The joy of a peaceful society

By Lorenzo

On Wednesday evening, I was in the Melbourne CBD, coming from a regular (second Wednesday of the month) dinner-and-talk meeting. The talk had been on the Turks Head Club, a weekly dinner group that originally met at the Turks Head Tavern in Gertrude St, Soho, organised by friends of, and centred around, Dr Samuel Johnson.

The dining club was founded 250 years ago and during Johnson’s life included such folk as Joshua Reynolds, painter; Edmund Burke, writer & MP; Oliver Goldsmith, writer, poet and playwright; David Garrick, actor; Adam Smith, philosopher and political economist; Edward Gibbon, historian & MP; Charles James Fox, MP;  and, of course, James Boswell, Johnson’s biographer.

Click here to see who is who.

Click here to see who is whom.

The group included Tories and Whigs, devout Christians and Enlightenment sceptics. Thus, folk who were on opposite sides of great issues of the day. It bridged the worlds of letters and practical politics. It was the creation of a free, vibrant and prosperous society. It epitomised why Britain was the land of the sceptical Enlightenment; open, enquiring and pragmatic.

France had its salons, but private dining clubs were effectively illegal, since they could not be spied on by the government. Ruled by a patchwork absolutism, there was no open, practical politics of election, public deliberation and bargaining. The world of letters was largely cut off from politics, and developed a fervid grandiosity as a result. Hence France being the home of the radical Enlightenment; dogmatic, self-important, utopian, grandiose. Which have remained enduring features of French intellectual life.

One might argue that the French Revolution was not like the Glorious Revolution because there was no replacement monarch(s) whose legitimacy could be bound in a new Revolutionary Settlement. But then the question becomes why was the French Revolution not like the American Revolution? The American Revolution generated more emigres than did the French Revolution, both absolutely and proportionately, yet failed to dwindle into the politics of the guillotine and tyranny. Nor did it replace one autocracy with a more efficient (and more grandiose) one.

But the American revolutionaries had already experienced practical politics and its habits of social bargaining via electoral and deliberative assembly politics in colonial legislatures. They sought the protected liberties to act, not the “correct” virtue to impose. “No taxation without representation” was a brilliant slogan because it precisely expressed the notion that folk should be included in the political bargaining process. And yes, the revolting colonies wanted to keep their slaves, which British legal processes seem to threaten, and loot Amerindian land, which the Crown stood in the way of.

But they were also correct in that having an Imperial Parliament they had no representation in making crucial decisions for them was a violation of the principles of the Revolutionary Settlement and of local colonial practice. It was those deeper, and practical, principles that made the American Revolution come to mean much more than a land grab. And the contradiction between life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness versus people-as-property was eventually, if bloodily, resolved. Besides, the vibrant, free and prosperous society which created such a thing as the dining club at the Turks Head Club–in its way, an expression of Burke’s “little platoons“–had achieved that out of its own history of blood and strife.

The answer to Hannah Arendt‘s question of why people have sought to replicate the French Revolution, which failed, and not the American Revolution, which succeeded, is that revolutions since have generally not taken place in polities where such habits of practical social bargaining are entrenched. Plus the self-important grandiosity of the rule of virtue has more visceral appeal, particularly to frustrated intellectuals.

Fortunately, such politics have rarely been more than parlour games in the Anglosphere. As I stepped out into the streets of the CBD, there suddenly began this serious of very loud bangs and crashes. Fairly clearly explosions. But no one looked startled or fearful. It was, of course, just fireworks on the Yarra. But that is the joy of a peaceful society. You hear sudden bangs and crashes and you assume some innocuous, peaceful purpose–such as fireworks, or demolition prior to construction. And you are correct.


Fireworks on the Yarra River

The toast of the dining club founded 250 years ago was esto perpetua, may it be eternal. Uttered by Fra Paolo Sarpi, Venetian scholar, scientist and patriot, it referred to his hopes that the Serene Republic of Venice would always be independent. Well, the Venetian Republic lasted a thousand years, making it easily the longest lived republic in history, before falling victim to Napoleon. Who looted the city.

Eternity is not given to human things. But hope is also a human thing. So, to the peaceable society, let us toast: esto perpetua!


  1. Posted March 15, 2014 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Nice piece, Lorenzo!

  2. Posted March 15, 2014 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    Ta 🙂

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