"Terrae Filius" and contemporary politics

March 08, 2021

I'm reading a lovely scholarly edition of a book entitled Terrae Filius, or, the secret history of the University of Oxford, from the 1720s.  (Don't worry, this edition came out in 2004.)  There’s a lot to say about the book, all sorts of interesting things about the muckraking and somewhat scandalous tone of what the author--Nicholas Amhurst--reports. Suffice to say, while many of the details and forms of academia have changed in 300 years, the basic human characters that populate it, and the formal structures and dynamics involved in teaching and learning, have not changed at all, or not very much, anyway.

Just this morning I was struck by the author's tone, and his cynicism, upon realizing that his party would not fight to give him the college Fellowship he thought he richly deserved. He went from being slighted in his own case, to a larger judgment about political parties in general:

For my part, I freely confess (and let my enemies take it for an handle of triumph) that I have been, for a long time, entirely mistaken in my general opinion of mankind, and the common transactions of the world.  I once thought there was a real difference in parties, and that there was something more in those distinctions, which have so long divided us, than a mere struggle for power, and a tryall of skill, between a few great men, to determine which of them shall be greatest.


Amhurst here seems to have taken it as a determinant sign that, because he did not get his material reward the party he supported, that is the Whig party, were not genuinely interested in his well-being.

Of course, it might just be that the parties decisions were made on a different set of criteria that Amhurst wanted them to be., Perhaps the party regretted that they could not do for him what he wanted them to do, but in the moment, they had to choose between finite options, none of them perfect. As JFK once said, “to govern is to choose,“ and when you choose, there is always something that is not chosen.

Dr. Johnson said famously, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Perhaps cynicism is the last refuge of a frustrated political naïf.

Keeping this in mind may help understand some of the language of betrayal, pullulating from many places in public life these days.


Have a good day! Be safe!  Here in Central VA, it is sunny--a glorious day.  Hopefully we'll be able to get outside for a good while.  You do the same, if you can.


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