Archive for March, 2010

Before Descartes, roses were red and violets were blue.  Since Descartes, that has changed.  Since Descartes, body and mind have been split asunder ; the world and the person have become two distinct (and some say incompatible) things ; matter and spirit have been divorced.  This was not all Descartes’ fault ; it was not his intention ; but it resulted from people adopting his philosophy.

So why are roses no longer red?  Because the rose of itself has been split from our perception of the rose.  The rose is one thing ; our perception of it is another.  The rose is a material thing, while our perception of it is a psychic, or spiritual, thing.  The rose exists in the world, while our perception of it is a cognitive model of that existence.  This view of things is quite logical but it has some puzzling consequences.

The rose is now no longer red, because redness is a psychical quality ; redness  exists in our consciousness but not in the material world.  It is a quality that exists in our consciousness, but not in our material brains.  You may examine a brain as closely as you like, but you will find no redness in there ; in fact, you will find no roses in there either.

After Descartes, the relation between our selves and the world has become bewildering.  So bewildering that many people are now afraid of psychology ; afraid of psychical phenomena ; in fact, afraid of themselves.

And yet, they are fascinated by it all.  They feel drawn to it willy-nilly.

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On being blind

When I consider how my light is spent

Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide

Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest he returning chide,

“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”

I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need

Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state

Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed

And post o’er land and ocean without rest:

They also serve who only stand and wait.”

By John Milton


I suspect that the opening line of this poem is something of a puzzle to modern readers.  What do the words, “When I consider how my light is spent” mean?  How can one spend one’s light, as if it were a substance which we possess ; and which might become depleted or lost?

To understand the line better we might revisit an older psychology, that which was well understood from antiquity right up until the time when a much duller way of understanding the world was ushered in (unintentionally) by the scientific revolution.

By painful degrees that revolution has relegated man to the position of being a mere passive observer of the world he lives in.  But, in more lively and creative ages than this, intelligent people knew that, far from being  detached observers, we are actually a part of the world.  And, being a dynamic part of the world, we affect it simply by being here.  Merely by observing the world and taking an interest in it, we alter it.  And we alter it for good or for ill according to the state of our consciences.

This principle of worldly activity was known as participation.

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The life of Man is the life of the mind.  Not for us the unconscious or semi-conscious world that the lesser creatures inhabit.  We are not automatons that simply ‘behave’ ; we are much more than our instincts and biological drives.  It was one of those frightful eighteenth-century agricultural scientists who remarked, “What is a sheep?  It is but a machine for turning grass into meat.”  But that’s not us ; we are not mere machines, however much our half-educated scientists try to make it so.  In fact, I doubt if even a sheep is a mere machine.

So, we have Mind, we have Soul, and we have Psyche (which is perhaps the broad boundary between the other two, or maybe a synthesis of the two).  These somewhat mysterious qualities of ours are impossible to describe.

Now it’s a strange thing that if you ask people, “What is the mind for?” most will answer that it is to think with ; and, if you ask them what they mean by ‘think’, they’ll usually give an answer that involves solving problems or formulating arguments.  They tend to see thinking as an effortful, even laborious, business.  Oh yes – and “thinking is for clever people”.  But actually they are referring to only one kind of thinking. They are referring to only one of the things the mind can do.

What is the point of having a mind unless you are going to use it?  And why not use it to develop new talents?  Talents that are new to you, but that are not new to your mind.  Your mind knows how to do many things that you don’t know about yet ; and usually you don’t know about them because you’ve been busy doing other things ; you’ve been too busy to listen to what your mind has been telling you.

You might like to think of something like your emotions.  Some emotions, such as pain, are unpleasant.  But the pain, like all emotions, is merely the messenger ; it is impelling you to do something.  It comes with a message for you, so why  not just comply with the message and file the paperwork away?  Why not  read the message and then put the pain behind you?

There’s so much to be said about pains ; too much to say it here and now.  But – just to whet your appetite – you might remember that pain is an emotion ; and you might remember that you can either enjoy an emotion or you may contemplate it ; but you cannot do both at the same time.  There are ways of contemplating pain which require no effort and which take only a little of your time.

