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Posts Tagged ‘idealism’

Given my preoccupation with the need to reconcile religion and science and my recent rant against the way our materialistic culture denies the spiritual dimension, I couldn’t resist posting a link to this illuminating article by Peter Terry on the Bahá’í Teaching website. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Do you think of yourself as primarily a material person, or primarily a spiritual person?

If you’re more of a material person, you probably tend to focus on the outer world the senses can perceive—your natural instincts, your human drives and the physical world you encounter every day.

If you’re more of a spiritual person, you probably tend to focus on the inner world—your feelings and emotions, your intellectual life, the unseen but powerful reality of the human spirit.

Philosophers have named these two basic concepts materialism and idealism. Materialism (sometimes called physicalism) maintains that matter and the interactions that occur between matter make up the true reality of existence. Idealism (sometimes called spiritualism), on the other hand, concludes that the mind and the spirit constitute the fundamental basis of reality—that matter is secondary and less important.

The Baha’i teachings strike a balance between these two viewpoints, while emphasizing that the human reality is essentially spiritual:

As for the spiritual perfections they are man’s birthright and belong to him alone of all creation. Man is, in reality, a spiritual being, and only when he lives in the spirit is he truly happy. This spiritual longing and perception belongs to all men alike … – Abdu’l-BahaParis Talks, p. 73.

Abdu’l-Baha spoke at length about this subject:

One of the strangest things witnessed is that the materialists of today are proud of their natural instincts and bondage. They state that nothing is entitled to belief and acceptance except that which is sensible or tangible. By their own statements they are captives of nature, unconscious of the spiritual world, uninformed of the divine Kingdom and unaware of heavenly bestowals. If this be a virtue, the animal has attained to it to a superlative degree … The animal would agree with the materialist in denying the existence of that which transcends the senses. If we admit that being limited to the plane of the senses is a virtue, the animal is indeed more virtuous than man, for it is entirely bereft of that which lies beyond … – The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 177.

Those who reject or ignore the realm beyond the senses, Abdu’l-Baha said, miss the most important part of human existence:

Therefore, if it be a perfection and virtue to be without knowledge of God and His Kingdom, the animals have attained the highest degree of excellence and proficiency. – Ibid., p. 262.

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The best lack all conviction, while the worstSand Sculpture
Are full of passionate intensity.

(W. B. Yeats: ‘The Second Coming‘)

The issues I have been looking at lately – war, the economy, the rigid approach to mental health – all raise the question, ‘Why do we find it so difficult to fix such problems, even when we can see that something is seriously wrong? One factor, among many, is discussed with great insight by Jonathan Haidt, whom I quote from in a short sequence on conviction, which I have decided to republish now. This is the second of three. The first came out on Monday: the last will come out tomorrow.

Ruling passion

We obviously need to take care what we believe in. It tends to determine the person we will become. Sadly, most of us devote more conscious effort to choosing a car than creating a character. We simply accept what we have been given, rarely assessing its value, rarely considering whether or not it could be changed for the better, and if we do feel dissatisfaction with what we have become we tend to test it against inappropriate measures such as the wealth it has brought us, the worldly success we have achieved, the number rather than the quality of our friendships, the power we derive from it and so on. We seldom carefully reflect upon our beliefs and how they have shaped and are still shaping who we are.

Culture has struggled to get a handle on this problem for generations. In the 18th Century they talked of people having a ‘ruling passion.’ This was the organising principle around which all activities and aspirations were supposed to revolve. Alexander Pope wrote:

The ruling passion, be it what it will,
The ruling passion conquers reason still.

(Moral Essay iii: lines 153-154)

(Samuel Johnson, though, questioned the usefulness and validity of this concept in his usual robust fashion.) That they called it a ‘passion’ gives us a clue about what is going on here.

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

Erich Fromm’s book, ‘The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness‘ (1973: page 260) develops this idea very clearly.  He argues that, in human beings, character has replaced instinct as a driver of what we do. And character creates a special need in us.

Man needs an object of total devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols but the need for devotion is itself a primary, essential need demanding fulfilment.

This has created a god-shaped hole in the middle of our being. We cannot help but fill it with something. Our sense of identity is at stake. In 2001 the Bahá’í World Centre published a review of the Twentieth Century which contained these words (page 59-60):

The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organize experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life.

Is conviction, like atomic power, a double-edged sword? Can we truly say that no great enterprise was ever accomplished and no huge and large scale evil ever completed without it? If this is so, and I think it is because both great good and massive evil require great energy and great persistence, what determines whether it will be destructive or constructive?

