Britain: squalid, ugly, uncivil. (Peter Dazeley/Getty)

September 4, 2023   6 mins

Anyone with experience of depression will recognise the approaching symptoms: a numbed blankness of feeling, or pangs of melancholy nostalgia for a lost contentment now impossible to imagine. A black cloud of affectless lethargy drains life of purpose, making any exertion of effort impossible. This torpor, this sense of inability to arrest fate dominates pre-20th-century descriptions of melancholy, the pre-medicalised ancestor of our modern depression.

As the writer Philip Pullman puts it in his 2005 introduction to The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton’s sonorous and digressive 17th century masterwork, “those readers who have some experience of the disorder of the mind we now call depression will know that the opposite of that dire state is not happiness but energy”.

By this definition, we could say the British state is, if not depressed, consumed by melancholy. Doom is sensed lying on the horizon but the exertion of will necessary to avert it is no longer seen as possible, or even desirable. The British state lies in bed staring at the ceiling, waiting for death. It cannot build houses, it cannot build railways; it cannot dig a hole in the ground and fill it with water; it cannot fix schools that are falling down. The simplest task is too difficult, and anyway, why even bother? There are always reasons to be found for why any exertion is pointless, why helplessness is sensible policy. No wonder, like children of a depressed parent, young Britons now yearn to flee the oppressive atmosphere of home. Yet Burton’s text, reissued for its 400th anniversary, reminds us that we have been here before.

Anatomy is most often read today as a pre-modern self-help book. Yet it contains within it, rarely-discussed, an astute reading of the nation’s political dysfunction that uncannily echoes the present. “Kingdoms, provinces and Politickal Bodies are subject in like manner to this disease,” says Burton, with the body politic exhibiting the same symptoms of what later writers would term “the English malady”. For where “you shall see many discontents, common grievances, complaints, poverty… cities decayed, base and poor towns… the people squalid, ugly, uncivil; that kingdom, that country, must needs be discontent, melancholy, hath a sick body, and had need to be reformed.”

Burton’s diagnosis is distressingly apt for modern Britain. According to ONS statistics, around one in six British adults suffered moderate to severe symptoms of depression last autumn, while 17% of British adults are taking antidepressants; but among those aged between 16 and 29, depression rates reach 28%, and for those under 24, up to 46%. Depression and anxiety are now the greatest drivers of long-term unemployment, and suicide is the single most common cause of death in young British men. Whatever the psychic wounds of postmodernity or social media, the most obvious cause is material: the insecurity built into Britain’s faltering economic model. Renters suffer depression at twice the rate of homeowners, while dwindling savings and growing debt strongly correspond with increased rates of mental distress, and homelessness is on the rise. The body politic and personal health are intertwined: Britain’s economic dysfunction is making people depressed, and deteriorating mental health is weighing down productivity. But how to reform such an unhappy polity?

As the historian William Mueller noted in his forgotten 1952 book on Burton as a political theorist, “A distressed state and a diseased individual, macrocosm and microcosm, can look to similar cures.” Burton regarded the economic instability of England as one of the principal causes of the melancholy of his day, so “the emphasis on economic reform runs throughout Burton’s Utopia, underlining his contention that one effective antidote to England’s melancholy lay in economic advance”.

Mueller situates Burton in a social context not so different from ours, where, as he puts it, the replacement of the stable economic regime of the agricultural order by the birth of modern capitalism led to unstable employment in industrial and commercial labor markets which fluctuated with world conditions: international squabbles would deprive English industry of its foreign markets, while an influx of foreign capital, with wildly uneven domestic distribution, “caused an inflation of land values, rents, and commodities, which affected not only the unemployed but also the employed, whose wages did not rise commensurately with prices”.

Like a 17th-century Yimby, comparing the prosperous and orderly cities of the near continent with our own urban wastelands, Burton contrasted “those rich, united Provinces of Holland, Zeeland, &c., over against us; those neat cities and populous towns” with “our cities thin, and those vile, poor, and ugly to behold in respect of theirs, our trades decayed”, our “beneficial use of transportation, wholly neglected”. A levelling-up advocate of his day, Burton deplored that “amongst our Towns, there is only London that bears the face of a City… and yet in my slender judgement, defective in many things. The rest (some few excepted) are in mean estate, ruinous most part, poor and full of beggars, by reason of their decayed trades, neglected or bad policy, idleness of their Inhabitants.” As in any provincial town today, or even London’s depressing main shopping thoroughfare, the nation’s melancholy was written in the dismal vista of its streets.

