Downton Abbey: Classical Ideas for a Contemporary Culture

“Downton Abbey,” a British period drama that portrays the decline of the British aristocracy in the early 20th   century modern world, just closed the curtain on its shutterstock_170276861_PRESSsixth and final season. If you have yet to enjoy this show, you are most certainly missing out.  Written by Cambridge educated British producer Julian Fellowes, “Downton Abbey” has boasted tremendous popularity in America arguably competing with primetime television shows on America’s main networks while “The Abbey” remains televised on the modest public broadcasting stations.  Ironically (and if you have watched it you are aware of this) it is unlike anything produced for prime time American television.  It is not gory, it is not overly suggestive, there are no innuendos- implicit or explicit, and its language is rather clean in comparison with rest of the American television diet.  Many might hear this and immediately think: boring.  This could hardly be further from the truth.  As today’s culture seems infatuated with the thrill of bloody crime scene investigations, or the ever unrealistic reality shows such as the “The Bachelor” or “The Voice,” why the pull toward “Downton Abbey”?

Certainly its lure goes far deeper than charming British wit or the English fascination with juicy scandal.  “Downton Abbey” is proof that classical ideas never die and have contemporary relevance for any age.  Whether one is fully aware of the nuance that one is witnessing or not, The Abbey entertains timeless ideas about the perennial issues of society and the human condition that confront every age.  Further it is proof of the ancient idea that art and argument go hand in hand.  Indeed Aristotle argued in the Poetics that poetry is something more scientific than history because poetry deals with universal truths while history treats of particular individual facts.  The essence of art, according to Aristotle, is mimesis– or imitation.  Through making an image or likeness of reality the artist makes a statement about the way things are.  Remaining in the classical world beyond Aristotle, one can see the concepts of the mythos and the logos at work in Plato’s dialogues where the mythical or fictional plot elements of the work serve to point the reader to the underlying logic of the work’s big ideas.  In either case art has been classically understood as the most poignant way to dialogue on some of history’s most fundamental ideas be they political, philosophical or otherwise.  And The Abbey certainly bears the torch of this rich poetic tradition.  While it would take far more articles to unpack the myriad of ways that this has played itself out in six seasons, even a quick glimpse into season six lends generous insight into many classical gestures and conventions that help one consider the great ideas of ages past.



A concept that is fundamental to reading poetic works of the classical age is the idea of genre.  There is a very distinct set of conventions at work when one discusses genre that go far deeper than the categories that movies are sorted into when you peruse Netflix or Amazon Prime. There are, in fact, only four classical literary genres: Epic, Comic, Lyric and Tragic- and it has often been said that the four literary genres were not invented, but rather, discovered.  They carry with them a marked measure of objectivity. As literary critic Louise Cowan once suggested “genre is a fundamental orientation towards reality.”  And Cowan argues that their objectivity is founded upon the fact that they each uniquely express “the basic gestures [and] actions of the soul.” And I would argue that the near instinctive fascination with “Downton Abbey” is proof that this idea has merit.  We are drawn to it because it is true to life, and again, because it engages timeless ideas.

Over the course of all six seasons of “Downton Abbey” one can see the various conventions of all four genres employed.  Epic, among other things, often treats of “man at war” and we see this in action in seasons one and two as the British become entangled in World War I.  Lyric often deals with the beautiful and is suggested in Mr. Bates’ unyielding praises of his wife, or the beauty of the estate and the nostalgia and attachment that the Crawley family has for it.

But in season six, it seems that comedy and tragedy seem to take center stage.  We get a nearly textbook (according to Aristotle’s Poetics) tragic episode in the seventh show of the season.  One day Edith wakes up to find out that due to a death in the family the man who has been courting her has inherited the title of Marquess of Hexham-meaning Edith would be marrying into a rather distinguished position and, as her father Robert remarks, would “outrank [them] all.”  A grand proposition and one that comes crashing down as Edith rides out her sudden reversal of fortune resulting from one ‘fatal flaw’: her failure to come clean about her daughter Marigold with her husband to be.  Trust is broken, and all talk of the engagement is off.  Tragedy always treats of a significant loss of nobility- and the requisite fear and pity are certainly evoked.  But will there be redemption?



