Memory, Monarchy and Metaphysics
An Odyssey between two island nations
By day the shuttle flies, by night the thread unravels.
Odysseus has been blown to the shores of Aiaia, the home of Circe, witch queen and goddess. She drugs his men and uses magic to turn them into pigs. With the help of Hermes, the hero frightens her into releasing the spell, but lured by the pleasures of her table and her bed, he stays on. A year passes before his men shake him out of his delirium. Sated with Circe’s passing pleasures, he had almost forgotten his quest to return to his lasting home. This he will reach only by passing through Hades and into new life.
To find home, we must wander, and the wandering itself awakens truer memories of the place where we belong. My own Odyssey began on the south coast of the kidney-shaped island of Shikoku in Japan.
The shuttle flies.
“There’s a foreigner here,” grunted the Deputy Head from behind his desk, heedless of my greeting. “Get an English teacher.”
I first went to Japan in 2002 as a missionary. Not a Christian missionary, I should point out. I was resolutely atheist. I didn’t know that I was a missionary, and would certainly never have called myself one. But that’s what I was: an unwitting ambassador for Western modernity.
Only later did I discover that this was the founding intention of the Japanese government scheme I was on. I had taken its name, the Japanese English Teaching or “JET” Programme, at face value. I hadn’t questioned quite what a young British graduate with no Japanese and no teaching qualifications could contribute to this end. Even if I had done, the generous salary and promise of adventure would have dispelled any doubts. But the scheme was not originally established for the sake of teaching, anyway. Really, the idea was just to get some young foreigners to live in Japan so that the Japanese could get used a bit more used to us. The English language teaching part was an afterthought, an excuse to justify the expense of paying foreigners to be guests in Japan. By the time I joined the scheme, what had been an appendix was now treated as the primary organ.
It was a great scheme for me, and I look back on those years fondly. I wonder quite whether the benefits to the Japanese taxpayer were commensurate. I can understand the reaction of that Deputy Head when I walked into his staff room ready to deliver a one-off English “lesson” to his rural Japanese sixth formers. This was in a specialist fishing college. The pupils were likely to spend the rest of their lives working on the local coast. You can see why they might not have seen the immediate value of meeting someone paid essentially just to be a foreigner in their midst.
Nobody had told explicitly told us this, but to me and my mostly American, Australian and New Zealander peers, it was clear that behind the language teaching, our real job – no, our moral duty – was to reform the minds of the benighted natives into greater conformity with our enlightened, Western mores. We would scoff or sigh over our beers in the evenings about the backward ways of the Japanese, most of whom were still at work generating the tax money that we were putting behind the bar. As young, “free-thinking” university graduates, we all held identical leftist political views, and sneered at the traditions and values of our own countries. Faced with the ubiquitous national pride of the Japanese people, we would insist on how different our homelands were from our host nation. In presentations we were asked to give about our countries’ history, cuisine and character, we would take pride in how multi-cultural we were in comparison with Japan. I remember being asked to choose an English recipe to demonstrate in a school cookery class. Roast beef, perhaps? Fish and chips? Of course not. Far too parochial. I instinctively opted for Chicken Tikka Masala, to show off the glorious diversity of the United Kingdom. Bowler hats and pinstripes were out, Beckham and Blairite Cool Britannia in. When asked what “British people” think about any topic, I would pontificate that all British people think differently, and no two of us would presume to think the same way. Just ask any other young British graduate on the scheme: they would have agreed entirely. In my lessons, I would find ways of showing up Japanese gender disparities and challenge their collectivism and cultural conformity, extolling the joys of Western individualism instead.
At no point in all this did I realise that I was merely an agent of another, no less constrictive conformism than that of the Japanese. We young missionaries took it as gospel that we were there to open closed minds. I wonder whether we achieved anything more than confirming Japanese stereotypes about the arrogant superiority of Westerners.
The thread unravels.
“Huddling they came, with shag sides caked with mire,
With hoofs still sullied from the troughs o'er-spurned,
With wrinkling snouts; yet eyes in which desire,
With some strange light, unutterably burned,
Unquenchable, — and still where'er she turned
They rose about her, striving each o'er each,
As if with brute importuning they yearned
In that dumb wise some piteous tale to teach,
Yet lacked the words thereto, denied the power of speech.”
