Is reason enough?

(References are to Steven Pinker’s new book, ‘Enlightenment Now: A Manifesto for Science, Reason, Humanism and Progress’, and Philip Ball’s excellent review of the book in the March edition of Prospect. Also to Philip Dodd who took on Pinker is a determined interview on the Radio 3 Free Thinking programme.)

A brief weather note to begin. Spring we thought might almost be upon us, but Siberia has chased it away, and the snowdrops are looking a little out of place, and the daffodils have all but gone to earth.

So too reason? And, specifically, the pursuit of reason in political argument and debate?

I’m reading so much about identity, culture wars, anger and estrangement – and now with Steven Picker’s new book, the Enlightenment is in the news. How can I not be a big fan? The rigorous application of reason brought to bear on all aspects of our activities. As advocated by Diderot, author of the Encyclopedie, the seminal text of the Enlightenment.

Sleep of reason

Goya’s The Sleep of Reason, ‘the sleep of reason produces monsters’, from his series of etchings, Los Caprichos, 1799.

But has the Enlightenment also gone to earth? Pinker thinks not – argues powerfully against.

I’d love to sign up unreservedly to his paean to progress – things are getting better, as the statistics and graphs tell us, incontrovertibly so – we are all living longer, better educated, immeasurably better off if we take the world as a whole. But what troubles me is his ‘aversion to anything subjective’, as Philip Ball puts in his review. Pinker denies religion any role, likewise identity, tribal identity – and that means shared beliefs in progress, humanity, compassion, sometimes God. He has no place for out-there institutions, places of worship, and the collective action they often embody – action against poverty, hardship, exclusion – inspired by and acting out of love. Compassion, as I argued in a post of a few years back, discussing Pinker’s last book, The Better Angels Of Our Nature, doesn’t get a look in.

Can reason be enough of itself to triumph over violence?

For Pinker man is ‘born into a pitiless universe [and] shaped by a force that is ruthlessly competitive’. Only reason can hold out against this. And reason finds expression in democracy as the most effective way to gain traction. Thomas Hobbes had a similar view of mankind, but saw our only hope as lying in contracting with an autocratic ruler. With Xi Jinping seeking president-and-party-leader-for-life status we’ve a good example of that alternative path closer to hand. Turkey likewise, and Hungary and Poland moving in that direction.

Reason simply isn’t enough on its own. It’s not solus reason that’s leading the charge, it’s religion, and reason together, and by religion (a maybe controversial definition!) I mean the exercise – the acting out – of an innate compassion, a rather un-Darwinian concept. Not just the compassion of mother to child, or a care worker to her charges, or a priest or minister toward his congregation, but compassion as an innate moral code that informs the wider political workings of society.

Pinker’s right in there, unworried about his PC status, arguing that the left, supposedly champions of the working-class and the left-behind, has focused too much on issues of sexual and cultural identity – and lost connection with the old working class. Marx is excluded from the pantheon but Hobbes indeed is one of the good guys. Fascinating as intellectual debate, but where is the connection with the everyday?

Reason is too chill to excite, too cerebral to inspire (unless you’re Pinker). We are where we are today because the passion and compassion of reformers, secular and religious, has consistently challenged enterprise and competition – to the benefit of all. Championing education, social welfare, safety nets in time of need. It’s when society believes in and acts out a shared morality that we move forward.

Pinker has run himself into hot water in recent weeks arguing that inequality isn’t a major issue for our times – the majority worldwide is in our times so much better off – but inequality is a key driver of social action. Inequality is tied in with a sense of being left behind, on the outside. There’s a big poker game running, but it’s (the UK) down south, or (the USA) up in the north-east, or out on the West Coast, and I’m not invited.

If society isn’t inclusive, if it isn’t compassionate, those who perceive themselves as excluded will set themselves up as ‘the majority’, will scale down compassion to actions within their own social group, and society will polarise, and nations seek out their own identities, and close borders, and all the grand tenets of the Enlightenment will be even more confined to discussion among academics.

