I came across this film while browsing on Amazon Prime. I was looking for something so that I might avoid the misery of watching the news and its endless litany of death and blame. Despite its big name stars, Mel Gibson and Sean Penn, and capable cast (Natalie Dormer, Steve Cougan, Laurence Fox, to name a few), I had not heard of it. I checked online and it was free from awards, aside from a nomination for the musical score, and had rather lacklustre reviews which told more of the politics of the film’s manufacture than of the film itself. However, user reviews were good so, trusting in the hive mind and the wisdom of crowds, I decided to give it a try. That, in summary, is how I discovered one of the best films made in recent years.
This is a drama documentary about the creation of a dictionary and the story of two men who are thrown together in this task. One is a Scottish autodidact. a polyglot or rare intelligence who is supported by his wife, and his faith, in his diligent attempt at a mammoth task. He fights against prejudice and doubt and stands steadfast despite setbacks. The other is an American doctor who, while insane with schizophrenia and labouring under delusional beliefs, shoots and kills the father and breadwinner of a poor London family. He is incarcerated in in an asylum and must face and cope with his delusions, depression , guilt and remorse. Like the Scot he is helped in his battle by his faith, his intelligence and the support and intervention of a woman (on his part, the widow of the man he killed).
This is a fascinating story well told. The acting is consistently good. accents authentic and emotion convincingly displayed. Likewise the dialogue is well written and entertaining, and as a bonus will expand your vocabulary – you will know what ‘assythment‘ means at the end if you did not at the beginning. But perhaps most importantly you will know the answer to the question “If Love … Then What?“; as, in addition to language, the most important theme of the film is that of love and redemption. It deals with them through issues of guilt, diligence and honour but does manage to consider these in a real sense, not in a glib way, and to consider more difficult aspects such as Agape and Grace.
I perhaps should not have been surprised or wary that the film garnered no awards or that its review were lukewarm. I knew Mel Gibson remains a persona non grata in media circles and would be unlikely to be given any gongs. But having seen the film I understand the empty awards shelf. A film driven by drama rather than action, entertaining with thoughts rather than deeds, a film celebrating moral steadfastness rather then the joys of transgression, a film that wasn’t riding on the back of any current bandwagon but looking at more basic principles, a film wondering at the love we can have form one and other without any sexual reward – how on earth could such a film win any wards ? It is probably too late for it to be recognised now and it may disappear into the bargain basement bin of films on free to view channels, but if you get the opportunity to see it and are in the mood for something moving then this is worth a few hours of your time.
I was listening to an online debate which considered the topic of panpsychism (The idea that everything is conscious to some degree) when I heard about this book. As it seemed to consider that perennial, but vital, problem for philosophy of the “mind-brain” problem I decided to give it a try.
It is quite clearly a book of two parts. The first part considers the problem that are encountered when we try to take a simple materialistic viewpoint of the mind and the limitations that still exist when we adopt any of the dualist positions. These arguments are well described and the strengths and weakness of each position well delineated. In particular the problems we encounter with the issues of free will and personhood, when we adopt a unitary materialistic (You are your brain) position, are well made. This is a useful counterpoint to much of the current media which feels that this issue has been solved.
I can remember working through this period when the advances in the neurosciences seemed to leave little room for the mind. There seemed to be little need to consider the psyche as we could now explain everything by looking at the brain. Certainly this approach played great dividends in my specialised area (dementia) but it never seem to offer any hope of help to those poor souls troubled by purely turmoil in the mind. Indeed the only real change was that psychiatry seemed to change from being ‘brainless’ to become simply ‘mindless’.
The first part of the book is successful but the second half is, unfortunately, less so. The latter portion of the book takes the stance that, if there is evidence that consciousness is best looked in a non-material way (qualitatively rather than quantitatively), then we can take this as proof for the Christian beliefs. I found this much harder to take for two reasons. Firstly the arguments were less well laid out and argued and secondly I felt she presumed faith on the reader’s part. I think someone who is already a believer would find the statements convincing. However, a reader who does not already have religious faith (especially if this is not Christian) will find this half of the book heavy with statements lacking convincing support.
Overall, an interesting read, brief but engaging, initially at least.
I have found that I have mixed feelings after the annual shearing. During the year any dagging (removing the soiled wool at the rear end) or crutching I do myself by hand, but for the annual shearing of the fleece I rely on a young lad on the next farm to do the work.
He has all the equipment; a shearing trailer (which acts as a holding pen while the work is going on), the electrical shears (which give a neat trim) and moccasins (so that he might hold the sheep with his feet without hurting them). But more importantly he has two other advantages. Firstly he has the strength and stamina; shearing is hard work, grappling 50kg of reluctant, wriggling ewe or ram and trying to operate heavy electric shears at the same time is a young man’s job. It is difficult for an old codger like me. Secondly, and most importantly, he has the skill. Knowing how to hold the animal, how to turn them as you shear, how to avoid cutting the animal and managing to take off an entire fleece intact is a hard earned skill. Watching someone who knows their craft is very impressive.
