04 February 2009

Simon Raven Respectfully

"For any authority, however flexible and however enlightened, must in the last resort of all depend upon respect. In King’s we were all accounted equals but we were equals who respected one another and based our respect in a proper recognition of individual excellence; and so there could be authority between equals. But in the world at large there is no respect. Or rather, there is so much respect, since anything or anybody at all must be accorded it, that the word is made meaningless. The most trivial platitudes, the most misleading and sentimental half-truths, the merest non-sense—all must be received with ‘respect,’ less feelings be hurt and ‘justifiable resentment’ aroused. Is the work shoddy? Are the foundations shallow, the support unseasoned, the bricks carelessly laid? But this, my friend, is the work of free and equal men, and even as the house totters to the ground you must treat the builders with ‘respect.’ Fools, knaves, malingerers; the stupid, the incapable, the idle and the vicious, the spiteful, the envious, the mediocre and the mean—any and all of these you must ‘respect.’ Respect the people, respect their ‘rights,’ respect labour and respect its dignity, respect simplicity, respect ignorance, respect superstitious opinion, public morals, minority prejudice and majority hysteria—all these you must and will respect. But one thing you may not respect. Excellence or merit. Because if you respect this, you stand to allow that someone is better than someone else, and that, by current reckoning, is to destroy respect. Respect has been inverted: it is now what the great or gifted man must pay to his average fellows—in return for which they may possibly suffer him to serve them. Their respect is reserved for a different purpose—to console and flatter themselves. There can be none to spare for the authority of learning or of practiced tolerance or even of plain fact: still less to spare for that honourable figure of a vanished age—the English Gentleman."

Simon Raven, The English Gentleman (1961)


Anonymous said...

While I agree with every word of Simon Raven here I don't think it's the whole story.

It seems strange to me that while all he says is true, we also seem to be living through a period in which, at least until the "credit crunch" arrived, people practically prostrated themselves in front of the wealthy and the famous, according them an extra degree of "respect" whether it was merited or not. This has been the time of grovelling respect, in the media, amongst our political classes, and in people's private lives, whatever the qualities of the individuals involved. Even in New Labour England the attitude behind the American expression "If you're so smart, how come you ain't rich?" has become a common assumption. It wasn't before. It is rare, in our media, to go many days without photographs showing the un-edifying sight of our politicians, media, royalty and business class grubbing around various oligarchs of dubious provenance. As I said, a different level of respect.

Simon Raven seems to be arguing for respect based on something more than a person's bank balance. And I'd agree with him. And until we all share a respect based on values and merit, there isn't much point, no matter how true one's points might be, in criticising do-gooders for grovelling towards hoodies.

I'm not sure how to resolve the two thoughts, but thought it should be mentioned at least!

John said...

Great post. I have Simon Raven on my readiong list for the coming weeks. Just as soon as I finish up with the Stories of John Cheever (of which I enjoyed The Superindendent and The Bus to St. James's) and F. Scott Fitzgerald's collection of short stories.

anonymous english female said...

To simplify, if one follows the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you, with heartfelt integrity 'respect' is inherent.

Laguna Beach Trad said...

Raven is arguing, I think, that respect used to be based on personal qualities of character, which, one could infer, are themselves based on genetics, race, birth, or biology. This notion is completely out of bounds for modern people, of course, and rarely occurs to them, so it is rarely discussed let alone even mentioned.

Sartre said...

Have you read Raven's "Alms for Oblivion" 10 novel series? I have not but am always looking for a project.

Easy and Elegant Life said...

I'm midway through "In Defense of Elitism" by William Henry III, in which he makes many of the same points. He argues, in part, that those who subscribe to the theory of a wholly egalitarian society are those who think that they might fail in a competitive world.

I was always taught that respect is earned and that equality was that of opportunity. What you make of yourself is up to you.