The Prayer of the Swine to Circe, Austin Dobson
Circe’s name reflects her function: it is the circle of life and rebirth which she stirs. Her island is encircled by Ocean, the flux which drives life round by wind and wave in all its myriad forms until they are washed up at last onto her shores. In smaller circles she stirs the drugs she gives to shipwrecked sailors. Those who drink are kept in the circle they were carried by in life, their metamorphosis dictated by the lives they led: the violent are made lions or tigers to defend her palace, the greedy and ignorant, pigs. If you think this is unfair to pigs, you might side with Plutarch, who portrays them as happy with their lot, unmindful of their human lives before. Only one whose memory of home is strong enough, as Odysseus’ of Ithaca, can prevail against Circe and free his fellows from their stupor.
Amnesia is the death of self. Who we are is what we remember, and this is not limited to the memories of the head, but of the body as a whole. Our muscle-memory, yes, and the memory of old wounds, but also, the memories of the heart. How it felt when our mothers stroked our hair. The smell of a childhood pet, the dog’s dribble on your head in the back of the car. Early experiences of revulsion and attraction, a dislike for the texture of mushrooms or baked beans. The music of our teenage years, beyond which everything else is “new.” Abuses and humiliations which sloped our shoulders then and still twist our stomachs at their more or less conscious recollection. The triumphs and celebrations which stood us tall. The lover’s yes. The birth of a first child. Our first encounter with God.
Yet beyond these fleeting memories, in their momentary particularity, we glean in hiding things more universal and so lasting. Not only beyond, but in and through our many loves, we glimpse something of love itself. Through and in beautiful people and places and songs, we glimpse a greater beauty owned exclusively by none of them but which joins them all, and so is both beyond and in them all, more real in its universality than any of its particular instantiations. After our lovers are dead and all their beauties faded, love and beauty still exist.
Without such universals, memory of the particular would be impossible. If my mind were incapable of categorising, say, the Great Buddha of Kamakura, the poetry of Rumi, the stones of Venice and my daughter’s face as instances of a universal “beauty,” I would have no memory at all, just a jumbled bundle of random and unconnected sense-data: unravelled threads.
Now my younger self, the missionary to Japan, would object that these supposed universals have no reality of their own. They are dictated by upbringing, by our culture, by the language in which we speak and think. I would have said the infant mind is like a blank hard drive, just waiting to be formatted by society; that what is considered beautiful, or good, or virtuous, or just varies according to place, culture and context. I subscribed uncritically (but no less dogmatically) to the creed of relativism in which I had been reared: the way of tolerance, the way which says there is no one way, there is no universality, there is only the freely chosen multiplicity of individual wills. The ideal society must be the one which maximises the potential exercise of will.
Relativism, with its dogmatic belief that only the particular exists, leads to a forgetfulness of the commonality which binds us to one another, to the world, to existence itself, and to God. So, it results in the breakdown of the traditional ties of family, locality and nation. Yet it falls into its own trap: for by its own logic, relativism itself is only one culturally conditioned way of thinking, incapable of claiming hegemony over any other. So, unable to claim even itself to be true, relativism can establish itself only by sheer power of will. This is why Pope Jean Paul II and Pope Benedict condemned it as the greatest danger of modernity.
Had I thought more about it at the time, I might have seen that this exercise of power was precisely what was happening politically in the Blairite years, as Western liberal relativism was imposed on some nations by trade sanctions, on others by military might. Our friendly nations, like Japan, sought it themselves, welcoming our exports of cultural capital: for instance, paying graduates from prestigious universities to come and proselytise. I was one small pawn in the sheer assertion of a set of values which, by its own demonstration, are entirely arbitrary.