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I once knew a statistician of international note.  Over a period of four years we used to meet regularly to put the world to rights.  We talked about science, about research, about the nature of knowledge, about cycling, about the weather, about psychology ; in fact, we discussed just about everything because he, being a statistician, was involved in a number of academic disciplines and had fascinating insights into the workings of the relevant areas of research.

He had truly impressive powers of concentration.  How often did he pull me back on to the topic when my butterfly mind strayed too long or too far from where it ought to have been.  He told me of his habit of mentally shutting himself away when he needed to think deeply about something that was puzzling him.  He would begin by relaxing both physically and mentally, and then proceeding merely to contemplate a simple verbal/visual description of the puzzle.  Before long he would be in a deep trance ; in a different state of consciousness.

The world about him assumed a vagueness that seemed unreal ; the people became mere shadows, ghosts.  The reality of what he was conscious of – the puzzle – grew more and more clear ; that simple mental formulation or description of the puzzle became more concrete than anything experienced in ordinary waking awareness ; it became hard, bright and clear, while the material world around him faded and became insignificant.  New images came to mind ; his knowledge of the puzzle took on different arrangements ; arguments were formulated ; solutions were evaluated ; alternatives considered.  All this without any mental effort.

At the end, he would emerge from this state of consciousness and back into the pale world of everyday experience ; and he would often have a definite idea about the puzzle’s solution.  And equally often he would have only a feeling of having learned something about the solution, but unable to say what that something was.  Hardly ever could he have given a full account of his meditations.  But always an answer eventually emerged from repetitions of the exercise.

Well, what would a psychologist make of this?  There surely has to be a suspicion of self-hypnosis.  Certainly.  But what is meant by hypnosis?  Not many psychologists would relish giving a meaningful account of that, even if they knew how to try.

What would a poet make of it?  There surely has to be a suspicion of the Muse at work, who takes over the thinking of the poet.  For doesn’t every poet know that he cannot both think of what he is to write and actually write it at the same time?  And isn’t the poetical vision quite different from the worldly one?  Isn’t it through the poets that our knowledge grows?

And the musician, too.  Is it possible to both play a piece and think about how to play it at the same time?  Surely only beginners do that, and badly.

There is much to know about states of consciousness ; perhaps there is more than we can know ; for consciousness is the foundation (or foundations) of our being.  So deep would be our excavations into our being that maybe to know all is to die.  Or, to be more precise, to die from this world.  That is how my friend the statistician thought of it as he recalled occasions of leaving the ghostly world of everyday experience behind and entering the sharper, brighter, harder, more concrete world where answers were to be found to the puzzles that beset us here.

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Perhaps it is time to lighten the early-year gloom and have a peep at another world.  Perhaps it is time for a fairy story ; a proper fairy story, not one of those contrived gloopy things all full of gossamer wings and funny hats.  Writing a proper fairy story is not nearly as easy as the children’s writers make out.  It requires discipline and knowledge – for it is about finding ways of entering Faerie, and that is a serious business.  One might say that Faerie is a state of mind ; but that is not strictly entirely true.  It is true to say that one must enter into a certain state of mind in order to gain entry to Faerie.

To gain Faerie it is not enough to enter into a particular state of conscious awareness ; one must also have the right state of heart and one must also have a purpose,- but that purpose is unlikely to be one’s own, though it might seem so.  There are a number of ways in, some good and some evil ; but all are perilous.

Faerie is not a ‘place’ in the conventional use of that word ; nor is it merely a state of mind ; it is certainly not a place of the mere imagination.  It is, perhaps, a way of seeing the world ; a way, indeed, of seeing a much bigger world.  So one does not have to travel far to find Faerie (or for Faerie to find one).  It can be found at the far ends of the Earth, but just as easily at the end of one’s lane ; or in one’s garden, however small or large.

