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Ernest Gellner was in many respects a late Enlightenment thinker. His central theme, like Montesquieu, Hume and de Tocqueville, was summarised in the title of one of his last books, The Conditions of Liberty. In this chapter I will summarise what he thought those conditions were. I will then look at three areas where his interpretation can be expanded or challenged. The origins of civil society are somewhat neglected in Gellner's scheme and I shall examine one theory to explain how, against the odds, a new kind of civilisation emerged. The fragility of the Open Society in the aftermath of 9/11 and the ‘war on terror’ was not something he could address, and I shall do so briefly here. Finally, I shall consider whether there is an alternative to the type of divided modernity which Gellner both defended and mourned.
Gellner believed that liberty arose out of the central characteristic of modernity, namely the separation of spheres or institutions. The pursuit of power (politics), wealth (economics), social warmth (kinship) and meaning (religion) had become separated and balanced each other. ‘The really fundamental trait of classical capitalism is that it is a very special kind or order in that the economic and the political seem to be separated to a greater degree than in any other historically known social form’ (Gellner 1980: 285). None of the institutions is dominant, there is no determining infrastructure, but a precarious and never stable balance of power.
‘The rise of Japan is surely one of the great epics of modern world history’. Yet it is not easy to obtain an overview of the development of Japanese civilization. Since the 1960s there has been an explosion of research which has overturned many of the older orthodoxies. The Cambridge History of Japan provides us with an unique chance to take stock. Here I will consider the four volumes covering the period from the twelfth to the later twentieth century.
Ernest Gellner is in the great tradition of European thinkers. Poised between social systems, he is compelled to analyse the chasms that he straddles. Few writers in this century have been better placed to see and explain the peculiarities of modern industrial-capitalist civilisation.
The early clash between eastern and western Europe in his upbringing has been reinforced by at least three further intellectual and social experiences which have heightened his awareness of the peculiarities and precariousness of our civilisation. One of these is his professional interest in the great philosophical watershed between the ancien régimeand modernity which took place in the eighteenth century and particularly in the Scotland of his beloved David Hume. Here Gellner finds a specification of the foundation of the new world and all its strangeness, which was given further precision by his other mentor, Kant.
The second reinforcement comes from his professional involvement with Islam. This provides him with an invaluable counter-model. He approvingly quotes De Tocqueville on the fact that ‘Islam is the religion which has most completely confounded and intermixed the two powers … so that all the acts of civil and political life are regulated more or less by religious law’. Islam makes Gellner deeply aware that the mixing of religion and politics is the normal state of mankind; their separation is a recent peculiarity.
Thirdly, there is Gellner's continuing work with the only other major ‘totalitarian’ or ‘closed’ system that still exists, communism. Whereas Islam embeds politics within religion, the Soviet world where Gellner has worked tries to embed economy, society and religion within the polity.
An intelligent undergraduate could undoubtedly make a strong case for dismissing Maine. Having read through subsequent assessments of his work, he would list Maine's supposed achievements and then show how each was deeply flawed. Such a critic would point to the supposed ‘revolutionary’ method, comparative and historical, and show how it was deeply imbued with a form of patronizing Victorian evolutionism which is now both morally and intellectually repugnant. The vaunted width and depth of scholarship would crumble before allegations of inaccuracy and over-dependence on an erring memory. The father of kinship studies in anthropology would be shown to have set up a false theory of universal patriarchal origins which was soon refuted. The great insight, of the movement, of progressive societies from status to contract, would be shown not to be true even of all ‘progressive’ societies, and in any case was already anticipated by many other Enlightenment thinkers, as well as by Marx. The theories concerning the religious basis of law turn out to be a myth, and the theory of the ways in which legal change occurs, to be inappropriate to the common law. The central thesis concerning the original communal nature of property in Indian and Germanic villages was soon shown to be much too sweeping a generalization. The view that simpler societies rest their associations on kinship, and only later move to non-kinship, or territorial, bonds was soon disputed.
In the early nineteenth century de Tocqueville contemplated the differences between France on the one hand and England and North America on the other. He came to the conclusion that he was witnessing the emergence of an unprecedented phenomenon, a new and ‘modern’ world compounded of democracy and individualism. For an inhabitant of France, the shock of the contrast was enormous. A similar shock had jolted those eighteenth-century Scotsmen whose observations of the contrasts between England the Highland Scotland had led them into speculations which laid the foundations for economics, sociology and anthropology as we know them today. Yet the contrasts would have been magnified a hundredfold if de Tocqueville, Millar, Kames, Adam Smith and others had come not from adjacent regions, but from the great civilizations that flourished elsewhere in the world. If they had come from India, or China, for example, as yet little affected by European culture, they would have been even more struck by the extraordinary civilization which was flourishing in England and North America. Concentrating for the moment on England, what were the most outstanding features of this brave new world?
