Lord Northbourne

In the fourth chapter of his book Religion in the Modern World, Walter James, 4th Baron Northbourne, provides a wonderfully clear and succinct précis of the ideas at the basis of Traditionalist thought:

Tradition, in the rightful sense of the word, is the chain that joins civilization to Revelation. It comprises all the distinctive characteristics that make any given civilization what it is, including those that can more specifically be called religious. Every Divine Revelation has inaugurated not only a new Religion, but also a new civilization, each with its own particular advantages and limitations, its own genius, its own point of view and its own arts and sciences.

Tradition and civilization are not mere accidents of time and place, nor are they human inventions, nor yet mere mechanical responses to environment, that is to say, products of evolution in the modern scientific sense of the word. … Tradition could be said to make history rather than to be made by history. Its origin is the kind of direct divine intervention we call Revelation, and all its potentialities are present, though not manifested, at its inception.

The chain of Tradition is usually considered in its historical, temporal or ‘horizontal’ aspect, though it also has a social, spatial or ‘vertical’ aspect. In its historical aspect it is a real spiritual heredity, the continuity of which is preserved by the initiatic transmission of a function to each individual from his predecessor. We are familiar with a sacred or initiatic transmission of function in the case of priests and kings, and as a matter of history in the case of certain crafts, particularly that of building. In a fully traditional civilization a comparable kind of transmission exists, in many different outward forms, in respect of every essential function in the community. It ensures the effective integration of each function with the providential pattern of the civilization in question, so that there is nothing that is not sacred, at least in principle, and the words spiritual heredity have a real meaning.

There is indeed a close analogy with physical heredity, the continuity of which is unquestionable. Physical heredity is the basis of the unity of the family and the race, which exist only for so long as their hereditary continuity is unbroken. A break in that continuity is final: it can by no conceivable means be repaired; a family that has died out has died out forever. It is cut off from its origin. Anything that may replace it is not the same family, whatever it may be called. The rupture of a spiritual heredity can be no less final, and for a comparable reason, namely, a break in the chain of tradition.

The chain of Tradition in its social or vertical aspect appears as the hierarchy of functions which unifies the collectivity, much as the various organs of a single living creature are unified by their subordination one to another, as well as by their interdependence. A firmly established hierarchy of functions is a condition of unity and vitality in a civilization; it forms a chain that links the highest to the lowest, as well as a chain that links the past with the future. In such a society a man’s function is more important than his individual character. Without an established function man can be neither useful nor content. Where such a hierarchy exists most people will exercise their function through service to a hierarchical superior, who is regarded, not so much as an individual, but as the holder for the time being of an office necessary to the maintenance of the coherence of the civilization, and as representing a link in the chain through which the spiritual influence descends and gives life to all. The effective continuity of the chain is independent of the fact that the holder of a particular office may sometimes, as an individual, be unworthy of his position. Thus the humblest function is integrated with the whole, and every man can feel, though it be but subconsciously, that his work is justified by something greater than its tangible results.

Modern civilization is built on a very different foundation, one in which standard of living has become the only criterion that is taken seriously. Tradition, Religion and everything else are subordinated to that point of view, to which the epithet ‘profane’ is entirely appropriate, since its derivation relates to those who stand outside the sacred precinct.

The change in point of view from traditional to profane really originates in a gradual restriction of the field of vision, associated with the centrifugal tendency of all manifestation, exemplified in time by the evident fact that everything gets progressively farther from its origin. The result is a kind of myopia limited in its range to the world of sensorial perceptions. What is claimed as greatly increased knowledge of the universe is in fact confined to a relatively unimportant aspect of that universe, namely its outward appearance.

There is almost a kind of willfulness about all this, a deliberate relegation to a subsidiary position of everything that is above the plane of earthly existence. There is a calculated rejection of the celestial in favor of the terrestrial in almost all we do, if not in all we say. The fact is that, willfully or not, we no longer in general see heaven and hell as realities, nor do we sense that reality of which all visible things are but shadows. The profane point of view is therefore highly unrealistic, though it prides itself on its realism.