Odysseus, guided by Athene, goddess of wisdom, was travelling to escape amnesia, to recover the memory of the true, the beautiful and the good. Circe is an agent of the gods whom Odysseus has offended and who conspire to block him from repatriation and remembrance. Except for clear-sighted Athene, the Olympians are fickle and conflicting masters who toy with mortals for their own petty and contradictory ends, tossing them around on the ocean of being for sport. The powers which stir the modern chaos of relativism are similarly motley. A perverse pantheon gains from the atomisation and amnesia of society. Such are the vying deities of libertarian consumer capitalism and leftist identity politics, whose contrary wiles work unwitting to the same divisive end: and end served by the degradation of the collective memory, including but not limited to the memory of the nation. This harms all, but most bitterly the poorest, who lack the money to pay their way through familial breakdown and whose neighbourhoods are prone to dissipation, whether by industrial demands of workforce mobility or by the priorities of state housing officials. Neither Marx nor markets are true friends to the working class.
We apostles of modernity were raised by our schools and our society to be the opposite of Odysseus: travelling unravellers of threads. To avoid the obliteration of our collective identity, the institutions charged with the preservation of our cultural memory must wake up from their drugged slumber and, like Odysseus, get back to steering the ship on course. The alternative is to remain forever transformed into pigs, fighting for each others’ swill and for the entertainment of violent and capricious gods.
The shuttle flies.
The Britain I left for Japan has been occupied by the forces of relativism, but that is not the historic homeland of the Western mind. For at least the first millennium after Christ, Christians, pagans, Jews and Muslims shared a common intellectual commitment to the reality and priority of universals over particulars. Our culture was formed by Platonism. Its teachings on how memory is part of the constitution of reality can help us to recover our national identity and so find our way home.
Can concepts be more real than concrete, physical things? The idea of beauty more beautiful than a beautiful symphony, sunset or lover? Such is the Platonic teaching of metaphysical realism. The alternative account, which Westerners have been trained to see as common sense, is nominalism, the assertion that universal categories are merely “names” (Latin: nomina) which human minds impose on sets of particular things. Yet this supposed common sense came into vogue in Europe only in the thirteenth century, thanks to the English friar William of Ockham. The older stream of Platonic realism gradually became a minority position in Europe but remained dominant in certain philosophical schools of Islam. Platonism’s own intra-traditional controversies over the relationship between mind and matter also open up possibilities for fruitful interaction with the nondualist philosophies and religions of India and the Far East. So, while Platonism may be an alternative to the dominant Western consensus today, it remains far closer to the mainstream of traditional philosophy in the rest of the world. Paradoxically, I am convinced, to recover the particular memory of English-speaking nations like my own, we must sail out and re-establish our connection with the wider traditions of the world.
Take beauty. Perhaps this is the universal most susceptible to relativism. Does it not exist only in the eye of the beholder? Doubtless beauty does vary according to context and even according to person. Some people find beauty in that which others find ugly. It is not my fault if you prefer the lines of a Toyota Mirai to those of a Jaguar E-Type. Still, do not all people and cultures at least recognise the concept of “beauty,” or something close to it? Even if we differ on what constitutes beauty, or for that matter goodness, the very use of the word implies a level of consensus on its existence. Even when the definition of beauty is disputed, it is seldom disputed absolutely, but only in gradation. Granted, one person may find one car or person or piece of music beautiful when another finds it clunky or otiose or banausic, yet anyone would place these somewhere on the spectrum of beauty, and could point to things more beautiful or uglier. As ugly as I found a piece of music to be, I would find some element of beauty, if only an iota, and could surely find music uglier still, which would bring out what little beauty the original piece possessed. There are things absolutely lacking in beauty: child abuse, excrement, cancer, seabirds trapped in oil slicks, elephant foot wastepaper baskets, the suicide of a loved one. I can imagine people who might claim to find beauty in such things. But that is surely because their perception of beauty is flawed. More properly, it is perverted, in the literal sense of something steered from its proper course. To acknowledge the possibility of perversion is to imply the existence of an absolute, non-relative beauty. If the word “beauty” had no absolute frame of reference, it would be meaningless. Which, of course, is precisely the aim of those who would destigmatize all perversion.
But how, you might ask, can I claim to know what absolute beauty is? Am I not open to exactly the charge I am levelling against relativism: that concepts are left to be defined by the dominance of the most powerful will? If so, then Beauty as a concept is less real, not more, than beauty’s beautiful instantiations. To answer, I would need to find some grounding for beauty in what is absolute, that is to say, in what is least changing and closest to eternal; and this would bring me to number.
