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Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Haidt’

Middlemarch

My replacement secondhand copy – found 22 April 2014

I know this isn’t about poetry, my current obvious focus, but I am in the process of working towards expanding my gaze, so this seemed worth another shot. This is the final post.  

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.

The footfall on the blog has fallen earlier than usual. It’s a blessing in a way. The summer break will give me a bit more thinking time to wrestle with the problems confronting me about Plath’s life and poetry.

So I’m taking an earlier break now till early September.

Take care everyone.

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Cliff

Lake District Cliff

The best journey to make

is inward. It is the interior

that calls. Eliot heard it.

Wordsworth turned from the great hills

of the north to the precipice

of his own mind, and let himself

down for the poetry stranded

on the bare ledges.

(R. S. Thomas: ‘Groping’ page 328, Collected Poems)

Revisiting ‘The Marriage of Self and Soul‘ triggered me into thinking there would be some value in republishing this sequence from 2009. This is the final post.

When we considered the mind as a mirror, we felt that it could then contain the universe as a reflection within it. The idea of the heart as a garden or as soil works differently but we should still be thinking in terms of a vast landscaped garden rather than a small suburban one.

The Inscape

In writing about Jung in 1976, Laurens van der Post used the word I have borrowed from time to time ever since – ‘inscape.’ He wrote:

Gerald Manley Hopkins had already said it definitively when he wrote that there were not only ‘landscapes’ for us but ‘inscapes’ as well, or as he put it in one of his greatest poems,

‘O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall,

Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.’

(‘Jung and the Story of our Time‘: page 20)

Whether we are simply talking about the mind as a product of the brain or as an emanation from the soul, this holds true. If we move from the poets to a psychologist, we find:

The assembled oddities of human nature point to the fact that it is not just the mind that bursts out of the . . . . straitjacket into which it has been forced; it is the very core of the self, of human identity, that threatens to escape. I am darker, and more dispersed, and more various, and more changeable, than I am supposed to be . . .

(Guy Claxton: The Wayward Mind page 350)

Though the idea of the universe may seem too much too swallow for some, even if we restrict ourselves only to thinking of the brain, our inscape is larger and more complex than many of us are prepared to admit. This throws us back onto the problem we wrestled with right at the beginning: if we have such a complex and powerful hinterland of forces within us, where does free will fit in?

The metaphor of the garden and cultivation helps us here to understand in what ways our freedom to decide is circumscribed by what is happening out of consciousness: at the same time it shows us that we are not completely powerless and we do have responsibility. We can shape the way things go but we cannot do this arbitrarily and in ignorance of the way the mind-brain system works. For those who want a more detailed understanding of what psychology thinks about this issue, Claxton’s books are a good place to start.

Free Will

We are going to be simplifying the situation in order to focus on a central issue. Bahá’u’lláh tells us:

hyacinthSow the seeds of My divine wisdom in the pure soil of thy heart, and water them with the water of certitude, that the hyacinths of My knowledge and wisdom may spring up fresh and green in the sacred city of thy heart.

(Persian Hidden Words, No. 33)

The balance of conscious decision-making against automatic unconscious processes implied here is very much how things really are, I think. We can choose what we sow in the soil: we can even make sure that some of the conditions are favourable. But it is the soil and the sun that do the bulk of the work. Without the power of nature the gardener could do nothing. And this captures the balance of forces between our decisions and the actions we take, which are relatively puny but of great significance, and the massive spiritual and mental forces that are then mobilised to bring our plans to fruition. We have to work with those forces for we cannot work against them. We are the puny rider training the massive elephant, to use Jonathan Haidt‘s different image. If we plant something other than the hyacinths of wisdom, that’s what we’ll get. If we plant nothing and do no weeding, then we’ll have, in the words Hamlet uses of the state of Denmark:

. . . an unweeded garden

That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature

Possess it merely.

(Act I, Scene ii, lines 135-137: merely means ‘completely.)

(It is perhaps no coincidence that both Zen Buddhism and Islam also see spiritual sustenance in both experiencing and maintaining a well-kept garden: that I’m good with the hammock and bad with the trowel worries me sometimes.)

