There and Back Again

Astronomical ClockYesterday I returned home after a fantastic trip to Prague. I haven’t yet had time to process everything that happened but I’m sure the events of the last weekend will reverberate around Europe and the rest of the world for some time. I’d like to thank everyone else who attended and to publicly blame you-know-who-you-are for giving me a cold. My nose is currently doing a very passable impression of a snot factory.

Published in: on August 30, 2006 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  

Endtimes Again

Myth ApskThere is an idea that can be found in a number of different mythologies. According to this idea, human history can be divided up into ages, each of which has a particular characteristic. These ages get progressively worse and worse until the world is destroyed, whereupon it is reborn and the cycle starts all over again. The Ancient Greeks spoke of a Golden Age, long ago, which was succeeded by a Silver Age. Then followed a Bronze Age and a Heroic Age. Humanity now finds itself in an age of pain and despair that they called the Iron Age. The Romans had a similar chronology, although Ovid did not include Hesiod‘s Heroic Age. The Hindus divide history in a comparable way into four ‘Yugas’: the Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dvapara Yuga and Kali Yuga. We are now in the Kali Yuga, when man is furthest from the gods and the world is full of strife. At the end of this Yuga the avatar Kalki will arrive on a white horse and the world will end, then a new Satya Yuga will begin. The Norse tradition also contains this idea. In the Poetic Edda we can read these lines:

“Brothers shall fight,
and slay each other;
cousins shall
kinship violate.
The earth resounds,
the giantesses flee;
no man will
another spare.

Hard is it in the world,
great whoredom,
an axe age, a sword age,
shields will be cloven,
a wind age, a wolf age,
ere the world sinks.”

Observing the world today, with the fragmentation of culture and the loss of traditional values, the devastating mechanical wars and the ascendancy of plutocracy, it is tempting to agree that we must be in a degenerate age. However, all those things about the modern world that tempt me to agree are, obviously, characteristics of the modern age – but people thought that we were in the final age over a thousand years ago. So, if there is anything more to this idea than the recurring despair of the adult at the youth of today, then it must concern something more profound than the malignant values of modernity.

It is important to note the cyclical nature of these ages. This is not the linear history of the Christians. This is not Armageddon, the Last Judgment or the Apocalypse. This is a cycle of creation, degeneration, destruction and rebirth. I think this is a point that is sometimes missed by the more pessimistic doomsayers among the traditionalists. It is also important to note that there need not be any particular moral value associated with degeneration. If we consider it as a vital part of the cycle, for without the move from perfect creation to destruction there could be no rebirth, then degeneration begins to lose its repugnant quality and can be seen as a dynamic process that ensures re-creation.

Further, if the ages are not historical in the Christian (and hence modern Western) sense, then what is their relevance to us today? To begin, we should not consider this cycle in a macrocosmic sense but rather observe its importance for the microcosm. Our own lives, if we are to grow and change, must also follow such cycles. There are moments when we leap forward in our initiation and attain a Golden Age. We must recognise these moments for what they are and make the most of them. But we must not stagnate. We must not allow past successes to become an excuse for avoiding further challenges. And so we must come to see our current state as inadequate, insufficient, perhaps even painful. So, our Golden Age must degenerate until we reach an Iron Age, a time so terrible that we must destroy it and begin anew.

But then, as Sir Isaac Newton wrote,

“That wch is below is like that wch is above & that wch is above is like yt wch is below to do ye miracles of one only thing.”

It is just as much a mistake to focus only on the microcosm as it is to focus only on the macrocosm. However, with the application of the cycle of ages to the microcosm in mind, we can perhaps apply it to the macrocosm with more beneficial results than mere grumbling about the poor state of the world these days. We can see the need for revolution, the need to continually return to our roots and begin anew, and the danger of being suckered into the Christian idea of linear progress. Myth describes the eternally recurring, not single moments in a historical past, and the end of the world is its time of rebirth, not the eschaton.