This zenpolitics blog is about strategies for living, if that doesn’t sound too grand – I’ve summarised them before as enterprise and compassion, social justice and capability. Yes, there’s a violent side to all our natures, but it’s more our competitive instinct that dominates and drives society forward. Violence arises when we push back selfish boundaries too far.

Compassion and competition work together. If competition is centrifugal, tearing apart, at its extremes, violence, then compassion is the opposite, it is the instinct that binds – and it is innate. Pinker would scorn such notions.

Pinker’s wonderful to listen to – he signed my copy of Better Angels at a Royal Society of Arts talk some five years ago, and we had a few words back then. (Our subject – was war inevitable in 1914?) But his argument hasn’t the essential motor, the sine qua non, to progress.

It will fire the campus and the book pages. But beyond?

George Orwell – lessons for a post-truth world

How do you define an essay, and how does an essay differ from a blog, or an article by a newspaper columnist?

Bernard Crick in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition (published in 2000)  of George Orwell’s essays attempts a definition: it can be moral, didactic and serious … it can be informal and flexible, ‘above all it leaves the reader in some uncertainty about what is going to be said next’.

By comparison so much contemporary discourse is predictable: read a blog, your favourite blog, and you’ve a good idea what it might say.

Orwell as we all do had favourite themes (though he often surprises), but he approaches them in ways that are never tedious or predictable. The Prevention of Literature begins at a PEN Club meeting, ostensibly celebrating John Milton and freedom of the press, where none of the speakers highlight that freedom of the press means the freedom to criticise and oppose. (Two speakers eulogise the Soviet Union.) Antisemitism in Britain begins with specific examples (‘No, I do not like the Jews … Mind you, I’m not anti-Semitic, of course’), Politics and the English Language with passages which exemplify ‘a few of the bad habits which spread by imitation’, and How the Poor Die takes off on a harrowing journey based on his own experience in Hopital X in Paris in 1929.

The greatest joy in reading Orwell is his lucidity – and the sheer breadth of his experience and reading. (In Books v Cigarettes he owns to having just 442 books, and yet his range of reference and quotation is remarkable. There were of course always libraries.) His essays are models – and reminders – for our own time, as they were for the 1940s.

Likewise his conclusions. ‘The Catholic and Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot both be honest and intelligent.’ We no longer have a Russian ‘mythos’ (‘true individuality is only attained through identification with the community’) but we have ‘mythos’ which are all our own, and a society which in recent years has become more divided and less tolerant.

We don’t play with ideologies as they did in Orwell’s time. But we tailor what we say or write, more dangerously, we tailor what we think, to received notions, put identity and security before intellectual challenge.  ‘A bought mind’, now as then, ‘is a spoilt mind.’

Orwell continues: ‘Unless spontaneity enters at some point or another literary creation is impossible, and language itself becomes ossified.’ What applies to literature also applies to politics.

What we also get from Orwell is a portrayal of the mood of his times, the anxieties of a wartime and immediately post-war would where one spectre of totalitarianism has been removed but another is asserting itself ever more strongly, good minds all around Orwell are signing up, and tempering their beliefs and writing to what they deem a higher cause. Orwell doesn’t question the aim, the emancipation of the working class, but is adamant that Soviet Russia isn’t the vehicle by which that might be achieved.

(We also pick up on his anxieties about a post-Christian, avowedly humanist society, where socialism as as an ideal, as an alternative to the afterlife, has been compromised, maybe fatally.)

Totalitarian regimes require misinformation, they write and re-write their own histories (pro-Soviet intellectuals were caught out by the 1939 German/Soviet pact, and caught out again when Germany invaded Russia in 1941). But apologists for Russia weren’t the only enemy.

‘Any writer or journalist who wants to retain his integrity finds himself thwarted by the general drift of society rather than active persecution.’ Examples include ‘the concentration of the press in the hands of a few rich men, the grip of monopoly radio and films, the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books…’

Misinformation in our own time has been well-disguised: it’s about how the news is framed and who does the framing – about how we, as watchers and listeners and readers with it, are manipulated. But post-Brexit, post-Trump, in the recent German election, it’s out in the open. Which side is putting out ‘fake news’?