The existence of number is not reliant on physical things. Take Pi, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Pi will always be Pi, regardless of whether there are any perfect circles in the physical world (which, in fact, there are not); regardless, even, of whether there is a human mind to define Pi. And Pi is only one of the eternal and unchanging laws which govern the universe, but which are themselves not physical, nor physically measurable. I cannot get a tape against a Toyota Mirai’s wheel and measure Pi off it. Numbers are not physical, but metaphysical realities. Unlike all physical things, metaphysical realities are eternal and unchanging, and because eternal and unchanging, more real than things imprisoned in time and space. Logically, they precede time and space and all physical existence, because physical existence could not be without them. Metaphysical reality, which is to say the existence of abstracts, is more extensive than the physical shadows it casts.
So let us return to beauty. Would we not say that in their harmony and order, the eternal laws of number are beautiful – and in their eternity, necessarily more beautiful than anything merely existent? Would we not have to admit that our notions of beauty are measured by eternal mathematical and hence metaphysical verities, since beauty, whether in the keeping or the breaking of such rules of harmony and proportion, in music, in architecture, in the composition of a face or body, is dependent on our recognition of those invisible, immeasurable laws? Beauty is not after all merely in the eye of the beholder, but is defined by its participation in an absolute metaphysical reality.
The thread unravels.
At the end of the Republic, Socrates recounts the Myth of Er. This warrior sage has passed from a former life into his present one, but unlike most people, has a clear memory of the transition. After judgment, he passed with all the other souls of the dead into a barren vale. There flowed the river Lethe, which means “forgetfulness.” Its waters cause the dead who drink it to forget their past life, readying their soul for its next incarnation. Er remembers because he did not drink.
The Greek word for truth is aletheia, the privative of Lethe, and so literally, “unforgetting.” The import of this for Plato is that truth, far from being something we nominalistically impose on the world through our own self-determined categories, is something in which we already participate as members or instantiations of a universe governed by rational laws. The Myth of Er is a way of describing how we inherently possess certain knowledge which is not poured into us from beyond, but which rather needs to be recollected from within.
Our memory is governed by certain numerical realities. Without the concept of number “one,” we could not even begin to remember anything: we could categorise no two or more things as sharing in any underlying similarity. Without the concept of “two,” we could not see the difference between any one thing and another. Every perception we have is conditioned by both oneness and twoness: by the similarity it shares with some things, and the difference it has from others. The paradoxical participation of all things in both oneness and twoness, sameness and alterity, is not only what allows us to distinguish between things and so to harbour memory of them: it is ontologically constitutive of what they are.
These memories all rely on a memory which, it seems, it implicit in our minds: the innate capacity for number which allows any kind of differentiation at all. Our minds, to pursue my earlier technological metaphor, are not unformatted hard drives. Rather, they are intrinsically hard-wired for reason, every mind a microcosm of the mathematical and metaphysical architecture of structure of the universe. This should not be so surprising. If the universe is formed and governed by metaphysical realities, it would be strange for the human mind to be exempt.
From a Platonic perspective, to see the mind as the “blank slate” of Locke and Rousseau’s fancy is symptomatic of the West plunging headfirst into Lethe and drinking it dry. Identity depends on memory, and this is as true of a nation as it is of a person. Certain agents are seeking to erase not only the foul memories of our past, but even the fundamental structures and order which give the possibility of rationality, harmony and unity to our global, national and familial life. There are forces deliberately turning us away from the primal unity of our collective memory to absolute multiplicity, a denial of the commonality of anything, an assertion of sheer, unfettered, individual autonomy. We sunder the paradoxical interplay of two with one, of culture with nature, of nature with the supernatural, of the physical with the metaphysical, polarising reality into an eternity of existential conflict. Stripping reality of any value beyond that which our minds define, we reduce culture and nature alike to a no man’s land, existing solely to be conquered and formed by the victor’s will.
