Maurice Cowling, 1926-2005

By Minogue, Kenneth | New Criterion, November 2005 | Go to article overview

Maurice Cowling, 1926-2005


Minogue, Kenneth, New Criterion


Maurice Cowling, who died in August, just short of eighty, was a politics and history Fellow of Peterhouse in Cambridge. Some university teachers are significant because they use their university as a base from which to address the world. Cowling, by contrast, was the most parochial of men, one of whose main amusements was making mischief in College politics. His range barely extended as far as Oxford and London, and his first book, The Nature and Significance of Political Science, scandalized his colleagues, because he referred to many of the thinkers he criticized in terms of their current position as the Rector of this college or the Master of that. Most readers had no idea of the people being referred to. An Oxford professor later told him that the book made him feel ashamed of British political science, a judgment that delighted Cowling, and his delight in it gives us the first due about what made Cowling so remarkable.

He was quintessentially an anti-academic academic. The world of academic inquiry is a marvelous exercise in the pursuit of truth, but quite a lot of it is pretentious tomfoolery. Pedantry abounds, and much of it concerns the slow shuffling of fine points and dreary hypotheses, all conducted in terms of a ritual that makes a Japanese tea ceremony look like a free-for-all. And this is especially true of the ancient universities of Britain, only a few generations released from monkish celibacy, where discreet bitchiness and subtle slighting of reputations can be observed, along with a sneaky addiction to disseminating practical wisdom. Cowling burst into this world (after one or two abortive adventures in journalism) like a rumbustious Tory squire creating mayhem in a Whig coffee house. He was noisy and aggressive; above all, he thought that his fellow dons were mostly "up to something." In spite of the academic decorum they usually affected, many dons were traders in upmarket messages about morality and politics. Much of Cowling's intellectual life was given up to exposing what he judged those messages to be.

Writing retrospectively in 1987, he remarked that he had wanted to show "how rancid and solemn secular intelligentsias can become." He was particularly contemptuous of the moral indignation of the intellectual classes over the Suez affair of 1956. He did not support it, but the reaction of his fellow thinkers "was so narrow and naive as to be intellectually offensive." He once remarked casually that his criterion of a good seminar paper would be that it was "sneering and offensive." He thought that behind the bland surface of academic life lay a certain kind of will to power allied to a kind of "placid malice." In bidding to expose it, his weapon was derision, and in particular one of derision's more disreputable devices, the sneer. A sneer is a tone of voice that forces disagreement out into the open and often reveals the animus that can at times be found beneath apparently innocuous prose.

These components of his vocabulary will give some indication of how Cowling came over to his fellows. On the one hand, they are features that make him sound like something of an academic thug, and that is not entirely off the mark. On the other hand, he was also a brilliant, charming, and delightful thug whose kindness and good humor made it clear that his target was always academic pretentiousness. He was a matchless teacher of undergraduates to whom he was always kind and generous with his time. It is here, indeed, that one might well see in action of the basic moral points illustrated by a fascinating life: As a man of strong opinions, he might be expected to have problems tutoring students with convictions contrary to his own conservative beliefs. In fact, he illustrated very well the fact that the most tolerant of people is someone of strong opinions and a good sense of decency, rather than a liberal advocate of tolerance who has a weakness for improving the attitudes of the person he is teaching. …

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