Many of the essays were written for Tribune, and that meant a left-wing and intellectual audience. I’d guess that Orwell would love to have written for a wider audience, to have hustled in alongside a newspaper magnate (or maybe not!) as Michael Foot did with Beaverbrook in the 1930s, or better still find popular media outlets that weren’t in the hands of rich men. 1984 and Animal Farm, written at the same time as the Tribune essays, did of course break through, but at the level of the educated middle- not working-class. So the best Orwell could do, the best he could hope for, was to influence other writers, other opinion-formers, to lay out a course between the intolerancies of the Tory (and Catholic, as he saw it) right and the radical and Sovietised left.

He does this with grace and precision at the conclusion of his essay of antisemitism, arguing for integrity based on self-examination:

‘I defy any modern intellectual to look closely and honestly into his own mind without coming upon nationalistic loyalties and hatreds of one kind or another. It is the fact that he can feel the emotional tug of such things, and yet see them dispassionately for what they are, that gives him his status as an intellectual.’

Hatreds and loyalties aren’t confined to nationalism of course. (Another subject on which Orwell writes with great insight.) My only caveat is his use of the word ‘intellectual’. It is not beyond all of us in our educated world to step back and step back and view our world dispassionately.

One obstacle, a fundamental one, to our doing so, is our use of language.  Orwell is explicit on the subject in Politics and the English language:

‘…the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language … one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy … where you make a stupid remark it will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change all this in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits …’

There’s a mighty challenge here, and the first thing I must do is re-read what I’ve written here – is it an essay or a blog or just a few ruminations ? – and see how it fares when judged against Orwell’s high aspiration.

All Hallows

Yesterday was All Hallows’ Eve, which makes today All Saints’ Day. Yesterday was also in warm and brilliant sunshine the last day of autumn (by my calculations anyway!) – the autumn colours burnt in the sun as I’ve rarely seen them, a multitude of shades, with their own luminescence – as if they didn’t need the sun to make them glow. Today is the first day of winter – the cloud is down on the hills, there’s a chill, the fire must be lit soon, and the leaves are thick on the ground. I raked them in the sunshine yesterday, but they’ve returned, and if I rake again, this time in the damp and gloom, they will return again, until the last one has fallen and I can put the rake away.

Yes, there’s an elegiac quality to all this. I listened to the adagio from the Elgar violin concerto driving back along the A419 heading toward the Cotswolds yesterday. That caught the mood. I knew this was the last day, the last of autumn, and there were not two hours till sunset.

The day before I’d listened to David Mellor on Classic FM, playing music from the Philharmonia under Otto Klemperer. A recording of Mahler’s Resurrection symphony when the great conductor was already in his 80s. He took it slowly. About the same time the recording was made I was, I remember, at a party at Professor Gombrich’s house. Ernst Gombrich was my professor at the Warburg Institute. Frau Gombrich mentioned they were going to hear Otto the following day. Otto being Klemperer. All with Viennese Jewish backgrounds, and the connections were still strong.

Klemperer had been recommended sixty  years before by Gustav Mahler (also that Jewish connection) to an orchestral position, and I felt my own connection listening to the final ecstatic bars of the symphony to Klemperer and Mahler. Almost a laying on of hands. Ridiculous in its way, but the music took me to another level. Triumphant – but also elegiac, and intensely moving.

Mahler died young, and two world wars had to work themselves out before Klemperer stood before the Philharmonia in the late 1960s.

I’ve felt betrayed by events this year – my values betrayed, values by which I’ve conducted by life over almost seventy years. The autumn leaves, the music, a sense of loss I wouldn’t ordinarily indulge. But I did this time, this once, just this once.

Rights, compassion and all that serious stuff

Our concepts of justice and social justice are closely tied to our ideas about the rights we enjoy as human beings. Rights easily taken for granted, and all too easily abused.

That takes us to another question, one that’s long concerned me – what lies behind the rights we enjoy? An external authority? Or something beyond that – are the rights we enjoy innate in who we are?

If this sounds heavy duty, please do bear with me. It gets to the core of why I set up the zenpolitics blog: how we can relate compassion, and the practice of compassion, to our everyday lives, and beyond that, to political life.