Why did England suffer this sad torpor? Fundamentally, the question was one of “ill government, which proceeds from unskilful, slothful, griping, covetous, unjust, rash, or tyrannizing magistrates… not able or unfit to manage such offices” — an immediately recognisable modern sentiment in rolling 17th-century prose. Like modern-day attempts at reform, from Thatcher to Truss, their flailing attempts to cure the malady had only worsened it, so that “the State was like a sick body which had lately taken physick…and weakened so much by purging, that nothing was left but melancholy.”

But England’s sad state derived from more than just inept politicians. A melancholic himself, who wrote to both cure and wallow in his own unhappiness, Burton was wearied of what we would today call “the discourse,” the “vast confusion of… new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy, religion” which distracted from good governance. As historians of melancholia note, the Calvinist milieu in which Burton wrote was a “suspicious and inquisitorial society, constantly on the watch to spy out the sins of others and to suppress all deviations from the true way” — no doubt the modern reader will empathise.

An advocate of “few laws, but those severely kept”, Burton condemned the accretion of legalistic intrigue and self-promoting lawyers which, then as now, hampered strong executive government: “they will make more work for themselves, and that body politic diseased, which was otherwise sound”. Instead, as Mueller observes, “politically, he would have a highly centralized state ruled by a wise and kindly monarch, a sort of philosopher-king.” Socially, Burton proposed a proto-welfare state for the deserving poor, and enforced labour for the wilfully idle. Burton proposed to ban costly offensive wars, while maintaining a strong navy and army for national defence.

Economically, Burton was a mercantilist, who believed that the route to English prosperity, and thus happiness, was in a favourable balance of trade with a strong export economy and secure and well-paid employment for English workers. “Industry is a Loadstone to draw all good things; that alone makes countries flourish, cities populous, and will enforce by reason of much manure, which necessarily follows, a barren soil to be fertile and good, as Sheep… mend a bad pasture.” China’s rise, and the panicked reactive counter-tendency towards industrial policy almost everywhere in the West but listless Britain, makes this position, until recently considered quaintly archaic, seem strikingly relevant.

Torn between affection for the lost and stable social order of feudalism and a desire for economic growth and prosperity derived from well-planned industry and rapidly expanding cities, it is possible to read Burton as the antecedent of modern political tendencies, a sort of postliberal before liberalism had been invented. This interpretation of Burton, as a dissident political and economic theorist with lessons for today, is not as quixotic as it may at first appear. Modern historians of both melancholy and depression have long placed both unhappy conditions in political and economic context, notably the German sociologist Wolf Lepenies, who, as the philosopher Jennifer Radden observes, argues that “melancholy, or at least an enervating nostalgia and ennui, has been the fate of whole classes of people made idle by social, political, and economic arrangements”.

For the historian Matthew Bell, melancholia — “ the spectral absence of meaningful politics”— finds expression in the phenomenon of “retreatism” whose adherents “are not rebels; they do not attempt to disrupt or undo society. Nor are they outsiders who set themselves beyond social norms. Retreatists withdraw from society while remaining within it. They form a silent and disengaged opposition.” Such a position surely describes the viewpoint of British voters, hostile to the dysfunctions of the Westminster system, while increasingly certain it is so resistant to reform there is no point in voting. Why, says melancholy’s seductive inner voice, even bother? Freud credited the depressive with “a keener eye for the truth,” and which British voter today, surveying the options permitted him by Westminster, would not feel melancholic?

Yet it need not be this way. “Our land is fertile we may not deny, full of all good things, and why doth it not then abound with cities, as well as Italy, France, Germany, the Low countries?” asks Burton. “Because their policy hath been otherwise, and we are not so thrifty, circumspect, industrious; idleness is the malus Genius [evil genius] of our nation.” His closing advice to shake off the enervating grip of melancholy, to “be not idle” has become famous as a self-help axiom, yet it is also a political doctrine. It was no good for Burton himself, or for the England of his day– he died, perhaps by his own hand, in 1640, two years before the nation plunged itself into civil war — but perhaps it is not yet too late for Britain.  Doom may yet be averted, the torpor defeated, if only the effort is finally made. The bonds of dysfunction can still, perhaps, be shaken off through vigorous, reformist exertion.

It is difficult, perhaps, viewing the revolving carousel of nonentities returning to parliament this week, to believe that the cloud will ever lift, but it is not yet too late, Burton reminds us: for “Hope refresheth, as much as misery depresseth; hard beginnings have many times prosperous events, and that may happen at last which never was yet.”

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.