Redemption is the stuff that comedy is made of, and while only time will tell if there is redemption for Edith, Mr. Fellowes is certainly making significant comedic gestures.  Like all true comedies- redemption is often focused on the unlikely, or lowly. And in the case of “The Abbey” it is Mr. Molesley, a mere “footman,” who finds himself on this path.  As tragedy carries one along a downward trajectory, comedy carries one upward and offers hope.  Molesley is a character who, at many points throughout the show, seems to “miss the bus.”  After sharing with the headmaster of the local school that he believes “education is the gate to any future worth having” he is asked if he might have missed his vocation. His response provides a comedic foreshadowing:  “I’ve missed everything, Mr. Dawes.” In praising education Molesley articulates an idea as old as Plato’s Republic that offers counsel not just to his own modest position but to the uncertain historical moment at large.   Fellowes has primed Mr. Molesley for comedic redemption at this point, and he has suggested a rather poignant way forward for the new world with all its instability encroaching on life at “The Abbey.”



The concept that it is comedy’s task to envision a new world can be traced back all the way to Aristophanes.  The ordered world of the aristocracy was colliding with modern democratic ideals in a very radical and sometimes uncomfortable way.  “Downtown Abbey” does not shy away from this fact.  A revolution of sorts was underway and like any revolution- volatility was inevitable.  But Molesley, it would be revealed, did not “miss the bus.”  Rather, he was just in time.  A few episodes after Molesley’s conversation with the schoolmaster, a new door opens when he passes his own exams and is given the opportunity to teach.  The viewer is offered a very touching scene when Molesley explains to his pupils that he spent most of his life in servitude but education had opened the door to a new vocation.  Children of the working and service class themselves, suddenly they are all ears. In building the motifs of servitude, education and liberty- one upon another- deeper conclusions are meant to be drawn regarding the human condition that are not to be lost on any age.



Relevant questions

“Where is the world headed?” seems to be the burning question of the show.  And while history answers this for us, it is a question that is relevant to any historical moment and one we are still asking today as America itself stands at a watershed. Our classical western heritage, as “Downton Abbey” reminds us, bestows a rich tapestry of ideas where we discover that particular artistic and literary works point us toward larger universal notions.  It is within this tradition that we are introduced to the “great conversation.”  And “Downton Abbey” certainly confronts us with larger questions:  Does education offer hope to an otherwise uncertain future? Do education, liberty and mobility go hand in hand?  Does the comedic realm really inspire us to envision a new world?  I would contend that the answer here is yes, yes and yes.

As unsettling new ideas encroach upon our own Republic, we would do well to reflect upon the wisdom Molesley offers.  In many corners of our culture we seem to be willfully closing our ears to the “great conversation” and are becoming less and less acquainted with the great works of the past.  We are neglecting a legacy that was just as vital for Athens as it was for Jerusalem and remains equally vital today for both Washington and the Church.  If the classical vision teaches us anything, it is certainly that there is much more going on inside the human soul and across the spectrum of the human condition than scientific method and statistical analysis can reveal to us.  And if we lose sight of the soul, what sort of liberty can we really boast?

Certainly Molesley was not that far off the mark when he said that “education is the gate to any future worth having.” Perhaps even among the rubble of a once great aristocracy Mr. Fellowes is admitting what all great men of the past have contended: as long as there is a true education there is both a true hope and a true freedom.   If we would retain the art of reading well we must endeavor to recover our classical heritage.  If Molesley was right, our future depends on it.


Austin Oates is a police officer and MA (Christian and Classical Studies) student at Knox Theological Seminary.

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