I usually like to use the least technology possible, to try and find the most natural way to do a task. However, there is no way to shear a sheep without tools and modern tools make this easier. Primarily they make it easier for the sheep. The procedure is painless but it alarming to the animal, it has no conception of what is happening and is afraid. There is no way to share, with them, the knowledge that they will feel better during the summer and be at less risk of fly-strike, lice, ticks and a variety of other plagues. It is always stressful and therefore anything that shortens the time it takes is good news. Hand shearing by an expert takes about 15 minutes, hand shearing by me takes about an hour, electrical shearing by our neighbour takes about 2 minutes. There is really little contest, electrical shearing wins hands down.
So why then do I have mixed feelings about it ? Well, this time it started when another neighbour, who was helping, recalled shearing when he was a boy. On the shearing days up to 20 men would sit in a line on benches at the edge of the field and shear the flocks by hand. During the season many hands were needed to do the work. Now one or two men, with good machinery, can do the same job with less effort and stress. It is the reason that agriculture, though it produces much more than it ever did, uses less labour. It is why there are few jobs in the countryside and why the population has shrunk. Though there are less jobs in farming this mechanisation has created its own jobs – there is now a need for factory workers to work the lathes and milling machines that make the equipment. There is less call for young men to learn how to shear in Wales but the demand for young men to work in factories, often abroad. With less people living and working in the countryside there is less call for shops, schools, churches, doctors and the like and this is why we see that now the majority of people live in urban areas.
This specialisation is at the core of capitalism and it is the great irony of the twentieth century that it has been capitalism, not socialism, which has pulled many people out of poverty. Through mechanisation and specialisation great increases in wealth have arisen. This increase is so great that, even when it is badly and unevenly distributed, the majority of us benefit. In the west, going back 100 years, no-one could have anticipated our current wealth. The idea of personal transport by automobile, central heating or air conditioning, personal computers and telephony would be unimaginable to people who thought that books and electric light to read them by were a luxury. So it seems I cavil , especially as I post this on the internet, when I cast doubt in these changes. However, I’d argue that not all of this progress has been without cost and, although agreeing that a market economy is the best way to ensure efficient production, I’d propose we have to be careful that we know where we’re heading as individuals and as a society.
It was often said that these mechanised and specialised changes would benefit us because they are “labour saving“. Each new gadget, from the washing machine to the smartphone, has promised to save us time and to leave us more leisure time for ourselves. This should lead to increased pleasure as we do things we enjoy rather than need to do. However, our pleasures are relative. Once we become accustomed to something it changes from a luxury to a necessity (People will not venture outside now without their phones). Thus the prior luxuries become part of our life and, if missing, a source of our unhappiness. There is no evidence that individually we are any one jot happier than people 100 or 200 years ago. The Victorian got just as much pleasure from his night at the music hall as we do from an evening at the 3D IMAX cinema. The Victorian felt as euphoric when his lover agreed to become his partner as we do now (Well possibly they had greater pleasures in this area as society was more restrictive on the whole).
Our luxuries don’t seem to bring us pleasure but perhaps they at least give us time. It would seem unfortunately this is not the case. As we have more, we need more and want more and thus we work more. In his bookSapiens Yuval Noah Harari notes that the time we spend as a species working for others has always increased and certainly if one were to look over the last two generations this trend is evident. 50 years ago a skilled manual worker, working well, could expect to provide for his family to the standards of his day. Now both parents will have to work outside the house to provide for their family with all the consequent changes that we have seen in child rearing and family life.
It seems that once we have escaped scarcity, once the basics (hunger, thirst, safety, warmth, etc) are dealt with we do not know what is “enough“. We are good at acknowledging what is too little, we have built in warning systems in our biology when there is too little food, or water, or heat. However, we don’t seem to be able to determine what’s enough in term of what is “too much”. Consequently in our post-scarcity world, in the west, our major problems are those of excess – obesity or substance abuse as individual problems for example and global warning and the plastic pollution of our seas as global examples.
This is possibly the reason that all the major religions had as an important focus the advice to avoid excess. Gluttony, avarice, lust and covetousness are sins to be avoided and all the main religions advice that we should try and control our desires. Going back to the stoics, they advice that we should try to have and want less, to not be controlled by our desires. It is possibly a perfect storm in the developed world, that as the productive powers of capitalism reaches its zenith the advisory power of religion plumbs its nadir.