Idealising something (or someone) seriously flawed corrupts us: I  think the opposite is also true and that worshiping something both better and greater than ourselves improves us. I would like to entertain the possibility that it is the object of our devotion as we understand it rather than simply the intensity of the conviction that makes the greatest difference, though if the object of devotion is less than good then the intensity of our devotion will strongly influence how destructive espousing that belief will make us.

Is there any object of devotion that does not induce in its followers intolerance and hatred towards others especially those who have a different god?

Tolerant Devotion

The issue of what determines the strength and nature of our convictions is not a straightforward one. When I was studying psychology for the first time in the 1970s I came across the work of Thomas Pettigrew, which is still referred to even now. It illustrates nicely the exact nature of the difficulty.

To put one set of his findings very simply, whether you were a miner  in segregated West Virginia or apartheid South Africa, the culture around you differed depending on whether you were above ground or below it. Below ground discrimination was potentially dangerous so the culture there frowned on it: above ground the culture was discriminatory. What was particularly interesting to me was that 20% of people discriminated all the time regardless of the culture and 20% refused to do so at all: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).

The implications are fascinating.

First, as Richard Holloway stresses, most of us are ‘infirm of purpose’ and lack the courage of our convictions or even any convictions at all. We follow the herd, a potentially dangerous tendency.

Secondly, the proneness to develop strong convictions does not lead us to develop only the best ones. In the example of the mining communities, segregation and desegegration are antitheses and cannot both be right and desirable, but clearly both attract approximately equal numbers of adherents with equivalent degrees of courage in their convictions, in stark contrast to the moral cowardice or lack of conviction of the rest of us. It is questionable whether it is the ‘best’ that  ‘lack all conviction.’

Thirdly, while most of us are drifting with the tide rather than choosing a firm rock to cling to, the strong-minded do choose but on grounds that have little if anything reliably to do with their strong-mindedness. Authoritarianism  has been wheeled out as a favourite explanation for why people end up fascist or fanatical. It would though be hard to make it work as an explanation of the moral courage and firm conviction of a Martin Luther King or a Ghandi. The vision of these two men was not one of replacing their oppressors in power and becoming oppressors in their turn but of transcending oppression altogether.

So where on earth or in heaven does that leave us? Are these two men so exceptional that their example does not count? Or is a humane and constructive kind of strong conviction possible for most if not all of us?

A Possible Way Forward

When it comes to determining what might provide a positive vision of sufficient power to heal the divisions of the world of humanity, a consideration of religion is inevitable. Although I was brought up a Christian, became an atheist for nearly two decades and was strongly attracted to Buddhism for a period of years, the religion I know best is the Bahá’í Faith.

Much of what I will be describing in the next post about the vision I have derived from its teachings, is also to be found in other faiths. For instance, anyone who wants to know about the healing heart of the Christian message and the positively empowering concept of God it enshrines, there is no better place to go than Eric Reitan’s book, and I would also see God in much the same way as he does. His view also opens the way towards discerning the same spirit in other faiths.

One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry.

I will though confine my discussion now to what the faith I know best, with its inclusive vision of the divine, has taught me about a way out of this divided and intolerant state by which we are bedevilled. Even those who do not believe in the divine can relate to much of what I will be saying by reframing the ‘divine’ as their highest most inclusive sense of the ultimate good around which to organise our lives.

I am not claiming that others have not grappled with these issues: nor am I saying that what they have discovered as possible antidotes to fanatical intolerance is to be ignored or discounted. Zimbardo and McCullough, for example, have much of great value to say from which we can all learn a great deal.

I do believe though that religion and spirituality have recently been so demonised in certain quarters that we are in danger of neglecting the powerful antidotes to evil that they also can provide. It is to these that I wish to draw our attention in the next post.

Read Full Post »

Cruelty has a Human Heart,
And Jealousy a Human Face;
Terror the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy the Human Dress.

William BlakeSongs of Experience Additional Poem

The issues I have been looking at lately – war, the economy, the rigid approach to mental health – all raise the question, ‘Why do we find it so difficult to fix such problems, even when we can see that something is seriously wrong? One factor, among many, is discussed with great insight by Jonathan Haidt, whom I quote from in a short sequence on conviction, which I have decided to republish now. This is the first: the second will come out on Thursday and the last on Friday.

Terror and the Human Form

The situation in Iran would be enough to set me thinking about intolerance and extremism. Family members of good friends of mine are being persecuted because of their beliefs. Because of my shared beliefs I also feel strongly linked even to those with whom I have no other connection.  The current perilous situation of the seven Bahá’ís who have been arrested reinforces that feeling. (See link on this blog for more details.)