Negative rights assume self-interest is paramount: we respect the rights of others to pursue their interest to the extent that they respect our rights to do the same. Our loyalties are tied to family and community and to country: emotions attach to those loyalties, but they link back to our own selfish interest.

Positive rights assume a wider concept of interest, where the interests of self and others are ultimately the same, based on a natural justice common to all. From this derives everything from the right to vote and to an education, to the rights of the child, as in the UN Charter, and indeed to natural justice, where justice, and the legal system that enacts it, is common to all.

A natural justice common to all? Based on what? It can’t simply be a convenient construct, or rely on a hypothetical contract between citizens, which can be interpreted many different ways and swing as mood and opinion swings, or government or media interests dictate. (Though for many a construct or contract is as far as they’re prepared to go, following a trail blazed by Thomas Hobbes.) It must rely on something that goes deeper.

Religions avow an external authority, but I’m not sure we need religion as such. When we put ourselves beyond the addictive emotions, beyond anger, fear, desire, pride – beyond the attachments which cloud our judgement in everyday life, we find in the silence – a silence of mind – that compassion and fellow-feeling come entirely naturally. Compassion isn’t an emotion but a state of mind.

In Buddhist terms, your ‘original face’, in Christian terms, we’re back before the Fall, for the humanist we’re simply in touch with human nature. In the debate whether mankind is intrinsically evil or good I come down firmly on the side of good.

Silence – we have to find silence. Not a few moments walking to the station, or even walking the hills. Silence is silencing all the voices and emotions that take over our lives without our realising it. That’s where we go beyond our selfish selves, and find something else. Where the feelings of others are as important as our own.

The ‘others’ are not just our family, our peer group, community, country – they are by definition (compassion isn’t partial) all mankind.

We fall short all the time of course, sometimes a million miles short. But silence is our reference point.

A little help from my friends

The referendum has left most of us convinced Remainers worried, angry, feeling cheated – and feeling the country has been cheated. Waking in the night my first thoughts have been referendum, and my first emotions negative.

I’ve been helped by a determination to ensure that an open and an open-hearted politics win out in the end – while at the same time taking on board a good few lessons. If I’d been aware in the past of resentment and anger among those who felt left behind, or that this was no longer their England, their UK – then that’s as nothing to my awareness now.

Getting away from it all also helps. Three books I’d mention –

Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, a magical encounter with the Cairngorms – a landscape I remember well. No writer lives landscape quite as she does – the corries and snow and skies, the eagle and the snow bunting, the storm and the silence.

(Of the peregrine falcon and eagle) ‘The speed, the whirls, the torrents of movement are in plain fact the mountain’s own necessity. But their grace is not necessity. Or if it is … the swoop, the parabola, the arrow-flight of hooves and wings achieve their beauty by a strict adherence to the needs of function – so much more is the mountain’s integrity vindicated. Beauty is not adventitious but essential.’

‘No-one know the mountain completely who has not slept upon it… Up on the plateau [on midsummer nights] light lingers incredibly far into the night…Watching it the mind grows incandescent and its glow burns down into a deep and tranquil sleep.’

‘Why some blocks of stone, hacked into violent and tortured shaped, should so tranquillise the mind I do not know…’ No one before, not even Wordsworth, has told it quite as she does.

She’s now destined, humble walker and explorer of the mountains as she was, to appear on a Scottish postal stamp.

At the other extreme, I delved into the poems of Sean O’Brien. But whereas with Nan Shepherd you feel you are living her memories as she is living them as she writes – we feel in O’Brien’s case that they are memories, and where Shepherd elevates he brings and keeps us down to earth – to the the sluices and dirty harbour waters in which fish yet swim, to drains, and empty parks, to deprivation sluiced through with politics. The landscapes draw you in, the language inspired because there’s magic in it, though the content may bring you down – and that’s the problem in my post-Brexit world. I want words to lift me up.