Published in: on August 20, 2006 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  

Oldspeak

Freedom FighterIt has become a tedious cliché to compare some aspect of society to that depicted in George Orwell‘s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. However, tedious though it may be, I do not think people can be reminded too often of his brilliant Newspeak. The specifics are not really important, what matters is the precise link made between methods of expression and the thoughts to be expressed. As he expounded earlier in his essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell believed that languages deteriorated under dictatorships. This is a result both of the reduction in free thought, which leads to narrowing of the language through disuse, and – more importantly – of the converse: a clever dictatorship will change the language spoken by its people so that only thoughts supportive of the dictatorship can be expressed.

The idea that thought and language are intimately linked is an old one, but it found its most rigorous expression in modern linguistics as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Neither Edward Sapir nor Benjamin Whorf ever went so far as to claim that language completely determines human thought but they argued cogently that our conceptions of reality are mediated by the language that we use to express them. This is certainly closer to linguistic determinism than the view espoused by Noam Chomsky, which holds that humans do not think in natural languages but rather in ‘mentalese’, a universal mental lanugage that is imperfectly translated into natural language when we wish to communicate an idea. As is usually the case, I think the truth of the matter lies somewhere on the continuum between the two extremes. Certainly, although we can think things that we cannot express and experience things that we cannot describe, our thoughts are at least guided by the linguistic structures that we habitually employ.

And so it is that I am disappointed whenever I hear someone regurgitate the phrase, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” It is usually said by someone who would consider themself to be opposed to the War on Terror. It is, one presumes, meant to imply that those people that the West typically portrays as evil terrorists may not in fact be evil at all but may instead, in the eyes of others, be honourable heroes. Thus we cannot be certain in our moral absolutism and should not condemn the suicide bombers. However, in practice it achieves the complete opposite of this goal and leads to the further demonisation of those called ‘terrorists’.

‘Terrorist’ and ‘Freedom Fighter’ are not two different terms for the same thing. They do not differ only in nuance and one is not a euphemism for the other. Furthermore, not only do they designate different things but they don’t even designate the same kind of thing.

A terrorist is a person who engages in terrorism. Terrorism is an attempt to use terror to achieve a goal. It is a methodology, a technique. A terrorist may aim for any goal he wishes, it is not his ultimate goal that makes him a terrorist but rather the means he employs to get there. The first recorded use of the term ‘terrorism’ was in 1795, to describe the activities of the French government during the Reign of Terror. This description was not disputed by the French. Indeed, Robespierre said that the basis of a popular government in a time of revolution is “virtue and terror – virtue, without which terror would be barbaric; and terror, without which virtue would be impotent.” Among those who have been described as ‘terrorists’ are the Jewish paramilitary organisations that bombed hotels and assassinated government officials in the British Mandate of Palestine and the Maquis who resisted the Nazi occupation of France. The sole defining characteristic of the terrorist is that he attempts to induce a course of action in his enemy by causing terror. It does not matter how he causes terror or what the course of action he hopes to induce is. Considered objectively, there is no reason to suppose that terrorism is automatically abhorrent. The military doctrine of Rapid Dominance, developed at the United States of America’s National Defense University, explicitly recommends a tactic of Shock and Awe. The authors of the doctrine wrote, “the ability to Shock and Awe ultimately rests in the ability to frighten, scare, intimidate, and disarm.” Clearly they are recommending the promotion of terror in their enemy in order to achieve their goal. That is terrorism. But is it wrong? I do not intend to enter into a lengthy moral argument here but there is certainly a strong case that could be made in defence of such an action. Would it not be better than a protracted conflict? It should also be noted that one of the first groups of people to be called terrorists in the European press were the Russian revolutionaries, who thoroughly approved of the term. When Vera Zasulich shot and wounded a Russian policeman, she did not kill him but declared, “I am a terrorist, not a killer.”

In contrast, ‘Freedom Fighter’ does not describe someone following a certain methodology but rather someone who works towards a certain goal. One is a freedom fighter if one fights for freedom. It does not matter how they fight, just that they are attempting to obtain or defend someone’s (usually their own) freedom. A freedom fighter might also employ terror or they might not. They might also employ long-range artillery or they might not. Those fighting for freedom are often dispossessed, so they may find that terrorism is the most effective way that they can fight, but beyond such coincidence there is no inherent link between terrorism and freedom fighting. The very fact that someone might be both a terrorist and a freedom fighter at the same time, or might be one and not the other, should be enough to convince that they describe different kinds of things.

