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Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

Where do we go from here?

How odd it is that the paradoxical creature called Man ever acts to destroy himself at the very point when one would expect him to burst into a bloom of a sublime civilisation.  Wherever we look, advanced civilisations bring themselves down.  China, India, Egypt, Persia, Greece, Byzantium, Rome.  It is as if we can take only so much civilised life ; then, if we take just one more step, we are overwhelmed by the desire to destroy ourselves – as if the goodness is just too good to be true ; too good to be allowed to live.

Of course, the details of the fall of each of those great civilisations differ ; but that leads us to conclude that there must be some general principle at work.  Perhaps a close inspection of each of them is needed ; and also a close inspection of our own rise and fall.  And we would be wise to assume that we shall indeed fall.

Are there signs that our civilisation is falling?  Do we see writings and deeds that indicate it?  Do our own thoughts show it?

The rise of Christendom, especially in Northern Europe was spectacular.  Just eighteen-hundred years ago we were brutal.  Within four-hundred years we were on the path to civilisation.  We may see that by examining the writings and the arts of those times.  The rise continued, with many fits, starts and relapses, right up until the early nineteenth century.  Then we peaked.  The best – in science, writing, poetry, painting, sculpture, music and singing – was all but over.  We had ceased to produce inspired architecture.  The aristocracy had ceased to be of the best.  The age of the industrialist had arrived, and these men copied the achievements of their predecessors and cheapened them, making unimagineable fortunes in the process. 

By the late twentieth century, almost all art was banal (at very best) and otherwise utterly vulgar.  Science consisted of footnotes to the great, and was, itself, subordinated to manufacturing.  All was done in the name of money and profit.  Today, you cannot see a reference to a work of art without its price being highlighted.  Even our great historic buildings have their value reckoned only in terms of cash and, perhaps, utility.

Possibly the last straw for our civilisation was burned in this late period.  For now, such is our love of cash, that we have exported the most profitable of our business – because foreign labour is cheaper.  And we are left with the sterile occupation of simply managing other people’s money as our most edifying industry – but without the energy and art of Florence.  It is a travesty of all that our ancestors struggled to achieve.

Is our civilisation in decline?  I doubt if this generation knows how to answer such a question.

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Surely, Man is the most paradoxical of creatures, given both to sublime love and kindness but also to the basest hatred and cruelty.  And devious, too, so that even his religion may be pressed into service to justify his sins.  But his conscience ever troubles him ; and, for that, we must thank God.

It may take centuries to tame his nature even a little ; but the taming is real, even if fragile.  Fragile especially in the presence of fear.  

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Christmas reminds me of so many things.  Isn’t it a marvel that we are able to be reminded of things?  I mean, why on earth should stardust take the shape of a thing? a thing that lives and breathes ; a thing that does all the things that stardust cannot do ; a thing that remembers what it has done.  Remembers.  Remembers !  Why in heaven should stardust want to remember things?

But, if we are really made of stardust, then remembering things is what stardust does, for we certainly remember things.  I remember reading a most interesting article on the economics of farming.  It was many years ago, but the general scheme of the article still remains fresh.

If you look closely at a map of England (especially England) you’ll find that the towns and villages of any size are almost all medieval.  You know this (if you have Google Earth) because you will usually find the betowered stone church and its graveyard ; generally the hallmarks of the Middle Ages.

And the towns are spaced about fifteen miles apart.  Those who claim to know about these things tell us that this spacing is no accident ; the spacing means that a farmer needed to travel no more than about seven-and-a-half miles to his nearest market ; and that distance has been calculated as the longest that a farmer can travel economically in a day.  Any greater distance would take more time to travel, and he would face increased costs in feeding his oxen that towed the cart ; and the space that would hold the ox’s fodder could not be used to carry produce, so his sales turnover would be reduced.  Also he might have to pay for an overnight stay in town.  At least, those are two of the reasons given to explain that figure of fifteen miles.

Well, we are free to believe these kinds of explanations, or not, as our inclinations take us.  But they are useful, if only because they give us a little window that throws light on our human nature.

We might ask, “Why on earth should anyone be interested in why our medieval towns happen to be fifteen miles apart?”  Of what use is such information?  We might as well ask, “Why on earth should anyone be interested in how big the universe is?  or how old it is?  or how it began?”  Who cares?

