Archive for the 'philosophy' Category

Proud to be human

April 15, 2019

I regularly reflect on what it is that makes us humans different from other species – not necessarily superior, but different – and feel it is our capacity for reason, and our self-awareness. We have astonishingly complex brains, and when we use them sensibly, they are capable of incredible things; consciously we can hand our knowledge down through the generations, building on what has gone before. People have sought to know, to find out, to understand the workings of the world and the cosmos, and, because of our individual mortality and our awareness of this, have wondered about whether there is an ultimate cause or creator, and whether there is any other state of existence awaiting us after the end of this one that we know. It is possible that in our need for this reassurance, we have invented those very things… “Everyone is the first person to die,” the king is told in Ionesco’s masterpiece, Le Roi Se Meurt.

I can know of our human past and what we have achieved as a species – the good and the evil – because it has already happened and we have historical records of much of it; many of these achievements contribute to what I suppose is a sense of pride in our species: there have been great thinkers, scientists, inventors, writers, musicians… Our future is unknown because it hasn’t happened yet; some of it I will get to see in my remaining time, and an enormous amount of it I will not. And because I have an imagination, I know that there are things I would dearly like to see in my lifetime – a human landing on Mars, contact with other intelligences elsewhere in the universe, solutions to our problems (self-inflicted, I know) such as climate change; I wouldn’t mind a socialist utopia, either. On the other hand, I have no wish to live through war and ecological disaster, and sometimes fear for my descendants because of our lack of intelligence as a species.

There is a science fiction tour-de-force, written during the Second World War, I think, by Olaf Stapledon: Last and First Men, in which he imagines the future of humanity into the incredibly far future, through a number of different incarnations, wrestling with enormous epochs of time – billions of years – as humanity moves to other planets, evolves new capacities, far outshines what we are currently achieving. And yet, there is the awareness that eventually we must die out. Various incarnations of humanity pass on, along with geological ages, and it’s with a pang that, quite near the beginning of the novel, our variant homo sapiens, First Man, and all our physical and intellectual achievements vanish as though they had never been… such a waste, it feels, in an unfeeling universe. And yet, surely, that is how it must be, however we comfort ourselves with other possibilities.

But one thing is for sure: life will outlive me. There is an Arabic saying I came across a few years ago which I love: one day, you will only be a story: make sure yours is a good one. To me, that seems a thing to aspire to.

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August favourites #28: author

August 28, 2018

51aPP6fCRbL._AC_US218_The idea of someone who is widely knowledgeable – a polymath? – is an old one, harder to countenance in these times of so much knowledge and data. It’s been a long time since it was possible for one person to ‘know’ everything that could be known – Isidore of Seville wrote the first encyclopaedia in the seventh century, and Athanasius Kircher in the seventeenth is regarded by some as the last person who knew it all. But in our own times, I was always impressed by the Italian writer, critic and philosopher Umberto Eco, who produced novels, art criticism, philosophy, works on linguistics, and – in his own language, and as far as I know, still largely untranslated – regular newspaper columns on an incredible variety of learned and light-hearted topics. The Name of the Rose is probably my all-time favourite novel. I’d really like to have met him, and I don’t say that about a lot of my heroes.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

August favourites #22: Essayist

August 22, 2018

Ask a school student about essays, and it’s likely their face will betray dread, or at least mild dislike, for it now suggests an imposition, an enforced piece of writing for assessment of some kind. In less Gradgrindian times, it was not so: an essay was a discursive, non-fictional piece perhaps on a single topic, perhaps wandering around the houses through several, perhaps referencing previous writers on the topic, especially from the classical past or the fathers of the church. Perhaps Montaigne, who wrote towards the end of the sixteenth century, was the father of the genre. He produced three volumes of essays which total more than a thousand pages; I have to admit that, although I did read late mediaeval or early modern French when at university, I tackled Montaigne in English…

He ranges widely. Perhaps, to his English readers, the one essay familiar will be On the Cannibals, which Shakespeare is thought to have read in a contemporary English translation, and which influenced the writing of The Tempest, and particularly the creation of Caliban. What I liked most about Montaigne, what endeared me to him, was his humanity, his decency and his sense of tolerance, characteristics perhaps not easy to sustain in the troubled and turbulent times in which he lived. And he loved his cat. I often think of him as I craft my modest pieces, and wish I could write that well.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

Books that changed my life

August 9, 2018

A fellow-blogger recently posted about books that had changed her life, and I realised I’d never thought about my reading in those terms. Turning to my bookshelves to remind me of such books wasn’t very helpful: I’m a lot older than my fellow blogger, and I realised that I’d actually got rid of a lot of the books that had changed my life, precisely because they had changed me, and I therefore didn’t need them any more… so it became a thinking exercise instead.

