Cromwell and Providence

In a previous post I suggested that the three most powerful men in Western history who acquired their position other than by inheritance, were Napoleon, Cromwell and Hitler. Of the three, if we judge them over the whole of their careers, Cromwell was undoubtedly the most successful. He started his adult life as an impoverished country squire with no connections at court but ended up as Lord Protector of a country that was already overtaking France and Spain and would soon vie with Holland for world-wide naval and mercantile supremacy. Once put in command of an army, unlike Napoleon and Hitler, Cromwell never lost a battle and he died quietly in his bed not especially bothered by his latter-day unpopularity. It is true that he did not aspire to world domination like Napoleon and Hitler, but this is part of the reason that he succeeded more completely than they did : he cut his coat according to the cloth available while they did not.
But why exactly was he so successful?

The sense of mission

From the standpoint of Eventrics, individuals succeed because they ‘go with the flow of events’. Either consciously or unconsciously, they identify dominant event patterns, or rather patterns that are about to become dominant, and they ‘put their faith in them’, allowing the momentum of the events to do most (but not all) of the work. They must also be quick to change course and dissociate themselves from the onward rush of events when this is no longer to their advantage.
Machiavelli was perhaps the first to state openly (but not the first to believe) that the pursuit and retention of power is a technique that can be learned just like horsemanship or perspective drawing. However, although Machiavelli gives some useful general principles, the technique cannot be taught but must be learned in situ, in the thick of events. In what does it consist? Essentially, in achieving the right mix of self-confidence and reliance on one’s own judgment combined with scrupulous attention to detail, to the day to day drift of unpredictable and uncontrollable event currents. Very few individuals have what it takes to do both. Messianic individuals neglect practical considerations, believing it to be beneath them, while sound technicians lack the breadth of vision and occasional recklessness without which nothing great can be achieved.
Clearly, an individual who believes him or herself to be divinely inspired has a vast advantage over ‘ordinary people’, provided, of course, that he possesses a minimum of technical ability and worldly knowledge. Most people do not know what they want or even what they believe : someone who clearly knows both commands respect, devotion and admiration (also fear). However, most ‘men of mission’ become blinded by their own success as Hitler, Napoleon and even Julius Caesar did alongside a host of lesser figures.

Advantages of the Puritan Mentality 

The Puritan mentality that Cromwell embodied was admirably suited indeed to the challenges and opportunities of the English civil war.       The concept of Providence ─ useful precisely because it was vague ─ was an enormous advance on pagan ideas of ‘fate’ which encourage defeatism, or the rock-hard belief in ‘Divine Right’ such as prevailed in the Royalist camp which encouraged recklessness. Instead of looking for ‘signs’ in the sense of omens and presages, the Puritans tried to discern an underlying ‘logic of events’ which they interpreted as the workings of Providence.
Moreover, the moral earnestness of the Puritan forced him to act, and if his acts were successful this was proof that God was on his side ─ “Duties are ours, events are the Lord’s” as Samuel Rutherford put it concisely. But, on the other hand, since every good Puritan was convinced that he was fallible, failure did not reflect on God, only on man’s faulty reading of the writing on the wall. This provided a useful check on the megalomania to which messianic individuals and movements are prone.
The Puritans in effect had it both ways, hence their success both in England and in the Netherlands (where they victoriously opposed the might of Spain). They picked up on the psychological advantages that come from believing oneself to be guided by God, but were protected by the peculiarities of their belief system from the dual dangers of inactivity (Quietism) and cocksureness (messianism).

