committed: Justin Bieber for Pope, perhaps?

What is interesting is how you place yourself in this matter. With you it is not so much a Cathedral, as a tennis court. You like to imagine all the wrong sort, lefties and revolutionaries, lined up on the other side of the wire, and yourself and your right thinking reactionary friends over here.

Except that you are not the right sort. The system was set up to benefit monied Anglican Wykehamists. By attending the South Place Ethical Society you show yourself to be a dangerous revolutionary, who wants subvert order and property by questioning God and the Anglican settlement. In a Victorian context you bat from the other side, along with Shaw, the Webbs, Russell and Wells. That there has been some decline since then I recognise: but that does not give you the right to pose as a right-winger for all times: today’s reactionary is yesterday’s successful revolutionary.

Anomaly UK said...

I really don't understand how you can read the post above and think I don't realise that Müller and SPES are on the same side. That is its only point - "another look at Victorian progressivism". The incidental fact that I was a dangerous revolutionary 20 years ago (and, indeed, saw myself as just that) is merely the coincidence that brought it to my attention.

Your sketch of Oxford at the time is helpful, but if we can "immediately see" that Müller was the wrong sort, how was he able to say that “all the best people voted for me, the Professors almost unanimously”. Oxford may have still followed the "Anglican Seminary" rules, but the academics no longer believed in them.

A Nonny Mouse said...

I am not aware where Müller stood in relation to South Place ethicality. That was not my point, which has more to do with the Anglican settlement.

The Anglican Church exists to confirm the Guelph-Wettin-Holstein-Oldenburg family in possession of the throne, and certain landed families in possession of formerly monastic lands. At the time in question it served to give reasonably well endowed positions in University Education to people from the right background and even today it at least gives the run of the mill Englishry the career opportunity of vicar.

Never particularly dogmatic, it was happy to bury Darwin, William Blake and Newton and to sing ‘Jerusalem’, preferring to ignore the belief in Spiny Norman that this implies. Paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, one might ask “What is your religion?” and receive the reply “I’m afraid I have none, I’m Church of England.”

Rather like the necessity of speaking the Welsh and Irish languages for revolting Celtic people, membership of the Church of England is a requirement which serves to keep certain offices in the hands of the natives, and in some cases of a particular class of native. So viewing Oxford firstly as an Anglican seminary and secondly as a conspiracy to keep the in-crowd in place, we can immediately see that Williams was the correct candidate, and Müller lay quite outside this class.

Put it this way. Luton Ladies Bowls Club has a tournament competition against Dunstable LBC. Should they send scouts to recruit the world’s best female bowls players in Togo and South Korea and so totally hammer Dunstable into the ground, or should they decide that they are actually only there to provide a chance for the ladies of Luton to gain useful exercise?

Manchester United have decided that they are there to win, and will admit players from Korea and even Liverpool, but are there not situations when a sporting team’s first function is to be local?

So it was with Oxford, where the Chair of Sanskrit was available to be occupied by some member of the Anglican communion who might help in the training of Anglican missionaries to India. Williams, though he benefited from this restrictive recruitment, was definitely no slouch: his dictionary is excellent, and he was born in India, a country Müller had never even visited, and I think spoke several living Indian languages. That there were professors who favoured Müller is not surprising, but I would suggest that they pursuing a different agenda to the University’s. Oxford and Cambridge existed to train ministers of the Church of England into a respectable degree of literacy: they also had the function of providing employment for promising Englishmen with obvious talents, such as Newton. That they should then turn into world class Universities with no religious ethos is a development not envisaged in 1860.

Anomaly UK said...

Well, on all that we are largely in agreement. The only remaining point of contention relates to timing. As you say, Oxford was once a particular English institution like Luton Ladies Bowls Club, and today it is a universal one like Manchester United. I place the well-supported candidature of Max Müller at the early stages of that transition. You say, "That they should then turn into world class Universities with no religious ethos is a development not envisaged in 1860". I suspect that it was very much envisaged. I feel sure that it was envisaged in 1868, when Moncure Conway, American Abolitionist campaigner, disciple of Ralph Waldo Emerson and friend of Robert Browning and Charles Dickens, spoke at the first open public meeting in support of women's suffrage in Great Britain.

