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Archive for February, 2010

I have long been a collector of books from the second-hand shops ; and for nearly as long, I  lacked the leisure to settle down to read them.  It is some twenty years since I bought, and dipped into, a happy little book by the physicist AN Whitehead.  It is called Adventures of Ideas, published in 1932 or thereabouts.  It deals with the adventures of a physicist who at last (in retirement) can let his ideas go walkabouts.  But, of course, most of the ideas are not his own but those of thinkers who went before ; what he adds to those ideas is his own deep meditations on them.

“Hypocrisy,” he says,” is necessary to civilised living.”  Quite so.  Where would our peaceful co-existence be without the little fibs we tell each other – and which we also tell ourselves.  We habitually say things that are untrue, usually with the unspoken wish that they were true.  Thus we might say to Mr Jones, “What a fine job you made of your latest book,” while wishing that in fact he had.

But there are different levels of hypocrisy.  St Augustine of Hippo once said, “To become the person you want to be, you must begin by pretending to be that person.”  We can all see the truth of this ; we have all put it into practice.  How would we have learned to drive a car without first convincing ourselves (however tentatively) that we could do it.  And haven’t we all heard a teacher, of whatever stripe, urging us to think like a competent practitioner?  and behave like one?  In other words, we must begin by pretending.

So, if I wish to be a better person than I am, I pretend to be that better person ; in thought, word and deed.  But here’s the risk.  For a person is a big thing ; and to become a better person takes a longish time.  So the pretence must be maintained for a long time – until I have reached the better level I have aimed at.

And all the while I am talking myself up I am also making a learner’s mistakes.  I am always talking as if I were a better person, but also betraying the fact that I haven’t got there yet.  This is a more profound example of that hypocrisy which Whitehead says is so necessary to civilised life.  Are all people who seek to better themselves hypocrites?  Is hypocrisy really a simple case of professing one thing while practising another?

Surely it is the motivation of the person that matters.  If the person really seeks to be better, does he escape the charge of hypocrisy?  Perhaps.  But is mere motivation sufficient reason to escape the charge?  Surely there must be evidence of sincerity ; there must be evidence of progress.

The word hypocrite is a handy weapon with which to put an opponent down.  But, because it is also so powerful,  it must be used with care.  For, if it is used every time a person lapses in his behaviour, then his motivation will be quenched and he might well give up trying to better himself.

And, if the charge of hypocrisy is used merely to silence an opponent, are we not obliged to ask, “Who really is the hypocrite?  The accused?  or the accuser?”

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We do not seem to have a developed sense of time that reveals itself in consciousness.  True, we often become aware that time has passed ; but that awareness is much more vague than our sense of, say, the distance between two objects that we have in view ; or of the direction and intensity of a sound.

Perhaps that is why we have a tendency to be less conscious of history than we are, say, of territory ; and why we are less conscious of our ancestors than we are of the people around us.  We almost all think of ‘society’ as those people who happen to be walking about at this moment.  The dead and the yet-to-be-born are ignored.

I’m reminded of words by that great Liberal, Chesterton, “I m a true democrat.  I believe that the dead should have a vote.”  Yes, and why not?  Was it not they who worked and often suffered to make the world which we enjoy?  Were their labours in vain?

So, while welcoming the chance to make the world a better place, I also welcome the chance to preserve and adapt the fruits of past centuries.  Change for the sake of change, or even change for the sake of a ‘good idea’, is simply vandalism and no democracy should countenance it.  Likewise, any change that does reckonable damage to our concept of the past is deplorable.

Just as people are not mere machines, so neither is a society or a nation.  Living things grow and adapt organically, from within ; and not mechanically by forces from without.

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I know that many people were introduced to the writing of CS Lewis when they were children.  Usually this introduction was by way of reading the tales of Narnia.  Not so for me.  One of the earliest sayings from Lewis still sticks in my memory ; and I have no idea which book it came from.  It is this : “Once we have met a new acquaintance, that acquaintanceship endures for all eternity.”

I quote from a near-forgotten memory, but its substance has ever remained ; for his words refer to an insight he had which, although seemingly casual, is quite momentous.

We live in a world where physicality is taken for granted.  It is a world of science and technology.  It is a world where comparatively few people reflect on their essential natures.  Out of sheer habit, when a person thinks of ‘himself’, it is his body that comes first to mind.  It is such an ingrained habit that many people think that there is no more to a person than his body.

