Woke: the oldest profession

The modern hegemony of the “liberal professions” has become one of the principal challenges to liberal democracy

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

What has led to the triumph of woke? The suddenness and swiftness of the victory mean that we naturally turn for an explanation to the New Media — and to Twitter in particular. It’s Twitter which orchestrates the “pile on” that delivers summary justice to the heretic. And Twitter which provides the illusion of a virtual public opinion that lends a vestige of legitimacy to the lynching.

The Great Awokening combines the worst aspects of the Romantic Movement and the Religious Revival

Which is why, in her great manifesto against woke, Bari Weiss accused the New York Times of having made “Twitter … its ultimate editor”. More fundamentally, the web, which has imprisoned so much of humanity in an actual Plato’s Cave, has fatally eroded the distinction between truth and falsehood on which the intellectual revolution of the western mind was based in the half millennium since the Renaissance and Reformation.

The result is the Great Awokening, which echoes and combines the worst aspects of the Romantic Movement and the Religious Revival that were the nineteenth century’s reaction to the Age of Enlightenment.

But, I would argue, older, deeper forces are at work as well. Including one of the oldest and deepest: the idea of a “profession” as distinct from (and of course superior to) a mere trade. The professions — more properly the “liberal professions”— draw their origins from the twin sources of western civilisation: the Classical World and Christianity. Unlike us, the Romans did not have two distinct words for profession and trade. Instead they divided the “arts” (“skill as a result of knowledge and practice”) into two groups. 

These were distinguished, like most other things in the Roman world, by whether their practitioners were free men or slaves. The “Liberal” (the word means free) arts were those practised by free men and included the literary arts, such as rhetoric, law, politics and poetry; and the useful arts, including medicine and architecture. These “arts” were “clean”, literally and figuratively, and they required brain rather than brawn. 

Opposed to these “liberal” arts were those considered “sordid”. These were the occupations of slaves and key examples included portitor (boatman or carrier) or fenerator (usurer or capitalist). Lowest of the low were the craftsmen who worked with fire — such as smiths or potters. Their skills were called banausic in Greek and mechanical in Latin; their jobs were seen to be as dirty as their persons and were beneath contempt. Hence Shakespeare’s “rude mechanicals”.

This acute value distinction between white and blue collar jobs enters our own culture twice over: in the sixteenth century, when the sons of the gentry went to Oxford and Cambridge to learn Latin and Greek; and again in the nineteenth century when the Classics formed the backbone of the curriculum in the public schools which turned out the masters of Empire.

But if the Classical world inculcated the snobbery, the sanctimoniousness inherent in the distinction between profession and trade came from Christianity (as do most of the other accoutrements of our professional organisations). 

For the collapse in the West of the Roman Empire and its urban civilisation destroyed the liberal arts of the ancient world just as it liberated the
mechanical ones from the curse of slavery. On the ruins of the former rose the Roman Catholic Church. This long monopolised the literacy that was the foundation of the liberal arts, while its clergy formed the first modern profession and hatched the others, like lawyers and doctors. 

The incubator was the universities. Established from about 1200, their undergraduate courses polished Latin literacy while their higher faculties of Theology, Law and Medicine supplied the specialised training for the newly emergent professions. To begin with, all their practitioners were clergy also. Indeed, the very name derives from the profession of religion. As does the word clerical when it denotes activities associated with writing. Or the habit of other professionals of wearing clerical black.

First to branch away in England were the lawyers. English Common Law, as it developed from the twelfth century, was pleaded and increasingly written in Norman French, that strange amalgam of French and English. This meant it could be neither taught nor studied in Oxford and Cambridge, which dealt only in Latin. Instead the new training schools of the Inns of Court were founded in London. These differed in that teachers and taught were laymen, not clergy. And they tended to be gentry, rather than the bright sons of the poor who sought promotion via Oxbridge.

Medicine was far slower to develop. The Royal College of Physicians was not founded till 1518 and the profession only laicised with the Reformation, with William Butts being the first doctor to be knighted by his grateful patient, Henry VIII. 

This snail like pace of change accelerated dramatically in the nineteenth century. The process began on the margins of the ancient professions. Surgeons and solicitors had been the “rude mechanicals” to the learned elite of respectively physicians and barristers. But in the early nineteenth century they too became fully fledged professions with the establishment of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1800 and the Law Society in 1825. Where they led, others followed — from architects to vets — as a richer, more complex society created new needs, and new wealth to pay for them.

By the First World War, the lineaments of what amounted to a new estate of the realm were clear. It was given its classic formulation by those practiced purveyors of the higher humbug, the Webbs. “A profession,” they declared, “is an occupation founded upon specialised educational training, the purpose of which is to supply disinterested objective counsel and service to others, for a direct and definite compensation, wholly apart from expectation of other business gain.” 

There it is in a nutshell: the Classical World’s disdain for the “rude mechanicals” of trade, on the one hand, and the claim to specialised, quasi priestly knowledge, on the other, which is the Christian legacy. The result is to invert the usual relationship between buyer and seller: the tradesman gives his customer what he wants; the professional gives his client what he thinks is good for him. Which inverts the power relationship also.

The problem becomes acute at the beginning of our own century, when the most mundane of occupations — policemen or midwives or teachers — have draped themselves in stolen professional dress. Hence the Morecambe Bay midwives scandal, when 11 babies died unnecessarily because the midwives subscribed unbendingly to their professional credo that “natural birth” was best. 

Brexit was the famous victory of the rude mechanicals over the expert professionals

Or the outrage that the police, in accordance with the “authorised professional practice” of the non statutory College of Policing, persist in logging legal activities as “non crime hate incidents”. 

Or the response (in Virginia, as it happens) to parents who objected to the teaching of critical race theory in schools that they “shouldn’t be telling schools what they should teach”. Because of course the professional teacher (or the professional policeman or the professional midwife) knows best. And what they know now of course embraces the whole litany of woke. 

The result is a supreme paradox. The “liberal professions” are the very seedbed of liberalism. But their modern hegemony has become one of the principal challenges to liberal democracy. 

The essence of this was formulated by Aristotle in exactly the terms that I have been using. “The dinner guest,” he wrote, “judges the feast better than the chef.” But the professional chef says the opposite. And it is his voice that is increasingly heard as we move to a new Plato’s Republic in which his incorruptible Guardians are replaced by our expert professionals with their “disinterested objective counsel”.

There are signs of restiveness. Michael Gove declared, “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts” and Brexit, which was the famous victory of the rude mechanicals over the expert professionals, showed that he was right.

But one victory does not win a war and, despite Brexit and Levelling Up, the juggernaut of woke professionalism rolls on, crushing all before it. 

In their own best interests of course.

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