Monday, 29 October 2012

William Cobbett

Local production for local consumption, the sustainable tending of the earth, its plants and animals, sound educational practice and a healthy, thriving cultural life based on sufficiency rather than endless growth and consumption of material goods: at present, all these policies must be justified financially – or they cannot be put into practice. The need to be on guard against the growing power of finance was apparent to William Cobbett early in the 19th century. At the time – and since – Cobbett has been dismissed as hopelessly out of touch with modern life, as trying to live in the past. It now appears that Cobbett was far more clear sighted than many zealous reformers realised.

Writing in 1925, G.K. Chesterton wrote a life of William Cobbett. He observed: “In one thing he was a very lucky and lonely mortal:

“He could see before he could read. Most modern people can read before they can see. They have read about a hundred things long before they have seen one of them. Most town children have read about corn or cattle as if they were dwarfs or dragons, long before they have seen a grain of wheat or a cow. Many of them have read about ships or churches, or the marching of soldiers or the crowd cheering a king, or any other normal sight, which they have never seen. By a weird mesmerism which it is not here necessary to analyse, what people read has a sort of magic power over their sight. It lays a spell on their eyes, so that they see what they expect to see. They do not see the most solid and striking things that contradict what they expect to see. They believe their schoolmasters too well to believe their eyes. They trust the map against the mountain. Cobbett was a man without these magic spectacles. He did not see what he expected to see, but what he saw. He liked books; but he could not only read between the lines but through the book.
“Now, in nothing is this more vivid than in his vision of history. Most of us know what was the accepted general version of English history when we were at school; at any rate when I was at school, and still more, of course, when Cobbett was at school-in so far as he ever was at school. England had emerged out of a savage past to be the greatest empire in the world, with the best balanced constitution in the world, by a wise and well-timed progress or series of reforms, that ever kept in mind the need of constitutionalism and of balance. The Barons had extorted a constitutional charter from the King, in advance of that feudal age and a foundation for parliamentary freedom. The Commons came into the struggle for parliamentary freedom when it was waged against the Stuarts. By that time the Revival of Learning had led to the Reformation or sweeping away of the superstition that had been the only religion of the ruder feudal time. This enlightenment favoured the growth of democracy; and though the aristocrats still remained, and remain still, to give dignity to the state with their ancient blazonry of the Conquest and the Crusades, the law of the land is no longer controlled by the lords but by the citizens. Hence the country has been filled with a fresh and free population, made happy by humane and rational ideas, where there were once only a few serfs stunted by the most senseless superstitions. I ask anyone if that is not a fair summary of the historical education in which most modern people over forty were brought up. And having read it first, we went to look at the towns and castles and abbeys afterwards, and saw it or tried to see it. Cobbett, not having read it, or not caring whether he had read it, saw something totally different. He saw what is really there.” (FN G.K. Chesterton William Cobbett, House of Stratus, 2008 edition, p49).

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