11 NOVEMBER 1938, Page 24


MR. SPENDER'S liberalism belongs to the period before the Liberal Party—once the party of Mr. Gladstone handed over its soul, and, for that matter, its body, to Mr. Lloyd George. Mr. Spender knew at first hand those leading figures of the last generation who practised the grand style in politics ; he watched these men at their work, and discussed with them the conduct of affairs. It is therefore of great interest to read his interpretation of history from the point of view 01 the contributions made by successive generations to the art of government. Mr. Spender gives his interpretation in a running commentary which leaves him free to concentrate in one period upon the theory of politics, and in another period upon the success of a particular state or nation in

solving the practical problems of government. A professional historian might quarrel with some of the details, but the general picture is accurate enough for Mr. Spender's purpose, and the inferences drawn from it are valid.

Mr. Spender is a humanist, and his " traditional " Oxford background makes him more interested in Greece, and to a lesser extent in Rome, than in the Middle Ages. He is not a blind admirer of Plato and Aristotle ; he has some sharp paragraphs on the limitations. of ancient philosophy, and the mistake of pressing this philosophy into the service of modern political propaganda. He points out, for example, that the value of Plato to a modern reader "lies mainly in the fact that he took a great mass of unsorted material touching the government of mankind and from it extracted and stated explicitly the chief problems which have faced the world from his time until now." To the Middle Ages Mr. Spender is less fair ; it is a hard saying that "for philosophic history or reflective writing on government or politics the Middle Ages are a desert." This was not the judgement of Acton or Maitland in the last generation ; it is not the judgement of scholars like Dr. Powicke or Dr. Carlyle today. It is a view which must disappear at once upon close examination of mediaeval thought and achievement, particularly in the sphere of law. Indeed, if we survey the failure of Europeans to settle their political problems during the last twenty years, the political achievements of the high mediaeval centuries stand out in contrast not merely to our own mistakes, but to our lack of elevation of mind.

From the Renaissance to the eighteenth century Mr. Spender is on surer ground (though Taine is a dangerous guide to Tudor England). He accepts, mainly, the Whig interpretation of history, but this interpretation has resisted pretty well the attacks made upon it. Mr. Spender deals with the baleful influence of Hegel, who has been charged, a little unfairly, with the mistakes of readers unable to understand his meaning. Finally, Mr. Spender discusses Marx. Many of his criticisms are justified, but it is doubtful whether a supporter of the Marxist interpretation of history would find the main argument altogether convincing. It is, however, one of the merits of Mr. Spender's book that he does not stand over his readers angrily or hiss into their faces that they are fools if they do not agree with him. He gives th: ripe wisdom of experience ; his warning from the lessons of the past and his final belief in the reasonableness of man make his book an effective Tract for the Times. E. T TVT