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

I have other experiences that spur me on in the same direction.

I was born just before the end of World War Two. I grew up with images of Belsen and Dachau. My childhood nightmares were of being pursued by the Gestapo.  I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. (As a child I wouldn’t stand and watch a carnival go past because I was frightened of the uniforms and drums.) I therefore have good reasons to feel deeply concerned about the roots of prejudice, fanaticism and intolerance.

I also had reasons to suspect they might have something to do with our ideas of the divine given that most of my father’s family disowned him when he married a Roman Catholic.

Skating on Thin Ice

I am not qualified to explain the political and social roots of the human face of terror. I have of course noticed that having been oppressed is no guarantee that I will not be an oppressor in my turn if I get the chance. That was clear right from the French Revolution (See Michael Burleigh‘s ‘Earthly Powers‘) and nothing that has happened since causes me to think that anything is different now. I have also seen how injustice and inequity breed enmity, as can extremes of wealth and poverty in close proximity (See Amy Chua‘s ‘World on Fire‘ for example). Philip Zimbardo looks at the disturbing way group and organisational processes foster evil doing and explains ways of effectively counteracting that (‘The Lucifer Effect‘). Michael McCullough looks surprisingly hopefully on the problem from an evolutionary perspective in his recent book ‘Beyond Revenge‘. Marc Hauser‘s examination of morality, ‘Moral Minds,’ comes at the issue primarily from a developmental angle.

I do not feel competent to add anything to their positions.

They all make it very clear that tolerance in any society is a very thin ice and is all the more precious for that. Blunden’s poem, ‘The Midnight Skaters’ captures that precarious feeling as the skaters dance across the deep and frozen pond:

 

. . . .  not the tallest there, ’tis said,
Could fathom to this pond’s black bed.

Then is not death at watch
Within those secret waters?
. . . .  With but a crystal parapet
Between, he has his engines set.

. . . . Court him, elude him, reel and pass,
And let him hate you through the glass.

(Edmund Blunden: ‘The Midnight Skaters‘ – for an interesting critique see Poetry Scene News)

The Horns of a Dilemma

I do though feel that the spiritual perspective informed by psychology and psychotherapy complements those views and fills an important gap they leave.

Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis‘ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Richard Holloway sees it much the same way:

More misery and disillusionment has been visited on humanity by its search for the perfect society and the perfect faith than by any other cause.

(‘Between the Monster and the Saint‘: page 136)

Both Haidt and Holloway emphasise that not all such ideals are by any means religious. Haidt, for instance,  also quotes the attempt to create utopias as well as the defence of the homeland or tribe as frequently implicated.  Also, when Hitler’s probably narcissistic self-esteem successfully cloaked itself in the rhetoric of idealistic nationalism, mixed with scapegoating anti-semitism, we all know what happened next: narcissism and idealism make a highly toxic and devastatingly deadly combination.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

He is aware though that idealism enhances life in some ways also (page 211):

Liberalism and the ethic of autonomy are great protectors against . . . injustices. I believe it is dangerous for an ethic of divinity to supercede the ethic of autonomy in the governance of a diverse modern democracy. However, I also believe that life in a society that entirely ignored the ethic of divinity would be ugly and unsatisfying.

How are we not to throw out the precious and in fact indestructible baby of idealism with the bathwater of zealotry, fanaticism and intolerance? This feels like an issue well worth exploring further. It will lead us to considering, in the next post, how three ids interact: idealism, ideology and identity.

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guns and rosaries

To coincide with yesterday’s publication of her new book – Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence – Karen Armstrong has written an interesting if not completely convincing piece for the Guardian. There is an equally interesting riposte by Noel Malcolm in the Telegraph which my good friend, Barney, alerted me to. I plan to share that tomorrow. 

I think each of them make valuable points. However, for me they fail to address clearly a fundamental aspect of the problem which Jonathan Haidt puts his finger on. Idealism, no matter how valuable it may be in many ways, can become fertile soil for murder and torture. Once you believe anything to strongly that the ends come to justify any means whatsoever you’re sunk in iniquity – an issue I have reblogged about recently. The other factors they adduce can all play a part in the toxic mix, and be used as justifications or act as triggers. None the less, if you remove over-identification with an ideology you significantly reduce the risk of an epidemic of atrocities. It doesn’t matter whether the ideology is religious or secular.

Still what she says deserves careful consideration in my view as does Malcolm’s response. We need all the help we can get to reach a deeper understanding of the processes that lead to such senseless slaughter.

Below is an extract: for the full and lengthy post, see link.