We must allow that the brain has vast unconscious forces working in parallel. But what we do with our minds influences what those forces do in highly significant ways. It is not deterministic and we do have free will — up to a point. Beneath the surface, our mind processes outside our consciousness what we drop into it. We can learn, if we are skillful and resolute, to control by act of will what is planted in our minds though we may not be able to control exactly what our mind then does with it.

What about the soul?

Now we must return to a crucial point. While what I have just explored holds true regardless of whether we are talking about brains, minds or souls, I also accept that the evidence and the reasons for thinking it is the soul are not compelling. If we were compelled by their cogency and force to accept them, there would be no freedom of choice and no moral value in believing or not believing in a soul, anymore than there is moral value in believing that grass is green or the sun is hot.

However, I would like, before the end of this series of posts, to quote two writers from very different traditions who feel that there is a powerful body of evidence, disparaged in our culture, that says the spiritual or transcendental dimension has to be taken seriously, however you might choose to define it.

Ken Wilber concludes a complex review of what should constitute evidence and falsifiability by stating:

. . . it then becomes perfectly obvious that the real battle is not between science which is ‘real,’ and religion, which is ‘bogus,’ but rather between real science and religion, on the one hand, and bogus science and religion, on the other. Both real science and real religion follow the three strands of valid knowledge accumulation, while both bogus science (pseudo-science) and bogus religion (mythic and dogmatic) fail that test miserably. Thus, real science and real religion are actually allied against the bogus and the dogmatic and the nonverifiable and the nonfalsifiable in their respective spheres.

(The Marriage of Sense and Soul, page 169)

Margaret Donaldson, in an equally brilliant book that looks at the development of the human mind from infancy to adulthood, concludes:

. . . . if the intellect has unbalanced us, there are corrective steps open to us which are not regressive and which do not entail a rejection of reason. At the same time, we may come to feel less embarrassed about and suspicious of transcendent emotion, seeing it as no more ‘wierd’ than the capacity for mathematical thought. Neither of these is, or is ever likely to seem, banal or commonplace. Each has its element of mystery. Yet each is a normal, though generally ill-developed, power of the human mind.

(Human Minds, page 266)

The value of a spiritual perspective

It is my view that, if we can accept the spiritual dimension, we will be more motivated to persist in the difficult work of cultivating our inscape, and if we do not we will be inclined to give up far too soon with dire consequences for ourselves and our societies.

The Elizabethans often compared the state to a garden. There is a strong connection, it seems to me, between the state of the gardens of our minds and the state of the gardens of the societies that we create. If we want to see the Tudor picture of a harmonious garden within and outside us we need to accept that arduous and persistent work needs to be done. The Gardener in King Richard the Second laments:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . O, what a pity is itforsythia

That [the king] had not so trimm’d and dress’d his land

As we this garden! We at time of year

Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruit trees,

Lest, being over-proud in sap and blood,

With too much riches it confound itself;

. . . . . . . . . . . . Superfluous branches

We lop away, that bearing boughs may live;

Had he done so, himself had borne the crown,

Which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down.

(Act III, Scene iv, lines 55-66)

What is true for them and for King Richard is also true for us in terms of our own hearts and our own communities. If we fail to do the necessary systematic work, then we will perhaps end up with Richard lamenting:

I wasted time and now doth time waste me.

(Act V, Scene v, line 49)

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Mirroring the Light

Mirroring the Light

A pure heart is as a mirror . . .

In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love . . . .

Bahá’u’lláh: The Seven Valleys (page 21) & Persian Hidden Words No. 3

Revisiting ‘The Marriage of Self and Soul‘ triggered me into thinking there would be some value in republishing this sequence from 2009. The first three posts will appear consecutively: the last two next Tuesday and Wednesday.

I want to deal with only two more complex issues. Both of them stem from our experience of what might be our soul. The two quotations from Bahá’u’lláh give us a sense of what those issues might be. These posts could go on for a while yet!

The Mirror and the Garden

The first issue is to do with how we can feel there is an infinity inside us and how that relates to the ability of our mind to watch itself. We will be talking a lot about mirrors, hearts and minds later.

The second issue is one that Dennett raises which needs to be addressed more closely than I did last time. He states that the brain is a parallel processor of great complexity and that serial consciousness is what computing people would call virtual not real: in simple terms the more complicated parallel processor underneath, which can do lots of things at once (‘Not a man, then!’ did you say?), fakes our experience of thinking one thing at a time in a time-line.