Technology has played a significant role in this polarisation, beginning with the invention of writing. Whatever the truth of his identity, Homer was known to the ancient Greeks as one of many blind poets who composed vast epics from scraps they heard from one another, and retained them word for word by memory alone. Contests were held for the recitation of such poems in their entirety, feats of memory equalled now only by the oral poets of illiterate societies and by the hafiz of Islam who even now memorise the entire Qur’an. The one occasion where Homer mentions writing is uncomplimentary, even fearful. In Book 6 of the Iliad he tells the tale of Bellerophon betrayed by “baleful signs.” The very act of trapping sound on tablets of clay seemed sorcerous, a threat to the memory which was the poet’s stock in trade.
Two millennia after Homer, the innovation behind the Protestant Reformation would further erode the human memory. Mediaeval clergy, unable to carry around an expensive, bulky, hand-written psalter, had been expected to memorise it in its entirety. Mastery of the ars memoriae was a mark of their learning. The new invention of the printing press equipped the wandering preachers of the Reformation and their rival Catholic friars with prayer books, homilies and pamphlets to persuade the newly lettered crowds. Knowledge, for the first time, was more a product to be shared than a tradition to be, as the Second Collect for Advent of the Book of Common Prayer has it, marked, learned and inwardly digested.
By the age of European imperial expansion, literacy trumped memory as a mark of prestige. Further technological advances in shipbuilding and munitions shifted Europe from its side-show status to the global centre stage. Missionaries accompanying the armies and traders overseas by now equated culture with technology and literacy. So, they found nothing they could recognise as culture among the illiterate tribes. No matter that ancient peoples preserved their culture through what, by then, in Europe would be considered prodigious feats of memory, handed down for centuries from generation to generation. No matter that this is how Homer’s epics and the holy Scriptures had been formed. Illiteracy now meant inferiority.
We may now be witnessing the twilight of the European mind as it sinks into the Internet, a swirling Ocean filled with Lethe’s waters. There has never been so much information available to so many people at such great ease. So what do we use it for? Far more bandwidth is expended on pornography and Tik Tok than on preserving the collective wisdom of our forebears; more yet on posting pictures of ourselves, the shadows of shadows. Never has communication been easier, yet more megabytes are spent shouting opinions at strangers or looking at them naked (might some Metaverse surrealist one day merge these pursuits?) than listening to them. Even those who wish to focus their attention on the better parts of the web find their attention challenged by the constant interruption by the sundry siren voices of social media, mail and messaging apps.
Education is bewitched by technology, the same technology that is managing our collective amnesia. Progressives want to promote the skills needed to access information at the expense of curating and instilling knowledge. Spurred by the spectre of Lawrence Stenhouse, teachers are wary of intruding on the supposed neutrality of the data their students can access. Their creed is the mantra that we should teach children how to think, not what to think. Yet the idea that the Internet is a neutral space full of valueless data just waiting to be mined is manifestly false, just an updated version of the blank slate fallacy, but now externalised from the mind to the Web, which becomes the virtual imposter for our collective memory.
But the Web is no blank slate. It has its own internal architecture just as our particular minds do, and its masters seek to reconfigure the architecture of our minds to its own (though quite who or what its masters are remains subject to speculation). How many times have you found yourself, even when you are nowhere near a computer and doing something utterly unrelated to technology, thinking in terms of hashtags, web search entries, potential Tweets or Instagram potential? Before I quit the habit, I sometimes even dreamed in Tweets. I say this as someone in my forties, who has had Internet access only half my life. What is happening to young minds, in their formative stages, when they are barraged with constant distraction, obsessed with posting videos of themselves opening consumer products, perpetually anxious about their status on Instagram? AIs and algorithms which lurk in these waters have been drafted into the nominalist war of wills, the arms race of escalating redefinition, the imperialistic domination of the final frontier: not Mars or the moon, but the human mind.
We know how easy it is for people to be manipulated by the Olympian powers who stir the Web, especially social media providers and advertisers. We know that Google registers every word we type on its virtual keyboards. We know that Android and Alexa are perpetually monitoring our conversations, their speech-recognition AI amanuenses logging our words into books of fate on some transcendent server. We know that they use what they glean to tailor the content we consumer so that it titillates our retail, political and sexual proclivities and deepens our addiction.
