“There’s a deal of ruin in a nation,” Adam Smith wrote to a young correspondent who contemplated with alarm British losses in the American War of Independence. As it happened, Britain absorbed the parturition of the United States with aplomb, growing ever stronger for more than a century. Where are we now? There’s lots of ruin about: no one disputes that. But how are we—we, the English-speaking peoples of the world?—
I am not sure who coined the term “Anglosphere,” but James Bennett gave it currency in his book The Anglosphere Challenge: Why the English-Speaking Nations Will Lead the Way in the Twenty-first Century. Bennett’s book was published in 2004. A paperback edition, with a new Afterword, appeared in 2007. The Anglosphere Challenge endeavored to make good on its optimistic subtitle. The 19th century had been the British century. The 20th century belonged to America. Today, the conventional wisdom predicts that the 21st century will belong to China. But, Bennett argued, “If the English-speaking nations grasp the opportunity, the twenty-first century will be the Anglosphere century.”
“If.” A tiny word that prompts large questions. What were those opportunities that needed grasping? How sure was our grip? And who, by the way, were “we”? What was this Anglosphere that Bennett apostrophized? Winston Churchill’s opus on the English-speaking peoples, published in four volumes in the mid-1950s, principally included Britain, Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. He commenced his story in 55 B.C., when Julius Caesar first “turned his gaze” upon Britain, and concluded as Victoria’s long reign ended. By 2006, when Andrew Roberts extended Churchill’s work in his magisterial History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, the Anglosphere had expanded to include Commonwealth Caribbean countries and, more to the point, India with its 1.4 billion people and the burgeoning capitalist dynamo that is its economy.
The inclusion of India shows that the defining quality of the Anglosphere is not shared race or ethnicity but shared values. It is a unity, as the economist Madhav Das Nalapat has observed, of ideas, “the blood of the mind” rather than “the blood of the body.” Its force is more intangible than physical—set forth primarily in arguments rather than armies—but no less powerful for that. The ideas in play are so potent, in fact, that they allow India, exotic India, to emerge as an equal partner with Britain and the United States at “the core of a twenty-first-century Anglosphere.”
I’ll say something about the substance of those ideas in a moment. First, it is worth pausing to register the medium in which the ideas unfold: English. Nalapat remarks that the English language is “a very effective counter-terrorist, counter-insurgency weapon.” I think he is right about that, but why? Why English?
In a remarkable essay called “What Is Wrong with Our Thoughts?,” the Australian philosopher David Stove analyzes several outlandish, yet typical, specimens of philosophical-theological linguistic catastrophe. He draws his examples not from the underside of intellectual life—spiritualism, voodoo, Freudianism, critical race theory, etc.—but from some of the brightest jewels in the diadem of Western thought: from the work of Plotinus, for example, and Hegel and Michel Foucault. He quoted his examples in translation, he acknowledges, but notes that “it is a very striking fact . . . that I had to go to translations. . . . Nothing which was ever expressed originally in the English language resembles, except in the most distant way, the thought of Plotinus, or Hegel, or Foucault. I take this,” Stove concludes, “to be enormously to the credit of our language.”
Indeed. What is it about English? I do not have an answer, but I note the fact that there seems to be some deep connection between the English language and that most uncommon virtue, common sense. I do not mean that English speakers act any less extravagantly than speakers of other tongues, but rather that English generally acts to tether thought to the empirical world. This is something Bishop Thomas Sprat dilated on in his History of the Royal Society (1667): “The general constitution of the minds of the English,” he wrote, embraces frankness and simplicity of diction, “the middle qualities, between the reserv’d subtle southern, and the rough unhewn Northern people.”
English, Bishop Sprat thought, is conspicuously the friend of empirical truth. It is also conspicuously the friend of liberty.
Andrew Roberts, reflecting on the pedigree of certain ideas in the lexicon of freedom, notes that such key phrases as “liberty of conscience” (1580), “civil liberty” (1644, a Miltonic coinage) and “liberty of the press” (1769) were first expressed in English. Why is it that English-speaking countries produced Adam Smith and John Locke, David Hume, and James Madison, but not Hegel, Marx or Foucault? “The tongue and the philosophy are not unrelated,” the philologist Robert Claiborne writes in The Life and Times of the English Language. “Both reflect the ingrained Anglo-American distrust of unlimited authority, whether in language or in life.”
I have nothing by way of an explanation for this filiation between the English language and the habit of liberty. I merely note its existence. Alan Macfarlane, in his classic Origins of English Individualism (1978), shows that the habit is far older than we have been taught to believe. According to the Marxist narrative, individualism is a “bourgeois construct” whose motor belongs to the 18th century. Macfarlane shows that, on the contrary, “since at least the thirteenth century England has been a country where the individual has been more important than the group.” “Peasant” was a term the English used about others but not themselves. Why? Macfarlane locates the answer in the presence of a market economy, an “individualistic pattern of ownership,” and strong recourse to local initiative that were prominent features of English life at least since 1250. “In many respects,” he writes, “England had probably long been different from almost every other major agrarian society we know.”
Again, one wonders why. English institutions, you might say, the rule of law, and all that. Well, yes, but why were the English peculiarly prominent among the bearers of that beneficence? Again, I do not have an explanation. It has something to do, I feel sure, with the habit of liberty, the contagious temperament of freedom. It’s a trait that has been widely noticed. The Czech writer Karel Capek visited England in the 1920s. Writing about the country a few years later, he observed that the Englishman “stays in England all the time even when he happens to be somewhere else, say, Naples or Tibet. . . . England is not just a certain territory; England is a particular environment habitually surrounding Englishmen.” Santayana registered something similar in his essay on “The British Character” in Soliloquies in England (1922). “What governs the Englishman is his inner atmosphere, the weather in his soul.”
Instinctively the Englishman is no missionary, no conqueror. He prefers the country to the town, and home to foreign parts. He is rather glad and relieved if only natives will remain natives and strangers strangers, and at a comfortable distance from himself. Yet outwardly he is most hospitable and accepts almost anybody for the time being; he travels and conquers without a settled design, because he has the instinct of exploration. His adventures are all external; they change him so little that he is not afraid of them. He carries his English weather in his heart wherever he goes, and it becomes a cool spot in the desert, and a steady and sane oracle amongst all the deliriums of mankind. Never since the heroic days of Greece has the world had such a sweet, just, boyish master. It will be a black day for the human race when scientific blackguards, conspirators, churls, and fanatics manage to supplant him.
The question is whether these mostly agreeable observations should be filed under the rubric “As We Were,” like A.C. Benson’s nostalgic look back at a vanished Victorian heyday. The alarming possibility that recent history has presented us with is that the assault of Santayana’s “scientific blackguards, conspirators, churls, and fanatics” may come as much from within the Anglosphere as from outside it. “Civilizations,” observed the political philosopher James Burnham “die, in truth, only by suicide.” What have we been doing to ourselves?