Public Moralists

A new book by Stefan Collini on thought in Britain from 1850 to 1930

Edward Norman | Published in
  • Public Moralists: Political Thought And Intellectual Life In Britain, 1850-1930
    Stefan Collini - Clarendon Press, 1991 - 390 pp. - £40

When Terry Waite was released from captivity last November there was a brief and fascinating moment when it was possible to see how saints and sages acquire their reputations. Regardless of many of the facts and ambiguities of their lives, something about their immediate coincidence with public values enables folk wisdom, as discerned by journalists and broadcasters, to identify them as embodiments of great ideas or great virtues. Self-publicity helps. Then the credulity of the people, their capacity for seemingly limitless spasms of false-consciousness, and their sense that they are thinking for themselves, promotes particular men and women to immortality. In the case of Terry Waite, as it happened, realists in the press quite early on in the process recognised that everything was not entirely kosher, and no sooner had the hero been raised upon the shields of public esteem than the burden became out of all proportion to the benefit. The embodiment of Englishness, the cynosure of national vision, turned out to have feet of clay.

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