Objective Cultural Norms
by George Grant
For Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), the principle of “all things to all men” was not a moral warrant for upholding cultural relativism. Instead, it was a practical mandate for upholding cultural norms. It was for him an inducement to communicate more effectively the universal and objective principles of truth rather than justification to abandon them to subjective fashions and fancies. As a result, his life and work were monuments to the vitality of enduring and unchanging virtue.
Scott was far and away the most popular writer and poet of the nineteenth century — outselling Austen, Dickens, Tennyson, Byron, Thackeray, and Meredith. Often mentioned in the same breath with Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, his output was prodigious: twenty-seven novels, five major works of epic poetry, three biographies, fourteen histories, and half-a-dozen collections of tales, legends, and ballads. All remain classics to this day. But it was for his popularization of his native Scotland that he is best remembered. Scott created and popularized historical fiction in a series called the Waverley Novels — which included such works as The Antiquary (1816), Rob Roy (1817), The Heart of Midlothian (1819), Quentin Dunward (1823), and Saint Ronan’s Well (1824).
He added immeasurably to the Scottish sense of identity. Indeed, he almost singlehandedly revived interest in kilts, tartans, Gaelic, bagpipes, Highland dancing, haggis, Celtic music, and all the other distinctive elements of Christian culture at a time when the Scots were defeated, demoralized, and despondent. Tales of the Covenanters, Wallace and Bruce, the Jacobites, Bonnie Price Charlie, and Rob Roy were all brought into the light of day by his intrepid commitment to regaling the past and its enduring virtues.
All of his books were stamped with his overarching conviction about the importance of tradition as the best means to communicate truth to a new generation. He believed with utmost fervency that the map of God’s activity in the world was not a blank ocean between the apostolic shores and the modern day. Thus, it was imperative that men and nations remember the luminaries, the risk-takers, and great movements through the centuries. To neglect them, he believed, was not only to risk repeating past errors, it was to fall victim to a narrowing amnesia that necessarily leaves whole civilizations floundering.
On the cusp of the magnificent flowering of industrial advance, it seemed to Scott that men were sadly afflicted with a kind of malignant contemporaneity and a toxic relevancy. He was alarmed that their morbid preoccupation with self — and thus their ambivalence and ignorance of the past — had trapped in a recalcitrant present. He believed the old truths had to be communicated to a new generation in such a way that was both appealing and ennobling.
As a result, all of Scott’s work essentially argued stridently that stable societies must be eternally vigilant in the task of handing on their great legacy — to remember and then to inculcate that remembrance in the hearts and minds of their children. He made the venerable aphorism, “He who forgets his own history is condemned to repeat it,” his personal and professional credo. He was certain that any people who did not know their own history, would simply have to endure all the same mistakes, sacrifices, and absurdities all over again.
He drew on his great Scottish legacy of Calvinism, Covenantalism, and Communitarianism. In his introduction to The Fortunes of Nigel, Scott remarked, “But no one shall find me rowing against the stream. I care not who knows it; I write for the general amusement.” Nevertheless, his works were clearly serious literary and intellectual efforts aimed at social criticism and cultural reform.
In his literary portraits of Scotland, England, and the Continent from medieval times to the eighteenth century, he showed a keen sense of political and traditional forces and of their influence on the individual. Indeed, Scott wrote frequently about the conflicts between different cultures. Ivanhoe (1791) dealt with the struggle between Normans and Saxons. The Talisman (1825) described the conflict between Christians and Muslims in the Crusades. Even the Scottish novels deal with the cataclysmic clashes between the new commercial English culture and the older Scottish clan culture. In Great Britain, he created an enduring interest in Scottish traditions, and throughout the Western world he encouraged a new appreciation of the Middle Ages, which strongly influenced Victorian romanticism.
But his purpose in all this popular communication was to restore the unchanging, enduring principles of Christian civilization. He was not after a new thing. He wanted to recover an old thing by communicating it in a new way to a new generation. In this regard, he is a model for us today and is worthy of careful study and deep appreciation.