Friday, November 06, 2020

7: Subjective Beliefs

Elizabeth [I] was a great queen 
You believe that because you have an Oedipus complex. (Psychological)

“Elizabeth [I] was a great Queen” is a subjective belief. It may be very widespread. It might be one of those truths where “opinion is divided” only means  “I think she wasn’t, everyone else thinks she was”. But it isn’t a necessary truth like A+B>C and it isn’t an empirical fact like “I have six pounds five shillings and threepence in my current account.” 

Many different things feed into my believe that a particular historical figure was “great”. Including, of course, the way my culture defines the word “great”. Perhaps I think Elizabeth [I] was a good Queen because she beat the Armada: perhaps you think she was a rotten Queen because she allowed Walsingham to chop her cousin’s head off. I think she was a great Queen because she established the Church of England; but I would say that because I’m a protestant. You think she was a terrible Queen because she took England away from the true church; but you would say that because you’re a catholic. 

It could very well be true that many people believe that Elizabeth [I] was a great Queen because they tend to attribute a quality called “greatness” to a particular kind of powerful woman. The Elizabethans created a myth around the Queen as the mother of the nation; the Conservative party did something rather similar with Mrs Thatcher. The idea that this myth has affected her reputation; and that there is a Freudian explanation for its potency is not a hopeless non-sequitur. 

I believe that Henry V was a great king because Shakespeare wrote a mighty heroic play about him: I don’t know the first thing about his actual reign. 

I believe that Winston Churchill was a great Prime Minister because it is part of my country’s national story that he defeated Hitler: I couldn’t begin to make a serious assessment of his administration. 

I think the Nazis were evil because Nazis were the baddies in the war comics I used to read when I was a kid. That certainly doesn’t make my belief that the Nazis were evil incorrect. But it does tell you something about the kind of belief that I have. Someone who has made an extensive study of German history and understands the National Socialists as a political movement and not as a collection of cartoon villains understands the evil of the Nazis on a much deeper level than me. He probably wouldn’t use the word evil, though. 

You might want to say that I believe that the Nazis were evil, but the historian really knows that they were. The patron of C.S. Lewis’s club drew a distinction between “true opinions” and “knowledge”. Strictly speaking, you can’t “know” that Elizabeth [I] was a great queen or that the Nazis were evil. The word “knowledge” should only be applied to necessary, axiomatic truths. 

Such as, for example, the truths of geometry. 

George VI was still king of England when Lewis wrote this essay: until 1952 there had only been one Queen named Elizabeth. It is rather endearing that Walter Hooper still insists on putting pedantic square brackets around the Roman numeral.

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