Cromwell as ‘God’s Englishman’ 

Cromwell definitely believed that he was guided by God ─ “A divine presence hath gone along with us in the late great transactions of the nation”, he wrote in a letter. Again, on receiving the Scottish command, he wrote to Richard Major, “Truly I have been called unto them [these functions] by the Lord.” And many other people at the time bore witness to the same feeling. John Desborough thought that “It is [God] himself that hath raised you up amongst men, and hath called you to high enjoyments”. Fairfax himself, originally Cromwell’s superior, speaks of “The constant presence and blessing of God that have accompanied him”.
Moreover, this belief in ‘election’ was very widespread : there was nothing at all unusual in the idea that one could be, and indeed should be, guided by the Divine Will. And the Divine Will was for the Puritan, but not the Catholic or even High Church Anglican, directly knowable without the intermediary of priest or monarch. Cromwell, though extraordinary in the degree of his success, could (and did) believe himself to be ‘typical’, to be nothing out of the ordinary except inasmuch as he had, for some inscrutable reason, been given a larger task to fulfil (Note 1).
And the peculiarity of the Protestant, and more specifically Puritan, mentality safeguarded Cromwell from the self-intoxication of, say, the 19th century Mahdi (the victor at Khartoum) who enjoyed as much initial success as Cromwell and was, for a while, believed to be invincible. Almost alone of all dictators and military commanders, Cromwell demonstrates a certain humility and, incredible though it sounds, a seemingly genuine lack of personal ambition ! He really did have’greatness thrust upon him’. A moment after writing that he sees the hand of the Lord in his (Cromwell’s) sudden advancement, he goes on to say that he is “not without assurance that he [God] will enable this poor worn and weak servant to do his will”. This conception of being a ‘servant’ who is without merit in himself is rooted in the peculiarly Puritan (originally Calvinistic) idea that the ‘elect’ are not chosen for their merit but simply because God so pleases.
The permanent feeling of inadequacy which is central to the Puritan mentality, also meant that no one, however high and mighty he might be, would be tempted to ‘rest on his laurels’. And this in turn meant that a military commander or ruler always had to pay as much attention to detail as a village carpenter — as Cromwell indeed did. Cromwell, who trained and personally led the Parliamentarian cavalry was not a dashing glamorous figure like Prince Rupert on the Royalist side. Cromwell trained his cavalry to advance at the trot, not at the gallop, and always to reform in good order whether they broke through the enemy ranks or not. Cromwell also held out for a strictly no nonsense approach to enlistment and advancement ─ “The State in choosing men to serve it, takes no notice of their opinions”. This may seem commonsensical enough today but was well-nigh unheard of in the bigoted seventeenth century and unusual even as late as the latter nineteenth century.