41wLBBhi15L._AC_US218_Gordon Rattray Taylor: The Doomsday Book

I’ve always been interested in environmental issues, ever since I bought and read this book when came out in the early 1970s: the first book I ever came across that provided detailed evidence of a pollution crisis that was changing the planet. Since then, of course, we’ve had the greenhouse effect, global warming, plastic pollution, CFCs, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and I don’t know what else; we’re still filthying our own nest and denying it. I’ve always thought that small changes collectively make big differences, so I do what I can and preach when I can.

51C7lWT946L._AC_US218_James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

This was an A-level set book. It was also about a young man growing up and rejecting the shackles of the Catholic church at the same time as I was growing up and questioning that faith, which I’d also been brought up in. It was about someone who was faced with all sorts of hard choices, and found the courage to take the leap. I was in awe of someone who could decide, in one fell swoop, to leave family, faith and country behind, because he felt they limited and restricted him…

51WlQxTGLFL._AC_US218_Jean-Paul Sartre: Roads to Freedom

This was an incredibly influential trilogy for many in my generation: existentialism (so out of fashion nowadays!) and a stunning BBC television dramatisation that for some unaccountable reason has never been shown again. You are responsible for your life, and the choices you make create your existence, so do something, be something, get on with it. Political engagement was the thing, and though I’ve always been political, I’ve never had much faith in politicians or political parties, I’m afraid.

317RC0nV1EL._AC_US218_Marge Piercy: Woman on the Edge of Time

The personal is political, said the women’s movement of the sixties and seventies, and that chimed in with what I was realising about my life and the choices I was making about it. I pick this novel as representative of the numerous feminist texts and novels by women I read at this time and which influenced me in different ways. It’s a feminist science-fiction novel and feminist utopia, too, which pulls no punches.

51K2ncM1zsL._AC_US218_Jack Kerouac: On The Road

I was also a hippy in those days, and Kerouac’s book was our bible: self-discovery through travel. I never got to hitch-hike across the USA, but this book inspired me to do lots of travelling around Britain and Europe using the power of the thumb. Thousands of miles a year, many practical – as in saving money while a relatively poor student – and also many on holiday in Europe. France was always a bugger, usually because of drivers’ insurance rules; Germany and the Low Countries were a lot friendlier, as was Switzerland, although every Swiss person who gave me a lift emphasised how bourgeois and unfriendly their nation was, while treating me very kindly… I met lots of really interesting people, too. Sadly, by the time I got a car of my own, hitchikers had largely disappeared, due to cheaper bus and train travel, and Thatcherism.

51ZOka6wyzL._AC_US218_W Somerset Maugham: The Razor’s Edge

Another of my reads as a teenager, this was about the need to explore one’s spiritual impulses, featuring characters in the nineteen-thirties who travelled widely, including to India, which was where many went much later in search of enlightenment. It opened my eyes to possibilities, which I have never lost sight of completely, though I may have been temporarily sidetracked.

51d-U+XeXPL._AC_US218_Hermann Hesse: Narziss and Goldmund

Every hippy and many students read Hesse in the seventies; most of his books still grace my bookshelves, though the appeal has narrowed itself down to this single volume to which I have returned nostalgically a number of times. Set in mediaeval times it focuses on two friends’ life journeys. One fixes himself in a monastery and devotes himself to contemplation and the spiritual life, the other goes out into the world to make a life and a living. Their paths cross and re-cross for a lifetime as they both seek and find satisfaction, and are thwarted by the frustrations of their choices. To me, that is life. I love this book.

41CD6F0HV7L._AC_US218_Ernst Wiechert: The Simple Life

Only one book has joined the list of influential ones in my middle years. This quietist novel, written in the aftermath of the Great War when everyone was sickened by what it said about us as a species, seeks rest in isolation, and satisfaction with little in material terms, focussing on the inner life and looking for where contentment may be found. I like it very much, because it came along at a certain point in my life when I was beginning to realise the need to slow down, and accept that I’d ‘ambitioned’ enough, as it were; it was time to become more reflective about what I had achieved, and contemplate the next, and different, stage of life.

