Saints of England

St GeorgeI was recently alerted to the fact that the Reverend Philip Chester, vicar of St Matthew’s Church, Westminster, has called for St George to be replaced as the patron saint of England by St Alban, whom Rev Chester deems to be more suitable. This is a ridiculous idea for all sorts of reasons (does he expect England and the United Kingdom to change their flags?) but it is of no real consequence. People often call for St George to be replaced. He is quite an obscure figure with no real connection to England. In fact, I wouldn’t mind George being replaced, as long as it was to return Edward to the position that he held before he was replaced by George in 1348.

Edward was the last of the House of Wessex and the penultimate Saxon king of England. His successor, Harold Godwin, reigned for only nine months before he was killed at the Battle of Hastings, fighting the invading army of William of Normandy. In 1161, Edward was canonized and became the patron saint of England. There are two types of saint: martyrs, who die for their faith, and confessors, who die naturally. Thus Edward became known as Edward the Confessor.

George was a soldier in the Roman Army, as was his father. His father was from Cappadocia, which is in what is now Turkey, and his mother was from Lydda, which is now called Lod and is a city in modern Israel. When the Emperor Diocletian ordered the persecution of Christians in 303 AD, George confessed to being a Christian himself and refused to participate. Diocletian considered this to be treachery and had George tortured and executed. Thus George became a martyr.

As a soldier, St George later came to be associated with chivalry and the codes of knighthood. As such, he appealed to the Crusaders and King Edward III of England. When King Edward founded the Order of the Garter in 1348, he established St George as the patron saint.

St George has also become conflated with the myth of a dragon slayer. According to the Christian version of the story, a dragon decided to make its nest by a spring that supplied a city with water. Once a year, when they needed to collect water, the townsfolk placated the dragon by offering him a human sacrifice. The sacrifice was chosen by lot. One year, the lot fell to a princess. Despite the king’s pleading, the princess was taken off to be given to the dragon. Then George appeared and slew the dragon, saving the princess. The townsfolk were so grateful that they gave up their pagan customs and converted to Christianity. However, versions of this story (without the conversion to Christianity at the end) appear throughout Indo-European mythology so it is probable that this is another example of an old myth surviving in part through a Christian adaption.

The Reverend Chester’s attack on St George seems to be motivated by political correctness and a dislike of tradition – he claims that it is absurd to have George as a patron saint and that his association with the Crusaders may offend Muslims – but I do not think he will be successful. Unless, of course, his goal was merely to publicise himself, in which case he has already achieved it.

Although St George does appear largely irrelevant to England, since his adoption by Edward III he has become relevant. It is true that there are other saints who might appear more suitable (including St Alban, who was the first English martyr) but that is not the point. This is not about picking the right tool for a job, this is about celebrating or attacking a tradition.

Published in: on September 25, 2006 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  

Commentary

HagalazRather than writing a whole new post, over the last few days I have been commenting on existing posts. There have been a few comments on my last two posts and, perhaps more interestingly, some on one of Ensio Kataja’s posts too.

I am finishing the job in the countryside that I have been doing all summer and moving back to the city, so I probably will not write an extensive post this week. But here is a thought that has been waiting for a public outlet:

Microcosmically, I am often motivated by fear of loss of control. However, that part of me that has control in such circumstances is not actually governed by my Self. Rather, it is a reactive machine. So my fear of loss of control leads to the perpetuation of a situation in which I do not, in fact, have control. Macrocosmically, the same applies. We in the modern West fear anything that threatens our individual freedom. However, by pretending we are isolated units we restrict ourselves. Our disconnection from culture and tradition leaves us vulnerable and impotent. Choice is the great virtue of the modern world. We are free to choose whichever option we want, without fear of coercion or punishment. But, when we come to choose, we discover that there aren’t actually any options left to choose between. (Or, rather, some of us do – the rest don’t notice that they haven’t chosen.)

