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Aristotle was never one to ignore a challenge.  His curiosity about the world was unbounded.  His thinking laid the foundations for what we should call scientific thought.  When we insist on making accurate and detailed observations ; and close and controlled reasoning ; we are borrowing the words and thoughts of Aristotle.  His calm and rigorous thinking is, in large part, what has made our modern world.  If he had never lived, we should all be the poorer for it.  He lived to be just sixty-two.  What else might he have bequeathed us if he had lived another twenty years?

His principal teacher was Plato, an Athenian aristocrat who rejected the easy (and corrupt) life followed by his contemporaries so that he might follow his curiosity about the qualities of life and the world.  In fact among many ideas, he invented a new and important word, poiotes – the ‘whatness’ of a thing or ‘of-what-kind-ness’.  Cicero translated this as ‘qualitas’ ; we know it as ‘quality’.  It is strange to realise that, before Plato, nobody had a word for the ‘whatness’ of anything.  And, if there is no word for a thing, it cannot be properly examined.  When we pass a shop window where we see a sign telling us of the ‘best quality’ of some item for sale there, our minds are at once connected, by an invisible thread, to a man who lived nearly twenty-five centuries ago.  And, if we follow that thread to its source, we discover much, much more.  Plato founded his Academy, the first institute of higher education in the Western world.

And now, moving backwards in time again and still feeling the thread, we come to Socrates, the jobbing sculptor (or maybe stonemason) who had been a soldier (heavy infantry) and who was the teacher of Plato the aristocrat.  Perhaps he was the most peaceable man in pagan Europe.  But he wrote nothing.  Almost all we know of him comes from his pupil, Plato.  He was sentenced to death by a corrupt democratic court – ironically on a charge of corruption.  He was afforded the chance to escape into exile but refused it, for he preferred to die in his beloved Athens.  So he drank the prescribed chalice poisoned with hemlock and went without a fuss.

We owe so much to so many for the good that we enjoy here in the West ; but for our understanding of worldly things and of philosophy, we come close to owing the most to these three pagans.  Without these three pagans, our arts and sciences would be very much the poorer ; perhaps they would not exist.

It was quite a long time after the lives of these three that their philosophies took a practical form.  Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that their ideas should pop up in the last place on earth we should expect – in a place where for long centuries the native philosophy had been hard and severe ; in a place where long lived a hard and warlike nation ; in a place called Nazareth.

It’s amazing what you can think of on a blowy Wednesday morning.

It’s sometimes amazing how people can be persuaded to believe in far-fetched tales.  I don’t say fairy tales, because it is easy to see how a loving and beautiful tale can fire the imagination.  No, I mean the sort of far-fetched tales that are usually found in serious publications.

For example.  Most people have no great difficulty in accepting the common explanation for those odd things called rainbows.  They have read how a rainbow requires three things for it to exist.  It requires sunlight : water droplets : and an observer.  Take away any one of those things, and the rainbow ceases to exist.  And most people also understand that if you approach the place of the rainbow too closely, so as to see the water droplets, the rainbow also disappears ; it ceases to exist.

The really startling thing about a rainbow is that it exists only in a sentient mind.

But how many people have thought about another of the ordinary common things that also disappear when you get close to them?  Take the leaf of a tree, for example.  From a distance, it appears to have a shape and a certain solidity about it.  But physicists assure us that the leaf is actually constructed out of minute particles called atoms ; and these atoms are constructed out of even smaller things such as neutrons, protons and electrons.  And when you approach the leaf so closely that these tiny things might be ‘seen’, you will find yourself looking at what is mostly emptiness.  And the leaf disappears entirely.  Just as the rainbow disappeared when you got too close.

We are not talking about metaphysics here, just everyday experience.  The whole world is made up of two parts ; or are there two worlds?  Firstly we have the world of rainbows and leaves (and rivers, mountains, flowers, cattle, etc., etc.) ; and secondly we have the world of what we might call the ‘particles’ (the atoms, etc.).  The first world is made up of representations in our conscious minds ; representations that arrive to us via our senses.  The second world is not represented to our minds at all, because its constituents are out of reach to our senses.