It was an interesting exercise, putting this list and summary together. I think I’d say that all the books I’ve mentioned changed the way I looked at the world and the way I think about it, or the ways I look at myself, and so have, in various, often indiscernible ways, changed my life.

 

August favourites #7: detective fiction

August 7, 2018

51aPP6fCRbL._AC_US218_

I’ll come to my hero Sherlock Holmes in a few days’ time: he’s in a class of his own. And although I have a soft spot for the melancholy Czech detective Lieutenant Boruvka, created by one of my favourite writers, Josef Skvorecky, my award has to go to a writer who paid the greatest tribute possible to Holmes in his creation of the monk William of Baskerville, who puts his observational powers to work, assisted by his young novice Adso of Melk, against a background of monastical murder and the inquisition in the early fourteenth century. I’m referring to Umberto Eco’s masterpiece, The Name of the Rose, which, as well as being a marvellous detective story, is also full of history and philosophy and relgion, as well as a poignant consideration of the nature of human love. In a way, the plot centres around a curious question: did Jesus ever laugh? It’s one of my top three novels of the twentieth century.

Alexandra David-Neel: With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet

June 18, 2018

41JaZMmXl6L._AC_US218_It was a bit of a surprise to come across and eighty year-old cerise Penguin that clearly hadn’t ever been read: there were some uncut pages near the beginning. I’ve come across quite a few references to Alexandra David-Neel, who travelled widely in the far east and Tibet a century or so ago, and was greatly interested in Buddhism of all kinds, in various travel journals I’ve read, and so was quite looking forward to reading something by her. But this was the wrong book: there is another, which is more generally about her travels, and which I haven’t acquired yet, whereas this was about all sorts of esoteric aspects of Buddhist practice, which (a) I’m not wildly interested in and (b) I found incredibly far-fetched, as well as tedious.

I was mildly interested in how an educated Westerner could come to understand and practise such arcane aspects of the religion, and I was impressed by her genuine interest, curiosity and commitment to further knowledge through lengthy learning and practice.

But I did also find myself wondering if there were ever a traveller from an Eastern land to the West, who had been wowed, for instance, by the Catholic Church, its ceremonies, rites and rituals, monasteries and cathedrals, and the city of Rome itself in such a way… or is this a very early example of a Westerner seeking enlightenment in the East having not found it at home, finding a lack of meaning in Christianity, an emptiness? In which case, what is it that Christianity lacks, that, for instance, Buddhism offers? The book didn’t offer anything here.

A picture of the great primitiveness of Tibet at that time – relatively speaking – comes across in the few passages where she writes about her travels through northern India, the Chinese borderlands, and Tibet itself. Her experiences of various meditation techniques and practices were very interesting, but I’m afraid that much of her description of rites and rituals did make a good deal of Buddhist practice seem pointless, meaningless, even irrational, in the same way that an outsider viewing much of Catholic ritual might fail to see the point. It’s not that I’m anti-religion, for I’m not, but I’m interested in seeing behind the superficial, and understanding what people are really looking for, and have the impression that ritual gets in the way, or obscures. A frustrating skim-read in the end, though I will still look out for her other book.

On literature and religion

May 27, 2018

I’ve written before about the connections I’ve found when thinking about literature and religion, and also about science fiction and religion (here and here, if not elsewhere!). Recently I found myself back with the theme…

It’s possible to see religion as something human beings have evolved or developed as a way of coming to terms with our own eventual mortality, a knowledge we have because of our powers of perception, reasoning and understanding, and a knowledge which might otherwise blight our existence. We are here, briefly, conscious of what goes on around us, we live, experience, remember things and cannot really understand it all coming to a stop, even though before we existed, everything was going on fine without us…

If there were no god, no heaven, no afterlife, then, nevertheless there are still impulses in us (some of us?) that take us away from the purely material plane onto one which has been called spiritual, acknowledging an aspect of how our minds work. I say some of us, because I know there are people who do not seem to be bothered by thoughts of this kind, or else deal with them in a different way from me, and appear to get on quite happily with their lives… the world is surely large enough for all of us. But some of us do experience a need or a drive to make sense of it all.

So for me, and others like me, religion is a way of addressing those spiritual impulses or leanings; for us there are very real issues that we engage with, that take us onto different levels of awareness or consciousness, that address our existential angst, I suppose.

