Sunday, 9 March 2014

The religious republicans

Historical narratives prefer the clear vistas and straight avenues. Or so it seems when thinking about the rise of rationalism in the Western world. The favourite narrative topos is the enlightened hero fighting (and dying) for what he knows is right, such as the planets going round the sun. Yet, sometimes there are glimpses in history of how enmeshed the rational is with the irrational, the enlightened with the mystical.

In politics, the epitome of rationalism seemed to be reached by those who argued for a republic in the 17th century in Britain. To somebody looking back at them from today, their values seem to reveal a desire for rational order, logically flowing from the rejection of mysticism and ritualistic politics legitimised solely by the lapse of time. To contemporaries, the monarchy surely must have appeared as a relic of unenlightened thinking, royalism a sign of clinging to old times.

Reading C.V. Wedgewood's Trial of Charles I I rediscovered a sense of the fuzziness of historical reality, and how history defies clear cut interpretations. What is most impressive in her account are the direct quotes from Cromwell who preferred obscure mythological terminology at the best of times. Even more so, Wedgewood reveals how Cromwell's republicanism was steeped in religious fanaticism, often to such a degree that his cause lost support amongst many.

Oliver Cromwell - A republic by the will of God

Cromwell also had a way of intimating a course of action whilst not spelling out exactly what it was. He seemed to think that the 'right action' could be inferred from introspection with God through prayer, something that would strike us as a curious way to formulate public policy to say the least.

Wedgewood quotes a letter by Cromwell to Fairfax (Lord General) just before the start of the trial. This is what he wrote to his friend in arms:

'I verily think and am persuaded they [putting the Kind on trial] are things which God puts into our hearts. I shall not need to offer anything to your Excellency: I know God teaches you ... The good Lord work his will upon your heart enabling you to it; and the presence of the Almighty God go along with you.' (p37: C.V.Wedgewood, The Trial of Charles I, London 1964)

What is fascinating about this quote is not only that this hardly amounted to any concrete advice in the delicate matter of whether or not to put the King on trial. It also shows what Cromwell thought would legitimise their actions: God's will.

This can hardly count as a rational debate, since once God's will is invoked, any discussion is pretty much over. It is striking how similar these 'justifications' are to those by religious fanatics today, where God's will is the ultimate source of the course of history.

If anything, this demonstrates how intertwined rational thought was with deeply religious thinking and that it was by no means clear that it would extricate itself from it in the long run.

And it also means of course that the monarchy is still with us, with or without God's will.

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