As we watch the fighters of the Islamic State (Isis) rampaging through the Middle East, tearing apart the modern nation-states of Syria and Iraq created by departing European colonialists, it may be difficult to believe we are living in the 21st century. The sight of throngs of terrified refugees and the savage and indiscriminate violence is all too reminiscent of barbarian tribes sweeping away the Roman empire, or the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan cutting a swath through China, Anatolia, Russia and eastern Europe, devastating entire cities and massacring their inhabitants. Only the wearily familiar pictures of bombs falling yet again on Middle Eastern cities and towns – this time dropped by the United States and a few Arab allies – and the gloomy predictions that this may become another Vietnam, remind us that this is indeed a very modern war.

The ferocious cruelty of these jihadist fighters, quoting the Qur’an as they behead their hapless victims, raises another distinctly modern concern: the connection between religion and violence. The atrocities of Isis would seem to prove that Sam Harris, one of the loudest voices of the “New Atheism”, was right to claim that “most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith”, and to conclude that “religion itself produces a perverse solidarity that we must find some way to undercut”. Many will agree with Richard Dawkins, who wrote in The God Delusion that “only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people”. Even those who find these statements too extreme may still believe, instinctively, that there is a violent essence inherent in religion, which inevitably radicalises any conflict – because once combatants are convinced that God is on their side, compromise becomes impossible and cruelty knows no bounds.

Despite the valiant attempts by Barack Obama and David Cameron to insist that the lawless violence of Isis has nothing to do with Islam, many will disagree. They may also feel exasperated. In the west, we learned from bitter experience that the fanatical bigotry which religion seems always to unleash can only be contained by the creation of a liberal state that separates politics and religion. Never again, we believed, would these intolerant passions be allowed to intrude on political life. But why, oh why, have Muslims found it impossible to arrive at this logical solution to their current problems? Why do they cling with perverse obstinacy to the obviously bad idea of theocracy? Why, in short, have they been unable to enter the modern world? The answer must surely lie in their primitive and atavistic religion.

But perhaps we should ask, instead, how it came about that we in the west developed our view of religion as a purely private pursuit, essentially separate from all other human activities, and especially distinct from politics. After all, warfare and violence have always been a feature of political life, and yet we alone drew the conclusion that separating the church from the state was a prerequisite for peace.

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The best lack all conviction, while the worstSand Sculpture
Are full of passionate intensity.

(W. B. Yeats: ‘The Second Coming‘)

In the wake of the anniversary of 9/11 and as a response, however inadequate, to the enormity of the recent beheadings of three innocent hostages by IS, I feel it is worth republishing a sequence of posts I first published several years ago. The situation in the world is at least as fraught as it was then, if not more so, making the sequence still as relevant now. Moreover, I feel that the ideas I tried to pull together continue to deserve careful attention if we are to learn how to respond effectively to those influences within and around us that might pull us into the quicksand of extremism. This is the second of the sequence: the first was published yesterday

Ruling passion

We obviously need to take care what we believe in. It tends to determine the person we will become. Sadly, most of us devote more conscious effort to choosing a car than creating a character. We simply accept what we have been given, rarely assessing its value, rarely considering whether or not it could be changed for the better, and if we do feel dissatisfaction with what we have become we tend to test it against inappropriate measures such as the wealth it has brought us, the worldly success we have achieved, the number rather than the quality of our friendships, the power we derive from it and so on. We seldom carefully reflect upon our beliefs and how they have shaped and are still shaping who we are.

Culture has struggled to get a handle on this problem for generations. In the 18th Century they talked of people having a ‘ruling passion.’ This was the organising principle around which all activities and aspirations were supposed to revolve. Alexander Pope wrote:

The ruling passion, be it what it will,
The ruling passion conquers reason still.

(Moral Essay iii: lines 153-154)

(Samuel Johnson, though, questioned the usefulness and validity of this concept in his usual robust fashion.) That

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

they called it a ‘passion’ gives us a clue about what is going on here.

Erich Fromm’s book, ‘The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness‘ (1973: page 260) develops this idea very clearly.  He argues that, in human beings, character has replaced instinct as a driver of what we do. And character creates a special need in us.

Man needs an object of total devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols but the need for devotion is itself a primary, essential need demanding fulfilment.

This has created a god-shaped hole in the middle of our being. We cannot help but fill it with something. Our sense of identity is at stake. In 2001 the Bahá’í World Centre published a review of the Twentieth Century which contained these words (page 59-60):

The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organize experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life.