Guy Claxton deals with much the same issue by using the analogy of interconnected octopuses to describe the brain’s complexity. Both

Octopus

Octopus

agree, as I do (and Jonathan Haidt as well in his elephant and rider metaphor), that the brain, whether or not we have a soul, can do an awful lot of complicated things without our feeling anything at all and can go its own way in spite of us sometimes.

This is the issue that will involve us in talking about gardens as way of describing hearts and minds. We will be exploring whether the relationship between our conscious mind and the rest of our mind is rather like the relationship between gardeners and their gardens. You will have to bear, more than you usually do, with my limitations here: my hands-on experience of gardening is derived only from the deckchair.

In the end I hope to use all this to shed light on whether I have a soul and whether my will is free.

Mind and Brain

We have to get some basic stuff out of the way first before we tackle the fascinating surfaces of our mind’s mirrors and the fertile depths of our heart’s gardens.

I ended the previous post wondering what it is like to experience my soul. I hinted that there is something about our inner experience, something with which we are all very familiar, which might just be the end of a piece of string that is tied to our soul, the experience of soul in consciousness if you like.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, along with therapies like Psychosynthesis as well as Existentialist writers and millenia of meditators, have all homed in on the one same remarkable capacity of our minds. I can look into my own mind and watch it: we can reflect. I can see the contents of my consciousness passing through my mind. ‘Oh look!’ I can say to myself, ‘There’s a feeling of anger. There’s a thought about fish and chips. Oh, and there goes a plan to go shopping tomorrow.’ I think we all know what that feels like already or can at least confirm that we can do it with just a small amount of effort: we can separate our consciousness from its contents.

How do we do that though and what does it mean?

Some say it’s a by-product of language. That’s the A.C.T. explanation. “I speak therefore I can talk as though I am watching my mind.’ Others dress up their explanatory bankruptcy in fancier ways. ‘It’s an epiphenomenon of the brain’s complexity.’ Epiphenomenon means by-product. It also is used to indicate that this ability is accidental and pointless: all the really important stuff is going on underneath where the neurons are firing. ‘I’ve got more connections in my brain than atoms in the universe, so I think my mind can watch itself, ha, ha! It’s got no idea what’s going on.’

Some are more charitable. “Well, when you get complex systems you do sometimes get an emergent property that’s more than the sum of its parts.’ Consciousness and self-reflection would fall into this category. ‘My brain’s so complicated it’s better than its bits so I really can watch my mind working. More than that, my mind can change the brain as well as being affected by the brain.’

Now that really is something.

It either demonstrates an emergent property or suggests that the mind and brain might be different kinds of stuff. It really does happen as well. For instance, wiring a very antisocial late-teenager’s head (i.e. late meaning 18 or 19, but not dead yet or behind time in this case!) to a feedback machine, so he could learn how to increase the activity of the frontal lobes which control impulsive behaviour, led to more active frontal lobes. His grades improved, his crime rate slumped to zero and he stopped using drugs. That doesn’t sound like the brain was really calling all the shots to me.

The Spiritual Perspective

So, the mind can watch itself and also change the way the brain functions in significant ways. Why might that be more than an emergent property?

First of all, in the Pam Reynolds experience, which is not unique, we had, in my view, solid proof that her mind gathered and remembered information that her brain could never have gleaned or stored. It operated separately. The idea of mind/brain separation, therefore has evidence in its favour (See also Jenny Wade’s ‘Changes of Mind‘ for a full discussion of mind/brain separation in infancy and beyond). No theory connected with mind as an emergent property has ever predicted that. It goes way beyond what would have been expected.

That’s the kind of externally corroborated evidence that science likes to find but in this case prefers to ignore as what it demonstrates is held to be impossible.

More importantly though, there is the evidence of our own subjective experience. Remember the disparagement of free will? It’s an illusion, Dennett says. Such people also say that our experience of being able to look at our minds isn’t what it feels like. But why should we believe them about this any more than we should believe them when they say we do not really have free will? Is this another lamp post that needs kicking?