However, when one claims that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, one suggests that they are both terms describing the same kind of thing. One implies a dichotomy that does not exist. One says, “Either you are a terrorist or you are a freedom fighter.” This has three highly undesirable implications. First, it implies a moral judgment is being made. Rather than just describing what a person is attempting to do or how they are attempting to do it, one is declaring the rightness or wrongness of those actions. If the very same person – doing the same things for the same reasons – can be a terrorist to one person but alternatively a freedom fighter to someone else, then clearly we are not talking about something objective. We must be talking about morality. Further, the context would usually imply that freedom fighting is good and terrorism is bad. Second, if you are a freedom fighter then you cannot also be a terrorist. So, if you can establish your credentials as a champion of freedom then all your actions are automatically excused, at least to some extent, because you cannot also be an evil terrorist. Never mind that you attack civilian targets in order to demoralise and terrify your enemy, if you are fighting for freedom that is not terrorism and therefore is not evil. Third, if you are a terrorist then you cannot also be a freedom fighter. It does not matter whether or not you are oppressed or what crimes have been committed against you, if you are a terrorist then you cannot be fighting for something as noble as freedom because you cannot also be a freedom fighter, so you must be evil. I do not think that the sort of person who says “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” would intend these three implications. But then, if you misuse language you are bound to imply things that you did not mean to imply.

Published in: on August 19, 2006 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Artifice

lightsA rolling meadow is considered to be a beautiful sight, whereas an apartment building is generally not accorded such a status. Even the greatest works of architecture can compare unfavourably to a magnificent mountain or an awe-inspiring gorge. What is it about natural phenomena that can make them seem superior to the works of man? Why does camping in a remote valley somehow feel more ‘real’ than sleeping in suburbia?

I think there are two major differences and that they are often confused. The first concerns authenticity. It is now possible to manufacture a diamond that is indistinguishable from one extracted from a mine, except by an expert with specialist equipment. But people still willingly pay huge sums of money for a ‘genuine’ diamond and disdain the ‘fakes’. Of course, in this particular example there is also an element of snobbery and a desire to flaunt wealth. However, it is not hard to think of other examples in which people accord things a value far greater than their practical worth because they are ‘genuine’ or ‘original’. If a first edition is worth more than a recent copy of the same book and an original Stradivarius is worth more than an exact replica made yesterday, it is no wonder that people accord great worth to things that are not just not man-made copies but were never made by man at all! And yet, there is something disappointingly shallow about this quest for first editions. We tend not to laugh at the respectable gentleman investing in an original work of art but, with the exception of wealth and the status that it attracts in our society, how exactly does he differ from the nerd collecting first editions of comic books?

Although it might, on the surface, appear to be the opposite, the search for the ‘real thing’ is actually much the same as the pathological obsession with novelty that social commentators like to complain about. The problem seems to stem from a misapprehension of authenticity. The authenticity for which they strive is not a material concept. Consider the synthesised diamond. Chemically, it is a real diamond. It is not another substance that merely looks like diamond – such as cubic zirconia or moissanite – but it really is a lot of tetrahedrally bonded carbon atoms. However, it was deliberately manufactured in a laboratory. On the other hand, ‘real’ diamonds are dug from the ground by miners. So we have two diamonds, to all intents and purposes identical, which differ only in their origin. One is considered ‘real’ and the other ‘fake’. What is fake about it? If a jeweller attempted to pass it off as a ‘real’ gem then he would be committing fraud – but that has nothing to do with the intrinsic worth of the diamond. If I tried to sell someone a diamond in the place of some glass (somewhat unlikely, unless glass suddenly becomes really expensive, but nevermind) then I would be committing fraud but that wouldn’t mean that the diamond was ‘fake glass’. There appears to be some confusion between inauthentic actions – dishonest, dishonourable, deceptive – and material things. In a materialistic culture, in which people have no way to approach authenticity as a ‘spiritual’ quality, they seem to misinterpret their conscience and seek after something physically authentic.

