A little practical philosophy** from the remarkable, on many levels, CS Lewis. Applicable to almost any situation. Try it.
We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. There is nothing progressive about being pig-headed and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it’s pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistake. We’re on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.
**As ever, there is a biblical connection. It depends on what you prefer, but the most poetic translation of Jeremiah 6:16 is a beauty: Put yourselves on the ways of long ago and enquire about the ancient paths: which was the good way? Take it then and you shall find rest. Which is 2,600 year old wisdom with a universal application
The temptation to pontificate and publicly philosophise is one any sane person should avoid. You just end up producing stuff that looks pretty stupid/conceited within a short space of time. Everyone cites Fukuyama’s hubristically titled The End of Historyas an example of this. They’re right. A 2016 snapshot suggests that while Western-style liberal democracy produces societies that are nice to live in, imposing Western-style liberal democracy on, to pick an example at random, anywhere in the Middle East, tends not to be a success. Possibly the opposite.
So with 3 days till a very very significant US election, and with Brexit being possibly undermined by the kind of people a majority in the nation has had enough of, it’s worth considering – with humility – what our ‘society’ is all about – how did it develop, how it could crash and burn.
There are two themes that I want to emphasise. Two out of many I know, but this is big ticket stuff. First up is morality. Yup. How unfashionable.
If there is no objective standard of morality, then the universe is simply a vast empty wasteland. It does not determine what our values ought to be; rather, we project our values onto it. These values would then not be derived from Nature or Nature’s God. Instead, they would originate with us. But exactly which part of us would tell us what to value? Not reason, since reason (on this account) does not apprehend anything objectively good in the world. No, it would simply be our base wants and desires, which are arbitrarily shaped by our environment. Ethics would be a hopelessly subjective enterprise, driven ultimately by emotion rather than reason. This kind of moral subjectivism often appears, on the surface, to be every bit as dogmatic as the old moralism, but it has a crucial difference: Subjective moral norms are impenetrable to rational scrutiny or argumentation. In a culture that has imbibed this philosophy, public shaming is a more powerful tool than debate, and it is more powerful still to combine shaming with a harsh curtailment of free speech. In many ways, we are seeing this logic play out in our culture in real time.
These then are the two points that I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in
Do we, in this 21st century, still have “have this curious idea that we ought to behave in a certain way**”. I think we do. We certainly adhere to the follow on in that we “do not in fact behave in that way”. Apply these formulae to the current presidential race, it’s all there.
The whole issue of absolute v relative morality was a specialty of one of the heroes of The Knife, the chain smoking, practical anti apartheid, fervent Catholic, hyperintelligent Fellow of All Souls, Sir Michael Dummett. He summed it up beautifully in his description of the moral relativism that surrounds us: “it will bring down a curse upon us worse than that which God called down on the builders of Babel; rather than our speaking different languages, not to be speaking a genuine language at all.”
That Babel fits perfectly with the current hypocrisy of the campaign. It’s quite breathtaking. Dyer continues in his Lewis article with the pay off: One of Lewis’ main contentions in Abolition is that moral subjectivism ultimately undermines the key concepts at the base of all of our political institutions. Natural rights, the value of the individual, the common good, human dignity, and social justice are meaningful only in light of what Lewis called the “human tradition of value”
Serious stuff. So from where did we derive “the key concepts at the base of all of our political institutions”? Which brings me to my second topic, nothing big, just Western Civilization.
I live in the middle of Western Civilization, metaphorically if not geographically. I agree entirely with George Neumayr‘s brilliantly concise take on Europe in 2016: Postmodern high culture’s insouciance about the intellectual and moral foundations of the West has magnified a crisis of civilizational confidence throughout Europe. The false claim that the roots of democracy run no deeper in the cultural subsoil of Europe than the Enlightenment has hollowed out Europe’s understanding of its own worth, by ignoring the contributions made to the modern freedom project by Biblical religion, the ancient Greek confidence in reason, and the classical Roman conviction that the rule of law is superior to the rule of coercive force. A Europe unwilling or unable to give an account of why its idea of the human person and human community is superior to others on offer in the 21st-century world is unlikely to be able to defend itself against external threats, or to cope with those once-external threats that have become internal threats.