The more automated and personalised our experience of the Internet becomes, the less we can maintain the illusion that it is in any sense a neutral entity, a blank slate. Stirring the waters of Lethe, the marketeers of the Internet break down the mind of the individual with their arsenal of diversion and desire, remodelling our private memories to transform us into the ideal consumers. Like the Olympians who toyed with Odysseus, these new gods conspire to keep us from the recollection of our true home. We share the ethereal realm of the Internet with demons which work to discern, arouse and sate our desires, so that we may be reincarnated, like Circe’s pigs, in the image of what we crave.
The Internet puts the AIs into Aiaia, and like the pigs there, we soon become reconciled to our new life as the deities’ chattels. At first we may be amphibious, capable of living dipping back into physical life from time to time, but before long, we fall for the delusion that we can have a meaningful existence divorced from our human bodies in a disincarnate dreamworld dictated solely by our desires. We forget more and more our corporeality, our part in the natural order. We lose sight of the metaphysical laws of the universe. We live through avatars, whether carefully curated social media versions of ourselves in the outside world or completely fictitious online identities. So we are led deeper into the illusion that we have absolute control of ourselves, that in some way we make ourselves, and that true freedom is found in the power to be our own creators. The ability to self-define becomes the measure of happiness, and in the physical world we become anxious, depressed, even suicidal when confronted with the limitations of our bodies, seeking medical and technological enhancements, transitions and inversions. The tapestry is undone. We unravel and unravel into infinite and absolute strings.
Outside the Web, other gods conspire to block our way home. While the AIs seek to reconfigure our private memories, leftist ideologues launch a pincer attack in the physical world on the institutions charged with preserving our collective memory. All these must be discredited and preferably dissolved, tradition recast as a source of shame. Ridicule is the first weapon in their arsenal, softening the foundations so that when our heritage is deemed risible enough, it can finally be undermined completely. Bereft of any sense that the physical realm partakes in metaphysical unity, our national institutions become merely arbitrary, subject purely to the democratic will. Thus they unravel.
Primary targets in Britain, as preservers of what the new gods want us to forget, include the Church, the Armed Forces, the judiciary, the House of Lords and, as the uniting principle of them all, the monarchy. Some think that mere popularity is enough to justify and to save the Crown. The death of the Queen has somewhat muted them for now, but quiet calls for its abolition continue among the Labour Party’s Momentum group and its surrogates.
Defeat at the ballot box and eradication from key shadow roles by the Party’s new masters has not dented Momentum’s considerable influence in the academy, the arts or the media. What the radical Left has failed to achieve through democratic process it now strives to effect through their own elite establishment of international protest movements and solidarity groups. The universities lend them credence, respectability and recruiters, thanks to the post-Marxist critical theorists who now dominate the liberal arts faculties of state-funded universities. Through their control of education faculties, these have already succeeded in reconfiguring the minds of the young to see the world in terms of conflict, between social class, age, sex and race. One dare not question the logic of the hierarchies of victimhood which they espouse for fear of losing one’s livelihood. The inexorable spread of that logic among our nations’ softer seats of power will result in the dismissal of the monarchy as a monument to historic oppression and beneficiary of injustice. Among the like and comment-hungry young, for whom even silence is means complicity, it will be social media suicide to protest the toppling of the monarchy into Lethe. The American wife of a sad prince will cheer them from the dockside.
If the exercise of power alone legitimates political authority, whether that be the power of wealth however accumulated or inherited, the power of arms or the power of the majority will, then there is no justification for the monarchy at all. It is an appendix to an outworn and unnecessary constitution, a reminder of old beliefs no longer held. The best it might hope for, if it forfeits its metaphysical claims, is to survive as an expensive mascot or marketing device for an island tourist industry.
In the longer term, only metaphysics can justify the monarchy. The monarch is, by definition, the one alone (monos) who rules (arche). As such, he is more than merely a figure of national unity. The King is a living image of the metaphysical One beyond division, and which is the undivided source (another meaning of arche) of all being. As the One is ontologically prior to the many, which depend on it for their reality, so the monarch is politically prior to the demos. The Crown simultaneously guarantees its members both their unity and their individual autonomy. The swearing of oaths by the judiciary, military and police not to the will of the people but to the Crown is a practical outworking of this. Representatives of the monarch participate in a higher, common good by which they guarantee private civic freedoms rather than surrendering them to what is merely declared “good” by the most powerful will.