You suggest "they [the professors] were pursuing a different agenda to the University’s." But the status of the Boden Professorship was unusual — in general, the academics, rather than dispersed "members of the university" in Convocation, selected professors, and their "different" agenda was, in fact, the de facto agenda of the university.

The 1860 election was the last time that Convocation chose the Boden professor, as this power was removed in 1882 as a result of reforms imposed by Parliament.

Incidentally, I did previously touch on the role of the Church of England, in an "if it did not exist it would be necessary to invent it" sense.

A Nonny Mouse said...

As I was finishing my first post, I read up on the Boden endowment and now see the matter should be treated from another angle. So here goes. We are dealing with the thorny question of how much control a man should have over his money after his death.

I prefer the Roman Law system, where provision must be made for wife and children, but even there one has the right to dispose of a certain part of one’s estate to the lunacy of one’s choice.

So Lt-Col Boden, whether or not he disinherited wife, children, nieces and nephews, (there may well have been none) decided to leave his money to endow a chair in Sanskrit, as part of the movement to Christianise (protestantise) India. This is a rather strange way of going about things. One would not, if hoping to convert the English to Buddhism, endow a Chair in Latin in, say, Ulan Bator. Equally this approach was not at all popular in British run India, where it was felt that the popularity of the Raj depended on its upholding Indian religious rites and property.

It is a matter of restrictive covenants. We had a problem with this in Aberystwyth- well, about a century before my time. Someone left money to fund a Professor of Physics, provided he was not Catholic or Unitarian. Eventually the University, which had very poor lawyers, refused the bequest. This is silly, because in most cases the candidate appointed would not have been Catholic or Unitarian: in the case of the best candidate being from one of those sects, you merely appoint him Professor of Chemistry instead, and move the Professor of Chemistry to be Professor of Physics. After a few years you just ignore the restriction altogether: the deceased is hardly going to be able to sue, and there is no Ministry of Enforcing Silly Covenants.

So it was with Boden’s bequest. Actually the text merely expressed an opinion, which the University took as a direction. Every succeeding appointment moved further away from the sort of person that Boden would have approved of: in my lifetime the Professor was Gombrich, who was both a Jew by birth and a Buddhist by religion, and currently the University is thinking of abolishing the professorship altogether.

Your comment about what was envisaged in 1868 is, in my opinion, quite wrong. Oxford and Cambridge were so dyed in the wool Anglican that University College was set up in London by Unitarians, and it is there that the revolution of thought was meant to take place. Oxford was still decidedly Anglican orientated in the Edwardian era.

But there is a problem with your apparent desire to situate the ultimate pole of reaction in Anglican Oxford because of course Anglicanism is in itself a revolutionary movement, intended to rescue huge swathes of property from the mortmain of past charitable donations.

Confiscation is the source of the electricity that allows a society to function. My experience of charities is that they are often inefficient and a racket: better managed they could fund the NHS and supply free tertiary education.

Anomaly UK said...

Surely the question of the terms of Boden's bequest only becomes important if you first deny what you have repeatedly claimed, that for the post of a professor at Oxford, "we can immediately see that M-W was the right candidate and Müller quite the wrong sort". That is still the interesting question.

I do not think the fact that secularists set up a rival institution in 1826 implies that they had no parallel intention of challenging for control of Oxford or Cambridge, or that they could not have made any progress in doing so over the next forty years. After all, they did eventually succeed.

That the break with Rome created still-existent problems for reaction is indisputable. It is no doubt simpler for a reactionary to be a Catholic and a Jacobite, and I have discussed the difficulties of precisely what a reactionary might wish to restore at various times, including in my most recent post.