The two points of view situate the ultimate reality of things at two opposite poles—matter and the Spirit. Consequently in every field of thought and activity they are in conflict. For instance, from the traditional point of view, the history of the world had a divine beginning and must therefore also have a divine end, a Day of Judgment, so that history is cyclical and not continuous nor of indefinite extent. From the profane point of view history is regarded as indefinite, without beginning and without end, like a boundless matrix filled with events and things of varying but always relative importance. No place can be found for notions of creation or Revelation or Judgment.

In the first case the reality of the world is contingent on the superior reality of a Creator, Preserver, and a Judge; in the second case time and space and their contents alone are real and everything else, including the truths of Religion, is conjectural. In the first case there is an absolute Truth, reflected more directly in Religion than in anything else, so that only certain applications of it are matters of opinion; in the second case all truth is relative, and there is nothing except that which can be directly observed and measured which is not a matter of opinion. In the first case a man normally allows his Tradition to think for him to a greater or lesser extent, relying on a wisdom that is postulated to be the divinely ordained source of his Tradition. In the second every man must think for himself, at least to the extent of choosing whom of his fellow men he will allow to think for him, so that there is no guidance more reliable than that proceeding from the activity of the human brain, despite the fact that the results of that activity, in the form of the opinions of the philosophers, scientists or experts are as varied and conflicting as are the opinions of those who look to them for guidance.

Traditionally the story of mankind is the story of a descent from an Edenic state accompanied by the possibility of a renascent; modernistically it is the story of a progress from a primitive or backward to an advanced state. It is difficult to exaggerate the extent of the changes in contemporary thought and activity attributable to this particular inversion of outlook. Traditionally man is an instrument in the hands of God; modernistically he is an independent being in control of his own destiny. Thus he puts himself in the place of God, both as the orderer of his own life and also as one to whom all service is due.

Tradition sees the hand of God in everything; modernism sees nothing but blind forces.

Such, very briefly, is the fundamental change of outlook that has taken place. As to its effects, they are everywhere for anyone who cares to see. They are seen in the development of modern industry, with its destruction of that pride of function or craftsmanship in which the most important objective is the perfection of the work and only second the reward it may bring. They are seen in that inevitable corollary of industry, namely advertising, which keeps industry going by an artificial and antispiritual stimulation of desire for more and more possessions and distractions, besides affording a readily available channel for subtler propaganda. In art, where a desire to escape from the boredom of a purely profane reproduction of nature leads to the exaltation of infantilism and psychopathic distortion. And not least in politics, wherein the democratic idea replaces the hierarchical, and power is, at least in theory, put into the hands of those who collectively and by definition embody the average intelligence.

[T]his is not even common sense. Aristocracy is the only common sense, provided that it really is government by the best, and that the best really have the right qualifications. The power of the average is in any case always ineffectual because it is inevitably dominated by something less mediocre than itself, either, as in a traditional civilization, by intelligences hierarchically ordered in an upward direction, or, where for one reason or another the hierarchical organization has ceased to be effective, by any intelligence that has the desire and the ability to dominate, whatever may be its objectives, and whether or not it allows or persuades the collectivity to think that it wields the effective power.

16 thoughts on “Lord Northbourne

  1. … As to its effects, they are everywhere for anyone who cares to see. They are seen in the development of modern industry, with its destruction of that pride of function or craftsmanship in which the most important objective is the perfection of the work and only second the reward it may bring. …

    Only those who are so well-off, whose lives (and livelihoods) are so protected from actual reality by the lives and industry of countless other (and lesser?) persons, could say, much less believe, such foolishness.

    It is only after the ‘reward’ — only after one is no longer staring down the wolf at the door — that anyone gives a damn about “pride of craftsmanship”.

    • But Northbourne’s notion of a proper organic society is that will operate in such a way as to enable the worker to keep the wolf away from the door by virtue of a prior devotion to quality. Put another way: the wolf having been kept from the door by the proper operation of a traditional society, the worker is able to devote himself first to the quality of his work, confident that the due rewards will follow.

      This is not an argument for the welfare state. If it seems to anyone in a society that things might be better if the oligarchs intervened in the organic social order, that should be taken as a sign of malfunction somewhere in its automatic control systems – of a need for their repair and restoration, rather than their supplantation or destruction.