Who is it then that we can get in touch with when we watch ourselves? Who was there when we look back on every aspect of our lives at every period and feel we were the same self doing the watching then? Every cell in our bodies has since been changed. Is it really just a trick of language, neuronal connections or memory? Is there really no genuine constant sense of a real inner self observing all we do?

We all have to make our own decision about what that experience means. I think it is quite reasonable to say that it suggests that my mind is made of different stuff from my brain although it uses it. It is at least as reasonable to conclude that as to conclude that it’s all down to the neurons.

In another post there may be an opportunity to look at the work of Margaret Donaldson and Ken Wilber who both brilliantly advocate in their very different ways the value of subjective experience as data about reality. Many people can keep replicating the same experience by the same spiritual practices in very different cultures: that means something, they argue, about the true nature of reality. Newberg, D’Aquili and Rause have the humility to admit that even though we can pin down exactly what’s going on in the brain at the same time as these experiences, this doesn’t mean they’re not real anymore than understanding the neurobiology of colour vision proves that colour doesn’t exist. The fact that our brains turn wavelengths of light into the experience of colour does not mean there is nothing out there corresponding to the experience, even though green and 510 nanometres seem to have very little in common!

If I can carry you with me rather further now, let’s see in the next post where this possibility can take us. It is worth reminding ourselves again here that the word we use to describe this ability of the mind is ‘reflection.’ Next time we will be exploring mirrors, hearts, selves and consciousness. Not much to look forward to then.

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Resist oppression with justice, oppose tyranny with equity, and respond to bloodthirstiness with loving kindness.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá quoted on 8 May 2015 in a letter from the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of Iran)

Given my problematic revisiting of creativity in the context of schizophrenia, it seemed a good idea to republish one of my longest sequence of posts ever, which focuses more positively on the power of art.

As the previous posts have made clear, I hope, I am seeking to understand more deeply the nature of the relationship between the art and the artist who creates it, as well, if possible, as shedding some light on what kind of role contemporary reality has on that relationship. An important aspect of this exploration will be the positive impact of the arts on society, and not only by means of protest songs such as the one above and in previous posts.

I have decided at this point to do this by looking at the art in the light of the artist’s biography.

Almost by accident, and because I came at him initially with very few details about his life or art, I’m going to test out this approach with Shelley. An overview of key developments in his poetry and his thinking will take up the next four posts, before the fifth post moves onto the implications for my own tentative general model.

The Man & his Times

Ann WroeSome Impacts of Early Experience

How his early experiences affected Shelley as an artist is a complex matter to grapple with.

Given what we learned about Shelley’s early life in the second pair of posts, how did things develop for the poet in him as he grew older?

Holmes, in his biography of Shelley, expresses the feeling that (page 64) he was both ‘fascinated and terrified by the workings of his own mind’ and that ‘the secret workings of his own personality and the half-hidden movements of his own mind at a subconscious level were for him an ever-deepening source of imagery, and poetic myth-making.’

Ann Wroe’s thoughtful study, Being Shelleyquotes Shelley’s poems and notebooks many times to illustrate this point. He writes of (page 183) ‘The caverns of the mind,’ which seem ”obscure & shadowy’ or ‘beautifully bright.’ She appropriates his words from the Preface to The Cenci, confident that words he used to explain one of the aspects of religion in Protestant countries could be applied to the poet himself (page 184):

A gloomy passion for penetrating the impenetrable mysteries of our being, which terrifies its possessor at the darkness of the abyss to the brink of which it has conduct of him.

Interestingly, on another important point, as I read the Preface myself, I discovered a passage that is quoted neither by Holmes in his entire book nor by Wroe completely.

The highest moral purpose aimed at in the highest species of the drama, is teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself; in proportion to the possession of which knowledge, every human being is wise, just, sincere, tolerant and kind.

In this passage Shelley has given me a criterion of his own to help me judge the value of not only his dramatic works but of his poetry as a whole.

In spite of what his contemporaries, and perhaps even Shelley himself in his public persona, saw as his atheism, according to Holmes he seemed to believe (page 65) that ‘the mind and the soul were separate and different entities.’

Coleridge provides what is perhaps one of the most astute comments on the relationship between Shelley, the man, and Shelley, the poet (page 94):

Shelley was a man of great power as a poet… and could he only have had some notion of order, could [he] only have [had] some place to stand, and look down upon his mind, he would have succeeded.

