Exceptionalism Corrodes the Relationships Which Drive Progress for Everyone

Cassini’s copy of Newton’s Principia with inscription by Halley (© Observatoire de Paris)

In 1687 the great English astronomer Edmund Halley (of the comet fame) sent an inscribed copy (image left) of Isaac Newton’s freshly published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica to Giovanni Domenico Cassini, Director of the Paris Observatory.  Think about this for a moment. A copy of the most important thesis of the day (the foundation of Gravitational Theory and Mechanics) by an English scientist sent to an Italian scientist working in a French observatory.  This pattern repeats itself decade after decade, century after century, right back to the dawn of civilisation. Indeed one theory of archeology now views Stonehenge as the epicentre of a Britano-Near European network.

Now, I am as proud as anyone of our great history of Shakespeare and Shelley, Newton and Darwin, Turner and Constable, Stephenson and Brunel, Locke and Hume.  I am also proud of the work the establishment wants to forget, by Tom Paine for example or James Harrington or Algernon Sidney. But in this post I want to place the work of these greats in context, as part of progress viewed as relationships cultivated with colleagues throughout Europe and beyond. They are classed as some of the greatest luminaries, but not exceptional in the sense that they stand apart from other greats. It is the relationships which count as much as anything.

Magna Carta was part of a pan-European movement….

My Halley-Cassini example dates from the 17th Century when the Age of Enlightenment was getting under way. But I want to briefly travel further back to 1215 and the iconic Magna Carta. A mountain of literature has been generated by the Great Charter along with some grandiose claims.  For example, it is purported to be the birth document of democracy, which it isn’t and a protector of liberties, but only for some. What is important is that it placed limits on the king’s power which was subject to the law.   But charters were common in early medieval Europe both individually in terms of personal wills and in more general terms through the granting of rights and privileges to groups of people such as towns and cities. Some included promises of protection and justice by a King but the most important charters were issued by the Pope as Papal Bulls.

Of importance was the so-called “Statute of Palmiers issued three years earlier than Magna Carta in 1212 and the earliest constitutional document of France.  Issued by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester (his son, also Simon, is more well known to us as playing a crucial role in the founding of Parliament), the Statute was sealed and guaranteed by six French bishops. It includes more than fifty clauses, prohibiting the sale of justice, dealing with the rights of heirs and widows, and promising not to enforce military service from his tenants except in return for pay. Through de Montfort and others the Statute of Palmiers was known in England and covers much the same ground. But in turn, Magna Carta influenced Europe. For example, the  Golden Bull (a Bull was a kind of seal, by the way) of 1222 was a charter issued by King Andrew II of Hungary under duress from his nobles. Like Magna Carta this was one of the first examples of constitutional limits being placed on the powers of a European monarch. So though Magna Carta was unique in scope and ambition it was fully in keeping with developments elsewhere.

….while the Age of Enlightenment was truly international collaboration.

Now back to my first example.  The Age of Enlightenment was a supreme example of natural philosophers, political thinkers and artists collaborating across international boundaries, this time including North America. For example, American founding father Benjamin Franklin visited Europe frequently and contributed actively to scientific and political debates here, returning with the latest ideas to Philadelphia. Vital to the development of the Age of Enlightenment was a separate but associated phenomenon which has been termed the Republic of Letters.  It started in the literary sphere and was initially a purely intellectual exchange consisting of a network of thinkers such as Voltaire and John Locke. The Republic of Letters was facilitated by more efficient transport in the Seventeenth Century and secure postal services grew rapidly New associations such as the Royal Society provided centres where ideas could be presented and promulgated. Similar societies sprang up in France and Germany and were vital in helping local intellectuals contact like-minded thinkers elsewhere in the Republic of Letters

The political and social transnational effects were cataclysmic. The English  Revolution of 1642-1649, combined with the work of emigrant Englishman Tom Paine was a vital influence on the American Revolution which in turn hugely influenced events in Europe during the French Revolution. In science the aforementioned Edmund Halley travelled all over Europe before influencing Newton’s decision to publish his ideas on gravitation which changed the course of science, helping to bring about our modern world. English and Scottish thinkers were crucial participants, but were dependant on ideas gathered through the relationships with workers in other parts of the world.

So what is my point? It is not to belittle the contributions of British (or English/Welsh/Scots/Irish in earlier eras) thinkers and politicians to world developments.  But much of the rhetoric of the British press in papers such as the Daily Mail, The Times and The Sun is now devoted to an exceptionalist view of Britain as being unusual or extraordinary in every way. It is tied to an agenda which I drew attention to in an earlier post. For individuals a sense of exceptionalism damages personal relationships and the same is true of nations. This can only harm our position with the rest of Europe and the world which can only do us (and them) harm. Ironically one of the conscious aims of the Enlightenment Republic of Letters was a measure of independence from Governments and overbearing authority (partly why it was called a Republic).  Whatever the outcome of Brexit and the current sweep of neo-conservative nationalism it is vital not to lose sight of the crucial role of transnational relationships, no matter how brilliant or able the individuals of particular countries prove to be. Mutual respect is vital, relationships matter!