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England as a Raft?

Image result for drifting raft

In a lecture delivered in 1880, William James asked rhetorically, "Would England ... be the drifting raft she is now in European affairs if a Frederic the Great had inherited her throne instead of a Victoria, and if Messrs Bentham, Mill, Cobden, and Bright had all been born in Prussia?"

Beneath that, in a collection of such lectures later published under James' direction, was placed the footnote, "The reader will remember when this was written."

The suggestion of the bit about Bentham, Mill, etc. is that the utilitarians as a school helped render England ineffective as a European power, a drifting raft.

The footnote was added in 1897. So either James is suggesting that the baleful influence of Bentham, Mill etc wore off in the meantime or that he had over-estimated it.

Let's unpack this a bit.  What was happening in the period before 1880 that made England seem a drifting raft in European affairs, to a friendly though foreign observer (to the older brother of the most thoroughgoing Anglophile in US literary history). What had changed by 1897 that made it necessary for James to ask his readers to contextualize this allusion?

In 1878, Bismarck played host to the great powers in the Congress of Berlin, addressing the balance of power in Europe, especially in the Balkans. The addition to Germany (no longer "Prussia") and the UK, the participants included Russia, France, Austria-Hungary, and Italy.

One leading idea was to carve up what was seen as the disintegrating and no longer legitimate Ottoman Empire. Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro were declared independent principalities. Bosnia was awarded to Austria-Hungary.

So I think I know what James meant by the "drifting raft" observation. It could well have appeared to him that England had allowed Germany to take charge, to host the big Congress and to get a result out of it that matched Bismarck's needs better than theirs. I'm still not sure how the reference to utilitarianism fits, unless it means that a hedonic calculus could lead to an inward-turning policy, and a lowering of concern about whatever the heck happens in the Balkans.

Now, WHY did James feel compelled to add that footnote in the 1897 reprint contextualizing the passage as written in 1880? What had happened in the meantime? The division of Africa among the great European powers had gone very much against Germany. Indeed, by 1897 the deal the Brits had implicitly struck with The Germans over the preceding years might have become clear to James, and might even have come to seem sensible to him: 'we'll grant you a lot of leeway in the continent of Europe, but we will outpace you, and everyone else, in colonizing Africa and Asia.'

That may have seemed not so much like a drifting raft as like a well piloted steamboat.


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