Thinking about the changes that have occurred in how we shear sheep has made me think that if we want to survive we need to change. As individuals we have to learn to rein in our desires which I think will require a rebalancing. We will need to rediscover localism so that our wants and needs play out on a smaller stage. We need to reduce the size of the states we live within so that they are no more than is necessary and allow individuals to create small communities on a more human scale. We have to learn when enough is enough and this going to be difficult. As individuals we are going to have to break out of the role of being primarily consumers and reclaim our private lives. This is no easy feat but as Tolstoy said “In order to land where you wish, you must direct your course much higher up.”
The unusually warm weather continues and today much of the afternoon saw temperatures of 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The promised thunderstorms have not travelled our way and it has stayed hot and dry. This taxes my coping strategies; as a Scot living in Wales I have the full repertoire of skills to cope with cold and wet weather but I have never had much call for strategies for dealing with excessive heat or too little water. This is a novelty and I appear to be a slow learner, though at least this time I haven’t managed to burn myself. My only good recollections of sunny summers of my youth were the days afterwards when I could peel the dry burn skin off my body in strips. These were the says before anyone had heard of sun factors or creams. It was all part of the fun.
It was perhaps to seek refuge from the heat that I went into our town’s church. It was also because they had a floral display so that they might celebrate their 300 year anniversary. All the local chapels and churches had donated floral arrangements to decorate the stained glass windows. As I went in I was struck by the cool soothing atmosphere, the smells of the flowers and the sense of peace. I am not a regular churchgoer but I have been to a number of services in this Church and have found the minister and his sermons interesting. But there was something else today, something different to the atmosphere on a Sunday morning.
It realised was the liveliness and colours of the flowers juxtaposed with the quiet dark of the church that first caught my attention. Then on further reflection I was aware of a greater sadness. As I looked around there were only a handful of elderly women who were managing the event. I also noted that when I have been to any of the chapels, who donated flowers, again it was the same handful of older women who made up the congregation. With the exception of the local Catholic church, where the congregation is larger and younger, it is the same stalwart band who keep the church and chapels running.
I am no spring chicken but when I attend services or events I am aware that I feel young, being about a decade or so under the average age. I also feel rather unusual in that I am male. There are male ministers but they are now few in number and they have to cover a very wide parish containing a number of different churches. Looking at the flowers, especially in the window of remembrance, I saw how much work had been done. It brought to mind the other times the church put on events – Easter, Christmas, Harvest Festival, and the like. These are basic events in our calendar – how will the church continue to do these things when age finally forces these members to stop? I thought of the chain of events in the community over the past 300 years when the church was the focus of the town and realised that it is very unlikely that the church will be in a position to celebrate its fourth centenary.
I was not brought up in a religious household, though my parents came from non-conformist backgrounds they themselves did not believe, and they left me and my brother and sisters to form our own opinions and beliefs. My training has been scientific and I have always held that reason is the greatest human facility. However, I have also felt that largely I am Christian in my morality. I have difficulties with faith and if there were such a thing I’d be a Christian Agnostic. I know this may reflect accident of birth, had I been born in a different culture I might view my moral decisions through the prism of Islam or Judaism. I have also been increasingly aware that when moral dilemmas confront me on issues such a euthanasia, abortion, racial bigotry, or greed, for example I have found that I nearly always ally myself with those who speak on behalf of the Christian Church. I have found that I am increasingly upset by simple utilitarian ethics which find the most convenient and expeditious solution, rather than to grapple with the moral problem.
This had already weighed heavily on my mind after the Irish referendum debate. I agree that no-one other than the woman can decide about her body and her baby – no doctor, no priest nor any government agent, and I also agree that there are times when to continue with the pregnancy would be clearly wrong (for the mother’s or child’s safety and wellbeing), and I also have seen the terrible situations that women had been placed in Ireland (Such as the dreadful death of Savita Halappanavar) by the current regulations and thus think that there was little option but to repeal the eight amendment. However, this is still a difficult moral choice as it involved the legal rights of the unborn child and this is no minor matter however one looks at it. To alter these is a grave undertaking.
I was therefore unsettled when I saw the celebrations after the referendum results. Though this may be the right result it not a cause for celebration. Abortion is always, at best, a necessary evil; every woman and man would prefer to find some alternative path, but sometimes it is impossible. I am sure no woman makes the decision lightly but I found disquieting the celebrations in the media. I am sure that most of the celebrations were the joy of ending a successful campaign, and some may have been the pleasure in defeating a foe (the Roman Catholic Church in this case), I hope few were in anticipation of the changes this referendum will permit. I hope no-one was celebrating that we have reduced the rights of the unborn child or that we will see more abortions in the future.
This debate was one of the many dilemmas that always face us. When does human life start and when do we have our own human rights ? In the past the church often lead the way on these issues. Currently we are unhappy with the moral guidance the church gave on many issues (sexuality, marriage, etc) and we tend to forget, as a society, when their advice was progressive (regarding racism, slavery, etc).Thus we increasingly ignore the church in these debates and as a consequence our churches are increasingly empty and silent. Instead of grappling difficult moral decisions and thinking about the principles involved we look to the easiest solution available to us.