But care we do ; and how shall we answer ourselves?  I think it’s because we have an insatiable appetite simply to know things ; even things that have no practical use at all.  In particular, we desire to know the truth of things.  We are not satisfied with just any answer that comes to mind.  We dig deeper, we think, we imagine, we debate, we argue, we even come to blows with those who disagree with us.  We seem to be driven by some demon into finding the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Well, let’s ask another question.  “If we are so keen and so well-equipped to seek and find the truth, why don’t we always find it?”  Name any subject – the right kind of food to eat : the way to grow cabbages : the tastiest whisky : the best way to treat back-ache : the causes of depression : the quickest way to build a road : the most comfortable car : the fastest aeroplane : the best time of the year to fly to Mars : the biggest known galaxy : the smallest particle : the way our memories work : the meaning of life -…. the list of subjects over which we argue about the truth is quite endless.  Even questions which ought to have been answered centuries ago remain unresolved.  And fought over.

And we must not be fooled by what we read.  It may well be the case that the theory of Professor Knuttekase, regarding the age of the universe, is published everywhere as the incontovertible truth which every respectable astronomer believes and every student is taught.  But we may be quite sure that there are dissenting voices ; soft voices which are never read about, because it would be professional suicide to publish them – even if a scientifically respectable publisher could be found.  It reminds us that what is politely known as peer review (peer approval) is in fact a kind of tyranny ; it ensures that there is little publishing, debate, or even thinking, outside the box of convention.  Peer review has an obvious purpose :  to preserve the reputation of Professor Knuttekase and the material wellbeing of his generously funded department.

So, when we return to the question of why the medieval towns of our country are fifteen miles apart, we might find the answer is much less complicated than modern minds make it to be.  Perhaps they are fifteen miles apart simply because King Knut decreed it (but forgot to make a note of his reasons).

It is apposite that we should think of things like this at Christmas.

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As we all know, the scientific way of seeing the world has brought immeasurable benefits to all mankind ; so many benefits, in fact, that many decent people cannot bring themselves to see the world in any other way.  They just know that the only realities are those which arrive to us through our physical senses.  If a thing may be seen, touched, heard, tasted or smelt then it is real ; if not, then it is fantasy.

The principle that underlies this way of living is the very respectable m.k.s. system.  The m.k.s. stands for metres, kilogrammes and seconds, which are the standard units of length, mass and duration – the very bedrock of good science.

Once upon a time, when people were generally better educated than they are today, it was understood that this way of seeing the world was intended to provide a very specialised form of knowledge – scientific knowledge.  Such knowledge was never intended to provide a comprehensive understanding of the Universe and all the things in it.  A scientist’s specialised way of understanding the world was no different, in principle, from a carpenter’s specialised way of seeing the world ; or a plumber’s, or a farmer’s, or a train-spotter’s.

But, with generally falling standards of education, a truly extraordinary state of affairs has arisen.  It is now seriously proposed that, if a thing can be measured, weighed and timed, then it is real.  And many people of a scientific disposition now say that, if a thing cannot be measured, weighed and timed, then it is illusory ; and they add that anyone who believes otherwise is either mad or evil.

Mr Gradgrind would have thoroughly approved of all this, of course – before his daughter, Louisa, through her sufferings and by God’s grace, came to his rescue.  If he were alive today, he would be ashamed.

One of the sadnesses that arises out of today’s scientific outlook is that its more zealous believers are now quite incapable of seeing in any other way.  For them, life has lost its meaning ; in place of life, they have mere existence.  But there is hope, even yet ; for a few of them are asking, “Why is our civilisation in decline?”  In decline at the very time we should expect it to be entering a new phase of development.

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Lives renewed

It’s good news for a British couple who won over £40million on the lottery, but I wonder about how it will change their lives.  Will the change really be for the better (no pun intended)?

I have read, at various times, how big winners have vowed that their new riches shall not make them wasteful or greedy.  They promise that they will continue to live in their modest house, keep working as usual, take normal holidays and, at most, indulge themselves in a few of life’s little luxuries.  All very well and good, we might think.  But it does disturb me that a wealthy person should hold his old job, which he no longer needs to maintain himself and his family, rather than resign it and give another person the chance to earn an honest living.  Likewise, isn’t it a little selfish to keep the old terraced house, when they could so easily make it available to a young couple who really need it?

Thoughts like these were going through my mind as I read a charming book about a 19thC parson.  He was not a wealthy man ; but he did know that, one day, he would inherit £2700 – not a great fortune even in those days ; but certainly enough to remove any acute financial anxieties he otherwise might have had.