Someone with whom  I’ve shared my life for a few years now is the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. He sought God in the silence and moved toward Buddhism and political engagement as the years past. Whereas I in the turmoil seek silence sometimes, he in the silence could not hold back from the turmoil. Like thousands maybe millions of others I connect with the manner of his life and his engagement with it – if not the detail. And his diaries are matter of fact, and detached, but there’s always a wisdom interwoven, and I turned to his diaries on the Friday night after the Thursday referendum vote, and it was 1968, and Martin Luther King had just been assassinated, and Merton wondered what else might happen that year. The Chicago convention, the death of Robery Kennedy of course – and his own accidental death.

This is 2016, and I wonder what else might befall the UK, and the world, this year.

If Merton on this occasion added a new dimension to anxiety, getting out beyond books in the post referendum week proved more successful.

All day in Kew Gardens with my partner’s grandchildren: you escape into their lives, and into Kew’s open and closed spaces – to the newly opened and magical Hive, where we literally tune in to the world of bees, and the Palm House, where the mist drips big drops of water on plants and people.

The Sunken Treasures exhibition at the British Museum – reclaiming remarkable artefacts from cities long sunk under the waters of the Nile Delta, a reminder of the transitoriness of life, civilisation and belief systems. And of course political life.

And finally, a day on a narrow boat of the Sharpness to Gloucester Canal, when after weeks of storm and rain and cloud the sun broke through and shone all day, and we could chug slowly to Gloucester and back through countryside hardly changed in a hundred years – the canal wide and the waters empty, and below us – yes below- the widening estuary of the river Severn.

No talk of politics, eight of us, a picnic of the river bank, and nothing to do. Just occasionally I took the tiller and took charge – though really it was the boat taking charge of me.

Revisiting the Camino – take two

This post is for Camino geeks. I’m revisiting in late May and early June, almost one year on. By car, but with short walks wherever possible.

There are good memories which stand the test of time, even improve on reacquaintance – and others which fall short, or simply disappoint.

Bilbao, YES. Off route I know, but the end of my stage one, June last year. The Guggenheim, and especially Richard Serra’s sinuous and space-defying structures.

Likewise the drive up into the mountains from Bilbao, in brilliant sunshine, unbroken forest as far as the eye could see. Beyond Vitoria, green hills with crags lining their summits, and I remembered the way they led me, guided me, when I walked that stretch from Punta la Reina to Logrono.

NO to Roncesvalles, though we did take a short circular walk up through the woods, then back down through meadows to join the Burguete path – meadows with rich odours of cow dung and deep shades of green beneath an equally deep shade of blue – that’s how I remember Navarre from almost a year go.

YES to all the following.

Larrasoena, the village, where I stayed my third night, and the bridge that takes you over the river and back to the Camino from the village – 6.30 on a misty morning last June. All alone, and I couldn’t quite believe where I was! Memories of Zabaldika nearby, and climbing the belfry to ring the bell out over the valley.

Pamplona, sitting and watching the peregrinos wander through, most of them without the heavy boots, the day’s walk over. They have still 4 1/2 weeks to go…

Zariquiegui, and the walk up to the Alto de Perdon. The path of the winds gentler than last time round, and more peregrinos. I had it to myself last June. We talked to several on the way up – we listened. New Zealanders. Then as now, there are stories to tell. This time as last time – where are the Brits?  Are we content, too content, with our own patch?

Puente la Reina, sitting out in Calle Mayor and having lunch, the bridge and the river moving slow and green beneath. Chatting to someone who walked to Santiago four years ago – and is now walking the other way.

NO (sadly) to Estella. Estella was my favourite place, almost, last time, but now the shops were closed, it being Sunday, and the streets were dirty, rubbish uncleared, and the churches closed last June were closed now, and the wonders therein will have to wait for a third visit (I fear unlikely). But the way the Camino drops down past old houses into the town – that still has magic. And I made good friends in Estella.

Yes, big YES, to Logrono, and its wonderful evocative churches, the Ebro as a boundary, my furthest west point last June, and starting point last October, and coffee in plaza in the shadow of the cathedral, cold bright sunshine, multi-coloured cyclists about to take off en masse. The pinchons, and a wonderful hotel, the Calle Mayor, which wasn’t a memory as such because I stayed in an albergue last time….

