A liberal calling liberals black

Liberals, as seen by Prof. Tombs

The title of Prof. Richard Tombs’s article, Liberals Are Undermining Western Civilisation, made me regret all the nasty things I wrote about our universities yesterday.

Here’s a Cambridge professor – of history! – speaking my language, I thought. Alas, repudiating my view of modern universities has turned out to be premature. For Prof. Tombs doesn’t really speak my language. He only knows a few words of it.

The words he knows defend the teaching of Western civilisation at universities and castigate those who believe this discipline “smacks of racism, imperialism and claims to ethnic or cultural superiority”.

Digging deep into his lexicon of ‘illiberal’ phrases, Prof. Tombs then insists that “there is an important thing called western civilisation, defined by history, not geography.” True, and spoken grammatically with perfect inflection.

But then Prof. Tombs undermines his polyglot credentials by slipping into his mother tongue, the language of a congenital liberal only different from the tongue spoken by his targets by its greater sanity, not greater understanding.

For this is how the good professor defines western civilisation: “It is the sum total of our laws, our values, our arts, our institutions, of the habits of mind and heart that enable us to live, fairly harmoniously, together: to trust each other (to some extent); to look out for each other (sometimes grudgingly); to understand each other (sometimes imperfectly); even to tell jokes about each other.”

I dare say, if that’s all there is to it, perhaps the subject shouldn’t claim pride of place in university curricula. For no academic discipline will teach anybody anything if its object of study is ill-defined.

For example, a medical student will end up confused and misguided if he’s made to study “Childhood sex abuse as the cause of hysteria”. That claim by Freud (along with all his other claims) has been thoroughly debunked by modern science. Hence the object of study is defined so poorly that a student would be better off studying something else.

Prof. Tombs’s definition of Western civilisation is meaningless to the point of being ignorant. It could have been made meaningful and enlightened by tagging on a four-word phrase at the end: “ – all animated by Christianity”. But that phrase went missing.

Defining Western civilisation without mentioning Christianity is a feat of which any card-carrying liberal would be proud – and only if he were an activist, not just a rank-and-file member.

Once Prof. Tombs tumbled on that slippery slope, the law of acceleration kicked in, and he slid towards the intellectual abyss at an ever-increasing speed. Deceiving by omission, rather than commission, Prof. Tombs denied Christianity any place at all among our civilisation’s formative influences:

“It is indebted to ancient Greece for the foundations of its philosophy, partly transmitted by Arabic scholars; to ancient Rome and medieval England for its two great legal systems; to the 17th-century scientific revolution and the 18th-century Enlightenment for much of its modernity – themselves stimulated by contacts with the rest of the world… Its diversity, eclecticism and capacity for evolution are defining characteristics.”

‘Partly’ is the operative word in the first item on the list, for both Plato and Aristotle were studied at medieval institutions of learning long before Arabic scholars had a role to play. Surely the learned professor has heard of Neoplatonism, an influential trend in both theology and philosophy that predated Islam by some 400 years.

It’s true that the philosophical apparatus of the West was largely designed in Athens. But an apparatus is only an instrument: it’s what you do with it that matters. A knife can save a life in the hands of a surgeon or take it in the hands of a murderer.

In the hands of the greatest minds in the history of the West, the instrument was fine-tuned to work within Christian doctrine. Aquinas adapted Aristotle to Christianity, not Christianity to Aristotle. Aquinas’s Aristotle is very different from Averroes’s.

It might have escaped Prof. Tombs’s attention that “Medieval England” credited with producing one of the West’s “two great legal systems” was Christian. This isn’t a case of post hoc, ergo propter hoc, for every item in English Common Law is derived from Judaeo-Christian morality.

It would be tedious to have to point out the Judaeo-Christian antecedents of our legality. Leaving the Decalogue aside, even the dry laws of adjudication are directly traceable to the Old Testament.

As to Roman law, it’s indeed the foundation of most legal systems on the Continent – but again not in its undiluted form. The concepts of jus commune were fitted into complex systems of civil law based on Judaeo-Christian moral premises.

Prof. Tombs doesn’t seem to see any link between “the 17th-century scientific revolution” and Christianity, which is obvious to serious thinkers.

