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Posts Tagged ‘History’

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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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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In a sense, everything is history.  For example, when I look at an object such as my computer screen, I am aware that I see it not as it is but as it was a fraction of a second ago ; this is because it takes a definite length of time for it to be neurologically processed and to be presented to conscious awareness.  When we move away from that kind of example towards more everyday awarenesses, to thinking about what to have for breakfast for example, things get even more historical ; if I decide on cornflakes, then where does my liking of them come from if not from pleasant memories of breakfasts past?

In a sense, then, while the arrow of time is always pointing forward, our sense perceptions of the world are always pointing backward.  It is as if Nature made us to feel more comfortable to look at the past rather than the future.

And in a sense, everything is spiritual.  For, even though I can persuade myself that I am looking at a material thing as I gaze at the computer screen, the moment I start to think about it, it becomes entirely a phenomenon of consciousness ; i.e., not material at all but spiritual.

These thoughts and others like them were crossing my mind as I enjoyed reading the history of the events following the Norman conquest, from the time of King William himself to King John.  I was conscious of enjoying that period of history as a purely spiritual pleasure ; for there is no way I could possibly enjoy it as a sensory one.  I might have imagined what it is like to be clad in heavy chain mail on the Sussex Downs ; I might have imagined what the weight of a swinging sword or mace might feel like ; I might have imagined the pain of taking an arrow-hit in the eye.  But there is no way that I can experience these things that are long in the past and beyond hope (or fear) of repetition.

“How wonderful life must be for the historian, I thought, living one’s subject entirely through one’s imagination!”

And imagination is but one short step back from its alluring cousin, fantasy.  “How comforting it would be,” I thought, “If the nobler Anglo-Saxons had never allowed themselves to become embroiled with those ghastly Normans and French!”

But then, history is history, as they say, and the events cannot be realistically imagined as being different from what they actually were.  All ‘what if’ scenarios are mere fantasy.  Perhaps that is why so many students of history see their subject as elaborate lists of dates, names and deeds ; nice and safe lists with little margin for error.  But surely this is not history at all ; it is  little more than chronology.

So, perhaps that is why they also like to have each item in the list tagged with the opinion of their teacher ; in the belief that this somehow adds veracity to the content of the list.  But such opinions are so often conditioned by the political opinions of the teacher, which always contaminate history with modern ideas alien to the age being studied.

Of course, history is bound to contain large amounts of historians’ opinion, but I do not think that this is what it is really about.  For, surely, no subject is worthy of study unless the student is in some way in love with the subject being studied.  And what is being studied in ‘History’?  it has to be simply people.  So the first requirement of an historian is to love people and, from that, to desire to know what they did and why they did it.  The ‘what’ is easy enough ; that is the bare menu.  But the ‘why’ is where the recipe is ; it leads to the kitchen where the tale of entire nations and civilisations is cooked up.

History is a tale with many story-lines, therefore with as many aims ; but apparently without an over-arching plot.  In 1066 nobody in England had the faintest suspicion of a Hanoverian monarch.  History has many chronologists but not an all-knowing author.

And yet there are patterns in history, which suggests something about human nature.  And the patterns do not lead to mere repetition of events, which suggests that human nature is changing.  For example, in general, the farther back we go, the more violent are the methods of government ; and this suggests that we are moving in a direction where force as a method is giving way to persuasion.  And violence, of course, is the outcome of ways of seeing the world and of ways of thinking.
Therefore, it seems to me that history is the tale of the evolution of human consciousness.  It is a spiritual tale.

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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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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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Christianity began with its founder suffering a bloody crucifixion ; continued to where its followers were persecuted even unto death ; and then progressed to develop the greatest civilisation the world has ever seen.  Christians have produced the best paintings, the best sculptures, the best music, the best literature ever ; even now there is no equal to them.  They also produced the scientists who established the best methods for examining the physical world – methods  which are used to this day.

Why do so many people now wish to get rid of such a productive system of beliefs?  I fear that one reason is  because they do not have a developed concept of progress.  They desire perfection, and think they can merely dream up a blueprint for it, forgetting that many such blueprints have been drawn before ; and then, so they think, they can merely legislate for it – forgetting that such has been tried in ages past.

They look back to their notions of what the Middle Ages were like, and feel repelled – forgetting that their medieval ancestors were repelled by what went before them ; and forgetting also that their own descendants will look back on this politically correct, amoral, sink-state age and feel an even greater repulsion, not simply because it is awful but because it is actually a regression from the heights once tentatively trodden.

So, why do they want to rid themselves of their religion and all that goes with it, including the best that goes with it?

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