I restarted 1st October last year, in Logrono.

Navarrete, YES, the square and cafe by the church emptier than last October, all the noise outside an albergue one street below, and the wind was chilly but the sky was blue and the dark shadowy church was full of atmosphere, the gilded retablo overpowering at the east end, likewise the emotions brought out by the background music – combining Taize, Pachelbel, the Handel Sarabande made famous by the Barry Linden film score, and Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind in orchestral form. I sat with head bowed and tears in my eyes, re-experiencing some of the more powerful personal moments from last year.

Santa Domingo de la Calzado – YES, almost. Santo Domingo doesn’t allow you to sit and drink coffee and experience it at its heart – the street cafes are on the modern street just south of the old main street, the Camino route, and the Parador is while wonderful inside a dead space if you’re looking to get a sense of the Camino. The cathedral evokes mixed emotions – beautifully restored and lit, evocative paintings and sculpture, especially the outside choir stall walls, and a c1500 retablo tucked away in a side chapel, where it’s hard to see it properly.

The museum is full of medieval, early as the 14th century, icon-like Madonnas on the one hand, and crucifixions and saints full of that that exaggerated piety which rings false to the modern eye, on the other. Likewise a cartoon image of Santo Domingo, dire – the old saint will be rotating in his grave.  You have to squeeze back against a glass case with a reconstructions of earlier versions of the cathedral to see a marvellous 13th century painting of the Garden of Eden – creation, temptation and expulsion.

From there by way of an industry park – what would Santo Domingo have thought to see what’s been created on the site of his original village – to San Millan de Cogolla.The monks there turned him down back in the 13th century. Their reputation  and the grandeur of their Romanesque monastery must have been marvellous in the eyes of the young Domingo. Had they accepted him – he would never have been a saint, and there would be no Santo Domingo town.

Back on – or just off – the Camino

I’m back revisiting favourite corners of the Camino, and also taking in places and landscapes which tantalised me last year by being just off route. Above all the monastery of San Millan de la Cogalla, where I’m writing this post.

We’re not staying in albergues, but in hotels – and some are almost smart. Do I miss the dormitories? And the snoring? Maybe not! Though I do have ambitions to walk the Camino Portugues later this year.

The monastery has claims to be the birthplace of the Spanish language, where what became Castilian was first written down by an early 12th century monk as marginal notes to a Latin codex. I knew when I first read about San Millan, in Navarrete last year, that I had to visit.

I loved and love the history of the Camino – the vast church interiors, ancient houses with coats of arms, streets winding through towns and villages as they’ve done for a thousand years, the Templar and Cluny connections, tales of battles against the Moors, my hero Sant Iago, the porch of the ruined church outside Navarrete now gracing the entrance to the cemetery on the other side of town, churches where pilgrims who might not make it to Santiago could nonetheless receive absolution  – all the powerful spiritual connections.

I’d attend pilgrim masses when I could, and light candles.

Down the road from San Millan is Berceo, the birthplace of the first recognised Spanish language poet, Gonzalo de Berceo. Another reason for visiting.

From my hotel window in San Millan woodlands stretch up both sides of the valley into the heart of the Sierra de la Demande. And a cuckoo is calling, as it has been on and off through the day.

San Millan himself was a 6th century hermit, and around him gathered other hermits, and in the 10th century a Benedictine monastery was founded on the site. There are monks here to this day, though I’ve yet to catch sight of any! There are depictions of San Millan is sculpture and paintings in Benedictine attire (hardly a military uniform!) and brandishing a strange red zigzag sword, taking on the Moors as did Santiago Matamoros. Like Santiago he was a patron saint, of Castile and Aragon, but Santiago’s status has fared better down the years.

We walked up the valley this afternoon and climbed the hillside to one of the many hillside caves. The views up to the still snow-touched peaks were wonderful, likewise the woodlands which extend everywhere. We took out all our woodlands back home in the UK for firewood and building ships and to create pasture – not so here!

If you want to be a hermit, I can’t imagine anywhere better.