Archive for February, 2011

If there is one human habit you can rely on it is the habit of taking matters to extremes.  Once people have discovered a Good Thing, their impulse is to work it to death – or something like death.  There are numerous examples, from the trivial to the grand, and these examples span all of history.  Warcraft has often been seen as a Good Thing, if only to provide defences for civilised people ; but war can be glorified and lead to the downfall of martial states ; Persia, Greece and Rome come to mind.   In modern times, we have our own Good Things.  We ensure that we have an abundant food supply because food is a Good Thing ; and we enjoy so much of its goodness that many people now are so overweight that they will surely die early and painfully.  On the other hand, modern folk have a superstition that it is good to live for as long as possible and with as few bodily inconveniences as possible.  So people pay unconscionable amounts of money to medical gurus to try to keep them alive for ever, even selling all that they own to pay for it ; with the rather unsurprising result that dying has never been a more miserable affair.

Amid all this confusion, there is no doubt at all that these banes (and others) that afflict people began as good things ; but were carried to extremes.  I do not doubt that Aristotle was right when he said, “Moderation in all things,” words that were also used by Jesus of Nazareth and by many of the wise, both before and since.

These thoughts were going through my mind a wedding I attended recently – which goes to show what wonderful thing the human mind is – for what on earth has a wedding to do with such matters as war and food and medicine, etc?  But the mind is a potentially wild thing ; in its knowledge or memory, it finds connections everywhere.  Psychologists have a model for memory (one of several) which they call the spreading activation model. In brief, it says that, whatever your recall alights on in memory, other related memories are stimulated to present their knowledge to you.  So, if you think of breakfast, immediately the memory of coffee might arise, then the memory of toast, then marmalade – and so on.  And each of these subordinate memories can lead you on to recall things which apparently have nothing at all to do with breakfast!

So it is hardly surprising that my ‘wedding-mind’ wandered to the question of having too much of a good thing.  After all, it might have strayed anywhere!  It might have meandered to any extreme.  I wonder it didn’t wander to the idea that, since a wedding feast is a Good Thing, we’d all be better off if we ate nothing but wedding feasts.  More Boeuf  Bourguignon, vicar?

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Somewhere in the book written by Ecclesiastes there are the words, Knowledge is a curse – or something similar.  Perhaps he is near the mark.  We can think of knowledge as the contents of our memory, both individual and collective.  Most creatures have a memory of some kind, but what distinguishes us is that we can become conscious of our past experiences by means of recall.  And we have other highly-developed abilities, too : we can think, and we can imagine the future.  So, by recalling the past and comparing it with the present – by thinking about what was and what is – we can detect a kind of process at work.  From there, we can imagine what the future might hold for us, and also how that future might be amended.  And all this tempts some of us to imagine that we might become masters of our own destiny.

But why should knowledge be a curse?  Because it is never complete ; and because it is never precisely known.  Thus all our plans for the future are flawed right from the start.  From this mere weakness, many strong evils emerge.



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One of the most interesting writers of the twentieth century is Owen Barfield.  CS Lewis, who was no mean intellect himself, described him as the best of his unofficial tutors.  Barfield was destined for a brilliant academic career at Oxford but the early death of his father required him to take over the family law firm at the age of about thirty.  But that did not prevent him writing the most penetrating books on subjects related to language and thought, and the evolution of the human mind.  As with so many British writers, he is not so much remembered in his own country now ; the dominant marxist flavour of academe here has eclipsed such people ; effectively they have been declared persona non grata.  It is to America we must look for a lively interest in the best of British ideas.

I have just bought one of Barfield’s later books, published in 1965 ; it is called Unancestral Voice and is about the evolution of consciousness and thinking.  Surprisingly, it opens with a discussion on the famous trial concerning Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Barfield is a difficult writer for modern minds.  This is partly because his style is terse and partly because his ideas are simple ; so simple that they provoke the deepest thinking in the reader.  They are necessarily simple because they deal with matters at the very foundations of our minds and bodies ; matters such as consciousness, feeling and thinking, which we take for granted as a matter of course.

So, I have begun this book by skimming through it just to capture the flavour of it, and resisting the temptation to delve into its detail.  The next step for me will be to study it just a little more deeply ; just deep enough to identify the difficult bits and clear up any words and phrases that I don’t understand.  That will be followed by a normal reading of it, from beginning to end.  With any luck, I should have grasp of what he is trying to teach me when all that reading is done.

Alas, on page 45 I have come across an arresting idea ; it is pointing to something that is not new at all, but it is put in a way that (to me) is quite startling.  It is this : The brain is related to thinking as the eye is to light.

So thinking, then, is not something private and individual ; it is everywhere, like light. And the brain is not an organ which originates thinking, it is like the eye.  As the eye detects light, so the brain detects thinking.

Is he going to use this model to explain how it is that people of a particular broad culture tend to think in similar ways – the collective conscious?  and how it is that there are fashions in thinking, which come and go and also contribute to the evolution of ideas?  Now this is real psychology, which the marxists wouldn’t even begin to understand.  I will read on, for Barfield never disappoints.

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I remember talking with a friend some fifty years ago about the problems faced by India and the Indians.  There had been some discussion in the newspapers about the hunger and the health of the people there.  I mentioned that India was potentially a wealthy country with good soil and probably great mineral resources unexploited.

“What they need most,”  I ventured, “Is the technology to farm economically and to dig for minerals.  They need factories to manufacture their own machines.”
“But, don’t you see,” my friend replied, “That the very last thing India needs is more advanced technology.”
“Why so?” I asked.
“Because the one thing that India is undoubtedly rich in is people.  By merely introducing more powerful technology, you will deprive the people of useful work to do.”

Also, his case was that the use of technology to increase the food supply would surely lead to an explosion in the population ; and even the new technology would be unable to satisfy the people’s needs. So, one way or another, powerful technology would lead to a growing number of unemployed people ; and that would lead to trouble.  “Better,” he said, “To find more efficient ways of employing people to do the hard work.”

We discussed the matter to some length, and I had to admit that his arguments made good sense.  I had to admit that my youthful enthusiasm for clever machinery began to wane a little at that moment.  I came to realize that technology is not an unalloyed benefit to civilised people.  A country where a large proportion of the people are effectively paid to be unemployed, while machines do the work, is heading for trouble.  The Devil really does make work for idle hands.  And there would be all kinds of unintended consequences.

Over the years I have also come to realize that the technology problem is not just India’s ; it applies to many developing countries.  And it doesn’t just apply to developing countries, it also applies to us.  How many unemployed and under-educated young men and women do we have?  How many of the jobs, that they might be doing, have been made redundant by technology?  Does the Devil find work for at least some of those idle hands? (metaphorically speaking, of course).

So, when we look for idle hands seeking something to do, we do not have to confine our gaze to places like Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Bahrain ; we could look farther afield.  And we could even look under our own noses.

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To become the person you would like to be, you must begin by pretending to be that person.  If you are poor, but would like to be rich, you must first pretend to have those qualities and abilities that will lead you to riches.  If you are meek, but would like to be powerful, you must first pretend to have those qualities and abilities that will lead you to power.  If you would like to have particular new skills, you must first pretend to have those skills.

It is rather obvious where this line of thinking is leading.  For, as you repeatedly pretend and practise, pretend and rehearse, so you get better at what you’re doing.  By degrees, you become the person you would like to be.  And, as you progress, so you can raise your sights to higher levels of achievement.  And, as you gain confidence in the method, you can even change your aims.  In fact, you will almost certainly change your aims ; but this realization need not interfere with your initial purposes.

But you have to prepare yourself for disappointments, because there will be many.  And what better preparation than to pretend that you can handle setbacks almost effortlessly.  With practice, setbacks become simply parts of the process ; and they are necessary parts, for there is much uncertainty in the world.  Few indeed have the gift of foresight.

Perhaps the big question is, What kind of person would you like to be?  The answer will depend on your immediate needs, but also on your world-view ; and these two things must be reconciled.  For those of a particular (and deep-rooted) persuasion, perhaps the words of Evelyn Underhill have a resonance.  “For it is not what you are nor what you have been that God regards with his most merciful eyes, but what you would like to be.”

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