  2. I didn’t say anything about arguments for the welfare state.

    What it is an argument for — just as it was when Chesterton (and Belloc) put forth essentially the same ‘romantic’ foolishness — is a wholly unattaniable utopia, though with a theme of medievalism, rather than of ‘Science!

    And, any attempt to attain this utopia must end up as either:
    1) when done voluntarily (that is, absent coercion), as simply one more ideal/planned society at which everyone can laugh at its utterly predictable and dismal failure;
    2) when done by force and compulsion, as simply one more bloodbath.

      • It isn’t “industry” taking us there, it isn’t even consumerism (bad as that is) that is taking us there … it is that magical thinking which is merely the other side of the same coin as Northbourne’s romanticism that is pushing our entire civilization to its ruin.

  3. But Northbourne’s notion of a proper organic society is …

    … a foolish medieval romanticism.

    A society in which all goods are the works of craftsmanship — a society in which all goods are handmade — is a society in which all goods are expensive … and only the elites approach anything remotely resembling material comfort.

    • I will agree. And that does not bother me in the slightest. It is also a society that is most likely traditional and conservative, rather than modern and liberal. I can easily sign on board with that, regardless of what social class I wind up in.

      • So, if most people — all but the elites who rule them — lack adequate shelter, lack adequate clothing, lack adequate (and healthful) food, you are OK with this, so long as this abject and widespread material poverty is likely to promote ‘tradition’ and ‘conservative values’?

        Meanwhile, that fellow over there, does not object to (and may actively work toward such an end) a situation in which most people — all but the elites who rule them — lack adequate shelter, lack adequate clothing, lack adequate (and healthful) food, just so long as this abject and widespread material poverty is likely to promote ‘post-modernism’ and ‘liberal values’?

        I’m sorry, but *I* don’t see anything to recommend you over that fellow over there! From where I’m sitting, you both look like my mortal enemy.

      • But I contend the material factors are on my side, rather than the the fellow over there. I could spend all day discussing the larger historical trajectory that brought us to this point. And I contend I must be your ally because I am a Christian and believe in a humane non progressivist society.

        The Marxists and Liberals understand that material progress benefits them, while it destroys the culture and civilization cherished by our forefathers. We would do well to understand that and find a way of dealing with that problem. As Kristor points out, Northburne does not need to be understood as advocating for a primitive existence. I however, am much less hopeful in that regard.

    • Who said anything about all goods being handmade? It isn’t the particulars of the means of production that Northbourne is considering, but the worker’s relation to his work.

      • But it is sometimes difficult to dissociate a relationship from the particulars of it, and we should be wary of being too confident in a human capacity to pull that off.

      • Who said anything about all goods being handmade?

        In the very text I quoted, it is *clear* that the Baron is condemning industrialization and extolling handmade goods.

      • But a critique of “modern industry” is not a critique of industry per se. Northbourne would level precisely the same volley at an Iron Age or Stone Age industry *that was godless.* His problem is not with the details of technics, but with atheism.

        Surely an industry that is technically sophisticated, such as ours, need not *necessarily* also disallow the possibility that a worker might be able to see – to see truly – that his work is connected to the transcendent Good his society serves? Such an apprehension would invest his work with a meaning and significance, both for him and for the world at large, beyond, and indeed more important than, his paycheck. The paycheck then would appear to him as a concrete index of the value his work had contributed to the world, a sign of the importance of his work.

        Northbourne is criticizing a *godless* industry (of any degree of technical sophistication whatever), in which such an apprehension is simply inconceivable, and in which therefore the paycheck is, not a sign of significance, but itself the only significance of the work it compensates. To the extent that work involves suffering or privation, such a perspective would render that suffering meaningless, and *merely oppressive* (because mere money cannot fully compensate for a loss of life value (if it could, then insurance benefits and jury verdicts would be understood as fully compensating for bodily injury or death, when in fact as everyone knows they come nowhere close to doing so)). It is but a step from that desolate moral and aesthetic perspective on work, as a basically evil activity that people must be paid to do, to Marxism.

        It seems to me that the more sophisticated our techniques become, the more such an approach to work should become possible.