Published in: on September 20, 2006 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  

Loyalty

SalutingI asked myself a question yesterday which I have not yet been able to answer. I’d very much appreciate it if anyone who reads this posted a comment with their own answer.

How do you understand the concept of loyalty and what value, if any, does it have for you? I find that whenever I try to think about this I either get tangled up with thoughts about honour, which is a related but different topic, or I react emotionally and vaguely. I find that I tend to imagine a loyal person – a heroic patriot or similar – or a disloyal person – Captain Jack Sparrow or similar – and then identify with one or the other.

Sometimes I consider the value of loyalty for loyalty’s sake: the idea that the value of loyalty is not linked (or only loosely linked) to the object of one’s loyalty but rather comes from the act of loyalty itself. It is good to be loyal, regardless of to what or whom you are loyal. I think Josiah Royce wrote something along those lines. I find it an intellectually appealing idea in some ways but ultimately it strikes me as hollow. I can’t make the link in my mind between the abstract loyalty discussed by philosophers such as Royce and the visceral loyalty that leaps from the pages of Anglo-Saxon poetry such as The Battle of Maldon.

But then old Germanic ‘loyalty’ wasn’t a lot like the modern idea of loyalty. It is made quite clear in the old poems that a person’s loyalty depends on the rewards he will be given. Having received a gift from his lord, a man is obliged to fight for him. But when peace returns he may, as long he owes nothing more to the lord, break off his allegiance and join the retinue of another lord who gives better rewards. Furthermore, this was considered praiseworthy – today it would probably be considered disloyal.

I think part of my problem is that I have an old fashioned understanding of honour but I cannot articulate it properly with my modern language. Triuwe, êre and vridu all make more sense to me than loyalty but even so I’m not sure if I really know what they mean. I particularly like this sentence, taken from George Fenwick Jones’ Honor in German Literature:

The old Germanic ideal of service unto death, but only as long as the payments are prompt, lasted until modern times in the ethics of the Swiss mercenaries.

There is something worryingly selfless about modern loyalty. It owes nothing to oaths, honour and debt. Instead, it has something to do with altruism and inherent duty. It seems fake and imposed rather than an authentic virtue. Lao Tzu wrote this:

When people lost sight of the way to live
Came codes of love and honesty,
Learning came, charity came,
Hypocrisy took charge;
When differences weakened family ties
Came benevolent fathers and dutiful sons;
And when lands were disrupted and misgoverned
Came ministers commended as loyal.

Published in: on September 14, 2006 at 12:00 am  Comments (4)  

Political Morality

Ten Commandments MonumentMorality is like politics. I never thought I’d write that.

Some people think there are moral laws. A fairly well known example of moral legislation is the Ten Commandments. Another, in a slightly more complicated manner, is Kant’s categorical imperative. According to these views, context is irrelevant. The laws are universal and must be obeyed at all times. They are an end in themselves, rather than a means to an end, and indeed they are usually presented as the ultimate and superlative end.

This strikes me as very similar to the notion of party politics. Rather than acting in accordance with his own conscience and judgment, a member of a political party is often expected to support his party whatever his leaders decide. Thus we have whips, whose sole job is to ensure that party members vote as the party leaders demand. Similarly, there are electors who will always vote for the same political party every time. In the USA there are people who will always vote for the Democratic Party and wouldn’t dream of voting for the Republican Party. In the UK there are people who will always vote for the Conservative Party and recoil in horror at the idea of voting for Labour.

The idea can be extended to political ideologies. There are people who consider themselves to be libertarians and so will always propose a textbook libertarian answer to any political problem. There are people who say they are anarchists and so will always provide an anarchic answer to any problem. And so on.

Personally, I prefer to use ideologies as starting points. When approaching a new situation, one needs somewhere to begin. So, for example, I might approach a political question from the point of view of an anarchist. Then I would seek to identify the ways in which the state was coercing the individual. A universalist anarchist would then decry every such instance of state interference as immoral and harmful. I would not. Instead, I would try to find out what purpose the state’s interference served and whether or not it could be justified. I would use anarchism as a point of departure – i.e. I would begin with the assumption that state interference is bad and therefore must be well justified in every instance – but I would allow its tenets to be overruled by the practicalities of the particular situation in question.