In the future, without churches, where and how will these moral debates be held. Thinking about morality, debating and critiquing it , improves our abilities to act morally. Avoiding the issues and getting by with pragmatic solutions will lead to us seeing our moral skills atrophy. Increasingly we might not know what is the right thing to do we might only know what is the thing that pleases most people. We have gained a great deal in our societies through reason and following the Enlightenment. However, we must be careful that we don’t jettison valuables while clearing space for the future. Somethings once we have lost them can never be recovered. Standing in the cool of the church looking at the flower a shiver of sadness passed through me.
When I made the jump and left the city for the rural life I was uncertain about how some aspects of my life might change. I was, however, quite sure that moving to a smaller community would be better. In his book, Sapiens: A brief history of mankind, Yuval Harari suggests that the largest group that we can live amongst comfortably, knowing our family and neighbours, is 150 of our fellows – above this number we need to call on cultural developments to substitute for our personal knowledge of people. In essence, up to 150 people – then first hand knowledge and gossip allow us to cope, above this we need extra strategies.
In the city I was aware that I was in a huge amorphous mass of people. Because we lived closely packed together our privacy became important. It was important to keep your life separate from your neighbours as we lived cheek by jowl with them. When the situation forces you to live close with your fellows and en masse it becomes important to keep your distance. Paradoxically, though I lived in a large group I knew relatively few people, I knew my immediate neighbours, but relatively few others in the street. I knew very little about people living 100 yards from my front door.
In place of my local community I had my professional community. I mixed with other NHS consultants, lawyers and teachers, in short I mixed with people like me. We would meet and bemoan why others did not see the world as we did and could not see how correct we were in our analyses. In the days before social media there were already echo chambers and I lived inside one. My already skewed viewpoint became increasingly bent by agreement and repetition.
When I moved, one of the first obvious differences I noted were the simple benefits of living in a small local community. Within a very short period I knew my neighbours; I knew the shop workers, the staff that worked in the local farmers market, the farm workers, the foresters, the mechanics, the people who worked the land adjacent to ours. I quickly discovered that I knew many more people, not just by sight but their name and history, than I ever had known when I lived in the large city.
It was, and is, a pleasant feeling to recognise your fellows when out and about. It gives a warm feeling of community and sense of security. During the recent storms it was our neighbours who sorted out the problems of fallen trees and blocked roads well before the local authority even thought about responding. When I have had problems with livestock it has been neighbours who have assisted and I have, in my turn, assisted them. When walking through the town centre I can recognise the faces of strangers and visitors to the area as I know who is local and who is just passing through.
In the main I like this but I have been aware that this is not a simple relationship but something that strikes at the core of living in a community. Because I know others, they know me, this means my reputation is much more important than it ever was before. When you are anonymous it doesn’t matter much about your reputation. If you committed some heinous crime life would be much harder in a small community. True, if there were exonerating circumstances these may be more likely to be recognised (and taken into account), but failing this if you become the outlaw then you might prefer the anonymity of the city rather than the gaze of your fellows.
However, even at a much smaller level this reliance on reputation and knowledge of our fellows is important and, I feel, has beneficial effects on our behaviour. Imagine you are driving through town and someone pulls out suddenly and cuts you up. In the city it is all too easy to jerk the finger and shout the expletives, you’ll never see them again. In this community you might look in the car window and see your elderly neighbour on the way home after a worrisome visit to the doctors, you really don’t want to be shouting and gesticulating. Indeed had you done so you would rightly feel ashamed about your uncouth behaviour.
In the town if you drive along and notice someone with a flat tyre it is quite easy to drive past and reassure yourself that they will have phoned for help. Here, in this community, you will know that you could be recognised, even if you do not recognise them, and it will be known that you did not help. Passing on the other side would be the wrong thing to do, your reputation would suffer, and you would tend to feel shame and guilt that you had not taken the opportunity to help a fellow in need. In smaller communities you will tend to work with the same people again and again rather than interacting with many people on single, or a few, occasions. This allows you to develop your reputation by repeatedly showing such characteristics as honesty, fairness, punctuality or diligence. In short, you are able to demonstrate your honour.
I had not anticipated that a move to a smaller community would put me in closer contact to feelings of shame and its opposite honour. I am glad that it has as it has reconnected me with my own core beliefs. I know what I think is important and I now have to try to live in accord with these principles. This rediscovery of shame is important and beneficial. It is through shame that we change our behaviour, without it we can plod on seemingly oblivious to our failings and mistakes. I fear in larger societies we have substituted a culture of dignity for a culture of honour. We have substituted the right to respect for the duty to earn it. While this may help maintain social cohesion by asking very little of individuals other then a modicum of good behaviour it means we lose some of the ability for self-improvement.