Then I turned my thoughts to a novel I’ve always rated highly, for lots of different reasons: A for Andromeda, by Ivan Yefremov. It’s a Soviet utopia, set a thousand or so years in the future after the inevitable triumph of socialism has transformed the whole planet, and humans are turned towards the cosmos and other worlds. No religion of any kind is mentioned; clearly it has died out under conditions of actually existing socialism, though it is referred to as an aspect of humankind’s primitive past. Yefremov nevertheless allows his characters to be awed by the beauty and wonder of the cosmos and the natural beauty of the world, too, in ways which today we might call spiritual. But he is the only SF writer I know to have imagined the end of religion.

Olaf Stapledon‘s epic Last and First Men is different altogether. If humans cannot cope with the prospect of disappearance and individual annihilation, we are offered another picture, of our race evolving, mutating and moving to other planets in the solar system over geological time periods, during which we (?) become totally different species. And with a pang we realise that pretty early on in his imagined cycle, our particular humanity and its civilisations and achievements vanish, obliterated by the vastness of time and geological change, with absolutely no trace left behind…not just individual, but collective death.

Many less ambitious writers have written post-apocalyptic novels, and it’s a marvel that one of the few objects that usually survives the cataclysm that starts the novel is a copy of the Bible, so that humanity can safely ‘rediscover’ God, often in an even more warped version than many believers seem to find attractive today. John Wyndham‘s The Chrysalids is a good example: post-disaster mutants are an abomination in His sight and must be hunted down and destroyed. No change there then. But for me the saddest of all is Walter Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz, where, after a nuclear holocaust, monks are again the repositories of knowledge and learning, carefully salvaging the knowledge of our past; eventually, thanks to their efforts, ‘civilisation’ re-emerges after hundreds of years, only to travel down exactly the same pathway to another nuclear war…

I’m not really sure where this has led me, sceptical about much religion and the miseries it has caused (though I don’t only blame religion for human misery) and yet, from my own upbringing inevitably drawn to the spiritual that I find in myself and others, and all around me. None of this balances the knowledge that I only have a tiny amount of time to enjoy what our world offers.

Diarmaid MacCulloch: All Things Made New

January 10, 2018

51EaEVd-aYL._AC_US218_I think the blurb on this book is deliberately somewhat vague and misleading; the book isn’t a book so much as a collection of diverse essays and book reviews MacCulloch has written over quite a period of time, all linked in some way by Reformation themes. Having said that – and shame on Penguin Books for their marketing – it is a very good collection of pieces, as one would expect from the author.

His introduction is challenging, and reminds us of his magisterial scope, taking in Luther‘s profound pessimism about human beings and his seeing their salvation as completely dependent on God (I can’t help seeing such a god as a kind of gigantic, slightly sadistic, computer-game player), underlining the profound religious differences that exist between the United States and Europe, which are not usually understood or taken into account, and reminding us that during sixteenth century, if toleration existed, it was in Eastern Europe – Poland and Romania – rather than in the West… He never shies away from pointing out clearly the contradictions, contortions and illogicalities of both Protestant and Catholic beliefs.

There are sections on the Reformation generally, but a good deal of the book is taken up with the English Reformation more specifically. I didn’t know, for instance, that one of the primary financial motives behind the dissolution and destruction of our monasteries was to raise cash to build coastal fortifications against a possible French invasion. One of the lengthier and most interesting chapters explores and charts the complexities of the characters, beliefs and infighting during the reign of Henry VIII which ultimately permitted a successful reformation in this country, along with the attendant cultural vandalism. MacCulloch is also fascinating on the development of the Book of Common Prayer.

I particularly liked his description of the ‘theological schizophrenia’ of the Church of England… the more I read, the more confusing and confused the entire establishment and development of the English Church appears, and MacCulloch does nothing to dissipate this impression. He tackles the inaccurate, falsified and plain biased accounts of the English Reformation over the years, and also provides an interesting and helpful survey of a range of historians of the Reformation from various perspectives.

The book concludes with two rather long and to be honest, slightly tiresome essays, one on Hooker and the other on a forger of documents who deceived historians for over a century; though I was expecting (and enjoyed) an academic book, these two pieces seemed just a bit too specialised, really.

A useful read if you are seriously into history and religion; a good read because anything by MacCulloch has been, so far, in my experience.

Stefan Zweig: Montaigne

January 1, 2018

The more I find out about Stefan Zweig, the more he interests me. A curious character, a relic of the Austro-Hungarian Empire out of time and place, but not in the same way as his contemporary Joseph Roth… an essayist, biographer, story-teller and novelist so distraught at the way Europe turned in the 1930s that he eventually took his own life, in exile in Brazil. He’s little-known or read in England, much better known in Europe.

