In May 1898 the British Prime Minister, the third marquis of Salisbury, made a speech which caused great offence to some European Powers. In it he referred to declining and the rising Powers, stating that the world belonged to the latter. The ambassadors of Portugal and Spain were on his door-step the next morning asking if he had meant them? No one was in any doubt about that. Usually written off as a pessimist, in this instance Salisbury was proclaiming the confidence of the Anglo-Saxon Powers as they moved toward the new century. It was against this sort of triumphalism that Kipling wrote his poem ‘The White Man’s Burden’, which warned America what to expect from the new world role it was stepping into. It has long been fashionable to dismiss it as statement of imperial pride; read in the light of the last century it is possible to see what Kipling meant.
It is sometimes said Kipling is out of fashion; he has never been in it. Those who see him as some kind of bard of imperialism need to read him with more care. He caught the sense of hubris which prompted remarks like Salisbury’s, and in one of his greatest poems, ‘Recessional’ he hinted at the nemesis which might come:
Nemesis lay here, as he saw it:
Kipling, like Salisbury’s great Liberal rival, Gladstone, saw that power disconnected from God’s purpose for mankind led inexorably to decay and decline.
Christianity was one of the factors which fuelled the rise of the West and which gave it the self-confidence needed to make the investments and efforts necessary for that to happen. It required men to take personal responsibility for their actions, encouraging an ethos where the governing elite were required to moderate the natural tendency of power to corrupt; that is not to say that did not happen; it is to say to that, not least in the Anglo-Saxon countries, it was minimised. Sixty years of public service decimated Gladstone’s personal fortune; like so many, he left office notably poorer than he entered it.
Christianity also, despite the emphasis some place on end-times, inculcated optimism about mankind. Made in God’s image, we were worth saving, and having been saved, there were no limits to what we could achieve – if we went with God.
With the decline in Christian belief has come a decline in the secular virtues it inculcated: personal responsibility gives way to a sense that the State will do things for and to us, which, in turn, gives way to a sense of victimhood; helplessness is a characteristic of such a development. We have also lost, as a civilization, that sense of optimism which characterised Salisbury’s speech. The fallen nature of mankind as it exhibits itself across the last century impresses itself on us more than any optimism. The effects of this will be the subject of the next few posts.