In a culture which has little role for shame, and tends to feel that we should accept everyone for who they are regardless, there are few prompts for people to improve themselves. As I have reported before, I wish people had cared enough about me, and dared, to comment on my gluttony and obesity so that shame may have driven me to diet – rather than, as was the case, fear of death from diabetic complications prompting me to do so. For many of the current problems by which we are beset, are often the consequences of excess, indulgence or of short term thinking – an early experience of shame might be much preferable to the later damage experienced.
Most religions, indeed most moral codes, stress the importance of self awareness and self scrutiny so that we may be aware of our failings and correct them. The story of Adam and Eve in the bible can be read as mankind’s discovery of shame and recognition of our failings is integral to Christianity (“Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins.” Ecclesiastes 7:20) . Likewise recognition of misdeeds and repentance are core constructs in the Jewish (Teshuva) and Islamic faiths (Tawba) and means whereby we instruct ourselves to become better people.
If we build an increasingly shameless society, one in which we are fearful of judging our own or others behaviour, we should not be surprised if it behaves in a shameless manner. If we take away one of our checks and balances we can expect to see increasing problems with excessive consumption, poor interpersonal relationships and failure to be good custodians of our environment. Let’s hear it for shame ! Even in large societal groups we still need shame, the exhortation that “If it feels good do it !” is fine as long as it is accompanied by the knowledge “If it is wrong don’t do it”, you need both halves of the equation to live well.
(*) In this case it is my grammar, and ending a sentence with a preposition, which causes my blushes – “There is always something of which we can be ashamed” – Sorry, I’ll try harder. This is something I won’t put up with !
While I was watching an old film on television this week I was reminded of Mathew Arnold’s wonderful poem “Dover Beach”. This is the lyric poem that he wrote telling of his feelings of loss and sadness following the ebbing of faith in his society. He uses the metaphor of the tide to show the retreat of religious faith, which he felt was now only an echo of its former self. With regret he wrote :-
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear.
And naked shingles of the world.
Watching the tide retreat under moonlight he rued the passage of faith and considers his and society’s loss.
I was reminded of this poem after catching the film “Lease of Life” on television. This was the penultimate film of the great Robert Donat who had returned to acting after a long sabbatical necessitated by his poor health from asthma. In this film he plays a village parson who discovers he has less than a year to live. Donat’s ill-health is obvious when watching this film, he looks much older than his years, but this adds a poignancy to his role as a man coming to terms with his mortality. The whole cast are excellent but Adrienne Corri, whose youth and beauty are counterposed to Donat’s age and frailty, is especially so.
So why did this 1954 British film from Ealing Studios, remind me of Dover Beach ? It was the theme of the film – death comes to us all, but before then how do we live life well ? The film takes this religious theme and explores it through a number of vignettes : a wife who has subjugated her life and wishes for her husband and daughter, a daughter who wishes to seek advancement but not at the expense of ther parents, a dying parishoner who who has a complex relationship with his wife. There is no violence, no sex, no excitement, just moral dilemmas played out on a human scale. It would probably be impossible to make this film today. Imagine the pitch to the movie moguls.
Mogul “Right give us your pitch ! What’s the payload of the film”
Director ” Sure. The film has at its core a vital unifying scene that lays the whole film open”
Mogul “Great give it to me ”
Director ” The elderly, terminally ill parson gives a short sermon in church to a group of schoolboys reminding them that religioun is about free will and choices not about dutifully or slavishly following rules”
Mogul “And ?”
Director “The boys like it and we later see the paron lving in accordance with his beliefs”
Mogul “Next ! Close the door as you leave“
The film reveals how issues of faith and morality were central to life. It reminds us we have to think actively about how to be a good and moral person and that it is inadequate to choose the most expedient options at every turn. With this deontologiocal message it does not sit easily in our utiltarian culture. This film revealed just how important issues of faith, and the role of the church, were in British culture two generations ago. But this has largely gone and, like Mathew Arnold watching the tide ebb, I watched this film and thought what have we lost?
Certainly we have gained some freedoms, particularly in the realm of our sexual lives, but how valuable is it to gain this sexual freedom if we risk loosing romantic love or reducting the pleaures of love to simple mechanics of friction. What if our need for gratification robs us of the virtue of patience. There are so many changes where we cannot foresee the resultant complications and I fear we are loosing many of the principles that perviously guided our personal and family lives. This film reminds us that these small quotidien decisions that constitute our lives are vitally important and this film does not need any pyrotechnics or CGI assistance to make its point. Like other films from Ealing Studios it looks at people humanely and reveals to us, if we wish to see it, what it is that makes humanity special.