This explains, to some extent, the dislike some people have for the artifice of cities: acres and acres of artificial landscape. The revulsion one should properly feel at inauthentic behaviour is instead, due to a failure to comprehend authenticity in the context of behaviour, directed at the works of man. ‘Inorganic’ and ‘synthetic’ are almost dirty words in some circles. Of course, some of mankind’s handiwork is revolting. Over the years, we have endured plenty of architectural disasters and other eyesores. But the point is that such things should be judged on their own merits: the fact that they were created by humans does not come into it. However, that latter fact is important for a different reason. The more we condition ourselves to find man-made environments ugly and uninspiring, the less able we become to create. To reject something because it is artificial is to reject human ingenuity and creativity. We should be celebrating our unnatural abilities, not recoiling in disgust from that which makes us great. Which is more impressive, the deliberate construction of a gem so perfect that even an expert has difficulty finding a fault, or digging up some rock and checking to see if there are any shiny bits in it?

However, this alone does not explain the feeling induced by dramatic landscapes. It is not a feeling that can be described to anyone who has not felt it and those who have felt it have no need for meagre descriptions. Anyone who has climbed a mountain and looked out from the summit, or crept through a tunnel to an underground cavern, or stood on the rim of a vast gorge, or sailed out to sea, or even just seen the night sky without light pollution, they may know what I am talking about. The best word I have to describe it is ‘openness’. It’s at moments like those that I think I understand what is meant by being open.

And this is the second difference between artifice and nature. Artifice does not induce openness. Rather, it both relies upon and causes a closing off. In order to manipulate the world according to our will we cannot open ourselves to that world, we must remain isolate as subjects exploiting objects. That is fine as far as it goes, and it does go a fair way, but it ultimately leaves us without experience of the world – as itself rather than as a resource for our constructions – or of our selves. This last fact is crucial. For it is through both artifice and openness that we come to know our selves and a disproportionate emphasis on either can only lead to self-delusion.

When we go out into the wilderness and allow the world to present itself as it is in itself, then we open ourselves to our own Being. Similarly, it is through our manipulations of the world, our artifice, that we make mirrors in which we can see our own potential Becoming.

Published in: on August 17, 2006 at 12:00 am  Comments (4)  

Us and Them

TribePolitical and social commentators often refer to something that they call an “Us and Them” mindset. A prime example of this is President George W Bush’s statement: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” This black and white conception, that admits no greys, is sometimes compared to the cosmic dualism of Manichaeism, which, via Augustine, can be found in parts of Christianity. If not from ancient Iranian religion, it might be considered the result of the influence of a modern political doctrine, perhaps Neoconservatism. Wherever it is deemed to come from, people are always quick to identify the pernicious influence that causes this aberrant mindset.

However, such an analysis is completely the wrong way around. Humans are primates. We are biologically programmed to think in terms of the troop or tribe or clan or family. We instinctively divide people into two groups – us and the others – and our world into two territories – our land and foreign land. We do this not just with physical space but also with intellectual space: we vociferously defend our way of thinking against the wrong-headed ideas of others. This behaviour is, quite literally, in our nature. The “Us and Them” mindset is quite normal, it is the attempts to transcend this view of the world that are unnatural.

And transcend it we can. As individuals, we possess the potential for self-betterment. We can rise above our biological beginnings and become something greater. However, such an act is an individual act. As a society, we can do no such thing. Any attempt to overcome the boundary between Us and Them collectively must be an attempt at universalism – that is, an attempt to remove the distinction between Us and Them by considering everyone to be one of Us, so there’s no-one left to be Them – but such an attempt must by its very nature deny the sovereignty of the individual, which in turn denies our ability to transcend our biological nature as such transcendence can only be the act of an individual.

Why must this transcendence be an individual act? Why can we not, by subsuming ourselves into a greater whole, become part of some collective construct that exists above these biological constraints? Because we are humans and cannot escape the fact that we are animals. Any collective would be a collective of apes. It could not be something above and beyond tribal distinctions, at best it could be one big tribe. It would rely for its cohesiveness on the concept of a tribe, but it is this very concept that drives us apart. The only tool that comes close to allowing universalism to achieve its goal is in fact the very weapon that slays it. Collective transcendence is a self-defeating myth.