Is conviction, like atomic power, a double-edged sword? Can we truly say that no great enterprise was ever accomplished and no huge and large scale evil ever completed without it? If this is so, and I think it is because both great good and massive evil require great energy and great persistence, what determines whether it will be destructive or constructive?

Idealising something (or someone) seriously flawed corrupts us: I  think the opposite is also true and that worshiping something both better and greater than ourselves improves us. I would like to entertain the possibility that it is the object of our devotion as we understand it rather than simply the intensity of the conviction that makes the greatest difference, though if the object of devotion is less than good then the intensity of our devotion will strongly influence how destructive espousing that belief will make us.

Is there any object of devotion that does not induce in its followers intolerance and hatred towards others especially those who have a different god?

Tolerant Devotion

The issue of what determines the strength and nature of our convictions is not a straightforward one. When I was studying psychology for the first time in the 1970s I came across the work of Thomas Pettigrew, which is still referred to even now. It illustrates nicely the exact nature of the difficulty.

To put one set of his findings very simply, whether you were a miner  in segregated West Virginia or apartheid South Africa, the culture around you differed depending on whether you were above ground or below it. Below ground discrimination was potentially dangerous so the culture there frowned on it: above ground the culture was discriminatory. What was particularly interesting to me was that 20% of people discriminated all the time regardless of the culture and 20% refused to do so at all: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).

The implications are fascinating.

First, as Richard Holloway stresses, most of us are ‘infirm of purpose’ and lack the courage of our convictions or even any convictions at all. We follow the herd, a potentially dangerous tendency.

Secondly, the proneness to develop strong convictions does not lead us to develop only the best ones. In the example of the mining communities, segregation and desegegration are antitheses and cannot both be right and desirable, but clearly both attract approximately equal numbers of adherents with equivalent degrees of courage in their convictions, in stark contrast to the moral cowardice or lack of conviction of the rest of us. It is questionable whether it is the ‘best’ that  ‘lack all conviction.’

Thirdly, while most of us are drifting with the tide rather than choosing a firm rock to cling to, the strong-minded do choose but on grounds that have little if anything reliably to do with their strong-mindedness. Authoritarianism  has been wheeled out as a favourite explanation for why people end up fascist or fanatical. It would though be hard to make it work as an explanation of the moral courage and firm conviction of a Martin Luther King or a Ghandi. The vision of these two men was not one of replacing their oppressors in power and becoming oppressors in their turn but of transcending oppression altogether.

So where on earth or in heaven does that leave us? Are these two men so exceptional that their example does not count? Or is a humane and constructive kind of strong conviction possible for most if not all of us?

A Possible Way Forward

When it comes to determining what might provide a positive vision of sufficient power to heal the divisions of the world of humanity, a consideration of religion is inevitable. Although I was brought up a Christian, became an atheist for nearly two decades and was strongly attracted to Buddhism for a period of years, the religion I know best is the Bahá’í Faith.

Much of what I will be describing in the next post about the vision I have derived from its teachings, is also to be found in other faiths. For instance, anyone who wants to know about the healing heart of the Christian message and the positively empowering concept of God it enshrines, there is no better place to go than Eric Reitan’s book, and I would also see God in much the same way as he does. His view also opens the way towards discerning the same spirit in other faiths.

One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry.

I will though confine my discussion now to what the faith I know best, with its inclusive vision of the divine, has taught me about a way out of this divided and intolerant state by which we are bedevilled. Even those who do not believe in the divine can relate to much of what I will be saying by reframing the ‘divine’ as their highest most inclusive sense of the ultimate good around which to organise our lives.

I am not claiming that others have not grappled with these issues: nor am I saying that what they have discovered as possible antidotes to fanatical intolerance is to be ignored or discounted. Zimbardo and McCullough, for example, have much of great value to say from which we can all learn a great deal.

I do believe though that religion and spirituality have recently been so demonised in certain quarters that we are in danger of neglecting the powerful antidotes to evil that they also can provide. It is to these that I wish to draw our attention in the next post.

Read Full Post »

Cruelty has a Human Heart,
And Jealousy a Human Face;
Terror the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy the Human Dress.

William Blake: Songs of Experience Additional Poem

In the wake of the anniversary of 9/11 and as a response, however inadequate, to the enormity of the recent beheadings of three innocent hostages by IS, I feel it is worth republishing a sequence of posts I first published several years ago. The situation in the world is at least as fraught as it was then, if not more so, making the sequence still as relevant now. Moreover, I feel that the ideas I tried to pull together continue to deserve careful attention if we are to learn how to respond effectively to those influences within and around us that might pull us into the quicksand of extremism. This is the first of three posts on consecutive days.