This little book on Montaigne reflects its author, who, late in life came to know and love the sixteenth century French writer and philosopher as a kindred spirit, one who loved intellectual liberty and personal liberty and strove to hold on to it in incredibly difficult times, one who valued his mind and what it allowed him to do… a paean to a certain kind of human being in rather short supply in both centuries.

I’m sure there’s nothing new in the book, in terms of biographical detail, for Zweig takes us through Montaigne’s life and career after a fashion, his years of public life, personal retreat from the world, travels and so on. He recognises a kindred spirit, evaluates his achievement and pays tribute to him.

I love the idea of the ‘pensée vagabonde’ (roaming thought) which he attributes to Montaigne; in some ways, I’m sure both men speak to my condition… It’s an enjoyable little book for anyone who has read and enjoyed Montaigne’s Essays.

On avoiding Marx

December 15, 2017

51OL0gW4-wL._AC_US218_Although I’ve always been on the left in terms of politics, I’ve managed to avoid engaging with Marx for most of my life. I may have read The Communist Manifesto at some point in my student days, but I can’t remember. I did have to read some chapters that Marx wrote about literature when studying for my MA, and we also grappled with some other Marxist critics such as Lukacs, but I remember very little of what they had to say on the subject. Marx is difficult, and the doorstep tomes are off-putting.

And yet, I’ve always been drawn to what I’ve known and understood of Marx’s analysis of economics and history, because what I have known of it has seemed to make sense, and because some over-arching theory of how our world works is needed in order to help us to change it, if that is what we want to do. I’ve been interested, throughout my adult life, in sexual politics, and also environmental politics, but also aware of the Marxist notion that the class struggle is the primary one, and all the others are sidetracks, which get in the way of changing things, and which, of course, the dominant class is very happy for us to get sidetracked down: those energies that might be used in demolishing the system are dissipated…

This has come to seem ever more true to me in recent years, as the world has appeared, over the course of my lifetime, to have become ever more stuck; I am struck by our inability to learn from our horrendous past, by our ability to destroy our environment without a thought, by our ability to be seduced by consumer trash, by our acceptance of politicians’ and economists’ lies….

A few years back I came across the writings of David Harvey, who has been teaching Marx for about forty years or so; his book The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism provided a useful introduction, and then I discovered that a series of his lectures on the first volume of Marx’s Capital was available for download (here). I’ve recently discovered that lectures on the second volume are available too…

It’s taken me a while to get round to listening to them. They were recorded, not very professionally, in actual lectures, so the sound quality isn’t brilliant – there are frequent pauses and he rambles at times as lecturers do, and students’ questions are largely inaudible – but Harvey takes you through what Marx is saying in detail, explaining and clarifying, pointing out the salient points of the analysis, and most helpfully, relating them to the present day economic situation. It’s not easy listening, and I did find myself zoning out at various points, but I saw how Marx’s analysis fitted together and made sense, and I saw the totality of its scope. I found myself thinking not, ‘here is the answer, Marx says it all and this is what we need to do’, but ‘this is a clear and comprehensive analysis which makes sense as a whole, and is better and clearer than anything else I’ve heard or read… here is a template for viewing and understanding the world’.

What comes across is the inter-relatedness of everything, and the enormous difficulty of changing things. There are more questions than answers, it seems to me. Is democracy the best form of government, for a start? Because if you want to get on with making the world different, it will certainly take more than the maximum five-year time-frame of democracy. And perhaps democracy is only a bourgeois concept anyway, actually serving the interests of relatively few people? Maybe the Chinese, who can take the longer-term perspective, will have greater success in addressing the challenges the planet faces… What do you do with the small groups of vested interests who will fight tooth and nail to retain their power and privilege, even if outvoted in a ‘democratic’ election? Though I do not for one minute approve, I can understand why the Bolsheviks behaved as they did… HG Wells imagined world government, and surely change would have to be planet-wide to address humanity’s problems, but I see no signs of that happening…

Currently then, I’m still stuck with my feeling that we are not a very intelligent species and that there is probably no way, at the moment anyway, of us all coming together to build a better world, without a great deal of violence… and that is a contradiction in terms. But Marx’s analysis makes sense to me, and until someone does better, it’s the best we have…

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