Again, I apologize for the sudden lack of content on UR. Type inference has consumed me. But while we wait to see whether I get the bear or the bear gets me, why not some required reading?
Therefore, I invite anyone and everyone to enter the exclusive Froude Society. (Froude rhymes with “dude.”) The Froude Society is an exclusive and disorganized fellowship of fellow human beings united by intellectual nostalgia for the Old Order, i.e., Western civilization before 1923. The Society, which is not an activist organization, expresses its refined saudade by reading works published before 1923.
Again, the Froude Society is exclusive. Whatever its purpose may be, the method of the Society is not to maximize its membership. It is certainly not a democratic organization. Rather, the Society exists to consider the Old Order collectively, and it measures its work by the quality of its thought. Which is not in any way dated, or at least not meant to be.
To join the Froude Society—actually, to become a deacon of the Froude Society—all you need to do is read three works of High Victorian political and historical criticism. I recommend this order: The Bow of Ulysses, by James Anthony Froude; Popular Government, by Henry Sumner Maine; and Latter-Day Pamphlets, by Thomas Carlyle. These books will change your life, or at least your mind.
There are more books, more authors, where these came from. Without blinking we could add Lecky, Stephen and Austin to this pantheon, for instance; nor are Ruskin, Arnold, and Kingsley to be sneered at. And the remaining oeuvre of Froude, Maine and Carlyle is no less vast. And this is not a random sample of Victorian thought, but the cream of a coherent tradition. And anyone can read it. It’s free—thanks to Google. Now and for the foreseeable future, Froude is more accessible than Stephen King.
The task of the Froude Society is to restore High Victorian thought in the 21st century. And when I say restore, I mean restore to life—not study. The Society traffics not in critical formaldehyde.
The historical subject is always and everywhere a human being. If you had him in your living room, you could watch CNN with him. If you’d be surprised by what he’d say, perhaps you should have read more and studied less. If you disagree on some matter but are not prepared to grapple, don’t be surprised if he throws you down. The past, while much studied, is little read—at least, not on these terms.
To restore an intellectual tradition, as opposed to merely studying it, demands you believe in it and adopt it as your own. Think of it as shooting on location—a critical test of authenticity. To restore the old farmhouse, you need to live in the old farmhouse. Otherwise, you are just a contractor. You can read the Froude Society canon without becoming a Froudean, but it takes a pretty considerable power of resistance, I feel.
The scholars of the European Renaissance did no less with the Greco-Roman texts they found in their monasteries. They saw: here was an alien civilization, now deceased, superior to their own. There was simply no comparing Virgil to the monks and professors of the medieval university. This comparison was one the scholastics would simply never win. And in a century or two, Church Latin was no more. The Italian upstarts didn’t just visit the old villa; they moved in.
If you’re restoring a tradition, as opposed to studying it, you maintain and update it. If Froude had lived another century, would his mind have changed? If he was not locked in a closet, most certainly. It is incorrect to reason from this fact, however, that his mind would have changed in any predictable way. It is certainly incorrect to assume it would have changed in any fashionable way. Old men, whatever their vices, are not terribly susceptible to fashion. Updating Froude is a task of great importance, but not an easy task.
A little while ago, someone emailed me and asked: are there any contemporary writers you admire? A disconcerting question, hard to answer in the yes or no. I could cop out, of course, and say that I admire Deogolwulf and Nihon Cassandra and Carter van Carter and Conrad Roth and Steve Randy Waldman. But this is really not what my correspondent was looking for.
No; he was looking for the sort of writers whose works are admired, promoted and discussed in the New York Times, The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, etc., etc., etc. This in fact was his definition of writer, I think. It is certainly most people’s definition, though few have really considered it.
I think the proper answer is: are there any Soviet writers whose work you admire? Who, for instance, is your favorite Soviet historian? What do you think of Soviet poetry?
But this is recent history, still loaded. Perhaps a better comparison is to the Greco-Roman era, from which we see almost no work of any lasting quality after 150 AD, and even less after 250 or 350. Why were these periods of intellectual decline?
Not because of a general shortage of education or intelligence—the likes of Sidonius had no shortage of either. Yet if you read Sidonius, even his private letters, what you find is flowery garbage. There is almost no content. Content is entirely reduced to style and formalized sentiment. Sidonius is living through the fall of the Roman Empire; every once in a while, he complains that the roads are becoming unsafe; otherwise, we learn nothing.
In early 21st-century America, just as in the late Roman world or 20th-century Russia, as in our society, each year many baby boys and girls are born who could grow up and become good writers—in the sense of, people paid to write, promoted by the Times, etc., etc. And if our system of government changes, perhaps they will. Otherwise, probably not. The baby boys and girls grow up, of course, but no man is an island. Or can teach himself to write. Or even, still today, can be his own publisher.
And this is why I cannot point to literary giants I respect, admire, and could never hope to equal. I can; but the only giants I can identify are giants of a different era. Just as, living in the Soviet Union, you might say that all the writers you like are American. Time, not barbed wire, divides me from my heroes; the principle is the same. I encourage others to adopt this line of thought. There is nothing egotistical about it, just the sad realization that, per Carlyle,
you are fallen in an evil, heavy-laden, long-eared age, and must resignedly bear your part in the same.
And this is why we read Froude and Maine and Carlyle. We read Froude and Maine and Carlyle because, when we read Froude and Maine and Carlyle, we sense ourselves in the presence of a civilization which is, in certain very important respects, superior to our own.
Carlyle’s era had problems, sure. But not the problems we have. And, as Froude writes,
Each age would do better if it studied its own faults and endeavoured to mend them instead of comparing itself with others to its own advantage.
The professors of the later 20th century, as in so much, managed to find the polar opposite of Froudean good sense and extend it deep into pathological absurdity. Except possibly in the Soviet Union, past-hate has never been so common and widely-taught. This is no good sign.
There are many ways in which 21st-century civilization compares favorably to the Old Order. Its computing hardware, for instance, is far superior. Its physics is far more delicate and nuanced. Even I do not much care for Victorian fiction and poetry. And so on. We need not overlook these matters, and indeed must not; but to dwell on them is pathological.
Rather, if there are matters on which we must dwell, they are our faults. Which comparison with the Victorian order, or with any past, may not reveal; the past may have the same disease; all pasts may have the same disease. But this is not the case with all diseases! And if you cannot think of a case in which our age shows comparative disadvantage, much you have to learn. Much has been hidden, both present and past.
My point is: 20th-century scholarship on the Old Order, while sometimes valuable, must be treated with great caution, and the later it goes the more worthless it gets. The professors of the 20th century are quite sound on the 17th and before, increasingly weak in the 18th, highly unreliable and actively misleading in the 19th. By the 20th, you are reading journalism.
Thus it is essential to read the Victorians before you read about the Victorians. Once you have a strong grounding in Victorian thought and feel you could have a conversation with Froude, you can dabble in some of the modern commentaries, just to know what you’re not missing. (Carlyle in particular is extremely distorted, largely by a focus on his least interesting work—I know of no modern biographer, not even Simon Heffer, who really takes his politics seriously.)
As an experiment, I will leave comments on this post off until April 23rd, then turn them on. Please don’t comment unless you have at least started at least one of these works.
Update—May 12: comments are now on. Again, please comment if and only if you have actually read one of these books.