This relates to the caveat that Myer’s had about the poetry of Blake (Irreducible Mind: page 445):

Myers. . . . . regards Blake as an example of strong imagination insufficiently controlled by supraliminal discipline: “throughout all the work of William Blake we see the subliminal self flashing for moments into unity, then smouldering again in a lurid and scattered glow” (Human Personality, vol 1, page 73).

I will need to keep an eye on this issue in relation to Shelley when I come to form my conclusions.

Holmes ShelleyBasically, as Holmes summarised and I quoted in a previous post (page 21):

Of the damage that the early Eton experience did to him, repeating and reinforcing the Syon House pattern and reaction, there can be little doubt. Fear of society en masse, fear of enforced solitude, fear of the violence within himself and from others, fear of withdrawal of love and acceptance, all these were implanted in the centre of his personality so that it became fundamentally unstable and highly volatile. Here to seem to lie the sources of his compensatory qualities: his daring, his exhibitionism, his flamboyant generosity, his instinctive and demonstrative hatred of authority.

This instability may account for the uneven quality of his work, especially but not only the early poems.

The Influence of Recent Events on Shelley’s Political Beliefs

Shelley’s political views, in addition to being shaped by his personal background, were also formed against a backdrop of the aftermath of the French Revolution, its subsequent terrifying transformations into various forms of tyranny, and the English recoil from what they were observing from across the channel. William Godwin and his circle (page 122) felt that ‘revolutionary mobs do not in the end bring liberty, but civil war followed by some form of tyranny.’ In the wake of the indiscriminate bloodshed of the French Revolution, and in the face of the apparently irreversible tendency of humanity to spill even more blood since on an industrial scale, much ink has been spilt in countless attempts to explain it.

For present purposes it is perhaps enough to note the contention in Jonathan Haidt’s humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis,’ which suggests that 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.

Earthly PowersThis powerful idea may have its roots in Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of the French Revolution which, he feels, took on ‘that appearance of a religious revolution which so astonished contemporaries’ (quoted in Michael Burleigh’s Earthly Powers – page 3), and flowering in Dawson’s simpler version of Eric Vogelin (page 8) when he wrote, ‘this determination to build Jerusalem, at once and on the spot, is the very force which is responsible for the intolerance and violence of the new political order.’

This tendency of idealism to make the ends justify the most abhorrent of means, and humanity’s addiction to making a quasi-religion out of terror as a result, continues to this day, morphing through Nazism, Stalinism and Maoism to the horror of Isis/Daesh right at this moment.

I am fully aware that statisticians can reassure us that we have never had it so good (see link for the full exploration):

In the UK, Matt Ridley has been beating his Rational Optimist drum for years, while Harvard professor Steven Pinker argued persuasively in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature that violence is on the decline. Presiding over the field is Hans Rosling, the Swedish professor who is the closest thing statistics has ever had to a rock star. His TED talk The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen has been viewed more than 10m times. Last month the BBC aired a lecture, timed to coincide with new UN development goals (and made with input from Roser), called How to End Poverty in 15 Years. Rosling lectures all over the world to rapturous audiences, making his points with humour, striking visuals and the occasional flash of temper with interviewers who don’t get it.

But we still have a long way to go when you consider the absolute numbers of the dying rather than the percentage they constitute of the world’s population, and that extremism may not be as easily containable in a world where fanaticism could suddenly gain access to technologies capable of killing thousands, and possibly millions in a matter of moments.

Given the escalating responses of the major powers to the slaughter in Paris, it seems to me we might be entering a dangerous zone where revenge can be rationalised as self-defence, and those who raise legitimate questions about this approach can be dismissed as weak, confused or wooly-minded. We may have stepped more deeply into the black and white world of the reptilian brain, and the consequences could be even blacker than we feared.

We should have no difficulty really putting ourselves into Shelley’s shoes as he gazed on a landscape where his own government, as we shall see, could gun down unarmed protestors, and the government overseas had morphed from freedom fighters through totalitarian mass murderers to a one-man dictatorship threatening the whole continent. It is tragically ironic that it is now this same country that has suffered so much so recently from dystopian terror from overseas.