Our hypothetical oriental visitor, male or female, would have found a peculiar legal system, based on unwritten codes and precedents, known as the Common Law, combined with a separate and equally strange system known as Equity. This legal system had many unique features; for instance the use of juries, the absence of judicial torture, the concept of equality before the law. The law enshrined an obsession with property, which was conceived of as virtually private, rather than communal. These strange procedures and concepts of the law were linked to political and constitutional peculiarities. The most important of these was the idea of the sovereignty of the people and the supremacy of law. The Crown was under the law and answerable to the people in parliament; this was not an absolutist state but a limited monarchy.
Historians and sociologists agree that England between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries was a ‘peasant’ nation. By this they often mean no more than that it fitted within the definition proposed by Firth when he wrote that by a peasant community ‘one means a system of small-scale producers, with a simple technology and equipment, often relying primarily for their subsistence on what they themselves produce. The primary means of livelihood of the peasant is cultivation of the soil.’ England would also appear to have been a peasant nation in the more precise sense that it was, to follow Kroeber and Redfield, a society where those living in the countryside constituted a ‘part-culture’ dependent on towns, markets and a state. One consequence of this interpretation is that the basic contrast is held to be between industrial nations on the one hand and ‘peasant’ nations on the other. Thus England is lumped with continental Europe, Ireland and Scotland up to the nineteenth century, with pre-revolutionary Russia and China and with contemporary India and Mexico. It is assumed that useful lessons can be learnt by comparing basically similar social and economic structures. There has been a growing interest recently in refining such a crude dichotomy in order to make it possible to distinguish between different agrarian systems. Following the lead of Chayanov it has been suggested that one extra feature is needed in order to make the label ‘peasant’ appropriate for an agricultural ‘part-society’. This final criterion is described by Thorner as follows.
The central legislative and judicial institutions are the King in Parliament and the King in Council. The King's will is transferred in action principally through the Great Seal held by the Chancellor, hence the records of Chancery. His government is financed through various offices, principally those of the Exchequer. His peace is maintained through the common law courts, King's Bench and Common Pleas foremost amongst them. The defects in justice are remedied through the equity courts arising out of his Council, particularly Chancery. His peace is further maintained through the Commissions of the Peace issued to Justices. These branches of government are highly integrated, of great antiquity and sophistication. They were largely established by-the end of the thirteenth century. Though they were developed, elaborated and modified, they remained recognizably the same until the nineteenth century. The law here administered was the common law of England, including statute, plus the system known as equity. This law was enforced by officers from the village constable at the lowest level, up through the High Constable, the Justice of the Peace and Sheriff, up to the most powerful men in the land, the Chief Justice of England, the Chancellor and the King. The records which this system created survive from the twelfth to the nineteenth centuries and are the most majestic and continuous set of governmental archives in the western world. They provide an immense amount of material concerning the integration of every parish in England into a highly centralized and bureaucratic nation state from an early period. Yet the records are so vast and complex that only a tiny fraction of them have as yet been used by either local or national historians.
This book describes the nature of English historical records over the period 1200–1800. It surveys the records created by the state, the estates of landlords, and the Church. The work arises from an intensive research project (1973–81), which involved the manual and computerised analysis of all the surviving records for two parishes, in Westmorland and Essex, up to 1800. The book considers the administrative and judicial process, which led to the compilation of the documents, the survival and quantity of each class, the location and form of the material, and the hidden omissions, inaccuracies and deceptions.
This introduction is designed to help those who wish to re-discover a world which survived for over five hundred years but is now rapidly vanishing. We speak of ‘re-discover’ for a number of changes in the last fifty years are making that world seem strange and alien, a ‘world we have lost’ in the title of Peter Laslett's well-known book (Laslett 1965). This distancing is partly the result of technological change. As Marc Bloch observed: ‘successive technological revolutions have immeasurably widened the psychological gap between generations. With some reason, perhaps, the man of the age of electricity and of the airplane feels himself far removed from his ancestors’ (Bloch 1954:36). Since Bloch wrote, the pace has quickened and we now have television, computing, nuclear weapons and a host of other technological gulfs. The difficulties in understanding are also increasing rapidly as a result of recent attempts to bring England into the European community. The measures of weight, distance, length, the principles and institutions of law and government which were built up over a thousand years have been or are being rapidly swept away. Old county boundaries and old communication systems are being changed. Alongside these changes is a re-shaping of the physical landscape. During the last thirty years, many of the houses, roads, hedgerows, woods and fields have been destroyed, old town centres have been pulled down, ancient landscapes cut in half by motorways.
The difficulties in studying English history over the five hundred or so years up to 1800 were considerable enough even by the later nineteenth century. Often it was necessary to uncover modes of thought which were almost gone.