But it was not always so.  When the scientific revolution got under way in about the sixteenth century, people had to break a long-standing habit ; they had to stop thinking of themselves as being spirits ; they had to get out of the habit of thinking of themselves as souls.  To think of oneself as a ‘body’ required a conscious effort.

It is Renee Descartes who is most often credited (or blamed) for this shift in thought.  But really, he was only the writer who first formulated at length the notion that body and soul were two distinct entities.  Not everyone was convinced, of course ; but for nigh on four-hundred years our education system has ensured that, not only are body and soul seen as  distinct, but that the soul has no value in what is generally taught.  Or at any rate it is taught that the soul is essentially a powerless, ethereal thing.

But are body and soul two distinct entities?  Or is it the case that the body is simply a manifestation of the soul?  Is the body the soul incarnated?  Is the soul really powerless in this very physical world?

It is a modern paradox that so many people believe in the idea that the world is composed of atoms – those utterly invisible, silent, untouchable entities that will never, ever, be sensed by human bodies.  And atoms are essentially immortal and may only be rearranged in certain ways.  They believe all this and yet they baulk at the idea of a soul, which is also not detectable by our senses and may never be destroyed.

But both atoms and souls are inferable by the experience of introspection and of reason.  Why do people believe in the results of some introspections but not in others?  Why do they trust reason to tell them one thing but not another?

I suspect the answer lies simply in habits of thinking.

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Hardly a day passes without some sign of the profound mystery of the world coming to mind.  Thinking of its origins : the universe, in its early stages of evolution, is completely invisible to us. It is known to us only by essentially geometrical expressions and, because the universe had no objects in at that ‘time’, the geometry is non-metrical. It is all numbers.

But then, isn’t almost the whole of science numbers? science requires measurements and quantities. But where do these numbers reside? If we wanted to know how many stars there are in a particular cluster, we should not expect to find each star sporting a plate with its serial number on it. The numbers exist, not on or in the stars, but in the mind of the person who counts the stars. Likewise, there is no plate bearing the figure for the mass of each star. Neither do the stars present a direct figure to express the distances one from another. If we mentally construct three lines to join three stars, there is no direct apprehension of the angles subtended by the lines – and the lines themselves exist only in the mind that constructs them.

Mathematics is a language and, like all languages, it is a peculiarly human mental construct. In the English language, does the word ‘orange’ have any necessary connection with the orange itself? Words can be seen as signs which refer to things ; but are they the things themselves? Numbers can be seen as signs that refer to things ; but are they the things themselves? A road sign pointing to Birmingham has no necessary connection with Birmingham except that we say so.

Perhaps it is human beings that decide the meanings of numbers – but the universe might be quite indifferent to our opinions and decisions. I wonder what the implications might be?

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Respect

Civilizations are built upon habits ; and it is has been traditionally agreed that the earlier those habits are taught, the better it is for the general good.  And those habits really do have to be taught, because men and women are not naturally inclined to act for the general good ; they are naturally inclined to be self-serving (observe the behaviour of babies).

So, the question arises, Which are the habits that are to be taught?  And what is the fundamental principle that underpins them?  Observation suggests that one principle which all seem agreed upon is the goodness of life ; or the goodness of living, in itself.  We abhor death.

But, of course, an abhorrence of death might be a purely selfish attitude ; so we must also abhor the deaths of others.  But it would be fruitless to begin the moral education of a child with this fact, for what does a toddler know of death?  Is it a good idea to risk encouraging morbidity of thought?

So, to avoid getting too analytical on this point, we might consider that the starting point of a moral education is to instil a respect for the well-being of other people ; and a respect for their dignity.  But here, the teacher must (sooner or later) face some uncomfortable questions.  Given that there are some pretty obnoxious people around, we might ask, Who is worthy of respect?  Are there some people whose well-being and dignity we ought to ignore?  Are there some civilizations (social habits) which rank lower than our own?  and in what way ought we to respect them, if at all?  Are we morally entitled to show disrespect to certain classes of people?

Where does the teaching of respect begin?  and does it have an end?

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I grew up on the chalk downs of Kent. Not that you could see a lot of chalk at first glance ; for we only notice these things after we have had some enlightenment in the matter, and then know what to look for.  But, as Chesterton was to exclaim of our next-door neighbouring county, “What is Sussex but a piece of chalk?”  So Kent also is a piece of chalk ; but it is pocketed all over with hollows of clay ; and it has the huge Weald, broad and long, down its middle, which is more highly fertile and is traditionally the source of its wealth.  Weald? – wealth? – surely there has to be a connection.