This gentle but thought provoking film reminded me of our losses, but I fear I need to check my priviledge here. The loss of faith and the ebbing of this tide is particularly a problem for white developed-world cultures, particularly in Europe, like mine. This sadness is unlikely to be shared equally across the globe as the number of people of faith (Christians in China, Muslims in Africa and Asia) elsewhere continues to grow. There are now more people on our beleaguered planet who profess religion is important in their lives than ever before and perhaps, in this, there is hope that the tides of the sea of faith will again lap on our shores.
The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; – on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
I find that unherd is rapidly becoming one of the best sites on the web for intelligent articles that promote thought and hopefully debate. As an example Giles Fraser’s February article Why does everyone have it in for the puritans makes excellent reading. Hopefully it will stimulate people to think what goals they have substituted to replace the aims of the puritans and perhaps cause us to consider what we have lost in the process.
One of the great advantages of the e-book and e-readers is the ability to gain access to a huge library of published work for free. Most of the classics from the ancient world are available and a large library of modern and, not so modern, work is available for the easy job of a little bit of browsing. It is hard to believe but most of us now have access to a library that would have made Croesus jealous. Emperors and kings a hundred years ago would not have believed, and would have envied, the texts which I have available today. It is almost impossible to think of a philosopher, political theorist, or other man or woman of letters that is not easily available either for free or for a very modest price. I find this wealth of literature captivating. I browse the 56,00 books available at the Gutenburg Project, or the 15,000,000 texts and books (including 550,000 modern ebooks) of the Internet Archive and wonder at the riches available. But this surfeit of choice does bring problems – ironically, “What to read next ?”
There are problems when choosing books from this library. Some have become very dated and are only really interesting as historical artefacts. Others were a fad of their day and really didn’t need to weather the years. Many other are well written and important but with the passage of time modern readers have changed. Modern readers can find the dense, heavy prose difficult to read and, at times, the vocabulary can be archaic and thus not understood. A further difficulty in understanding can arise from a prior presumption that readers would be familiar with the classics and the bible which is no longer a safe generalization. This having been said, I have been pleasantly surprised how many do stand the passage of time. H.G. Wells still reads as if he were writing yesterday and his science fiction is still enjoyable despite the appearance of the horse and cart along side the rocket ship.
I have tried to cope with this problem by the simple strategy of trying to read the classics of which I have heard. This includes reading books which I thought I had already read, as sometimes I found that I had never actually done so. My knowledge of the book was apparently achieved through cultural osmosis rather than actual reading. Sometimes this has been startling when I discover what was the actual content of the book. Sometimes I have reread classics simple because I was too young first time around. Some books were wasted on me as a callow youth and it is only reading them now, with the hindsight and hopefully wisdom of age, that they truly make sense. This was my strategy which lead me to Kropotkin’s “The State : Its Historic Role”
With regards to readability this is not a problem, it is clearly written and its still is easy on the modern reader. There are references to important political events which would have been known to any informed reader in 1897 but which might be more hazily recalled for the reader over a century later. Occasionally he makes assumptions that authors discussing the Paris Commune, or describing the Lombardy League, will be known to us. However, this is not sufficient a problem to impair the enjoyment from the text.
The basics of the text are his views on the historic development of the state and the crushing of societal developments which existed before this. He describes the development of the Communes and the Guilds across Europe and how this allowed the mutual aid which provides support for the members of societies. His concern is that society is in our nature, as it was in the animals from whom we evolved, and mankind will always find way to create supportive societies and does not require the state to do this.
“Man did not create society; society existed before Man.”
“Far from being the bloodthirsty beast he was made out to be in order to justify the need to dominate him , Man has always preferred peace and quiet .”
“Henceforth , the village community consisting entirely or partly of individual families – all united , however , by the possession in common of the land – became the essential link for centuries to come .”
Unfortunately my knowledge of medieval history is rather poor and I find it difficult to assess the accuracy of his descriptions of medieval city life. He is clearly very impressed with the early municipalism and syndicalism that he describes :-
“Was it not in fact the rule of the guild that two brothers should sit at the bedside of each sick brother – a custom which certainly required devotion in those times of contagious diseases and the plague – and to follow him as far as the grave , and then look after his widow and children ? Abject poverty , misery , uncertainty of the morrow for the majority , and the isolation of poverty , which are the characteristics of our modern cities , were quite unknown in those ‘ free oases , which emerged in the twelfth century amidst the feudal jungle ’ .”
But he pays rather scant regard to the problems of the serf in feudal society and to the other well documented problems for the poor of this time. However, he does detail the developing strategies that were made to provide support and succour which operated at a more local and personal level prior to the development of the state. Though I fear that sometimes he was donning spectacles with a strong rosy hue when reading his source texts.
