The Discontinuities between the Generations in History

With free time scarce, I find that shorter books make for better books. And lecture series can make for the best books of all. 


Superb nap-time reading.

At 32 (small) pages, Sir Herbert Butterfield’s The Discontinuities between the Generations in History: Their Effect on the Transmission of Political Experience—delivered in 1971 as part of the Rede Lecture series—is a superb way to spend half an hour.

I discovered Butterfield in a footnote to Toynbee’s Study of History and have been adding his works to my bookshelf since I read a previous lecture series of his, Christianity in History (a Favorite Book of 2015 that inspired a sentimental post on becoming a father).

A few gems:

It seems that liberty is greatly prized by those who are struggling for it or who have recently lost it. But those who have inherited it come to depreciate it; for it can be a bother and an inconvenience. Some people are bored with anything of the sort; and at any rate the other man’s freedom, everybody else’s freedom, can be a nuisance to any of us. More important still, once you possess liberty you acquire the feeling that that particular problem is behind you, and you turn your real longings now to something else, something which is all the more valuable to you because you do not possess it. Having set your heart on this further object, you can convince yourself that liberty is a mere luxury, and then it becomes very easy to surrender to a Messiah who says he will give you the thing that you are now really wanting. It becomes all the more easy in that you are siding with a winner – for the time being, you gain your object and the loss of liberty falls on the other party. In reality, this liberty that is being sacrificed is the freedom to choose your objective at the next stage in the story – it is the thing that brings men closest to a mastery over their own destiny.

But, in general, the passage to a new epoch always brings a danger that the best things, the imponderable things, will evaporate out of the system; and this might be serious for democracy, in which it was once so clearly understood that a mood of tolerance, a respect for the other man’s personality, a willingness to rely on persuasion and discussion were so essential for success – and you were enjoined not always to push the employment of power to the limit, not always to impose your purpose on the world if it needed an excess of power. In other words, the ‘imponderables’ were the heart and soul of the whole affair. Lord Acton thought that  liberty could only be maintained amongst people who were conscious of living under a higher law; but it is easy to overemphasise power, to claim more for majorities than is really justifiable, and to think that democracy means getting what you want, the state as simply the organ for acts of sheer will.

If I were trying to push my comments on human history to the point of greatest generality, I believe I would say that men in the course of their lives, and readers of history in their studies, tend easily to leave certain things out of account. They do not sufficiently understand or try to bring into operation the healing effects of time; the great progress that comes from the gradual growth of reasonableness among men; and the benefits that accrue from long periods of peace and stability. We may have a mistaken picture of the war of right against wrong in history: for, though good may result from the victory of good men over wicked offenders, a richer good is often achieved – sometimes without the more countervailing disadvantages – by something more like a co-operative effort of mankind, a spread of enlightenment, an advance of civilisation. And I think that one of the wonderful things in history is the way that sometimes the achievement of simply peace, stability and détente is enough to start everything in the garden growing.

It is difficult for people to count their blessings or to be thankful for the distance the world has moved out of the jungle.

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