But the connection I was interested in, one day long ago, was between what Mr Burrows, our all-knowing teacher, had told us about chalk and flint.  “They always go together,” he had said.  “And they are very ancient, too.  Not the most ancient of things, but old enough to get us wondering…”

So wonder I did, as I wandered through the beech-wood towards the place we knew as The Den.  Here the chalk was right on the surface ; such soil as there was would support only scrubby grasses and hardy flowers such as the poppies and campions – and the sweet broom, of course ; and such trees as had ventured here clung on to life as poor stunted things whose roots must have bled and ached as they struggled, year by year, to reach a little deeper and a little wider in search of the precious food that would keep their leaves and flowers alive, and provide homes for the linnets.

With so many distractions, it was a surpise that I did find my piece of flint – two pieces, in fact.  I needed two pieces because my mission was not going to be an easy one.  For Mr B had informed us that the real treasure of a flint was not to be seen on the outside, but on the inside.  “The bare nodule of flint appears to be a rather boring thing,” he had said, “But the treasure is buried.”

So, I had to break the nodule in order to find the jewel ; that’s why I needed two pieces ; one as the Mine, and the other as the tool to broach it. But cracking a flint is not nearly so easy as cracking a nut ; but I eventually succeeded.  And there, before my very eyes, was the glittering treasure of jewels that the all-wise Mr B had spoken of.  To be sure, the diamonds (as I thought of them) were not of any great size.  But what matter?  The point was that they were there ; it was surely a miracle that they were there at all. They had lain there for millions of years – as if they were just waiting for me to find them.

I don’t recall now whether it was at the moment of discovery that another realization was created in my mind, or whether it came later.  But the enlightenment was this : that at the instant of the breaking of the stone, the light of the sun entered that dark cavity for the very first time.  If ‘diamonds’ could see, they must have been dazzled in their awakening.  Also there was that very Kentish air that flooded in at the moment of the breach ; if ‘diamonds’ could breathe, they must have had their breath taken away by it.  In an instant, the life of the sparkling crystals was changed for ever.  No more dwelling in the darkness, no more silence ; no more would they live in their arid cave.  For, following a very rude awakening, they had been welcomed into the world of light and shade, of form and substance.  It was as if they had now acquired the real gladness of mere existence ; it was as if they had just been born.

But, of course, it was not really the ‘diamonds’ that had been awakened, surprised and gladdened.  It was me.

THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

Wordsworth.

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What is a one-year-old grandchild but an elaborate little machine for turning damson porridge into smiles?  I suspect this to be true, because once or twice I have enjoyed a Royal Visit from the young lady and gentleman in question.  I have the damson stains on my shirt ; I have the memory of the little sticky kisses… I know it to be true.

But it was not always like this.  For when a child’s age is to be reckoned in mere weeks, instead of months, we are dealing with a very different creature.  The newborn child is so deficient of the experience of living in the world that it really is like a little machine ; a machine that is governed entirely by selfish desires ; a machine that that is almost entirely emotional ; indeed, a machine that displays only four states of existence :  unconsciousness : indifference : bliss : and rage.  It is unconscious when asleep ; it is indifferent when awake but not aware of any discomfort ; in bliss when recently fed and comforted ; and in a rage when its discomfort is ignored.

It is the rage that we tend to notice, for it becomes extreme in a remarkably short time.  The hungry infant is a terror to behold, with its red-to-purple face, its bawling mouth, its nearly-closed hard eyes, its clenching fists.  As the very observant Freud remarked, if an adult were to behave in this way then, unless you could outrun it, you would have no choice but to shoot it.  For otherwise it would certainly kill you. Small wonder that Freud shocked our Victorian forebears, with their idealized notions of childhood.

And yet, Freud did no more than remind us of an ancient truth ; that man is born steeped in sin.  He didn’t put it quite like that, of course, but  that is what he meant.  We are selfish, pleasure-seeking and aggressive in our very natures.  And it is that selfishness, that pleasure-seeking, and that aggressiveness which good parenting seeks to control and sublimate to more noble ends.

But, when you’re just a little Granddaughter or Grandson, who can’t even say, “I’m twelve munce old,”  ( let alone spell it) you don’t know any of this.  But you are very, very  busy putting your infantilism behind you – and fast learning how to be a lil machine for turning porridge into smiles.

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