He sees the state developing through the cooperation of chiefs and Kings, the Church and the priesthood as well as the judiciary :-
“And who are these barbarians ? It is the State : the Triple Alliance , finally constituted , of the military chief , the Roman judge and the priest – the three constituting a mutual assurance for domination – the three , united in one power which will command in the name of the interests of society – and will crush that same society .”
He describes the operation of these agencies to impose their power, in the form of the state, over prior voluntary organizations. He pays particular attention to the role of religious belief in the development of anarchist ideas and thinking. He is very aware that the Protestant revolutions did much to free the minds of men at the same time as the established church tried to limit thought and opinion. He ultimately reports that in this ideological battle for the soul of man the established church won.
“Lutherian Reform which had sprung from popular Anabaptism , was supported by the State , massacred the people and crushed the movement from which it had drawn its strength in the beginning .”
He is scathing of Martin Luther who he views as a turncoat who, by the end, encouraged “the massacre of the peasants with more virulence than the pope“. In general Piotr Kropotkin deals well with these issues. There was much greater understanding by these seminal authors, compared to contemporary anarchist writers, that to build an anarchist society depended on a change in the hearts and minds of men and women. These early writers saw the importance of personal responsibility and morality and dealt with the need for a root and branch reform of societal relationships in a much more thorough manner. These were not simple economic or political arguments but moral and spiritual also.
Once the state has started on its development he was aware that it would brook no opposition. He describes the hostility the state has to any autonomous societies or support organizations as it views these are threats. It sees them as “a state within the state” which can not be tolerated. Any alternative forms of mutual aid are opposed and although our instincts are to band together and help each other this is discouraged if it is not done by the agencies, and under the control, of the state.
“Peasants in a village have a large number of interests in common : household interests , neighborhood , and constant relationships . They are inevitably led to come together for a thousand different things . But the State does not want this , nor can it allow them to join together ! After all the State gives them the school and the priest , the gendarme and the judge – this should be sufficient .”
In our present days where the state has a large welfare component these factors are still important. Self help and mutual assistance is lost while centralised state provision takes it place.
“ The neighbor , the comrade , the companion – forget them . You will henceforth only know them through the intermediary of some organ or other of your State . And every one of you will make a virtue out of being equally subjected to it . ”
“ No direct moral obligations towards your neighbor , nor even any feeling of solidarity ; all your obligations are to the State ”
In many areas of the western world social care, health care, and education are removed from the individual. While basic safety and care may be provided the ability of the individual to participate in these matters is severely curtailed and their personal responsibility reduced. Further, it is the cooperative arrangement of these types of aid and support which creates our societies. It is possible, as we are discovering, that it is possible to have a large state providing many aspects of welfare but at the same time to have small or absent communities , an alienated and atomised population and very little society.
In the future, our ability to create societies which support our diverse peoples is going to be the biggest challenge in the face of the spreading state and globalisation. Anarchists and libertarians will need to take their part in this challenge and some of the history in the book may usefully guide them. His call to action is still valid as it is not simply and economic change we require but widespread social change.
Throughout the history of our civilization , two traditions , two opposing tendencies have confronted each other : the Roman and the Popular ; the imperial and the federalist ; the authoritarian and the libertarian . And this is so , once more , on the eve of the social revolution .
Looking back over 2017, in preparation for starting the new year, I decided that if I could not be especially good in 2018 perhaps at least I could try to be less bad. Perhaps in 2018 I could make less errors than usual and become a little better by altering the balance sheet, not by gaining more plus marks but by loosing less negative marks. I good place to start, I thought, might be the Seven Deadly Sins. If I could not be virtuous hopefully I can be less sinful.
There is not one of the seven deadly sins that I have not committed. Perhaps not often nor repetitively for many, but there is a clear theme in the seven sins which applies to me and my failings.
When listed in this order, the warnings about desire and want are very easy to see. The first four sins all take this theme :-
Lust – the desire for pleasures of the flesh
Gluttony – the desire for the pleasures of food an drink
Greed – the love for material possessions
Envy – the desire for things rightly possessed by others.
The christian church is clearly of the opinion that avarice and greed are dangers that we must avoid. Indeed it holds that greed “is the root of all evil and a sure path to corruption“. Islamic teachings share this concern as revealed in the Hadith saying “Watch out for greed because the people before you perished from it. Greed led them to be miserly so they became misers. Greed led them to break the ties (of kinship) so they broke them. Greed led them to sins so they committed sins” (Abu Dawud). One of the three poisons of Buddism is Raga or greed, and in the Hindu theology lobh (greed) and kama (lust) are the passions of the mind which prevent one from finding salvation.