After his return from Ireland and his first entry into the field of anti-establishment politics (page 131), what Shelley had seen there left an indelible impact on his mind and art:

The confrontation with the physical facts of poverty, disease and brute ignorance was an experience which never left Shelley, and they were to fill his best writing with images of macabre force. The issue of violent change was brought forward as a central question in his political thinking.

He was beginning to develop a remarkably advanced view of where society, religion and politics should be heading, though he had further to travel yet. In an 1812 pamphlet to Lord Ellenborough, he wrote (page 155):

The time is rapidly approaching, I hope, that you, my Lord, may live to behold its arrival, when the Mahometan, the Jew, the Christian, the Deist, and the Atheist will live together in one community, equally sharing the benefits which arise from association, and united in the bonds of brotherhood love

At this stage of his life, though, his overall vision was less than impressive. Holmes summarises it (page 201):

What Shelley was preaching came to be understood by his friends, and by his enemies, as a vision of the good life based on atheism, free love, republicanism and vegetarianism: a combination of the enlightened, the millennial and the cranky.

I rather resent the implication there that vegetarianism is cranky and atheism enlightened, but I accept his basic point about Shelley.

800px-John_Everett_Millais_-_Ophelia_-_Google_Art_Project

Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1852) is part of the Tate Gallery collection.

His View of Personal Relationships

According to Holmes, Shelley’s emphasis on love is marred by two very major blemishes (page 207-08):

The first is his blindness to the intrinsic value of constancy in human relations… His second blindness was to the way in which children made a fundamental alteration to the direction and responsibilities of a love relationship

Relating to the first point, in Epipsychidion, the poem that examines his own development, he writes eloquently, though with a kind of superior self-congratulating tunnel vision:

I never was attached to that great sect,
Whose doctrine is, that each one should select
Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend,
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion, though it is in the code
Of modern morals, and the beaten road
Which those poor slaves with weary footsteps tread,
Who travel to their home among the dead
By the broad highway of the world, and so,
With one chained friend, and perhaps a jealous foe,
The dreariest and the longest journey go.

Sadly ‘he was to pay dearly – and make others pay dearly – for his personal blindness in both these respects.’ His first wife, Harriet, was not the only victim, though perhaps the one who suffered most. Her pain at his abandonment of her, and of their children, which was invisible to him much of the time, drove her eventually to suicide (page 238):

. . . . busy with the excitement of [the planned expedition with his new love and her sister], Harriet’s pain and misery was obviously quite unreal to him.

This was completely typical (page 255) of the ‘total lack of understanding’ or ‘sympathy towards his wife’s feelings’ that he consistently displayed throughout this whole period. As my understanding of this issue shifts, I can see that this is more likely to be the result of his narcissism rather than the effects of his traumatic schooling.

At this stage of his life (page 246) he was espousing ‘wholesale political terrorism and violence’ as the way of ‘liberating and freeing a “civilised” society.’ It would be sometime before he worked his way to a more temperate position.

Clearly at this stage he had neither learnt the lessons of the French Revolution about where the use of violence to achieve positive ends might lead, nor come to understand through pain what others close to him really suffered.

The next post begins to see an uplift in his poetry and in his understanding.

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Edmundson

Given a recent post touches on psychoanalysis the second post of this two-parter seems relevant. The second part comes out tomorrow.

As I worked on my recent sequence of posts about Shelley, prompted by a heads up from Gordon Kerr at Dazzling Spark Arts Foundation I stumbled upon Poetry Slam by Mark Edmundson. I was dead impressed. It was a short step from there to reading his book self and soul: a Defense of Ideals.

Because just about every page of the book is crammed with valuable insights I’m going to focus on only three aspects of it: first, what he calls the ‘polemical introduction,’ a few quotes from and comments about which will convey the overall theme of the book; second, his chapter on Shakespeare, which argues a fascinating case for seeing the value-free Shakespeare I took for granted as being in reality the demolition expert who detonated explosions beneath the foundations of the towers of medieval idealism to clear the ground for our modern pragmatic commercialism; and finally, his chapter on Freud, which sees him as the reductionist par excellence, who crusaded against any residual ideals that might give meaning to our lives and effectively buried for whole generations the values which Edmundson argues Shakespeare had fatally wounded.