Terror and the Human Form

The situation in Iran would be enough to set me thinking about intolerance and extremism. Family members of good friends of mine are being persecuted because of their beliefs. Because of my shared beliefs I also feel strongly linked even to those with whom I have no other connection.  The current perilous situation of the seven Bahá’ís who have been arrested reinforces that feeling. (See link on this blog for more details.)

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

I have other experiences that spur me on in the same direction.

I was born just before the end of World War Two. I grew up with images of Belsen and Dachau. My childhood nightmares were of being pursued by the Gestapo.  I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. (As a child I wouldn’t stand and watch a carnival go past because I was frightened of the uniforms and drums.) I therefore have good reasons to feel deeply concerned about the roots of prejudice, fanaticism and intolerance.

I also had reasons to suspect they might have something to do with our ideas of the divine given that most of my father’s family disowned him when he married a Roman Catholic.

Skating on Thin Ice

I am not qualified to explain the political and social roots of the human face of terror. I have of course noticed that having been oppressed is no guarantee that I will not be an oppressor in my turn if I get the chance. That was clear right from the French Revolution (See Michael Burleigh‘s ‘Earthly Powers‘) and nothing that has happened since causes me to think that anything is different now. I have also seen how injustice and inequity breed enmity, as can extremes of wealth and poverty in close proximity (See Amy Chua‘s ‘World on Fire‘ for example). Philip Zimbardo looks at the disturbing way group and organisational processes foster evil doing and explains ways of effectively counteracting that (‘The Lucifer Effect‘). Michael McCullough looks surprisingly hopefully on the problem from an evolutionary perspective in his recent book ‘Beyond Revenge‘. Marc Hauser‘s examination of morality, ‘Moral Minds,’ comes at the issue primarily from a developmental angle.

I do not feel competent to add anything to their positions.

They all make it very clear that tolerance in any society is a very thin ice and is all the more precious for that. Blunden’s poem, ‘The Midnight Skaters’ captures that precarious feeling as the skaters dance across the deep and frozen pond:

. . . .  not the tallest there, ’tis said,
Could fathom to this pond’s black bed.

Then is not death at watch
Within those secret waters?
. . . .  With but a crystal parapet
Between, he has his engines set.

. . . . Court him, elude him, reel and pass,
And let him hate you through the glass.

(Edmund Blunden: ‘The Midnight Skaters‘ – for an interesting critique see Poetry Scene News)

The Horns of a Dilemma

I do though feel that the spiritual perspective informed by psychology and psychotherapy complements those views and fills an important gap they leave.

Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis‘ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Richard Holloway sees it much the same way:

More misery and disillusionment has been visited on humanity by its search for the perfect society and the perfect faith than by any other cause.

(‘Between the Monster and the Saint‘: page 136)

Both Haidt and Holloway emphasise that not all such ideals are by any means religious. Haidt, for instance,  also quotes the attempt to create utopias as well as the defence of the homeland or tribe as frequently implicated.  Also, when Hitler’s probably narcissistic self-esteem successfully cloaked itself in the rhetoric of idealistic nationalism, mixed with scapegoating anti-semitism, we all know what happened next: narcissism and idealism make a highly toxic and devastatingly deadly combination.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

He is aware though that idealism enhances life in some ways also (page 211):

Liberalism and the ethic of autonomy are great protectors against . . . injustices. I believe it is dangerous for an ethic of divinity to supercede the ethic of autonomy in the governance of a diverse modern democracy. However, I also believe that life in a society that entirely ignored the ethic of divinity would be ugly and unsatisfying.

How are we not to throw out the precious and in fact indestructible baby of idealism with the bathwater of zealotry, fanaticism and intolerance? This feels like an issue well worth exploring further. It will lead us to considering, in the next post, how three ids interact: idealism, ideology and identity.

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Middlemarch

My replacement secondhand copy – found 22 April 2014

The previous post looked at Rebecca Mead’s engaging exploration of George Eliot’s greatest novel in her recent book The Road to Middlemarch. In that post, after lamenting the disintegration of my paperback copy, I ended up discussing narrative styles and wondering whether having the author speaking directly to us was now so old hat as to be completely off-putting and pointless. Mead feels that we should not necessarily dismiss Eliot’s use of that device as a weakness.

Not all bad though

Mead feels that authorial intervention of the kind that Eliot makes does have a value (page 55): “By directly addressing us, Eliot draws us deeper inside her panorama. She makes Middlemarchers of us all.” There is more even than that (ibid): “Eliot does something in addition with those moments of authorial interjection. She insists that the reader look at the characters in the book from her own elevated viewpoint.”