Marxist diatribe portrays the monarchy as a succession of ancient warlords, to which we pay tribute in a national-level protection racket. As such, they say, the monarch perpetuates class division rather than healing it. The opposite can be true. It is no coincidence that the aristocracy and the working class have tended to hold closer views to one another’s than to the middle class between them. For as the many are continuous with and participate in the One, so the monarch is not merely other, standing above his subjects in dualistic separation as just one more powerful competing will among others. Rather, as Crown in Parliament, the monarch is politically continuous with his subjects: not in representing them contractually, nor in the slavish exercise of their will, but in representing the collective memory of our nation, including that of our ancestral dead. In comparison with elected representatives, the longevity of the monarch’s reign and, until recent reforms, the service of generations of hereditary peers offered the concrete manifestation of this principle of continuity. Not to deny that there has been conflict historically generated by monarchs and nobility, of course, but these have been unwanted and unintended outcomes. Abuse of political power in an aristocratic polity is a failure to live up to the metaphysical orientation to the Good, rather than an intentional feature of it, whereas in any nominalist polity, whether absolute democracy or tyranny, arbitrary use of power is not a failing, but a feature of the system, for power is the measure of all things.
The participation of the monarchy in the metaphysical order is mediated by another increasingly despised repository of the national memory, the Church. The monarchy is radically anti-nominalist because in principle, it does not derive its authority from itself and its own exercise of power or wealth, but from anointing by the spiritual authority of the realm. When the Church anoints the new monarch, it does so not in its own name or by the exercise of its own power, but in the name of God, as source of all being and supreme metaphysical unity.
The shuttle flies still, though on a distant shore.
If you were asked to think of a socially conservative, unified country, proud of its national heritage, which has preserved its traditions for centuries, the mind might spring less readily to Britain, alas, than to Japan. Yet Japan, too, is a monarchy, ruled by an overtly pagan emperor who serves a central cultic role in the Shinto religion. Whether Christian or not, religious tradition, ritual and preservation of a common mythos unite us with our ancestral dead, with one another both intra- and internationally, and most importantly with higher metaphysical reality. In this capacity, Christianity has more in common with pagan Shinto than it does with the nominalism of secular modernity. The Church’s political role might in theory be fulfilled by any religion which shares a participatory metaphysics comparable to the Christian sacramental principle. As the Divine Word becomes flesh in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, so are spiritual realities embodied in the matter of bread and wine, baptismal water, or in this case, the anointing of monarchs to their sacred calling. The monarch becomes a sacramental interface between the spiritual and political realms: in the ‘downward’ trajectory, as it were, the supernatural order of things is embodied in the monarch’s person; while in the ‘upward’ trajectory, through the monarch, the life and work of the nation is consecrated to the supernatural end of divine unity.
Locke, Rousseau and their ilk, the founding fathers of the social contract and the blank slate theory, were not atheists. The God they believed in, however, was one distanced from the ancient Platonic understandings shared by Christians with many ancient pagans, Jews and Muslims. Rather, it was the God of nominalist philosophy, defined not in terms of unity and participation, but as an almighty Other; not as the grounds of being, or even Being itself, but as the one supreme being among infinite lessers, a vast willing power differentiated from us only by its magnitude. For believers in such a deity, to become godlike was simply to become as powerful as possible, to maximise to the greatest extent the possibilities of one’s own free will. Hence liberty came to be defined not in continuity and harmony with others but in opposition to them, with particular resentment towards the strictures of custom, culture and society, and so spurred on the progress of modern Western relativism.