You may not like that view, but it’s based on facts, of the kind which are becoming unpopular. Neumayr invokes the Böckenförde dilemma to describe the potential catastrophe which is leading to the populist wave across Europe (and the US). Not that I have a problem with populism, far from it, although it can certainly have unsavoury manifestations: The modern, secular liberal-democratic state rests on a foundation of moral and cultural premises — on a fund of social capital — that it cannot itself generate. Put another way, it takes a certain kind of people, living certain virtues, to make the machinery of democratic self-governance work. So if Europe is suffering from various forms of a democracy deficit, that might well be because it is suffering from a more fundamental social-capital deficit, which is to say, from a moral-cultural deficit. The rest of the West, including the United States, is most certainly not immune to this deficit. But it seems more advanced in Europe, with more immediately visible consequences.
The Böckenförde dilemma is well described as:
..the existential dilemma of liberal democracy, which on one hand contradicts its principles if it does not guarantee the freedom also of those wishing to destroy it, and on the other cannot allow that this destruction be implemented.
I don’t want to conflate morality with religion, they’re separate, however intimately connected. Given next week’s events though, it’s worth noting that back in 1796, in his Farewell Address, George Washington had no such qualms:
Let it simply be asked, where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
So, there you have it. The Knife’s prescription for cultural survival: acknowledge the existence of absolute morality, and understand where we come from.
**If this sounds a bit like ‘conscience’, then maybe it is. For an analysis of conscience v the unconsciousness beloved of Freudians, try the awesome Fulton Sheen, in Peace of Soul
I was at a funeral last week, and the music in the crematorium as we filed out at the end, was Morecambe and Wise’s Bring Me Sunshine, which although appropriate to the deceased, was another example of the sometimes irritating quirkiness in the current vogue of remembering our recently departed. I’ve heard Queen’s I Want to Break Free more than once. The relevance is that for a good while I’ve thought that I’d like to have the mourners at my own send off have to sit through the entirety of Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin, which usually comes in somewhere between 14 and 15 minutes.
This is not some sort of revenge fantasy, but rather a reflection on the fact that I do not think that there exists, in the entire canon of Western music, a piece that contains within it so much of what is to be human. It’s all there: Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, War and Peace, and the Judaeo-Christian belief system. If that sounds like hyperbole, it’s not intended to be, it genuinely does seem to me to contain all human experience, particularly all that is noble and good. Sorry if that sounds pretentious, but it’s true.
The trouble is, I cannot say why it seems to contain all that. It just does. My earlier post on this theme applying skills in one discipline (writing) to an entirely different one (music), was about Beethoven’s string quartets, emphasising the brilliance and verve of Roger Fiske’s prose, in conjuring up what made Beethoven’s Op18 no 1 so special. Here all I can offer is an entirely different take, which is the veteran violinist Kyung Wha Chung providing a technical analysis of the Chaconne, interspersed her expert enthusiasms (taken from Gramophone magazine, September 2016. Click on each picture).
My feelings on this are not remotely original. It’s probably the most famous solo violin piece of them all. Many people will already know that it’s really just the final movement of BWV 1004, Bach’s remarkable Partita no 2 for solo violin. There are literally hundreds of recordings, but my favourite is still the first I heard, by Nathan Milstein. The almost equally profound piano arrangement (by Busoni) is similarly ubiquitous, and again my first recording, by English gentleman Ronald Smith, is still my go to option. To close with, and see if any newcomer can see what I mean, here is the uniqueGidon Kremer, a Jew, playing this truly universal masterpiece by Bach, a Lutheran, in a Catholic church, as recommended to you all by The Knife (a Catholic).
From one of the awesome Victor Davis Hanson‘s outstanding and very readable history meisterwerks, Ripples of Battle. Trump gets this, Hillary doesn’t, and nor does the UN. I think the US electorate are with Trump (and Heraclitus) on this, one of the reasons for my prediction of 6 months ago. Hanson, I should add, published it in 2003, two years after 9/11, and long before the Daeshbags of ISIS. A prophetic piece of work
I don’t wish to seem gloomy (that’s not the point of Lent), but as Ecclesiastes poetically puts it (1: 2-4) :
Vanity of vanities, said Ecclesiastes vanity of vanities, and all is vanity. What hath a man more of all his labour, that he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth standeth for ever.
If you’ve read this blog before, you may be aware that The Knife is and was a Catholic boy, though greying rapidly. That’s not a claim to saintliness in any shape or form, as sadly it doesn’t work that way, but it naturally informs one’s world view. If like me you were brought up in the faith, then various things are inculcated from an early age. Which brings us to tomorrow’s feast day, that of The Assumption. This is a ‘holy day of obligation’ which means it has the same remit as the sabbath (see the Third Commandment). In other words, you’re meant to get to mass.
