Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism, by James Simpson

Alec Ryrie reports from a skirmish in the culture wars that proves surprisingly illuminating

May 16, 2019
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Some polarities are too all-consuming for us to escape them. In the 16th century, everything was viewed through the lens of Catholic versus Protestant. In the American academic world, which is James Simpson’s home, it is the culture war of “liberal” versus “conservative”.

This book is a continuation of that culture war by other means. Stimulatingly, exuberantly, maddeningly so. Filled with tendentious claims and barely defensible judgements, it manages, nevertheless, to reach a conclusion that is unanswerably right, and to mount a subtle, penetrating critique of liberalism in the process.

Simpson’s thesis is that modern liberalism emerged, not from the Enlightenment, but (despite itself) from the Reformation. For him, the Reformation – which he calls “evangelical religion”, an elastic, presentist category that somehow manages to include Francis Bacon – was a self-consuming, totalising revolution. Yet its ashes fertilised liberalism.

Much of the book describes this “evangelical religion” as “absolutist, cruel, despair-producing, humanity-belittling”, defined by “enslavement” and “vicious psychic torture”. In other words, he doesn’t like it.

Fair enough. But this view is not self-evidently correct. Some people found Protestantism conducive to despair; many others did not. Martin Luther, famously, found his doctrines liberating, and scholars such as Kate Narveson and Ron Rittgers have shown how Protestant piety could be rich, creative, consoling and empowering.

Most readers don’t agree with Simpson’s view that John Donne’s poem “Batter my heart…” displays “sadomasochism...on the unstable edge of sanity”, or that George Herbert’s The Temple is a “torture chamber”. Simpson does not refute those contrary views; he ignores them. Meanwhile, he happily describes Richard Hooker, apologist for Elizabeth I’s bloodily imposed religious conformity, as “reasoned...tolerant...humane”.

In fact, the “liberal” and “illiberal” faces of the Reformation are far more intimately intertwined than Simpson recognises. Most of the voices that would show those connections are missing here: the radicals (there are no Quakers, Diggers or Familists, and scarcely any Levellers) or the persistent anti-predestinarians. These people are not outsiders to the Reformation, but integral to it.

In part, this is because Simpson, a literary scholar, takes England in isolation, with only occasional glances overseas. So he reads some of England’s peculiarities as normal. If English Calvinism had a despair problem, most other Calvinist societies didn’t. Witch-hunting was not a Calvinist phenomenon; England saw very little of it compared with the brutal purges in the Franco-German borderlands.

Still, it is all too plain why, for Simpson, “evangelical religion” and “liberalism” are antonyms. Listen to his description of Calvinist polemics: “One signals one’s authenticity precisely by the level of one’s bad manners (the ruder, the more authentic).” He’s not really thinking of the 17th century, is he?

Which makes his own willingness to rise above polemic all the more rewarding. Given this perspective, for him to argue that “evangelical religion” fostered liberalism, even despite itself, is a big deal. And his concluding insistence that liberalism must be “a tool for governing worldviews”, for managing diversity and provisionality, not a worldview in its own right, is bold as well as right.

In other words: actually learning from the past is much harder than conscripting it to fight our battles for us. But it can be done.

Alec Ryrie is professor of the history of Christianity at Durham University.


Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism
By James Simpson
Harvard University Press, 464pp, £25.95
ISBN 9780674987135
Published 26 February 2019


Print headline: Where right and left parted ways

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Reader's comments (1)

So does Alec Ryrie recommend students buy this book? His review seems to suggest that the book is nonsense but it has the correct final political message and that this will help "fight our battles". I find it all rather strange.