Leaving the major religions and looking at the views of the ancients the same advice comes clearly to the fore. Plato detested greed and the accumulation of wealth as did the cynics and stoics who saw that the purpose of life was live a virtuous life. This virtuous life would lead to happiness and, to be virtuous, necessitated the avoidance of greed and materialistic desire. The more recent philosophers concur; David Hume felt greed was one of the most destructive of vices. Despite the protestations of Gordon Geko that “Greed is good” Adam Smith did not believe so. Though he felt that self-interest was a valuable human trait he deplored the application of this if it were to the detriment of others; cooperative self interest was good, that which tried to obtain more than a fair share (greed) was viewed in a very poor light. As he wrote :-
“To be anxious, or to be laying a plot either to gain or to save a single shilling, would degrade the most vulgar tradesman in the opinion of all his neighbors”
Adam Smith championed the view of voluntary self-restraint, the avoidance of greed, and held that this underpinned the healthy operation of a market economy and society as a whole.
Therefore it would appear that the consensus of religious and philosophical thought form the ancients until now is that greed is one of the major sins and problems to which mankind is heir. Certainly in our modern affluent, post-scarcity society, many of our problems do appear to relate to greed and avarice rather then need and lack. In terms of health, in the west, conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and obesity all seem to be markers of excess consumption. Looking at mental health services these seem to be drowning under the dual tides of people damaged by substance abuse and those dissatisfied and disillusioned by life not meeting their desires.In social terms our family structures, which helped us develop a successful caring society, are being jettisoned in preference for satisfaction of our erotic desires. In politics greed drives increasing sequestration of wealth and increasing inequality between rich and poor. In global terms our greed rapes our natural resources and threatens our continued existence. Unless we all tackle greed our future looks increasingly bleak. Everything has to start somewhere and I am going to start with me and my own problems with greed.
So, while I may not be able to be much better in 2018 (I am not going to give myself targets to which I will never adhere) I am going to have the low aim of being less bad. I am going to pay attention to my desires, curb my tendencies to want things I don’t need, consider giving things to others rather than holding them for myself.Generally I am going to consume and want less. Perhaps if I do all of this, perhaps if I am just a little less bad, it will be almost like being good.
I often think that gratitude is much misunderstood. Despite the positive psychology movement and religious organizations recognizing its benefits I sometimes feel only half of the subject is considered.
There is a reasonable body of research which suggests that keeping a Gratitude Journal, a diary of things for which you are grateful can help you promote a positive frame of mind and a greater sense of happiness. People who keep gratitude journals have been shown to be generally happier, optimistic and more productive to similar people who do not keep such journals. Gratitude Journals have been shown to reduce depressive symptoms and possibly have beneficial effects on some chronic physical ailments.
Intuitively this “count your blessings” approach seems to have much to commend it and I have looked at a number of paper and computerized gratitude journals. They did not work for me. When I tried to use them I transformed into tearful actor winning the best cameo role in an international film at the Oscars – “I’d like to thank my Mum and Dad for having me, my children for being nice, my employers for putting up with my incompetence, my neighbours for having a nice garden, the sun for shining and making me feel warm, my bodily health for persisting so far despite my ignoring it, the wind for clearing the lawns of leaves and the bees for pollinating the plants so we do not die in a famine. I’d also like to thank the canteen boy .. .. .. .. “.
This was the problem, there are many, many things one might be thankful for. Although, it has to be said, that I only became aware of these once writing in the journal. I was not thankful before I sat down to think, largely I had taken these things for granted. I had glimmers of gratitude after I wrote the lists. Sometimes I worried that the feeling I had was contentment rather than gratitude, a sense of happiness with my lot, having counted my blessings I was pleased there were so many.
There is a danger in this: if it fosters contentment might it not also foster complacency? It might make me happier by making me happy with my lot. Perhaps a better route to happiness sometimes would be to recognize my troubles and tribulations and change them.
I think this risk is biggest when only half of the nature of gratitude is recognised. In addition to being grateful for things we are also grateful to people. Gratitude is a debt we owe, when we feel gratitude we know we require to say “thank you” to someone. Those of a religious nature rarely forget this half. They are thankful to God and gratitude serves to bolster and strengthen their faith. Thanksgiving is a natural aspect of religious life and gratitude is understandable in this context.
“Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus toward you ”
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
To whom do those without a deity give thanks; to friends and family certainly, but who for the bigger things – to fate ? And what of those things one enjoys that one sees as the fruits of one’s own labour – you can not really be grateful to yourself, you can’t owe thanks to yourself. And here is the rub. Sometimes people are grateful to the fates that they have been lucky and no disasters have befallen then, they are proud that they have worked and collected many things to look on in happiness, they are pleased that they have formed good relations with their friends and families and they feel fortunate that their parents bore them in a place they feel safe and secure. But this pride in your own acheivements and contentedness with your circumstances is not gratitude. There is a shorter word for this Self Motivated User-focussed Gratitude, it is called being “smug“. Unfortunately the happiness that accompanies smugness is always short-lived because, as we know, pride always comes before a fall.