The Extraordinary vs. the Impossible

Given all this, the wonder is, not that Cromwell and his followers, succeeded so well but that Cromwell has had so few imitators. What, then, were the weak points of this apparently unbeatable mixture of self-confidence and humility, grand strategy and careful attention to detail?
The Cardinal de Retz, himself one of the leaders of a movement not unlike the ‘Great Rebellion’, the Fronde, says that it is essential that “resolution should run parallel with judgment” and especially with what he calls ‘heroic judgment’ which “is able to discern the extraordinary from the impossible”. Now, Cromwell was able to make this all-important distinction. Overcoming a Royalist army staffed by experienced officers and backed by powerful foreign powers was certainly extraordinary but, as it appears, not impossible. Even more extraordinary on the psychological level is that a group of men should have dared to try and execute a monarch and have felt no guilt about doing so. And Cromwell’s endless stream of military successes against all comers is certainly out of the ordinary.
Cromwell was, however, able to discern what was, for historical reasons, impossible, namely the creation of a modern egalitarian democratic state. Movements like the Levellers and the Diggers were too much ahead of their time since they called, on the one hand, for a wholesale redistribution of land to all who were prepared to work it and, incredibly, even suggested the creation of a ‘Welfare State’, an idea that did not become a reality anywhere in the world until two and a half centuries later.
The trouble with believing that you are guided by God and that you know God’s Will, is that God is, by definition, all-powerful. He can thus, if He so wishes, bring about not only the extraordinary but also the impossible. This is a very dangerous doctrine for anyone who exercises power to adhere to. One of the most important tenets of the Enlightenment was that even God (in whom Voltaire and the Encyclopaedists believed) was limited by the physical laws of the universe He had created and did not intervene directly in the day to day running of the universe, nor was his intervention needed ─ Newton’s Laws sufficed.
But even the toned-down Protestant vision of a Calvin or a Cromwell was, at bottom, a shaky intellectual edifice: it could explain success and temporary setbacks but could make no sense of disaster. Cromwell, fortunately for him, did not live to see the Restoration. The surviving Puritans were faced not so much with a political and social crisis as a profound psychological one. If success showed that God was on your side, why had the Royalists triumphed? Even given that the Puritans themselves, like the Jews in a similar situation, were fallible and sinful, it remained difficult, if not impossible, to explain why God should seemingly have ‘changed sides’.
From the Restoration on most Non-conformists eschewed politics, and they certainly eschewed the use of force. Many retired, like the Quakers, into Quietism on the one hand while directing their burning need for activity into industrial and commercial channels. The Puritans had failed to bring about a complete social revolution, but they did more or less single-handed bring about the Industrial Revolution since practically all the inventors and forward-looking industrialists from Newcomen to Watt to Darby could be broadly described as ‘Puritans’ in belief and mentality (Note 2).
Since Cromwell, there has been no one who has so successfully combined the two opposing features of a sense of mission and intense practicality (Note 3). Bismarck had the Realpolitik but lacked the messianism, Hitler the messianism but not the rationality and attention to detail at any rate in the military sphere.      SH 


Note 1    “There was nothing unusual in the belief which henceforth governed Cromwell’s actions ─ that he was directly guided by the Divine Will. He did not, of course, regard himself as the infallible interpreter of God’s wishes, but he tested his actions no longer by the criticism of his own reason, but by their effectiveness. If he did God’s will, he must succeed; failure meant that the divine contact had somewhere broken down ─ that there had been sin. This it was which gave him his buoyant confidence when things went well, and drove him to an agony of prayer when things went wrong.”
C.V. Wedgwood, Oliver Cromwell

Note 2 Darlington, in his monumental work, The Evolution of Man and Society, singles out 16 individuals as ‘founders of the Scientific Revolution in Britain born between 1620 and 1800’, and 17 individuals as ‘founders of the Industrial Revolution born between 1650 and 1810’.
Of the scientists, only five are described as coming from the ‘gentry’ and only two, Halley and Malthus, gained entrance to an English university after 1662 when a Bill excluded religious non-conformists from places of higher learning. The Quakers weigh in strongly on the science side with Dalton, Young and Davy and field Darby as one of the prime movers of the Industrial Revolution. The steam engine is exclusively a Non-conformist achievement: Newcomen was a Baptist, Savery of Huguenot origin, Watt a Scottish Presbyterian and Trevithick a Methodist.
In conclusion, it would seem that neither the Anglican Church nor Oxford and Cambridge had much to do with either the industrial or scientific revolution in Britain, at any rate prior to the mid nineteenth century. Newton himself was a Unitarian but stifled his doubts though it is said that his suspected non-conformism stopped him from becoming Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. Halley was denied the chair of astronomy at Oxford on religious grounds. Mercifully the Royal Institution after 1800 dropped the religious requirement, thus allowing Davy and Faraday to lecture there.
Interestingly, there is  only one self-avowed atheist in either list, the ironmonger Wilkinson, and I am not quite sure that Darlington was right there.

Note 3 Stalin comes nearest perhaps. Stalin died in his bed after a long reign marked by complete victory over his principal enemy, Trostsky, and an enormous gain of territory for the USSR. But the cost of Russian victory in WWII was very high and Stalin was partly responsible for this because he allowed himself to be outwitted by Hitler. He also made the disastrous error of purging his own army of many of his most experienced and ablest officers for ideological reasons ─ something Cromwell would never have done.