In contrast, the individual does not rely upon his biological nature. Indeed, the very concept of an individual – apart from nature – is unnatural. Thus the individual may transcend in the true meaning of the word, which is to climb beyond. He does not deny his nature nor does he surrender to it (two paths, which are ultimately one, that are the only options available to universalism) but rather he accepts it as part of his being and progresses beyond. A collective cannot do this because a collective cannot act. The individual members of a collective may act, and they may decide to act in accordance with what they perceive to be a collective will, but in every case the result will be the sum of the individual actions. Anything else would require a hive mind. Like it or not, we are apes not ants.

So although we may, alone, think beyond our biology, it is foolish – dangerous – to act as if it does not control our social interactions. The proper foundation for a healthy society is the individual but he must exist within an authentic context. Neither the so-called ‘individualism’ typically associated with the USA and Britain nor an artificially imposed culture such as the European Union will suffice. In 1987, Margaret Thatcher famously said that there is “no such thing as society.” Exactly what she meant by the phrase is debatable but it does seem to succinctly sum up the cultural fragmentation prevalent in the modern West. Some countries are worse than others – in my limited experience, I have found Scandinavia to be notably better off than much of Europe – but the people of the modern world definitely suffer from a malaise. We are rootless, disconnected and in most cases unable to identify the cause of our sickness. This manifests in everything from a resurgence of quasi-fascist politics in Europe to the exponentially growing interest in tracing one’s family tree. People desperately seek some group to which they might belong: at best this results in a thriving subculture of some sort, at worst this results in ugly racism. When people are disconnected in an atomised culture they are far more vulnerable to external forces, whether those forces are quick fixes promised by advertisers or identification peddled by political parties. Furthermore, who will help their neighbour if they do not consider him to be ‘one of us’? In short, no-one knows who ‘us’ is anymore and everyone is beginning to look suspiciously like one of ‘them’.

Published in: on August 14, 2006 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Waiting

BramblesI am amazed to see that some people still read this blog, despite my failure to update it for some time now. I would be even more amazed if I didn’t know who they were. The hiatus was a result of a few things, most significantly a recent Working and laziness. Happily, part of the outcome of the former has led to a reduction in the latter, so I now pledge to myself that I will update this blog every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I suspect that there will be times when I have nothing interesting to say (how humble I am) but I’ll post something anyway, if only a link or two to the interesting words of someone else.

So I shall save my more lengthy musings for tomorrow and conclude with some notes on waiting.

The Isle of Wight is a small island just off the south coast of England. The area of sea between the island and the mainland is called the Solent. It has the commercial port of Southampton at the western end and the Royal Navy dockyards of Portsmouth at the eastern end. The Solent is a major shipping channel with over 30,000,000 tonnes of goods carried through it on container ships every year.

The tides in the Solent are quite strange due to the curious geography of the region. The most obvious manifestation of this peculiarity is the double high tide. However, there is another much rarer event – it occurs only once every year – that sometimes catches the unwary and is eagerly awaited by those in the know. Every year, a small sandbank is very briefly exposed right in the middle of the Solent. For about an hour there is a very small island about halfway between Southampton and the Isle of Wight then it is rapidly swallowed by the sea until next year.

Apart from causing something of a navigational hazard, this would not be so remarkable in itself. However, far more interesting and enjoyable is the fact that on this day the members of the Island Sailing Club and the Royal Southern Yacht Club sail out to the sandbank to drink champagne and play each other at cricket. The Brambles Bank Cricket Match has to be one of the more eccentric cricket matches played around the world and I suspect it is worth waiting for. The Brambles Bank surfaced yesterday, I went out in a dinghy but the bank had already sunk beneath the waves.

Vladimir: That passed the time.
Estragon: It would have passed in any case.
Vladimir: Yes, but not so rapidly.

Waiting for Godot

Published in: on August 13, 2006 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment