How did the Reformation, which initially promoted decidedly illiberal positions, end up laying the groundwork for Western liberalism?
The English Reformation began as an evangelical movement driven by an unyielding belief in predestination, intolerance, stringent literalism, political quietism, and destructive iconoclasm. Yet by 1688, this illiberal early modern upheaval would deliver the foundations of liberalism: free will, liberty of conscience, religious toleration, readerly freedom, constitutionalism, and aesthetic liberty. How did a movement with such illiberal beginnings lay the groundwork for the Enlightenment? James Simpson provocatively rewrites the history of liberalism and uncovers its unexpected debt to evangelical religion.
Sixteenth-century Protestantism ushered in a culture of permanent revolution, ceaselessly repudiating its own prior forms. Its rejection of tradition was divisive, violent, and unsustainable. The proto-liberalism of the later seventeenth century emerged as a cultural package designed to stabilize the social chaos brought about by this evangelical revolution. A brilliant assault on many of our deepest assumptions, Permanent Revolution argues that far from being driven by a new strain of secular philosophy, the British Enlightenment is a story of transformation and reversal of the Protestant tradition from within. The gains of liberalism were the unintended results of the violent early Reformation.
Today those gains are increasingly under threat, in part because liberals do not understand their own history. They fail to grasp that liberalism is less the secular opponent of religious fundamentalism than its dissident younger sibling, uncertain how to confront its older evangelical competitor.
A subtle and helpful corrective to ahistorical Whiggish accounts of how we got here, and one that has significant, if largely unexplored, implications for the present.
This is ultimately a hopeful book, and those seeking liberalism’s death knell or swan song should look elsewhere…This fresh view of the Reformation will—if Simpson has put his pieces together in the right order, and I think he has—liberate us…from historical narratives that have prevailed in the West for over five hundred years.
As Simpson’s book ably demonstrates, by the end of the 17th century mainstream Protestantism had indeed become one of the champions of liberalism and a root of modernity…The scope of Simpson’s analysis is impressive. He moves well beyond the literary realm to provide deft accounts of historical developments. His sections on the divisions within Elizabethan Protestantism are particularly instructive…A major achievement.
An important and erudite book from a major scholar, one that takes issue in a critically self-conscious fashion with the way historical periods have been conventionally formulated, while arguing that we come to understand the cultural history of liberalism more clearly by recognizing its continuities with the religious legacies of medieval culture.
A breathtaking tour de force of literary and historical analysis that both confirms the basic pedigree—liberalism stems from the Reformation—and contradicts it in the novel twist that liberalism is the misbegotten and unforeseen child of evangelical religion, born precisely in order to discipline and contain it…An exciting, even compelling read, and in its breadth and argumentative brilliance will surely continue to engage scholars in the field for a long time to come.
Substantial and challenging…It is impossible to encapsulate here just how compelling and relevant this book is for our troubled times as Simpson shows that religious liberty was born through the pain of a post-Reformation world.
One of the best books I have ever read…Will provoke readers to contemplate the terms of their own faiths (or absence thereof), while revealing how various histories, when more fully understood, animate the world we live in today…What a monument (though a homely and familiar one) of humanist scholarship and cultural criticism…Magnificent.
Simpson has given us a landmark literary history of the Reformation, as well as a forgotten history of our liberties. A rare feat of scholarship and an exhilarating read.
An utterly gripping and monumental book, addressing the seventeenth-century revolutions and their implications for the Enlightenment and liberal modernity. This is a grand narrative, with extraordinary scope and range. Permanent Revolution is an intense, exuberant engagement with the unintended outcomes of the Reformation.
A provocative study of the English Reformation's transformation of literature, theology, and politics…Masterful.
A valuable contribution to describing the birth of Liberalism through the strife of the Reformation…Simpson has written a real Gesamtkunstwerk.
Erudite and fascinating. I learned from every page, not only about early modernity but about our own liberal predicament.
- 464 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
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