  4. I like Northbourne’s essay “Flowers,” but would recommend the book by Wilson and Jones, Angels in the Architecture.

  5. Northbourne says:

    Every Divine Revelation has inaugurated not only a new Religion, but also a new civilization, each with its own particular advantages and limitations, its own genius, its own point of view and its own arts and sciences.Tradition and civilization are not mere accidents of time and place, nor are they human inventions, nor yet mere mechanical responses to environment, that is to say, products of evolution in the modern scientific sense of the word. … Tradition could be said to make history rather than to be made by history. Its origin is the kind of direct divine intervention we call Revelation, and all its potentialities are present, though not manifested, at its inception.

    I have some questions about this viewpoint: Is it really true that, to the extent that any society coheres in an organized way that benefits its members, this coherence is a result of a divine revelation? And is it true that what inspires the use of existing social structures by the members of a society, is adherence to that revelation? As I said before, in many respect social structures and institutions–such as money, business organizations, government agencies, law courts, etc.–are instrumental goods. They can be used for good, or for evil, or, as is most often the case, for very mixed purposes. And very mixed motives have contributed to their development. I agree that religion, and even Christian revelation, have had a significant impact upon history and society. But revelation or even religion is not the only factor that shapes institutions or motivates their use. Accidents of time and place, human invention, mixed motives, are also factors.

    This bears upon the idea of Traditionalism that many on this blog advocate. That, for example, medieval society on the whole and in many many ways was shaped by, and self consciously followed, Christian revelation and tradition, is certainly true. And I also agree that a great deal of modern thought, in abandonding the whole medieval view of life, took a turn into a monstrous blind alley. But the reality of medieval society encompassed much more than the efficacity of its ideals. The political, economic, and military hierarchy reduced the majority more or less to a status of quasi slavery, and to material conditions of bare survival. The modern economy has in fact created conditions of untold abundance for the vast majority within industrialized societies. Even those not well served by our health care system have access to levels of healing beyond the wildest dreams of the richest kings, princes, and emperors of the past. This is really a stupendous achievment. I agree with much of what, for example, Northbourne says about the spiritual poverty of modernity. But on the other hand I want to make two points: I do not think it is all that obvious that our society is headed toward self-destruction and decline. What are the signs of that–and if we are to start listing those signs, let’s keep in our awareness the context of history, namely, just how screwed up things have always been! Let’s compare the present with the full reality of the past, not just its now sadly neglected ideals. And secondly, I think it behooves those (like me) who do believe something is going terribly wrong with our culture, to really take seriously the amazing success that modernity has in fact achieved. That success can be summed up like this: technological progress, industrial productivity, a social system in which the bounty of industialization is widely enjoyed, and a system in which large majorities participate productively in the creation of that bounty. How did this happen? Something more is involved than the ideals of the middle ages, however much we rightly respect them. I can’t say I have studied enough history to have an opinion about how and why it happened.

    But this point raises a crucial question for the philosophy of traditionalism that this blog is devoted to: What do you mean by “traditional society” If you mean, strictly speaking, the society of the European high middle ages (1000-1400) then you can forget about industrialization. But I don’t think that’s what anyone means. So the objection or cavil or question I am suggesting is this: If you don’t mean that we should literally go back to thehigh middle ages, what do you mean? That is not clear to me. I know that many on this blog are very sympathetic to this view–but my question is directed most specifically to Kris.

    • Northbourne would agree with you about the admixture of good and bad in any society. He spends a fair bit of time talking about the fact that Traditions all devolve almost from the moment of their inception, so that the main thing in any age for any Tradition is to hold on to what remains of it against heretical changes. Discerning which changes are heretical and which are developments of orthodox doctrine is of course the matter of intellectual discourse about things.

      As to what I think we ought to go to, that’s a big question. I would start with patriarchy, orthodox Christianity, traditional sexual mores, a restoration of ethnically coherent nations, a really hierarchical ordering of society, and propriety – by which I mean, both in general a return to decorum and to the quest for the Good in arts, manufacture and manners, and specifically a due respect for proper ownership. This last it seems to me is entailed in “Thou shalt not covet,” and upon it hangs the whole libertarian economic proposal of Hayek et al., which I think ought to be the default public policy of a sensible organic order, from which a people would stray only with fear and trembling.

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