Making use of this broader view, which is not locked into any particular perspective within characters, enables us to enlarge our sympathies in an important way, Mead feels. She quotes Eliot as stating (page 56): ‘the only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.’

We are again moving among ideas that we are also finding important for us now, in the 21st Century. We are, almost to the last syllable, in the all-important Robert Wrightterritory of Robert Wright here in his thought-provoking book, The Evolution of God. In his consideration of the over-riding need for us to widen our compass of compassion, he states (page 428-429):

The moral imagination was ‘designed’ by natural selection . . . . . to help us cement fruitfully peaceful relations when they’re available.

He is aware that this sounds like a glorified pursuit of self-interest. He argues, though, that it leads beyond that.

The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.

This idea is clearly close to Eliot’s heart. Mead returns to this later in her book (page 158) quoting Eliot as writing in an essay published in 1856, called The Natural History of German Life, the following observation:

. . . the greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether a painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies… Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.”

Eliot’s Creed

There’s more than this to Mead’s case for the novel being one for ‘grown-ups.’ Her chapters weave information from the book itself, Eliot’s own life and Mead’s personal experience into an engaging process of exploration. Each chapter has a theme. She says, towards the end of the one I have quoted from, almost by way of summary (page 72): “One of the things that makes Middlemarch a book for grown-ups – a book for adults, even – is Eliot’s insistence upon taking moral questions seriously, and considering them in their complexity.’

I don’t intend to go through every scene of every chapter in my attempt to demonstrate that the book is well worth reading. I shall just leap to a later point in the book and pick another illustration of particular significance to me and leave it to you to judge whether you want to buy the book and read it. The fact that I have enjoyed the book may not be a compelling reason for your making the same choice.

whirlpoolseymoreI struggled for many years to find a faith that would help me realise my desire to help others and to improve society. This was largely because the faith I eventually espoused had to sail most skilfully between two equal dangers: it had to avoid what sinks many an ideology, the rock of supposing that its ends justify almost any means that might achieve them, and to steer clear of what sucks most of the others to a watery grave, the whirlpool of being so determined to look harmless that they become of very little actual use in the real world.

Not surprisingly, both on my way towards discovering the Bahá’í Faith, in my view a ship of faith that steers successfully between the two hazards I’ve described, and also afterwards, George Eliot wrote a great deal that was helpful and it is fascinating to find that Mead also draws inspiration from this (page 221):

To the extent that she had a faith, it was in what she called ‘meliorism’ – the conviction that, through the small, beneficent actions and intentions of individuals, the world might gradually grow to be a better place.’

She unpacks further what George Eliot might have meant by that (page 223):

Her credo might be expressed this way: if I really care for you, if I try to think myself into your position and orientation – then the world is bettered by my effort at understanding and comprehension. If you respond to my effort by trying to extend the same sympathy and understanding to others in turn, then the betterment of the world has been minutely but significantly extended.’

'Animal Farm': for source of image see link

‘Animal Farm’: for source of image see link

Her Bête Noire

With that, we are in Robert Wright’s territory still. Shortly we will find ourselves stepping across a border into Jonathan Haidt’s country (page 224):

. . . [I]n the last essay that she wrote for the Westminster Review Eliot gave as good an exposition of her moral code as she did anywhere. The essay is a scything indictment of Edward Young, the 18th century poet-cleric whom she had adored in her youth. By 1858… she had diagnosed a falsity in his theology and morality…

Young, she wrote, adheres to abstractions… ‘Religion coming down from the skies’ – while paying no attention to ‘virtue or religion as it really exists.’ Virtue as it really exists, she went on to say, can be found ‘in courageous effort for unselfish ends, in the internal triumph of justice and pity over personal resentment, in all the sublime self-renunciation and sweet charities which are found in the details of ordinary life.’

Mead feels that, while Bulstrode in Middlemarch, exemplifies what happens when protestations of piety are betrayed in corrupt action, the Reverend Camden Farebrother is the touchstone of genuine religion and morality (page 227):

He delivers pithy sermons, which draw listeners from parishes other than his own, but his religion is shown in how he treats others, rather than how he preaches to them.

I heard echoes of my own faith tradition in those words. In the 20th Century Shoghi Effendi wrote: ‘it is not preaching and rules the world wants, but love and action…’

Mead argues that the roots of this insight go back much earlier in Eliot’s thinking (page 232):

In The Mill on the Floss, she warned against the “men of maxims”… the mysterious complexity of our life is not to be embraced by maxims, and that to lace ourselves up in formulas of that sort is to repress all the divine promptings and inspirations that spring from growing insight and sympathy.’

