Tuesday, 16 March 2010

From Barbauld to boycotts: Enlightenment wisdom for today

I'm nearing the end of William McCarthy's monumental biography of Anna Laetitia Barbauld. Having got over my linguistic pedantry, I'm now thoroughly enjoying it. I'd forgotten, though, how long and disgressive literary biographies can be, with every new text requiring extensive exposition, compared to the straight-down-the-line narrative of political biographies (but then my standard of comparison is probably unfair: the last book I read before this one was David McCullough's peerless John Adams).

In reading about Barbauld and the milieu of Rational Dissent, the political and religious debates of late 18th and early 19th century England have often struck me as strikingly contemporary, anticipating many of our own. And Anna Laetitia and her contemporaries, battling for Enlightenment values in a world still dominated by ancien regimes, offer words of wisdom that have much to say to our own time, with its siren voices of anti-Enlightenment reaction. Here, for example, is Barbauld responding to Chateaubriand's Romantic and anti-rational case for religion, but she might just as well as be writing about Eagleton, Fish, Armstrong and other 21st century pro-faithers:

First examine, then believe, and when you have found the truth, let it engage your best affections, is the order which would be recommended by a sober English divine; but this order is inverted by Chateaubriand, who would have us first like, then believe, and when we believe stoutly, we have leave to examine as much as we please...

Every where imagination and enthusiasm, an imagination certainly brilliant and poetic; an enthusiasm, whether real or fictitious we pretend not to determine, takes the place of reasoning and sound argument...

...[H]is partiality for the marvellous and the romantic is every where apparent..[But] if when we ask ourselves what has the author done? what has he proved? it may be answered, he has proved that the Roman Catholic religion, with all its pomps and ceremonies, is wonderfully adapted to amuse the imagination, but he has scarcely aimed at establishing the truth of its doctrines...[H]e makes us suspect that he receives the whole as a matter of taste than of belief.
And here is Barbauld's brother, John Aikin, writing about the 'antisaccharist' campaign of the early 1790s, which saw opponents of slavery foregoing sugar imported from the West Indies. An early supporter of the action, Aikin later became disillusioned with it, and his explanation could just as easily stand as a riposte to those who advocate boycotting the goods of a certain Middle Eastern country today:
I own I am pretty well-convinced that it can now do no good, for if the public is not more earnest in wishing the abolition, it will never be so; and while the demand is limited, the self-denial of a few can have no effect on it. As I am convinced, too, that the public opinion runs strongly against all innovation, and that those who appear to have nicer feelings than their neighbours are looked upon with an evil eye, I can conceive that anti-saccharism may really throw a prejudice upon the cause.

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