As a curate, he was keen to have his own parish ; to be his own boss, as it were.  But the parish he greatly wished for – and which he might have successfully applied for – was beyond his means.  He had noticed how the run-down vicarage was constantly being fixed by carpenters, masons, tilers and so forth.  And the poor parson must have been at his wit’s end to keep the place habitable.

So the curate gave up on that idea.  He resigned his curacy (as his time was up) and lived at his parents’ expense while awaiting a new opportunity.

Well, the question arises, “What should the child of wealthy parents do to occupy his time?”  He would not have thought of taking a job, and thereby deprive a poor man of the chance of making a living.  He would not go into trade, for the same reason.  He might applied for another curacy ; but that would have deprived a promising newcomer.

So, he did the decent thing.  He simply made himself useful to other parishes, as well as his old one.  He was greatly respected and had many friends among both rich and poor alike.  He had saved lives, he had helped farmers with their labours, he had dug the gardens of poor widows, and he had given hope to many.  And he never took a shilling.

Perhaps the curate had read some of William Cobbett, who was a farmer, “Money,” he said, “Is like muck – no good unless it be spread.”  So the wealthy have a duty to spread their money ; to spend it wisely and to invest it honestly.

We might add that time also is for spreading ; for giving in charity ; for receiving with gratitude.

I don’t know what the lucky couple, who won the jackpot, will do with the aid of their fortune.  But I hope they don’t do anything vain, like hang on to their old jobs, their old house and their old habits.

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I have never been a great fan of television, but I have come to appreciate the availability of tv recordings ; in fact, I have a growing pile of dvd records which do much to brighten the winter days.  But I do wonder sometimes at the antics of the broadcasters.  The BBC, especially, seems to be very intent on some kind of political mission designed to change the ways in which we see ourselves.  It is not enlightening, I think.

A month or two ago I enjoyed watching an entire series of stories made by the BBC some years earlier.  It had the charming title Larkrise to Candleford.  It was really well-made and featured some accomplished actors and actresses.  Of course, it was not beyond criticism concerning some matters of fact, but that generally counts for little in fiction ; we tend to filter out such discrepancies in favour of enjoying the story.

The story is set in rural Oxfordshire in the late-ish nineteenth century ; an exciting time in which great changes were taking place, most undoubtedly good and some not so.  As well as the usual ‘human interest’ aspects, the story is very much concerned with how ordinary people were adjusting to those changes – and in some cases influencing them ; in particular the people of the hamlet of Larkrise and of the small town of Candleford

But there were some puzzles in the plot.  For example, the hamlet and the town were separated by about seven miles ; and yet people would pop off on foot from one place to the other at the drop of a hat on some trivial errand or other ; as if they were going to the corner shop.  But, even in that great age of walking, working folk did not make a round trip of fourteen miles on a whim.

Most of the characters in the stories are memorable, as one would expect in fiction.  One that particularly struck me was the country rector.  He was widower, quite ancient and stuffy, and with a bit of a posh accent as you might expect.  He was a dyed-in-the-wool, rabid Tory,  of course.  But he was also a deeply unpleasant man.  One of his rather pious parishioners even referred to him as a ‘brute’ and a ‘sadist’.  His daughter had been so suppressed by him that she could hardly show any personality at all, being almost crippled by shyness.

I thought all this rather odd, and rather BBC-ish, but not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility.

As if set to balance the dreadful rector, we had the village stonemason.  He was a right-on liberal with advanced political ideas ahead of their time.  His self-appointed task seems to have been to educate the locals out of their complacency and to lead them from serfdom.  He was so inflamed by the injustices of his world that he would risk everything to voice his complaints.  He was made to suffer in consequence.  A champion of the poor indeed.

It was the stonemason who wrote a very rude letter to the very top man at the Post Office in London, complaining that the poor people in his village had to pay an unreasonable sum to the Post Office merely to receive a telegram.  The reason for this surcharge was that the village was more than seven miles from the local post office ; hence the delivery costs had to be paid.  Indeed, such a charge on poor people was unjust.  At a time when a farm labourer was lucky to earn ten shillings a week, three shillings and sixpence was a heavy price for a telegram (which, by its nature, would require urgent attention on an important matter).