Morality is the same. I have, and think other people should also have, a moral code by which I attempt to live my life. But the code is not a set of rigid laws, rather it is a set of principles or guidelines that give me a starting point from which to assess a new situation. No law is universal and the universal application of any law is bound to cause harm.

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

Deigenesis

Flying Spaghetti MonsterIt is possible to speak a fact without knowing it. This is obvious: I could be taught to recite “in storea cattus est” without ever knowing what that means. It is also possible to know a fact without understanding it. Knowledge and understanding are very different things. If I know a fact then I can express it in different ways and I can construct an argument with that fact as a premise but I do not necessarily understand it.

Understanding is not just the collection of facts. Nor is it the arrangement of those facts. The construction of a consistent logical system that incorporates a number of facts does not imply any understanding of those facts. Possession of facts is merely knowledge: although some orderings of knowledge can be more useful for some purposes than other orderings, no particular ordering implies understanding.

Understanding requires both a certain state of Knowledge and a commensurate state of Being.

Most people do not act in accordance with their professed beliefs. We have an amazing ability to justify our actions after we have acted. It would be impressive if it were not universal and automatic. We hide the real reasons for our actions from ourselves and then lie to ourselves so that we can feel happy that we acted correctly. This is nothing new. What is not so frequently admitted is the reason why we can do this: We can hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time. Not only can we do so but almost everyone does all the time.

This is not easy to illustrate because most people will not admit it and the only way to really understand this is to see that you yourself do it. It is easier to illustrate a discrepancy between words and actions. Sometimes such a discrepancy is just hypocrisy, in which a person tries to deceive other people into believing that he is something that he is not. But more often the deception is not intended for other people but for oneself: any deception of others is incidental to the more profound self-deception.

Understanding cannot include deception. You cannot understand something if you are deceiving yourself about that thing. Thus the easiest way to see if a person truly understands something is to see if they act in a way consistent with such an understanding. Understanding is not something that you know or something that you have, it is something that you do.

There is one fact in particular that I have been thinking about recently. It is the fact that humanity creates its gods. The gods were made by man. With the exception of the faithful, most people believe this. They know that man made the gods. But they don’t understand it. The great irony is that they know that they made the gods but they still unwittingly submit to their gods’ rule. If it weren’t for the fact that the modern gods have been unconsciously created by inauthentic drones it would be really funny.

Published in: on September 10, 2006 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  

Origins

XenuDoes anyone ever tell the truth about where they came from?

Would the Book of The Law have had the profound effect that it did have if it hadn’t been dictated by Aiwass? Does it matter where the Book of Coming Forth by Night came from? Would people be drawn to Stáv if it had not been passed down through forty-four generations of the Hafskjold family? Couldn’t Westcott have started the Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn without a charter from the elusive Anna Sprengel? Who knows the truth of Julius Evola‘s childhood? No-one even knows for sure in which year Gurdjieff was born. Anton LaVey produced not one but two fictitious biographies.

What is it about esoteric teachings that seems to necessitate these bizarre stories? There are a number of mundane explanations. First, there is the obvious lure of the charlatan. Quite a lot of people are both gullible and stupid and I’m sure it is easier to convince such people to part with their time and their cash if they think you have a supernatural mandate. Many great philosophers have died in poverty while many uninspiring frauds have grown rich on their victims’ credulity. But there is real value to be found in all the traditions and teachings I mentioned above. There may be chicanery as well (actually, there usually is, which is a fact worth considering itself) but the origin stories cannot be completely explained as attempts to defraud. Second, there is the public relations angle. Many people, especially those seeking metaphysical knowledge, have an aversion to novelty. Such people, when asked to choose between, on the one hand, a recently concocted fusion of Eastern martial arts and European runelore and, on the other hand, an ancient tradition passed down from father to son for over a millenium, are likely to choose the latter. If such people can be helped in their quest by telling them that the former is the latter then surely that is a good thing? Perhaps something like this was behind LaVey’s comment to a journalist investigating his past: “I don’t want the legend to disappear. There is a danger you will disenchant a lot of young people who use me as a role model.” But this still doesn’t seem to explain it all.

