September 4th, 2011
|09:03 am - What I did on my holiday 6|
As we reacquaint ourselves with metaphysics, we should at least be reminded of its key assumption: that the nature of man is inherent and does not change.
This doctrine of man as an animal with an unchanging nature is not popular. We like to imagine that we live in an age of change, that what we are doing is changing the World.
The young among us think that change equals improvement. We have invented medical technology, computers and the internet. We are all going to live longer and more prosperously and have more rewarding social lives. We will improve the world by creating a new global community.
Sure. The seed drill and the printing press certainly brought an end to all wars.
The older amongst us cite immigration, globalisation, and recession as evidence that change is actually making things worse. They downplay the silk-trading networks that spanned the globe well before the fourteenth century. They ignore the history of Asia when they claim that the late twentieth century saw the creation of multinational organisations that move their operations from country to country to find cheap labour and escape taxation. What was the Dutch East India Company? How did the British Empire in India come about exactly?
The truth is that we haven’t seen more (or fewer) wars, more (or less) global tension, more (or less) feeling of technological change in the last twenty years than any other generation of humans since the beginning of history. You’re going to say that we are made more aware of it nowadays because of 24-hour news reporting. What were the cinema news reels, the evening papers, the town criers doing in the old days?
What has changed – the most important thing and the most beneficial thing – is that we have all become relativists. Only since the death of religion as a viable political motivator in the West has social diversity – moral dispute – been an acceptable reality in our society.
What does it mean?
It means the death of History as a morality tale, a battle between good and evil. What does the apportionment of blame between two sides mean now? Now that we understand that those killed in battle may achieve a greater satisfaction from its outcome than its ultimate beneficiaries? I am talking about our enemies here as well as our own soldiers.
We need to change the way we write and the way we think. We need to understand that there aren’t two sides to every story. We need to understand that the world isn’t a story for our edification but a really complex place where really complex people live. We would do well to understand that they really do believe things that are hard for us to imagine.
What else does this relativism bring?
Well, for those of us who accept and embrace relativism, who understand that we are moral magpies, pick-and-mix philosophers, perhaps there are some lessons.
Perhaps we can learn to believe in (if not understand) other people having beliefs that are different from our own. Perhaps we can instruct our politicians to execute policies that reflect our awareness that other people have different motivations. Perhaps we can stop them enacting policies that infringe other people’s abilities to make moral judgements as well as jealously guarding our own.
Perhaps we could look to our own responsibilities, rather than thinking of our rights. Perhaps we can understand that being good doesn’t mean gaining greater freedom for us, but not fucking up other people’s sense of good.
|09:01 am - What I did on my holiday 5|
So what is good? Does it subsist in society? Let’s explore that possibility by looking at what we are doing to promote social goods.
To judge from our politics, the good (the main object of our political pursuit) is the pursuit of material wealth.
I do not mean to cite the Conservative Party (the Evil Party) as some kind of materialist moral scourge just because they are in power at the moment. The Liberal Democrats (socks and sandals) and the Labour Party (what is there to say?) are all equally determined that the necessity to act (in various ways) to promote the economy is their key political message.
This fascination reflects a key reality about our society, and one that we had better understand pretty quickly. It’s not that we are all ideologically materialistic per se (although iPads are pretty good). But we don’t have much else in common other than our shared economic plight.
Quite a lot of interesting things have been written about imagined communities. I imagine my communities as extending as far as my workplace, my shops, my local pub, my friends on Facebook, and occasionally the whole of Cambridge.
I have some semblance of shared community with remote places in Scotland: we may both support Andy Murray in his certainly doomed US Open campaign (he will lose to Djockovic in the semi-final). But I don’t have significantly more community with the people of the Hebrides than I do with the people of a small island in Croatia, where I took my recent holiday. In other words, I am not nationalistic.
Of course I’m not. We don’t believe in overarching ideologies any more because we are relativistic. I want to be free from their judgements.
The last thing I want is Hebridean sheep-farmers making decisions about when my local pub will be open because of a shared national morality. They don’t want me to make decisions about how much tax they should pay or their fishing quotas.
So the only thing I have to share with nearly all of the other people in my society is a combined hope that we will all get a bit richer, and then I can have an iPhone and they can have, I don’t know, some more sheep.
Now convince me that an accountant from Cambridge is really part of the same economy as a putative sheep-farmer from the Hebrides and we will have a basis to work together as a society to gain ‘freedom to’ have Apple products.
I think that good has its locus in individual satisfaction. Aristotle defines it as the rational pursuit of a rational objective. Well, fine. I pursued pulling up moss as rationally as I could this afternoon because I thought the lawn needed weeding. The unknown soldier undoubtedly did his best to fight for his vision of society. My action was definitely more directly related to pursuing my personal material gain – I will have a nicer lawn at the end of it, whereas he is dead.