Thus R. G. Collingwood explained why natural science in any modern sense could only have appeared within Christendom:

“Aristotle thought, and he was not the only Greek philosopher to think it, that by merely using our senses we learn a natural world exists. He did not realise that the use of our senses can never inform us that what we perceive by using them is a world of things that happen of themselves, and are not subject to control by our own art or anyone else’s… This metaphysical error was corrected by Christianity.”

As to the “18th-century Enlightenment” to which our civilisation is indebted “for much of its modernity”, that much is true. The problem is that the Enlightenment and the modernity it spawned aren’t so much the development of Western civilisation as its denial.

The Enlightenment itself was a violent and systematic rebellion against Christendom, targeting not just the religion but everything it had produced, including its ancient institutions. This space doesn’t allow going into this in detail – I may selfishly recommend a few of my books on this subject.

Suffice it to say here that Prof. Tombs’s eponymous liberalism was the Enlightenment’s first-born child, and the baby was from the start devoted to belying its nice-sounding name. Its rabid post-natal atheism was manifested not only intellectually, as a denial of Christianity, but also violently, as an orgy of destruction.

The great French medievalist Régine Pernoud estimates that in the hundred years following the revolution, 80 per cent of Gothic and Romanesque buildings in France were destroyed. Note that this outrage continued for a century after revolutionary ardour must have abated.

What we’re witnessing now, the sort of things that so upset Prof. Tombs, is the triumph of the Enlightenment, which is to say the wanton destruction of what according to him doesn’t even seem to exist: the Judaeo-Christian roots of history’s greatest civilisation. That’s why Western civilisation is at best treated as one of many in our university curricula, and not even as primus inter pares.

It always was what I call an asset-stripping civilisation: it gratefully accepted everything it found useful in other civilisations and discarded the rest. But “its diversity, eclecticism and capacity for evolution” aren’t, as Prof. Tombs claims, its defining characteristics.

They are strictly derivative from the religion whose essence is love. Diversity and eclecticism are only useful when they are hoops revolving around the immovable axis. Remove the axis, and the hoops spin out, becoming deadly projectiles.

But yes, liberals are indeed undermining Western civilisation. By the sound of him, Prof. Tombs is one of them, if saner than most.

2 thoughts on “A liberal calling liberals black”

  1. Mr Boot, I think you are being unfair to the Cambridge professor. At his once quite respected institution the very mention of the C-word would lead to abuse, harassment, de-platforming and defunding. And the reaction of some of the undergraduates would be even more savage. The Christians will have to retreat back to the catacombs until all the outrage over connivance of child abuse and intimidation of witnesses has subsided. Moreover, emotion is probably the most common reaction today to any piece of news or any idea that has been put forward. The ‘social media’ platforms are infested with attention seekers who wish to demonise any present or past event. There is a strategy to associate an emotion with particular words in Pavlovian fashion. Thus, the C-word is not the only one to evoke hatred and irrational diversions. Try using ‘white’ or ‘race’ for instance.

    To trigger Pavlov, your words must also be widely disseminated. I mentioned the C-word once and I think I got away with it. And so did Philip Ball, because modern attention seekers do not have the patience to read books. This one covers many of the scholars and ideas that you include in your essay (and no doubt in your books!): Universe of Stone: Chartres Cathedral and the Triumph of the Medieval Mind by Philip Ball 336pp, Bodley Head.

    1. Thank you very much for the reference: the book sounds interesting; I’ll get it today. As to Prof. Tombs, self-sacrifice for the sake of academic integrity is clearly not his thing. Hence he and his colleagues should learn from the Soviet professors of my youth. If they wanted to teach students something valuable, they’d envelope it in the fog of invective, thus protecting themselves from the KGB watchdogs. There would be lectures along the lines of ‘Christianity as a reactionary force in history’ or ‘Christianity as the ruse capitalists use to control workers’. Then they’d talk about the subtleties of Christian thought for an hour, keeping the negative stuff for the last couple of minutes. I did the same thing when I myself began to lecture on English literature, telling my students about, say, Orwell and then defending myself by saying as the very last sentence that ‘all this goes to show to what depths of anti-Soviet depravity the West can sink.’ The students laughed and nodded their understanding. This nudge-nudge-wink-wink worked for a couple of years, until the watchdogs caught up with me.

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