Consider received texts. One of the arguments often used to show that they are not really received is the fact that they are always written in the style of the recipient. Critics point out that Liber AL vel Legis is unmistakably written in the same style as Crowley’s other literary output and therefore Crowley must be the author himself, rather than a scribe for Aiwass as he claimed. The counter argument is that the recipient understands the message he receives in terms of his current knowledge and thus, when he comes to express it, he inevitably does so in his own style. Thus John Dee the cryptographer and linguist received messages in an angelic language that he had to decipher, Crowley the Qabalist in Cairo received a message rich in Qabalistic imagery, gematric correspondances and references to Egyptian mythology, and so on. Whichever interpretation you prefer, this does illustrate an important point about metaphysical teachings, a point most explicit in the method of Gurdjieff.

The first time Gurdjieff tried to bring his teachings to the West, he was based in Russia. He taught in St. Petersburg and Moscow, primarily to fairly wealthy people with an interest in science. A prime example is his famous student Ouspensky, who was an accomplished mathematician and studied the philosophy of science but had distinctly mystical tendencies (not unlike Rudy Rucker.) In such circumstances, Gurdjieff presented his teachings as the ‘true science’ and made extensive use of astronomy, optics and harmonics to explain his ideas. This approach is perhaps best explained in Ouspensky’s book In Search of the Miraculous.

However, in 1922, Gurdjieff moved to Paris and founded the Institute for The Harmonious Development of Man. Here, in different circumstances, his teaching took on a very different flavour. He strongly disapproved of theoretical discussions and even discouraged any attempts to put his teachings into words at all. Clifford Sharpe wrote: “All the teaching is strictly practical. Only enough theory indeed is given to provide a language in which the results of self-study can be recorded and mutually related.”

Finally, Gurdjieff presented his ideas in a third form. He wrote a series of books entitled All and Everything. These books are, again, a completely different presentation of his thoughts.

However, anyone who studies his work seriously will find that all three presentations deal with the same fundamental concepts. On the surface, the three presentations seem quite different but that’s because they are just that: presentations. Gurdjieff faced the challenge that faces every person who wishes to bring to other people new knowledge. People who have not experienced the experiences about which he would teach them do not have the terminology with which to be taught. However, he could not merely present them with new terms because without the relevant experiences the terms would be meaningless. A glossary gives you new ways to express knowledge you already possess, it cannot teach you anything you do not already know. So he was forced to construct analogies and false-but-useful theories in order to give his students somewhere to begin. These analogies and theories obviously need to differ depending on the different needs of different students. But underneath these varied presentations, the core was always the same.

One can consider origin stories in much the same way. The first two explanations I suggested were largely concerned with other people: either helping or hindering them but always deceiving them. Both explanations take it for granted that the origin stories are false and differ only in the motive ascribed to the liar. A third explanation in the same category may simply be self-delusion or insanity.

But to assume that the story is false before we even begin is an unnecessary restriction. Children are taught Newtonian mechanics in their science lessons. We now consider such theories to be inadequate as they have been superseded by Einstein’s theories of Relativity and the theories of Quantum Physics. But we do not consider Newton’s theories to be false. We do not consider the science teacher to be a liar or a fraud for teaching Newtonian mechanics. Why not? If such a child were to go on to teach his friends what he had learned at school, would he be a liar? What if his teacher had actually told him that what he was learning wasn’t true but it was the best he could do for now. If the child still passed on what he was taught, would he be a liar then?