I may drag a few of my own hobbyhorses into this arena as I hobble along.

While I found his attack on Freud was music to my ears, his antidote to what he defines in effect as Shakespeare’s toxic effects was far harder to swallow, and I am gagging on that still. I’m not sure he was completely wrong, though, even so.

The Triumph of Self

This is the title Edmundson gives to his introduction. I was hooked from the very first page so I’ll quote from it:

It is no secret: culture in the West has become progressively more practical, materially oriented, and sceptical. When I look out at my students, about to graduate, I see people who are in the process of choosing a way to make money, a way to succeed, a strategy for getting on in life. . . . . It’s no news: we are more and more a worldly culture, a money-based culture geared to the life of getting and spending, trying and succeeding, and reaching for more and more. We are a pragmatic people. We do not seek perfection in thought or art, war or faith. The profound stories about heroes and saints are passing from our minds. We are anything but idealists. . . . . Unfettered capitalism runs amok; Nature is ravaged; the rich gorge: prisons are full to bursting; the poor cry out in their misery and no one seems to hear. Lust of Self rules the day.

He is not blind to the dark side of idealism though he is perhaps not as sensitive to it as, for example, Jonathan Haidt is, in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis,’ when he 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.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

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

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris)

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris). For source of image see link.

Heroism:

Haidt’s words were ringing in my ears as Edmundson begins to explain the three main ideals he wishes to focus upon. The first ideal he looks at is heroism. If the hook from the first page had not gone so deep, I might have swum away again at this point. I’m glad I didn’t.

That is not because I am now sold on the heroic as Edmundson first introduces it. The idea of Achilles still does not thrill me because he is a killer. He lights the way for Atilla, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and then for Hitler, Mao, Stalin and beyond.

None of those 20th Century examples are probably heroes in any Homeric sense of the word, but, with their roots in the betrayed idealism of the French Revolution, they have capitalised on similar perversions of idealism that have fuelled war, torture, mass prison camps and worse. I can’t shake off the influence of my formative years under the ominous shadow of the Second World War. I’m left with a powerful and indelible aversion to any warlike and violent kind of idealism, and any idolising of the heroic can seem far too close to that for comfort to me. In fact, high levels of intensity about any belief system sets warning bells ringing in my head. I’m not sure where to stand between the horns of the dilemma Yeats defined so clearly:

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

(The Second Coming)

I’ve dealt with that at some length in a previous sequence of posts so I won’t revisit that in detail now.

A key point was one I borrowed from Eric Reitan’s measured and humane defence of religion against Richard Dawkin’s straw man attacks. 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, would then be built on potentially totalitarian foundations. I am using the word God in a wider sense than the purely theological to stand for whatever we make the driving force of our lives: this could mistakenly be money, Marxism or the motherland.

I accept that, for the zealot of a destructive creed, his god is definitely worthy of worship, so much so he might kill me if I disagree: even so, Reitan’s point is a valid one. We should all take care, before we commit to a cause, to make sure that it is truly holy.

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion (for source of image see link)

Contemplation:

In any case, it’s where Edmundson goes next that kept me happily hooked (pages 4-5):

The second great Western ideal emerges as an ambivalent attack on Homer and Homeric values. Plato repeatedly expresses his admiration for the Homeric poem; he seems to admire Homer above all literary artists. But to Plato there is a fundamental flaw at the core of Homer’s work: Homer values the warrior above all others. For Plato the pre-eminent individual is the thinker, and the best way to spend one’s life is not in the quest for glory but in the quest for Truth. Plato introduces the second of the great ideals in Western culture: the ideal of contemplation.

He goes onto explain that Plato is not interested in investigating how to ‘navigate practical difficulties.’ He seeks ‘a Truth that will be true for all time.’

In religious terms, as Daniel Batson describes them, I’m an example of some one who scores high on the Quest scale, where religion ‘involves an open-ended, responsive dialogue with existential questions raised by the contradictions and tragedies of life’ (Religion and the Individual page 169). No surprise then that I was delighted to find that Edmundson was going to explore this kind of ideal at some length. He also makes it very clear later in the book that being true to the role of thinker requires its own form of heroism, as the life and death of Socrates demonstrates.

