Notes on the English Metaphysic: 1

NOTE: Along with a friend, I’m in the process of writing an essay about the metaphysics of the English. The following is a brief message to another friend about the matter including one of the main theses of the piece, that being the importance of common law.

We English have never been a Traditional society in the ordinary sense. We have never had a true empire, or even a true king in the sense of pontifex. Tradition, however, is manifest through our laws.

Where in other societies (Roman Empire, Persia, Ghibelline Empire, etc.) the rex was the vessel for mediating power between the temporal and Absolute, in England, lasting from the fifth century AD to about sixteen-hundred when James II was deposed in regicide, this mediating power is found in our common law system and in the relationship between the people and the sovereign; there are a couple of quotes which sum this up from Cantor’s The English:

As early as the fifteenth century, educated Englishmen were accounting for their country’s prosperity by favourably comparing English political and legal institutions with those of the less fortunate French and Germans. An English chief justice of the mid-fifteenth century, Sir John Fortescue, in fact, worked out a whole treatise on political theory using this theme. He asserted that the nature of the English constitution was a limited monarchy in which the consent of the people, that is, the important groups in society, had to be taken into account by the king and the royal government. In contrast, Fortescue maintained, the French and Germans suffered from the oppressive effects of despotism, which was suitable in his eyes for French and German peasants but not for English gentlemen. (pg. 17)

The essential nature of English constitutionalism is the idea that the government is responsible to the governed and that a higher law overrides royal authority. The personnel changes, particular institutions appear, flourish, and are altered, but the idea of the constitution remains the same, whether in the Anglo-Saxon period or the Victorian era. … Law resides not in the king but in the folk, and the king is merely an executive of this folk law. Here already is the operative principle of the common law. (pg. 20-21)

The lack of a decisive authority and any idea of sovereignty are immediately evident when we look at the Anglo-Saxon dooms. Unlike the code of Roman law, which was definitively put together in the reign of the sixth-century Byzantine emperor Justinian, the Anglo-Saxon law collections are not codes. They are in no way systematic or comprehensive or based on abstract moral and political synthesis. The Anglo-Saxon law was fundamentally oral and customary; it resided in the bosom of the folk and in the memories of the wise old men of the community. The only laws written down are those that refer to difficult points at issue or situations that are unusual, such as the peace problems created by the appearance of a new group in society. If we could interview an Anglo-Saxon doomsman, he would say that the written laws represent not more than half of the customs of the community. Like an iceberg, a great part of Anglo-Saxon law lurks beneath the surface. (pg. 30-31)

The law to the Anglo-Saxon mind is thus a pre-existing substance, and its confusion and contradictions are sanctified by antiquity. The concept of legislation is totally lacking and the good law is the old law. Even when an enterprising and intelligent king under the guidance of churchmen actually creates new laws he must always do this by asserting that he is merely making clear and confirming the good old law. The law, like an English fog, is always there, covering the way of life of the community, and this customary way of life cannot be abrogated or even substantially altered by any overruling authority.

These Anglo-Saxon notions about law are directly opposite to the Roman idea of jurisprudence. The Romans believed that law resides in the will of the emperor, who as the public corporate embodiment of the state has the authority to proclaim whatever law he deems to be in accordance with the moral law of nature. Insofar as the Anglo-Saxons could even comprehend such a proposition they found it fundamentally wrong and socially dangerous, and for long centuries there was great hostility in England to any Romanist ideas of sovereignty. When in 1399 King Richard II was understood to say that law resided in his own mouth, he was held to have enunciated a very un-English fancy for which, among other reasons, he had to be done away with. (pg. 31)

In short, such notions rest within the people, though “the people” does not mean peasantry or indeed demos in the normal sense, but, rather, the idea of ancestry and thede, itself God-blessed as its founding fathers, Hengest and Horsa, were descended from Wotan.


8 thoughts on “Notes on the English Metaphysic: 1”

  1. “Insofar as the Anglo-Saxons could even comprehend such a proposition they found it fundamentally wrong and socially dangerous, and for long centuries there was great hostility in England to any Romanist ideas of sovereignty”

    Do you think this might be one of the reasons Britain came to rebel against Roman Catholicism? If so, it might be helpful to look at how Anglicanism diverged from Roman Catholicism. It was something of a unique phenomena in its own right. Britain’s journey to Protestantism doesn’t mirror that of the Nordic or Germanic countries as far as I know.

    1. Indeed — I think the lack of proper pontifex in English society runs parallel to all sorts of things; our inclination to individualism, to the person’s rights, to common law of course, and other such matters. Particularly with the case of Anglicanism, there’s a reason it was called “the middle way” alternatively; a balancing between the old Tradition and the Reformation.

      The Englishman seems to be extraordinarily flexible: we’ve had monarchy for over a thousand years, but barely any tyranny to speak of; we’ve had secular law for that long and yet only one civil war over its extent; we were one of the first countries to modernise and yet we had no revolution and our nobility stayed intact; we’ve been warring with other civilisations for centuries yet the last time we were invaded was a millennium ago; and the list goes on.

      There seems to be an interesting ability to resist massive changes and to simply absorb all sorts of things and retain our own form to our own will. Maybe we’re finally at the point now where that changes, I wonder? I hope not.

      1. Surely the Glorious Revolution counts as a modern revolution, does it not?

        To me, it seems like the English are quite eager to adopt change on their own terms, and once they do, they don’t readily look back. England willingly embraced Anglicanism and then suppressed Catholics and the Church for hundreds of years along with killing the Catholic monarchs who came after Henry VIII, early kings were quite powerful but steady decentralization occurred since at least the time of the Magna Carta and the attempt to introduce absolutism resulted in a civil war, etc. It appears that England has undergone a constant leftward (if you can call it that) drift for a long time. I’m struggling to think of any significant English reaction caused by any sort of change or innovation.

        1. Indeed it was, but there was no total gutting of our aristocracy as there was in France. It was political first and foremost, it wasn’t as big a cultural event as the French Revolution was.

          As for your other points; of course there’s been a leftwards shift. It’ll take some energy to return things to normalcy of course; the problem being, however, that only the English can change things for the better. Other groups are totally incapable of the balance we’ve achieved regarding prosperousness, peace and order.

  2. Roger Scruton argues that Englishness is rooted in our system of law, our societies and little clubs, each with their own sets of official and semi-official regulations. I posed the question to him directly, that when these laws are turned against the populace or when demographics are significantly altered so that the old conventions and traditions are no longer widely respected, on what then will Englishness depend? His answer was unsatisfactory, but I myself wonder if even a reactionary reinvention of Englishness would not be equally destructive as that which is being constructed by the political class.

    1. One word keeps cropping-up in my mind regarding the matter: “organic”; the sacred acorn planted in the Germanic forest, as Cantor suggests. I don’t think there ever can be a centralised, “reactionary reinvention” of Englishness; such a thing would be a contradiction in terms. It’d be too coarse, too brash, too rough, too vulgar, too standardised, too mechanised and too generic. There’s a subtle complexity it seems which encapsulates Englishness and globalism — and, indeed, powerful government — is a deadly affront to it.

      I wonder what will come next? Whatever good, I predict, will emerge undoubtedly as it did with the dooms, with common law, and the rest; from small groupings of co-operative Englishmen who’re stubborn enough to see their systems survive without much direct change. Of course this requires hard-headedness and community; things liberalism in its contemporary form daren’t facilitate.

      What was Scruton’s answer to your question, if you don’t mind saying?

      1. He just evaded it and reiterated his beliefs – similar to what you said really, that all depended on the common law and small locally managed groupings

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