In ordinary consciousness we are educated to believe very substantially that everything in nature has a cause but nothing has a reason.  In Faerie, everything in nature has both a cause and a reason ; and that partly explains why the Laws of Faerie seem so strange and arbitrary to us.  Faerie is primarily a moral place and its laws are moral laws.

It is a pity that people started to write fairy stories for children ; for a false picture has grown up from that.  The people and other creatures of  Faerie are not usually diminutive.  And they are not confined to their homeland ; some may enter our world at will, some by invitation only, and some are sent here.  Those of them who know our world will dress and speak as we do.  And they may be here to do good or to do evil.  But those who reveal themselves are generally here to do good, though they usually keep their business to themselves.

So, there you go.  Well, there you go a-writing about Faerie.  But, to understand more, it is better to read more ; and you could do no better than to read some of Tolkien’s books and essays (easily Googled).  On entering Faerie, he wrote, “One never knew what one would find, and the sheer beauty of even the smallest thing would overwhelm any mere human visitor, no matter how saved and sanctified.”  For Tolkien, Faerie is a sacramental understanding of life: Grace abounds, but we usually ignore it, being more enticed by the things of this world.

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Most thinking people derive pleasure from visiting the ruins of past civilisations.  They wonder at the remains, they wonder at the people who had built them new.  They wonder what those piles of stones must have looked like when they had been  meeting-houses or temples or shops.  They wonder at what a spectacle the avenue itself must have presented ; and the entire city.  They might imagine those streets bustling with people ; people mostly buying and selling, but people also simply passing the time of day, chatting and drinking.  There would have been tradesmen working on the maintenance of the buildings and the roads.  There would have been farmers with fresh food to sell, pickpockets, children playing.

Then comes a question.  What happened?  Why did this fine city end up as a ruin?  What happened to the people?  Where did they go?  What did they do when there was no city, was no work, was no trade to be done?

It is interesting to think forward a thousand years or ten – to the time when our own cities will be in ruins ; when London has moved up-river and Manchester up into the hills ; when Britishness is no more.  What will our inheritors make of them?  What will they make of us, who have gone and have left nothing behind but a faint echo of our language?  What will they make of our passing?  Will they carefully dig up our rubbish tips and build museums in remembrance of us?   I suppose it depends on what kinds of people will be living here in that misty future.

It’s just possible that, in ten millennia, our islands will be green and pleasant lands in which the sound of birdsong flourishes and the rumble of cartwheels is all that disturbs the peace.  The remains of our cities and motorways will be crumbling curiosities for those inquiring enough, and with leisure enough, to care and wonder.

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Our ancestors lived in times that were probably no more warringly violent than our own ; but, whereas most of the world’s violence today is perceived as being in faraway places, their violence was much closer to home.  What we might call the teen-age years of Europe seem to have been characterised by rebellion, rivalry and a somewhat careless approach to the exercise of armed conflict in order that the powerful (and the would-be-powerful) might achieve their various securities.

Our ancestors were just as venal and prone to wrong-doing as we are – no more so and no less.  And each age of the world, each century, and each generation seems to be beset by certain dominant flavours of immorality.  Also the leaders in each period enter into their roles – professional, political, legal, religious, etc., – infected with the attitudes that give rise to (or tolerate) such immorality, thus reinforcing it.

But all was not bad.  There were reactions against immoral behaviour ; sudden revolts against the zeitgeist, as it were ; sharp attacks, or fits, of morality.  And, of course, we encounter what has been called the swinging pendulum effect, which tends to produce extremes of opinion and behaviour – opinions and behaviour which by their very earnestness themselves tend to be corrupt, even when trying to be moral.

Here we are speaking of human nature and, if this were the whole story, the entire process of history, then it is hard to see how civilization could have progressed.  There does not seem to be any purely natural and material process which ensures that today is morally better than yesterday and that tomorrow will be better than today.  Nor does there seem to  be anything naturally  in the human psyche which guarantees moral behaviour.

So how did our ancestors do it?  How did they, by slow degrees and painful experiment, forge a civilisation that was at least prepared to contemplate the possibility of an enduring  peaceful and law-abiding future?

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