A Shinto emperor may in theory represent a sacramental principle of mediation far closer to that of a Christian monarch than nominalist polity permits, but the specifically Christian content of our national memory is also important for the way we understand the exercise of power and the necessity of a unifying metaphysics. The God of the Christian mythos is precisely the opposite of the deity defined by the will to power. St Paul describes this succinctly in one of the oldest passages in the New Testament, Philippians 2:5-11, the Christological hymn which speaks of God “emptying himself” of glory to take the “form of a slave” in Jesus Christ. Divine grace does not imbue the Christian prince with the power of a divine tyrant, but rather transfigures the monarch into an icon of that King whose reign is that of a suffering servant. As a fellow subject of the heavenly King, his earthly analogue is in absolute equality with every one of his people; as his representative, the monarch is called to lead us into self-giving service of one another.
Only a few decades ago, such open monarchism would have been uncontroversial in England’s national church, the ministers of which swear oaths of fealty to the monarch at their ordination. Now, the death of the Queen notwithstanding, the monarchy is far from the minds and prayers of most of the Church of England most of the time, and this too is thanks to the deliberate negligence of one of the finest repositories of England’s collective national memory: the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. The Prayer Book unified churches of varying convictions throughout the land for centuries. It lay on the shelves and most households in England and in the hands of most churchgoers. It prescribes a regular diet of prayers for the monarch, Royal Family and nation. But it has been usurped by a supposedly optional multi-volume “alternative.” The new liturgy slavishly mimics the modern priority of choice over uniformity, and predictably enough, that choice ends up in the hands of those with power, namely the clergy. The life of the church ends up reflecting their particular theological and political proclivities. These were edging leftward in the 80s, but since the ordination of women in the early 90s, which necessitates a certain liberalism in approach to scripture and tradition, the Church has accelerated in its lurch towards the liberal left. As quotas are imposed for women in “senior leadership” roles in the church, this trajectory seems sure to continue.
Anglo-Catholics are safely divided over the question of women’s ordination, leaving the Church of England in the hands of liberals and a new brand of Evangelical. These may seem odd bedfellows, but they have one very modern trait in common: a contempt for tradition. They are united in their calls for iconoclasm, suspicion of beauty, hostility to church buildings and historical structures, and uncritical use of the Internet to dominate the market with their agenda. Both profess a gospel of radical discontinuity with the past and with nature, which they understand not as continuous with divine grace, but rather to be conquered by God’s sovereign will. Both see themselves as superior to those who are blind to the truth, in which they alone are enlightened. Both are committed to the propagation of a disembodied message, and neither has much interest in sacraments or metaphysics more widely. Their political concern is not the unity of the nation in God under the sovereign, but the conversion of individual souls to their particular cause. Antiquity, tradition, old memories and pagan philosophies are obstacles to be swept aside rather than mediators of divine grace.
It is the older, sacramental Christianity which provides the necessary metaphysical rationale for Britain’s national institutions and the key to the memory of the common good. The Crown in Parliament, anointed by the Christian Church, sacramentally binds our national identity with that of the self-giving One who is the origin and final destination of the whole cosmos. Relativism, which sprang from Christian soil, comprises a sort of parodic reflection of that tradition. It is a reversal of baptism. While the Christian initiate dies to self to be incorporated through the Body of Christ into union with God, the descent into the Lethe of relativism dissolves and disunites us from one another and from our metaphysical origin. It is in way a reversal of the Eucharist, that act of remembrance in physical bread and wine by which Christ re-members us from our fractured multiplicity into his unifying body. Conversely, our increasingly disembodied interactions make us forget the bonds of culture and nature, of individual and society, of self and other, of body and soul, of two and one. We have replaced remembrance with dismemberment.
Only by finding our traditional Western metaphysical origins and end can we grow into closer harmony with the rest of the world. Attempts to impose the supposed tolerance of our relativistic diversity programme are easily unmasked as just another form of discredited Western imperialism. In any event, they will fail as our house falls divided. China and Russia are poised to pick up the pieces. If we truly value the religious and social liberties we enjoy, now is the time to wake up, and remember the older trajectory we once shared with so much of the world, and which in its universality gives us our particularity sense and meaning.
It is time to leave Lethe and come home. We may need to visit other islands to prompt our memories of where we were before. We may need their nourishment to strengthen our arms so that we can bend the ancestral bow and slay the false suitors. Our beloved may seem lost to their advances. But for all that she unravels, she spins still, waiting patiently for us to reclaim the tapestry of our ancestral memory.