Donne vs. Brexit: No Nation Is an Island



Because this blog has been so obsessed with Donald Trump—overly obsessed in the opinion of at least one reader—I have neglected other significant issues, including the upcoming June 23 Brexit vote. I’m sure that others have already applied John Donne’s “Meditation 17” to the prospect of the UK withdrawing from the European Union, but here’s my contribution.

First, from what I can tell, an exit would both harm Britain’s economy and, in all likelihood, lead to the country’s break-up (with Scotland certainly leaving and perhaps Northern Ireland and Wales as well). According to a Vox article, it would also destabilize Europe and have serious consequences for the United States:

Much of the commentary around Brexit focuses on fierce debates about abstruse issues such as budgetary contributions, government benefits for foreign workers, and the future of British trade relations. But from an American perspective, such minutiae are basically irrelevant.

What’s actually at stake is much bigger.

Brexit is the British manifestation of a broader popular revolt against European integration that is gradually spreading across Europe. If the British people choose to abandon the EU at this vulnerable moment, it might well be the catalyst that causes the cancer of populism and disintegration — which is helping to drive this campaign in the UK — to metastasize across Europe at a dramatically faster rate.

If that happens, the entire project of European integration — the foundation of America’s policy in Europe since World War II — could be at risk of collapsing. If that happens, the United States will find itself much more alone in the world and having to bear a much larger share to manage global problems.

In short, the UK will suffer, Europe will suffer, the United States will suffer, and the world will suffer.

So what does Donne have to contribute to the conversation?

“Meditation 17” begins with a funeral bell tolling for a man who is dying of the plague. He does not realize that it is tolling for him and thinks it is tolling for someone else.

From this opening image, Donne goes on to state that all of us—or at least all Christians—are connected:

The church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member.

Shifting to an image of a book’s scattered leaves, Donne says that the connection continues after death:

And when she [the church] buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

After some further comments on bells, Donne then shifts to a geographical image that is particularly relevant to Brexit. Note that Donne, despite being a citizen of an island nation, focuses on the European continent:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…

This, in turn, leads to the line we all know:

…and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. 

In other words, we may think that the problems for which the bells are tolling are those of other people—but if we truly knew what was going on, we would realize that those problems are also our problems.

Before applying the passage to Brexit, I note that Donne is concerned with the state of our souls. It may seem to go against our interests to worry about the misery of others, he says. Don’t we have enough to worry about as it is? We should regard their misery as hidden gold, however. By digging it out and applying it to ourselves, we realize that we ourselves will one die. This in turn provides us with the necessary motivation to get right with God:

Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.

Those fantasizing about a British exit from the E.U. may think they can escape the current turmoil in Europe by withdrawing into island isolation. For that matter, Americans may think that, by building a giant wall between the U.S. and Mexico, they can escape the political problems in Central and South America that are sending immigrants toward the border. We can choose to interpret the bell as an indication that someone else is suffering.

Or we can acknowledge that we are not an island and that the bell we hear tolls also for us.

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