The Spectator's Notes

Are we morally better people than our ancestors?

16 December 2017

9:00 AM

16 December 2017

9:00 AM

The doctrine of progress implies that things get better. This is clearly true in terms of scientific knowledge, though not necessarily of how that scientific knowledge is applied. It has proved broadly true, in our lifetimes, about economic and political freedom, though not so decisively that we can all sit back and relax. Is it also true of virtue? We often praise ourselves for having cast aside prejudice, taboo, imperialism, sexism and so on, but can we truthfully say that we are, on average, morally better people than our ancestors? We might simply be blind to different things. It is not difficult to make a list of virtues that are in decline (honour, patience, respect for the old) or not seen as virtues at all (virginity, obedience). Of the traditional Cardinal Virtues — Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance — only Justice is in the first rank today (though Gordon Brown pretended to care about Prudence). The ‘contrary virtues’ of the Seven Deadly Sins are Humility, Liberality, Chastity, Meekness, Temperance, Brotherly Love and Diligence, yet of these only Brotherly Love is now highly valued and even that has been gender-neutered. Yet this does not mean that we do not put a high moral value on some things — honesty, for example, kindness, non-judgmentalism. And we often value the same sort of actions as we would have done centuries ago. The Catholic Church’s seven Corporal Works of Mercy are — to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to harbour the harbourless, to visit the sick, to visit the imprisoned, and to bury the dead. With the possible exception of the last, these are still taken seriously and remain causes for which people expect to give money at Christmas. It would be hard to prove human progress or regress in moral terms. But perhaps we are less carefully trained in virtue than in the past, and so are clumsy and embarrassed about it, rather like people who have never learnt to dance.

How interesting, if true, that the Crown Prince (and effective ruler) of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman, is the real buyer of Leonardo’s ‘Salvator Mundi’, which sold for $450 million. If he were to bring back the picture to his own country — he is said to have bestowed it on Abu Dhabi — he would presumably be in breach of its laws. All Christian depictions, symbols and texts are forbidden there, even if held privately. The dominant traditions of Islam also forbid depictions of the human form. This applies more strongly to pictures of Jesus, who is a prophet in that religion, though quite definitely not regarded, as Leonardo shows him, as the Saviour of the World. Is the Crown Prince obliquely challenging Wahhabi puritanism and reaching out to other faiths, or is he simply putting his money where his mouth isn’t?


As a child, I had a horror of the idea of Christmas in a hot place. Somebody told me that in Australia they ate roast turkey on the beach. This sounded positively irreligious, and I gave no consideration to the fact that the chief subject of the Christmas story probably never enjoyed a white Christmas himself (though it can be surprisingly cold in the Judaean hills at this time of year). Actually, I never experienced a white Christmas either, on the day itself, though I do remember the evening of Boxing Day 1962 when it began to snow, and didn’t melt till March. The other day, I re-read The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White. I loved the book when I was eight, but had almost forgotten it. It is the story of a boy known as the Wart (rhyming with ‘smart’), whose real identity may be guessed from the book’s title. The story is set in a medieval context whose tone is part Malory, part Monty Python (before the latter existed). White, I now realise, shaped my idea of Christmas. In old England, he says, ‘when the forests rang with knights walloping each other on the helm, and the unicorns in the wintry moonlight stamped with their silver feet and snorted their noble breaths upon the frozen air’, there were many ‘great and comfortable’ marvels, but the greatest was that ‘The weather behaved itself’. In the winter, ‘which was confined by statute to two months, the snow lay evenly, three feet thick, and never turned to slush’. Thus ‘It was Christmas night in the Castle of the Forest Sauvage [where the Wart lived], and all around the castle the snow lay as it ought to lie.’ How I loved this idea of weather obedient to one’s imagination. How repeatedly disappointing it was in a Sussex child’s Christmas.

White’s book is the first part of a tetralogy called The Once and Future King. I did not read the later volumes — I may have heard that they were less funny — but now I mean to try. The books were once extremely famous, but seem more recently to have fallen out of fashion. Like The Lord of the Rings, the work was begun shortly before the second world war, but both Tolkien and White seem to be writing, in very different ways, about that conflict — or rather, about their own country in the light of that exterior threat. C.S. Lewis did something comparable later, and David Jones did it in verse in the Anathemata. It is as if they all wanted to rescue the essence from prospective destruction. The other three had a more or less explicitly Christian purpose too, but White is different — pagan, strange, disorderly, closer to animals than people, good on subjects like the madness of hawks. Given his biography — he was gay, drunk and a repressed sadist — he is surely due for a revival. He had something at which the English once excelled — a unique, unclassifiable imagination. Here is his oak tree speaking in a sort of parliament of the forest. He could be ventriloquising the author: ‘My leaves come the last and go the last. I am a conservative, I am; and out of my apples they make ink, whose words may live as long as me, even as me, the oak.’ A happy (T.H.) White Christmas to all readers.

Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free


Show comments
Close