So tomorrow is the 31st anniversary of me being kicked out of Morocco.
I was travelling round the Iberian peninsula with a couple of mates, with the plan that we’d get the
ferry over to Tangier for a week. At the time, I only had the now defunct ‘visItor’s passport’ issued by the British government, via any post office. I hadn’t got a full passport in time. It only allowed unfettered access to certain countries, mainly mainland Europe. Knowing this, when we got to Madrid I went to the Moroccan Embassy to get my visa. How I managed this I don’t know, as it was in a Madrid suburb, and there was no internet or anything like that (I realise younger readers may be struggling with this). I probably used a phone directory and a public library map.
In the embassy I queued for about 4 hours. That is to say, I queued, as a proper Brit, while the numerous Moroccans in the room jostled around, barging people out of the way. I think there may even have been a goat there as well. When I finally got seen, the visa man yelled at me “you British, no visa!” several times. No discussion about the concept of the visitor’s passport, despite my attempts, and that was it. No visa, I supposedly didn’t need it. The British could go anywhere with impunity.
A few days later, August 15th 1983, we boarded the ferry at Algeciras, an authentic dump of a port, loomed over by Gibraltar, and full of people trying to sell you dope. The year before I’d been part of a summer school football team (I was teaching English) that had been humped 10-1 by our Algeciras rivals, we being from upmarket Marbella. The ‘1’ was a completely unjustified penalty. So I had bad memories of Algeciras. It was also the Feast Day of the Assumption, so the trip meant skipping mass. This was irrelevant to my buddies but I had a lousy feeling about it, no doubt taggable as ‘catholic guilt’, but it was real enough. I had no idea that there were churches in Morocco (quite a few, as it turns out), this being pre-internet etc. So I was indeed wilfully skipping mass.
At this point I am aware that most readers will be labelling me as a pathetic Catholic neurotic/loser. Fair enough.
The ferry took a couple of hours, and by a remarkable coincidence, there on the deck was the man from the embassy. He remembered me, we said hello. At Tangier, just before the disembarkation gangplank, there was a passport check. I handed mine over, the Moroccan official said no, and when I attempted to explain the embassy’s view, yelled at me to get back to Spain. At this point I spotted my embassy man who’d just said hello. He’d seen the altercation, and when I tried to engage him, he literally ran off up the deck.
That was it, we parted ways, and I sat on the deck all the way back to Algeciras, with an arrangement to meet in one week at Faro, Portugal. On arriving in the early evening back in Spain, with my guilt intact, I heard church bells. A few streets away there was a steady stream of Spanish mass goers heading in, for their obligation. That moment confirmed my growing feeling that I’d been conspired against by unseen forces. I trooped in to church, sat at the back with my disgusting two weeks of unwashed clothing plus rucksack, and fulfilled my duty.
Following mass I felt a little lighter in spirit, but only a little, and it was getting dark, I didn’t know the town and I had nowhere to stay. So I headed for the Plaza Alta, following the road signs.
Then things started to get better.
As I trekked up the slope to the square, doing the usual surveillance for cheap pensiones, an upper floor window opened and a ‘well preserved’ lady stuck her head out, asking in a charming French accent was I looking for somewhere to stay? I was. Not as great as it promised, as I ended up paying for a bed in a room shared with an otherwise silent snoring giant. However, the landlady couldn’t have been nicer. I went to the magnificent Seville the next day, and ended up teaming with three lads from Wigan who were out of their heads on pills and megacheap red wine nearly all the time. Nice guys, if unsure as to where they actually were as we travelled around the Algarve. After a week, the rendezvous in Faro happened as planned.
So, why this story? I don’t believe in karma, and nor do I subscribe to the hippy dippy/soppy girl declaration that ‘everything is meant’, but…..any of us would be an idiot not to ponder significant events in our lives, and try to discern if there is indeed something we should be taking from them. Very very few people sincerely believe that everything is just random, if they are honest with themselves.
For me this was just one small piece in a very large jigsaw that maps out why, despite everything in my life that might point in other directions, and despite society’s frequent contempt for religious belief – often tinged with fear of the unknown, I would say – I’m still a (flawed) Catholic.