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68. The taming power of the small (II)

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

When Hegel speaks about the spirit of history he means activity. Activity could be likened to the soul of a whole people. The history of a people is the story of how they come to understand their activity. In the early stages of any civilisation, a people is unconscious of what they are. They have emerged from the primordial ooze of consciousness and have started to do something new, something that will, eventually, become entirely characteristic of them as a people. The first few centuries of their existence are the most vital period for a people, but this is also the time when they are least self-conscious. They are like a young person doing what they do with naïvety and unselfconsciousness, too young to understand the clever tricks and deceptions of the world. A people, like a person, only comes to understand their significance at the end of their life.

One way—though far from the only—a people can understand itself is through art. When a people have completed their activity and their civilisation is hardening into old age, a work of art will emerge that explains the nature of a people to themselves. At the moment of death, they become fully self-conscious of what they are and what their role in history was. In the case of the British, this works is Treasure Island (1883). This work appeared when the British Empire was mature and preparing to die in the Great War. She had become a bureaucratic affair, smug and secure and unadventurous. This was the right time, the silver age, for the British to explain themselves to themselves.

Treasure Island is a story of young English yeoman—his mother owns a pub—Jim Hawkins, who sets out to find treasure in the tropics with help from a useless but amiable aristocrat, Squire Trelawney; a professional middle-class man, Doctor Livesey; a working-class crew; and, finally, the disreputable lumpenproletarian, Long John Silver. The expedition starts from Bristol, nexus of the slave trade and many early English colonial missions, and it concludes with the treasure recovered and Jim Hawkins safely enjoying a middle-class existence.

Treasure Island is the story of the English and their empire—spiritually, the British Empire’s engine was the English. It is the story of the English class system, particularly its yeoman backbone, taking to the seas and fighting with pirates—sometimes doing deals with them—to bring back treasure. The empire was acquired as a series of safe ports to facilitate trade, the possession of land was a mere incidental accident. When Jim Hawkins returns home with the treasure, he can put it back into his family pub, just as Britain put her plunder into the Industrial Revolution. Shakespeare could not have written this book; he was too bound to the spirit of the age, to the literal spirit of treasure-seeking developed by Raleigh and Drake. It was only Stevenson, a Scotsman, descended from the administrators of the Empire, who could embody the spirit of the English and their empire in a work of art.

Treasure Island is what Hegel means when he says: “The owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk.” It took a man writing in the sweet and musky dusk of the British Empire to embody the whole spirit or soul—the activity—of that empire in a single work of art. There has been nothing more: the Empire ended in the Great War and what exists in the British Isles today is a new form of activity, a new soul, that can only look back at the spirit described by Stevenson as something quite different and alien. We are not looking for treasure or tangling with pirates anymore. There is a new spirit in the land and it is too young to understand itself: it is young and naïve, just like Shakespeare and Homer. One day, perhaps in another 500 years, an artist or scientist will arrive who will explain the new spirit that walks among us today.


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