I don’t agree with his reasons and I don’t support his cause, but I know who I think achieved a greater virtue. We can all understand that what he did had meaning and that what I did had little.
We recognise that freedom doesn’t equal good and that good doesn’t subsist only in relation to political society (which appears only to relate to material gain). So when we seek the good, we need to understand internal, as well as external, motivators. We need to rehabilitate metaphysics – the baby we threw out with the religious bathwater.
|08:59 am - What I did on my holiday 4|
Our fascination with freedom partly reflects our jealousy about moral judgement. We have seen that the rejection of monarchy stems from jealousy, and so-called democracy, a system in which we each have a voice (an element of freedom to choose) is preferred.
But it also reflects our failure to abandon Christian morality completely. When we speak of the need for freedom, we are rehearsing the half-understood remnants of a scholastic debate. Our vision of freedom as a good is burdened by centuries of debate over whether man has freedom of choice in the face of an omnipotent and omniscient creator.
The argument (as we misconstrue it) is that without the freedom to choose a course of action for ourselves, we cannot actively choose good.
This argument for freedom attracts us like moths to a candle. But it is illusory and stems from two non-sequiturs.
The first non-sequitur arises because we are still fighting the Cold War (and the Second World War before that) in our heads. All generals fight the last battle, and we are fighting for freedom against political totalitarianism.
The problem is that our Cold War rhetoric promotes freedom, but not ‘freedom to’ do anything – we have rejected that notion with our rejection of religion as a political motivator – rather ‘freedom from’ others’ power – jealousy of others’ ability to make moral judgements.
Since we have rejected the connection between freedom and ‘freedom to’ pursue good as a society, freedom can at best mean that we can individually do what we individually want. It is unclear, however, that your being able to do what you want will enhance my ability to do what I want. I, for example, may believe that Christian worship is good, but you may believe that the ability to go swimming is good – and buy the land on which I wanted to build my chapel.
We don’t actually have very much freedom. Because the economy’s fucked, I can’t afford to build my chapel and you can’t afford to build your swimming pool. Nor could we have much more freedom. When the economy recovers, either I or you will have to sacrifice a chapel or a swimming pool or we will be unfree to live in the same place as one another.
The second non-sequitur may be even more critical than the first. It is that, given ‘freedom from’ oppression, we would be likely or able to choose good. Given our moral relativism and scepticism about others’ ability to make judgements that relate to our good, we may also humbly doubt whether we are in a position to make our own judgements.
I am a moderately wealthy accountant with a PhD from the University of Cambridge. I spent my afternoon weeding my lawn. I achieve (frankly) limited satisfaction from spending my Saturday afternoon weeding my lawn, and although I would doubtless gain some pleasure if I had a perfect lawn as a result, I’ve been doing it for years and the grass is still patchy.
The unknown soldier may have been brought up on a council estate and left school at sixteen (this is the classic British image of the US military recruit, after all). He died gloriously (unwillingly), fighting for his country and his ideals.
Which of us had more freedom to make choices about how to spend his day?
I am hardly the first to point out that the people of a free society are not inherently free.
‘Freedom [itself] isn’t free / It costs folk like you and me / And if you don’t put in your buck or five who will?’
The irony of the unknown soldier’s death is that he lost his greatest ‘freedom from’ (freedom from being killed by an oppressor) fighting for the ‘freedom to’ be free.
This is self-evidently ludicrous. Yet in fact it illustrates a severe and grave error in our reasoning, which leads us to believe that we can equate ‘freedom’ with ‘good’. Freedom is a concept (or possibly two concepts, depending on how seriously we take the ‘freedom to’ / ‘freedom from’ distinction) that may permit us to undertake the pursuit of good. It is not the same as good itself.
|08:57 am - What I did on my holiday 3|
We have thrown out Christian virtue as a political motivator and we talk of a new good in politics: freedom (‘freedom from’).
But freedom doesn’t work very well in society. Let’s look at two aspects of this: rights (the right to freedom?), and the notion of freedom itself.
A right to maximal freedom is presupposed by most libertarian political thinkers, who argue that freedom can only legitimately be curtailed where this is necessary for society.
David Cameron tells rioting youngsters that they cannot have rights without responsibilities. This is inherently true since a right for one person is at most the obverse of a responsibility of another.
Let us try another example. What is the most basic right that could be claimed? A right to life (let’s not complicate the matter further by bringing abortion into the picture – let’s suppose that we are talking about an initially healthy adult). The right to life can only exist where there is at least one other person and that person has the resource available to sustain the life of Person A. Person B now has a duty to look after Person A if Person A has a right to life. I think we can all see that in the event that Person A is alone on a remote desert island and his existence (even the existence of the island where there might be a putative Person A) is unknown to anyone else, his ‘right to life’ is meaningless. From whom could it be claimed? God?
Implication: rights – although conceptually attractive – actually do not exist. Responsibilities do. We could suppose a responsibility not to infringe the freedom of others more than is required to permit an equal level of freedom for ourselves. No further responsibility or right can exist in relation to freedom.
|08:55 am - What I did on my holiday 2|
We don’t believe in monarchy. I mean, I don’t doubt the existence of Queen Elizabeth II, and I am not claiming that we are all republicans nowadays. But those who support the continued existence of the monarchy (I am not one of them) don’t support it on the ground that the monarch is appointed by God to rule over us or on the grounds that the monarch is better able than us to decide how we should live.
In fact, we have established a system to avoid monarchy, and we call it ‘democracy’.
We don’t support our democracy because we believe that the democratically elected government is better able than we are to make decisions about how we should live. In fact, we don’t support our democracy very much at all as fewer than 50% of us normally turn out to vote and most of us would say that we were disillusioned with politics.
We like our democracies because we are relativists. We don’t believe that anyone is able to judge moral good better than anyone else, and we therefore prefer a system of government that prevents other people from making such judgements. This moral jealousy is the underpinning of our system of government. The Americans call it ‘checks and balances’ and believe that it is necessary because power corrupts.
But we do not live in a real democracy – ie a system in which we each have an equal say in making decisions – and those of us who don’t support hanging and the occasional reactionary slaughter of paediatricians aren’t sorry that we don’t.
We can’t live in such a democracy because, since the death of religion as a political motivator, we cannot agree with the other members of our society on what is good. You and I therefore would feel oppressed, not free, were decisions to be made by the thoughtless majority.
We like the system of parliamentary democracy – ie the election of an aristocracy that is empowered to act on our behalf – because it creates a class of public servants. We elect representatives to execute but we don’t give them a right to make judgements on our behalf about what is good. In fact, we very rarely accept what our politicians tell us about what is good; we merely vote for those politicians who we pragmatically assess as being most likely to be able to get us the things that we have decided we want. A lot of these things appear to be material, given the politicians’ endless promises of growth and threats of recession. Bill Clinton told us: ‘It’s the economy, stupid’.
We like to have public servants rather than public masters because we are jealous of others’ ability to make moral choices on our behalf.
We call this refusal to accept the judgements of others a form of ‘freedom’. Isaiah Berlin distinguishes this as a ‘freedom from’ the authority of others, and it is conceptually different from the ‘freedom to’ discussed above.
|08:47 am - What I did on my holiday|
We are pick and mix philosophers. We are moral magpies.
We have rejected religion as a motivator for politics – at least, I am going to assume that nobody who reads this seriously believes that we should use politics and power to spread Christianity of Judaism at the expense of other religions.
And with our rejection of religion, we have rejected metaphysics, as being the science of the soul, the search for good.
But we haven’t found a replacement for the Christian good (some philosophers call this virtue or virtu in order to disguise the fundamental importance of the concept).
Consequently, we are unswervingly relativistic in our approach to morality. Panjak Mishra, writing in the Guardian, cites a soldier killed in Iraq:
‘"I believe what I was doing was for the purpose of good," one of the executed soldiers had written in a letter to his mother to be opened in the event of his death.’
Mishra’s commentary, however (even the use of this example) ironically illustrates our refusal to believe in good. ‘The solidier’, Mishra writes ‘couldn't be faulted for claiming virtue for his side’.
We, however, no longer believe that the war in Iraq can meaningfully be justified in terms of moral good.
Some of us also do not regard that war as morally bad. I, for example, studied for a PhD in History at Cambridge University, but now work as an accountant. I spent my afternoon weeding my garden. I might have painted the bedroom had I been more motivated.
The unknown (because unnamed) soldier mentioned above died in glory, sacrificing his life for what he saw as good.
It is highly unlikely that I will be able to say – even to say, let alone think – that I have laid down my life gloriously. In fact, I will probably never do anything that could even tenuously be described as glorious.
The unknown (because unnamed) soldier is cited as an example of the pity of war. But war gave him a glory that I will never attain. Dying in support of an ideological cause was a good for the unknown soldier.
I am happy weeding my garden because I don’t have an ideological cause that I would like to die for. In fact, if I don’t share the soldier’s belief that the war itself was good and just, I may argue that pulling up moss from my suburban lawn is morally equal or even superior to the act of the man who laid down his life for his country.