Rather than obsessing over the historical truth or falsity of origin stories I think it is more useful to consider their purpose. What is the core behind each of the stories of received texts, Secret Chiefs and fictitious biographies? I do not mean to suggest that there is a single lesson that lies behind every story, but that the best stories have multiple levels of exegesis. Of course, the worst are indeed fraudulent bollocks. So how do you tell the difference? If you take a story as true, what does it allow you to do?

Published in: on September 6, 2006 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Declaring War

CenotaphAn RAF Nimrod crashed in Afghanistan on Saturday, killing everyone onboard. It was the single biggest military loss the UK has suffered since the Falklands War. A NATO spokesman has announced that it was a technical failure and that the claims of Taliban fighters to have shot down the aircraft are lies. Regardless of the real cause of the crash, it is interesting to note how this event has been reported. As with pretty much every military death in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is reported as if it were a humanitarian tragedy. When members of our armed forces engaged on a military operation suffer losses, it is reported in exactly the same terms and in the same tone as an unfortunate road accident or a natural disaster. But this is not an earthquake or a car crash: this is war.

It is amazing that most people in the UK do not consider themselves to be at war. The Cold War was largely fought using covert actions and proxy wars but, even if civilians did not have the same attitude as they did during more obvious conflicts such as the world wars, there was at least some sense of being at war. Today there is no such sense. We have some soldiers, sailors and airmen engaged in “dangerous missions” or “peacekeeping operations” but we are not at war. We invaded and conquered a sovereign state but the Iraq War seems to be a ‘war’ in a very abstract sense – it isn’t a real war like the Second World War or the Napoleonic Wars.

There seem to be two major differences between today’s warfare and warfare before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The first is its remoteness. Although it probably seemed a lot like war to the Iraqis when our troops landed on their shores and our tanks rolled into their cities, it was all just a lot of exciting news reports to most people in the UK. There was no threat to us. Even if we lost, the worst that would happen is that our troops would have to come home again. In contrast, during the Cold War there was a constant sense of danger. Nuclear warfare was a real concern, people speculated about how an attack might come and a Soviet invasion of Europe was considered a real possibility. People genuinely felt threatened.

Of course, some people today feel threatened by terrorists. But who are the terrorists? This is the second difference: today we have no clearly defined enemy. During the Cold War the Soviet Union was very definitely the enemy, even if we were not engaged in open warfare with them. In earlier wars the enemy was more obvious still. But today we have a ‘War on Terrorism’. How exactly does one engage in warfare with an abstract noun? We are supposed to be liberating Iraq so the Iraqis must be our allies, right? We are protecting the Afghan state from guerillas, so the Afghanis must also be our allies. So who is the enemy? There doesn’t seem to be any people or state that fits into that role. People talk about Islamic terrorism but they are usually just as quick to point out that most Muslims aren’t terrorists, it’s just that these terrorists happen to be Muslims. So we aren’t fighting Islam. Who are we fighting?

We don’t seem to be engaged in warfare at all – it seems much more like a world-wide police operation than a war. But if it’s a police operation, why are our armed forces invading other countries? I find it amazing that a country can go to war without most of its countrymen truly realising it. I think it’s also worth noting that since the Second World War, no Western nation has formally declared war. There have been many wars – probably more than most people realise – but they have never been formally declared. They are always “police actions” or “armed responses” or some such. Perhaps this isn’t war. Perhaps the cause of this cognitive dissonance is simply that this is an entirely new phenomenon and we do not possess the terminology we need to talk about it accurately and rationally.

Published in: on September 4, 2006 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  

Quotations II

Vigil AngelDo not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.

— Matsuo Bashō

Death slew not him, but he made death his ladder to the skies.

— Fulke Greville, Elegy on the Death of Sidney

A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business.

— Eric Hoffer, The True Believer

I said to Life, “I would hear Death speak.”
And Life raised her voice a little higher and said, “You hear him now.”

— Khalil Gibran, Sand and Foam

I commend my soul to any god that can find it.

— Terry Pratchett, Going Postal

Published in: on September 1, 2006 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment