The quality of English writing has declined, a new book claims, in tandem with a decline in widespread public belief in Christianity
“The chief glory of every people arises from its authors” claimed Samuel Johnson. So one wonders what he might have made of The Spiritual History of English, a book which makes the damning assertion that England’s literary tradition has “disintegrated” and diminished in both content and language as mainstream belief in God has faded
The author, Andrew Thornton-Norris, bases his argument on T.S Eliot’s premise that saw the “culture of a people as an incarnation of its religion”. According to this line of thought, if belief, unified and grounded in the Christian tradition, is undermined and diluted, then so is our literature.
In its place, Thornton-Norris argues, we have a literature that is the result of liberalism in politics – that advances the self-determination of the individual – and relativism in belief. This secular religion, which has also come, the author argues, to dominate all the arts, is hostile to the moral objective truth presented by Christianity, a faith rejected by the liberal intelligentsia because it “attempts to establish a hierarchy [of artistic values] which is elitist, patriarchal, or otherwise an affront to the dignity of free-thinking or feeling individuals”.
However, Thornton-Norris claims that this Christian tradition has, in previous ages, prevented art or the individual from becoming a religion in themselves and which has therefore kept literature free from the “corrupting” taint of subjective art that reflects only the ego of its creator.
He describes modern literature as follows: “Now almost every word that is written is a manifesto, a statement, a theology or anti-theology, rather than an unselfconscious work of art, a contribution to the tradition or communal enterprise, as it was in the Latin Classical tradition.”
By this, the author means knowledge of the ancient, classical world as filtered to us through Latin, and Greek, via Plato, Augustine of Hippo, Aristotle and Aquinas. The ideas of Christianity, a religion rooted in Jewish culture, spread West through Latin and Greek and were given form by an early Church that built upon pagan culture, reflecting St Augustine’s belief that “whatever is good, true or beautiful can be used in the service of the Gospel”.
In England, this Latin classical tradition was “inculturated” in the Middle Ages via the Catholic Church and specifically the monasteries. The result? A creative fusion of the pagan and the Catholic that moulded the culture over the next millennium.
Meanwhile in Europe, Aquinas cemented the unity of European thought by developing the idealism of Augustinian Platonism into a realism whereby philosophical thought begins with the premise that God exists.
This cultural unity, as sustained by the Papacy, led claims the author to poetry such as Dante’s Divine Comedy (1308-1321) an allegory of the afterlife in which the sexual desires of the hero, lost in a wood of sin, are transmuted into love for God. Eliot judged Dante the “greatest European poet” because of the beauty of his metaphysical imagery.
“By the thirteenth century,” writes Thornton-Norris, “religion, theology, mysticism and natural and moral philosophy are in harmony and consistent with one another.”
Then came the Reformation, and with it the theology of Luther and Calvin, espousing the supremacy of the individual conscience and of rationalism, especially with the rise of Puritanism. The result – the rise of the novel, with its “Protestant” emphasis on the thought and feelings of the individual, occupying an egocentric universe split off from Catholic concepts of art contributing to a communal, collective enterprise.
The struggle between these two tendencies is represented in the plays of Shakespeare, claims Thornton-Norris, drawing upon the literary criticism of Ted Hughes whose book Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992) highlights the identity conflicts running through these plays - does England's true identity lie within Catholic tradition or rather within the new rationalism of Puritanism?