For these reasons, Eliot had little patience with Young’s (page 238) ‘unintermitting habit of pedagogic moralising.’ She feel this is a ‘moral deficit’ on Young’s part. Mead quotes Eliot’s explanation (ibid.):

In proportion as morality is emotional, i.e., has an affinity with Art, it will exhibit itself in direct sympathetic feeling and action, and not as the recognition of a rule.’ Minds that are ‘primarily didactic,’ Eliot feels, ‘are deficient in sympathetic emotion.’

Mixed Dictators v5Jonathan Haidt is if anything even more scathing, though this is not perhaps surprising after the modern world has seen, in Auschwitz, the Gulags and the caves of Yenan, what blind ideology, mindless or terrorised obedience and the fanatical enactment of a creed can do. Under such circumstances even the most well meaning people can end up committing atrocities, especially if we come to accept an extremist regime’s propaganda, which uses dehumanising labels such cockroach (Rwanda) and sewer rat (Nazi) to switch off our compassion, and then it’s as though the people we are torturing and killing are suddenly a different and inferior species.

In his humane and compassionate book The Happiness Hypothesis Haidt  indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

One chilling sentence conveys all we need to know about the horrors that can result from such a scenario  (Mao: the Uknown Story – Chang and Halliday; page 254):

At night, amid the quiet of the hills, from inside the rows of caves screams of lacerating pain travelled far and wide, within earshot of most who lived in Yenan.

It’s this kind of idealism that turns rules and ends into juggernauts under whose wheels multitudes are crushed, especially when the leaders are pathological narcissists, as seems all too often to be the case.

The difference between what Eliot is describing and what we have now seen is one of degree rather than kind. The French Revolution had already given a clear indication of where unbridled and self-righteous idealism could lead, when practised on the industrial scale to which we have now grown more accustomed. Eliot must surely have been aware of that. Frederick Karl, the one biographer of hers that I have read, suggests as much (George Eliot: a biography: page 95):

She had little but contempt for Louis Philippe, who, she knew, had to be overthrown if France was to enjoy the ‘Rights of Man’; but she also refused to see the revolution as some panacea for man’s ills or as a direction which would make a better life for the English if the revolution could be exported.

Her detailed analysis of the situation and her reasons for reaching this conclusion as a young woman of 29, from which he quotes at length, leave much to be desired, but it is clear she was thinking about the issues from an early age.

Towards the end of her engaging and uplifting book, Mead adds one or two more pointers in this direction (page 265): ‘[Eliot] believed that growth depends upon complex connections and openness to others, and does not derive from a solitary swelling of the self. She became great because she recognised that she was small.’

Middlemarch

Her Last Reach for a World-Embracing Vision

As a footnote, I would like to share my astonishment when I finally came to read her grossly under-rated final novel, Daniel Deronda published in 1876.

It strives to achieve an integration of two divergent cultures, of two distinct ways of life, of two sometimes seemingly contradictory world views – the Jewish and the Christian – into a transcendent pattern at a higher level than the component parts could achieve alone. I may be going too far in seeing in it glimpses, from an imperial island in the 19th Century, of what the world needs now in the 21st.  I feel it is, if only partially realised, a truly admirable striving towards a more world embracing vision – another and greater example of the way her concerns so consistently anticipate ours.

It seems to me an amazing attempt to see where the world might be going. Frederick Karl expresses it intriguingly, unbiased as he is by any desire to read Bahá’í thought backwards into her text (though Tolstoy had heard of the Bahá’í Faith, there is no evidence Eliot had living so early as this in the Faith’s history – page 547):

The Jewish and Christian elements [of the novel] link as a historical, temporal unity. If we view the novel in this perspective, we can connect the two plot strands into a universal entity or into a generalised human struggle reaching for some transcendental level, a form of ultimate health.

He goes onto describe her as (ibid.) ‘reaching towards some cure for the Western world as for herself,’ and failing in the attempt. Most critics, perhaps rightly, also feel she has failed and the two threads of understanding expressed in the two plot lines fail to blend as she would have wished, and the novel is irremediably split.

On the other hand, what she was striving for needed to be attempted and, I feel, there is so much depth and vigour in what she has succeeded in expressing that the novel is a richly rewarding read. As such, it took my breath away when I read it only a few years ago. The unsympathetic assessment of the book by the critics had put me off, in the same way as I had been steered away from Mansfield Park, and I regret that.

While her last novel might have been a noble failure, her life and her art are an inspiration, and Mead’s book helped me to see more deeply into that than I had before. I think it’s a truly worthwhile read.

 

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