Well, I thought it was so very like the BBC to portray Victorian people in this way ; choosing the best and the worst to make its political points.  But then I remembered that the tv stories of Larkrise and Candleford are based on the recollections of a person who actually lived there ; the BBC series was an adaptation of her writings.  The story was not pure fiction.  So I bought Flora Thompson’s books – three of them under one cover.

What a surprise!  Miss Thompson’s recollections of the people she knew in her youth are very much at variance with the BBC’s interpretation of them.

The rector, it turns out, was actually very much respected in the parish ; and a welcome visitor in just about every household.  He was a personally charitable man who took his duties seriously. If he was a Tory, he certainly wasn’t a brutish and sadistic one.

And what about the right-on liberal, agnostic stonemason who fearlessly provoked the mighty Postmaster General to secure justice for his fellow villagers?  What about this David who challenged Goliath?  Well, actually, he didn’t.  It was the village innkeeper who did all that.  Ah, but the innkeeper was a nice devout Christian, you see.  And, to make matters worse, Miss Thompson explains that he was a Catholic.

Well, the BBC can’t have Christians (and especially Catholics) taking up the cause for the poor, can we?  So, the corporation just switches everything around.

There are a number of other serious discrepancies of a similar kind in the BBC series.

Why does all this matter?  We might ask, “Does the truth matter?”  Is it right to distort Miss Thompson’s recollections so as to make political and religious points?  We might bear in mind that these are real people.  Is it morally right to defame the dead rector?  to insult his daughter?  to deprive the dead innkeeper of his credits?

The BBC would argue that is right to do so.  After all, its politics are of foremost importance ; that is why it exists.  And, to the BBC, what is history if not something to be amended so as to augment its political message?  The reputations of dead individuals count for nothing at the BBC.

I can’t help asking, “What are the great weaknesses in the BBC’s arguments for a ‘liberal’, atheistic, socialistic society?”  Are those arguments so shaky that it is really necessary to lie about them and about the alternatives?  And can that atheistic, socialistic society long endure if it is based on lies and distortions?

And doesn’t the BBC insult its clients with such distortions?  Does it imagine that we are all fools?  Or does it imagine that only its poorer and less educated clients are fools?

Or could it be that the socialist/atheist/iconoclast factions are now so strong in our country that they just know that they can re-write history to their hearts’ content without fearing any opposition or serious criticism?

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Well, the multicultural experiment seems to have had a short life but a merry one.  What began as a grand design, apparently hatched up by the BBC and the university history departments, seems to be gurgling down the drain.  This does not mean that the multiple cultures in our country have disappeared ; but it does mean that the predicted harmonious relations between those cultures have not been supported by the observed facts.

So what is to be done?  There will be no shortage of advice to (and from) the politicians, the academics and the broadcasters, but we may be sure that the substance of the advice will not be either broad enough or deep enough to make a difference in the longer term.  We may be sure of that because the august bodies that determine our fate have failed to realize that the problems are moral problems, whereas they see them as political.  What we shall be given is not moral solutions but politically correct solutions ; they will be solutions founded on the political beliefs and expediencies of the various parties, and hence of no lasting value.

But you cannot be rid of political correctness ; indeed, we should not wish to be rid of it.  But mere PC is not robust enough to support a nation, any more than mere sand is strong enough to support a skyscraper.  What is needed is a moral foundation, a rock on which to build with confidence.

Perhaps we can accept that morality is the set of unalterable principles which guide us in governing the relations between people ; and, because government is all about the relations between people, moral principles are indispensable to social stability.  And, because the principles are unalterable, they must be simple.  In themselves, they are not detailed enough to be made into state laws.  For example, the moral principle “You shall not kill” cannot be absorbed directly into law for there might be occasions when killing is unavoidable or even just.  It might well be unjust to punish somebody who kills in self defence or in the defence of other innocent people.

So, we need to build a body of secondary principles upon the moral foundation.  We might call these secondary principles our ethics. They represent our generally agreed interpretations of the moral principles ; an ethical principle amplifies a moral principle by giving concrete examples of what is meant by it.  It is to the ethics that politicians turn when drafting their policies, and to ethics they turn when drafting or amending a particular law.

But now we come to the thorny question :  who decides the unalterable moral principles on which everything depends?

A simple answer is that the politicians do.  Another simple democratic answer is that the people do.  But both politicians and people are variable in their opinions of morality ; so both these answers land us back in the realm of political correctness.  And PC doesn’t work.

So, who does have the authority to decide the moral principles?

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