But the really startling thing is that the everyday first world cannot without the second, occult world.

So we have a first world of representations and also a second world of the unrepresented.  A manifest world and a hidden world.  And it is easy to think of these two quite different worlds when we set our minds to it ; but it is very difficult indeed to keep them near the front of our minds in our everyday living.

When we stroll in the countryside or in the town, it is hard to bear in mind that the things we see, touch, hear, etc., – the fields, the sky, the clouds, the trees, the telegraph poles, the ground under our feet – are actually comprised of entities, such as atoms, electrons, protons, etc., which are quite beyond our senses and are not represented to our consciousness at all ; and that occult world is mostly empty space ; a sort of ghost world.  There is no light there, no colour, no solidity, no softness or hardness, no heat or cold, no sounds, no scents or flavours ; for these are all sensory qualities.  And our senses cannot reach down to that world.

Is it a sub-sensory world?  or a super-sensory one?

At any rate, it is not a material world, for matter is defined by our senses.  It is a world that exists in consciousness only in the form of ideas.  And these ideas are described in complex logical propositions that only a few specially trained mathematical people understand.  And even those specially trained people do not have a satisfying explanation of what the propositions mean.  So it is that this non-material, non-sensory world is a mystery ; a mystery that can never be represented to our conscious awareness.

Either we must accept that our familiar world of things – trees, meadows, clouds, rivers, other people, etc. – is a representation (re-presentation) of the insensible world of atoms, etc., or we must reject the theories of physics as nothing more than an elaborate delusion.  We cannot have it both ways.

What are we to call this non-sensory, occult, mysterious world that underlies our familiar world?  This invisible world that we are quite sure exists, but whose existence cannot be proved by the evidence of our senses?  It sounds very much like a spiritual world.

Turns of the Stars

Returns

Imagination plays the central part
In making sense of absent Sun and Moon ;
Whom Earth herself conceals, in playful art,
As if to test our faith.

And when the rose, the fragrant heart of hearts,
Slips waning from her own autumnal heights,
Do not our minds find peace ; as when she parts,
There’s  promise of next year?

Our  homely orb has turned full over-night ;
New day is come, even as New Year.
With hopeful eyes, we seek the light,
The rosy-fingered Dawn.

Will she come?  Will she come?
Our rosy-fingered Dawn?

Jamie Macnab 2013

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.

Transformations

May love lend wings

May love lend wings to prayers we send
In memory of those who fell ;
That they may fly, all hurts to mend
In hearts where evermore shall dwell
Remembrance.

And shall that love be felt, by those
Who know the pain of sadness’ darts ;
To draw condolence and repose
From understandings in the heart’s
Acceptance.

Let formless thoughts, that drift as mist
In troubled minds, so be distilled here
To form the stream of words that list
Coherent prayers designed for sheer
Relievance.

For there’s a purpose, suffering
In grief’s unholy mad disguise ;
That, discovered, shall surely bring
Fresh comprehension, wherein lies
Transformance

Jamie MacNab 2012

By the Babe Unborn

If trees were tall and grasses short,
As in some crazy tale,
If here and there a sea were blue
Beyond the breaking pale,

If a fixed fire hung in the air
To warm me one day through,
If deep green hair grew on great hills,
I know what I should do.

In dark I lie; dreaming that there
Are great eyes cold or kind,
And twisted streets and silent doors,
And living men behind.

Let storm clouds come: better an hour,
And leave to weep and fight,
Than all the ages I have ruled
The empires of the night.

I think that if they gave me leave
Within the world to stand,
I would be good through all the day
I spent in fairyland.

They should not hear a word from me
Of selfishness or scorn,
If only I could find the door,
If only I were born.

G.K. Chesterton

====================================

This poem is one of those which shows that Chesterton had a wonderful gift for seeing things from different points of view ; through different eyes ; and with different minds.  He had an acute understanding human nature.  Even his more adventurous speculations have the ring of truth about them which make us feel that, even if they are not quite true, they ought to be.  They are like the sympathetic wishes of a child, as yet un-wearied by experience.

Here he looks at the world through the inner eyes of a yet-to-be-born child.

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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