June 1st, 2010
|09:18 pm - Harold Pinter on the beauty of mathematics|
fuck it all
fuck arithmetic progression
and fuck fucking pascal’s triangle while you’re at it
November 13th, 2008
|07:27 pm - Acrid Peter Ackroyd|
I was asked by a Japanese Shakespeare scholar, who is reviewing the Japanese edition of Peter Ackroyd's new book, what I thought of Peter Ackroyd. Read my response:
I don't like Peter Ackroyd and, as far as I am aware, his work is not highly regarded amongst academic historians in Cambridge - not surprising since he seeks to reach beyond an academic audience (never popular here).
I find Peter Ackroyd's London boring, poorly written, and at times facile. I gather, though, that it is popular with the broadsheet-reading middle classes (I believe he is a regular newspaper columnist and book reviewer). I suppose they like the book because it sits impressively on their coffee tables. Ackroyd's love of, and enthusiasm for, London probably attract readers at first, but I found the book hard to deal with when approaching the thirtieth or fortieth distinct theme (it has 79), each of which is traced independently over the entire history of the city. Presumably it is intended as a book to dip in and out of.
London would have been a more successful historical project had Ackroyd employed a more analytical approach, which would have put themes in the context of periods. This, however, would have required chapters averaging longer than ten pages, and would therefore perhaps have alienated his target readership. As an illustration of how intellectually unsuccessful his approach is, rather than contextualising the issues of age and gender throughout the history of the city, Ackroyd sweeps past them for all but 33 of 780 pages, and then tackles each separately in a section headed "Women and Children", containing chapters patronisingly entitled "The feminine principle" and "Boys and girls come out to play". A further ten pages - in an entirely separate section of the book - are devoted to prostitution, under the title "You Sexy Thing".
Ackroyd has also produced a (dire) biography of Thomas More, which I read while I was looking at Thomas More for my studies. Although it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for literature, it veers strangely between scholarly didacticism and speculative review. Thomas More is littered with unhistorical and grammatically awkward disclaimers of responsibility, which make the book unsatisfying to read (per Amazon, "But it might be more fruitful to recognise... "/ "...but it might be worth rehearsing certain of its aspects... "/ "It has in the past been noticed... ").
Ackroyd additionally recycles common platitudes and well-worn clichés about the subject of the biography, apparently careless of whether they are historically grounded, as and when he feels they add colour. I spent fifteen minutes tonight leafing through until I came to the following example. Pages 358-9 of my edition contain a colourful description of the death of five priests, associates of Elizabeth Barton, "written", Ackroyd tells us, "by a Franciscan some years later" - ie perhaps (though we are not equipped to judge from Ackroyd's critical apparatus) under Mary I when Catholic Martyrologies were starting to appear to support the propaganda requirements of the new monarchy.
According to our witness, "[e]ach one was hanged until he lost consciousness, and then was revived so that he could watch as his penis was cut off and stuffed in his mouth; his stomach was then cut open and his intestines tossed in a cauldron of boiling water so that the dying man might smell his own mortality. Then the heart was plucked from his steaming body and held before his face. One of the victims [and here even Ackroyd appears to lose confidence in his source] is supposed to have cried, 'What you are holding is consecrated to God'." The reference is to an obscure 1971 secondary work, Alan Neame's Elizabeth Barton: The Holy Maid of Kent. This work in turn is described by Ethan H. Shagan in "Print, Orality and Communications in the Maid of Kent Affair", The Journal of Ecclesiastical History (Cambridge, 2001), a reputable scholarly journal, as "a hagiography" of Elizabeth Barton. Is Ackroyd's account credible history?
Ackroyd, however, does not write for the academic audience. Among the general public, I believe that his name-dropping, fact-checking, date-listing prose style, his penchant for choosing popular topics (London, More, Shakespeare...), and his relaxed attitude to representing alternate views in historical debates, make him very popular. His books are perhaps the kind that one might suggest for an enquiring sixteen year-old who was thinking of pursuing A-Level history. Wikipedia and the Guardian speak very highly of him: The Guardian believes that "Ackroyd follows in the tradition of the great chroniclers of London, Wiliam Blake and Charles Dickens".
I would not like any of Peter Ackroyd's books for Christmas.
August 22nd, 2007
|10:08 pm - Reading (and not the blue-and-white striped variety)|
9) Tom Sharpe, Wilt in Nowhere - disappointing. Very reminiscent of David Lodge, Thinks...
10) Mark Haddon, A Spot of Bother - I really enjoyed this. I read it on a train and appalled the other people by laughing out loud and then wincing very obviously. I read it in a crowded room and disturbed all the people there by twitching and shaking in time with the characters. Not as memorable as Curious Incident, but still good.
August 2nd, 2007