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From Reformation to Improvement: Public Welfare in Early Modern England. The Ford Lectures Delivered in the University of Oxford, 1994-1995.

Paul Slack, From Reformation to Improvement: Public Welfare in Early Modern England. The Ford Lectures Delivered in the University of Oxford, 1994-1995

Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. viii + 179 pp. $45. IBSN: 0-19-820661-5.

The stated subject of this important, scholarly, and subtle book is "public action for the public good in England between the early sixteenth and the early eighteenth centuries" (1). During this period, the idea of the "public" itself evolved in step with changing conceptions of the state and the eventual recognition of "civil society" as distinct analytical category. Slack describes how, and goes a long way toward explaining why, aspirations for a root-and-branch reformation of the body politic and of the moral lives and material well-being of its members, so important to social policy in early and mid-sixteenth century, gave way over time to more specific programs for the improvement of social conditions and the regulation of unwanted social behavior.

The book makes the most of the opportunities that its array of subjects provides. It offers a rich study of the history of "civic consciousness," a deeply informed account of the governmental institutions and "agents who translated concepts into activity," and an illuminating treatment of "the practical consequences" for the provision of "manifold public services for the welfare ... of citizens" of this interaction between mentality and politics (1-2). In one way, therefore, it contributes to the growing body of scholarship on the history of state-building in early modern Britain and Europe, demonstrating in the process that changes in the functions of the state cannot be separated from developments in the history of political ideas and moral theory. In another way, it addresses the progress of social and ethical thought in the era, revealing that the shifts in notions of individual agency, personal duty, social identity, and political community revealed by recent studies depend in significant measure on tra nsformations in the nature and workings of these public and private institutions that defined the arena for social interaction.

The "public good" and "public welfare" would seem the most secular of concepts. So, too, do "common weal" and "civil society," the former term characterizing the prevailing idea of social order at the beginning and the latter at the end point in Slack's narrative of intellectual and intellectual change. But running through the story as he tells it is a keen awareness of the transcendent importance of religion and religious thought to what happened. For most of the period, the "public" was understood to combine the spiritual with the temporal and require the use of the divine gift of reason to assure its welfare.

By the early sixteenth century, "common weal" had come to mean "the general well-being" as well as identifying the whole community, rulers and ruled, living together in peace and order as a body politic (7). The concept derived from the ancient ideal of the republic in which human beings, living the collective life for which they had been prepared by their natures, might exercise their virtues. But even before the Reformation, this classical model had been fully Christianized. For medieval and early modern thinkers a common weal or commonwealth was intrinsically a godly community, a view that imposed duties on the virtuous -- whether right-minded laymen and clergy or the monarch and his servants acting in their official governmental capacities -- to suppress sin and bring moral reform to society insofar as they could.

Slack traces into the early eighteenth century the ins-and-out of these efforts, their institutional manifestations (e. g., in the form of public workhouses and privately endowed hospitals), in local communities and the kingdom at large, their successes and failures, and their long-term consequences for the character of government and the structure of society. Seen in this light, the idea of "civil society" also has a religious context; its emergence as a category reflects the triumph of human diversity and individual conscience against the forces of social and religious uniformity, whether conservative or radical. Slack's discussion reveals how the growth of an instrumentalist understanding of the state as a powerful but limited means for securing the common welfare went together with the "flowering of associative and voluntary activity" (161) in a complex interplay sometimes of mutual support and frequently of mutual contradiction. The end of monarchical absolutism and the failure of schemes for comprehens ive reform led not just to the definition of civil society as distinct from the state, but to more and more precise ideas of individual duty and human agency in the amelioration of social ills. As Slack puts it, "[i]n the English case ... we have an intriguing paradox: state and collectivities apparently flourishing together, neither diminished by the other" (161). The consequence was "a strengthening of the kind of civic consciousness which came from wide participation in the shaping and delivery of public welfare" (165).

It is impossible in a brief review to convey the full richness of this account. It is as noteworthy for grasping the utility of comparisons with continental experience as for the judicious and fair-minded treatment it gives to the scholarship of others. There is an admirable balance in its judgments on both accounts, as there is in the development of its larger themes. From Reformation to Improvement is as thought-provoking for what it suggests about recent political debates about the role of the state, the nature of public good, the reform of social mores, and the amelioration of want and suffering as for what it says about the past. It deserves the attention of all readers interested in the sometimes-noble history of efforts to reform and improve the human condition.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Dec 22, 2000
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