Edmundson reflects upon the fact (page 6) that the ‘average citizen now is a reflexive pragmatist.’ He continues:

The mind isn’t best used to seek eternal Truth: that is impractical, a waste of time. The mind is a compass to get bearings in life; a calculator to ascertain profit and lost; a computer to plan one’s next move in life’s chess match.

He adds that ‘Instrumental Reason rules the day.’

Buddha Jingan

 

Compassion:

Last of all he comes to one of my other obsessions (page 7):

There is a third ideal that stands next to the heroic and the contemplative: the compassionate ideal. The ideal of compassion comes into the Western tradition definitively with the teachings of Jesus Christ. But the ideal of compassion is older than Jesus; it is manifest in the sacred texts of the Hindus, in the teachings of the Buddha and, less directly, in the reflections of Confucius.

The shift in consciousness between this and the heroic ideal is massive (page 8):

No longer is one a thrashing Self, fighting the war of each against all. Now one is part of everything and everyone: one merges with the spirit of all the lives. And perhaps this merger is heaven, or as close to heaven as we mortals can come.

And staying true to that perception also requires great courage. The histories of the great religions testify to that, with their tales of martyrdom and persecution. It is sad though to reflect upon how often the persecuted faiths have later become persecutors themselves: it is not just the heroic ideal that has shed rivers of blood throughout history. Conviction, as I have explored before on this blog, is a double-edged sword.

Three Ideals

So, then, we have it (page 9): ‘Courage, compassion, and serious thought: these are the great ideals of the ancient world.’

It would be impossible for me to do justice to the force and depth of his treatment of these three ideals. I am not even going to attempt it here. I can wholeheartedly recommend his entire book as a stimulating exploration of what we have come very close to losing.

In the next post I will simply home in on two relatively manageable implications of his main theme: his treatment of two key figures who, in his view, have helped misshape modern culture – Shakespeare and Freud.

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I didn’t think I would ever have cause to republish something as rapidly as I am doing with this one in the light of recent events. This problem simply will not go away anytime soon, it seems. 

Last time I described my quest to understand our penchant for evil acts, including what might help us get past this fatal flaw, and what drew me to buy and start reading Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life.

Before I begin to tackle his exact contribution to this quest, I need to summarise the key ideas I’ve gleaned from those who are his forerunners in my investigations. My right-brain has agreed to this because I can pull most of this in from previous posts so it won’t greatly delay its desperately needed return to poetry.

Our Moral Imagination

Robert Wright in his book The Evolution of God argues that in evolutionary terms we are being forced to expand our sense of common humanity ever wider if we are not to face destructive challenges.

He states (page 428):

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 (page 428-429):

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.

He rescues this from cliché by pointing out that the idea of common humanity may be a self-evident point when we read or hear it, but it’s far from obvious if you look at the way we act. This is because we are under the illusion that we are special (page 429):

We all base our daily lives on this premise – that our welfare is more important than the welfare of pretty much anyone else, with the possible exception of close kin. . . . We see our own resentments as bona fide grievances and we see the grievances of others as mere resentments.

He links the progress of humanity with the application of the unifying insight in daily life (page 429):

. . . . the salvation of the global social system entails moral progress not just in the sense of human welfare; there has to be as a prerequisite for that growth, a closer encounter by individual human beings with moral truth.

At the end of this sequence I will be exploring more fully the implications of this with the help of the diagram on the left. For now all I will say is that it will take a long period of time before enough of us to make a real difference shift from the ‘me now’ position to expanding the compass of our compassionate understanding so that it embraces the whole of humanity.

Writght feels that it is inevitable that we will either move closer to moral truth or descend into chaos (we’ll be coming back to that word again in much more detail later). He feels that (ibid):

. . . history has driven us closer and closer to moral truth, and now our moving still closer to moral truth is the only path to salvation . . .

by which he means salvation of the social structure. He feels (page 430) that religions that have ‘failed to align individual salvation with social salvation have not, in the end, fared well.’

Jeremy Rifkin, in his thought-provoking book The Empathic Civilisation, articulates an important caveat to any assumption that an increasing global culture will inevitably move us onward and upward. He adduces evidence to illustrate the role of entropy. We hit this forcefully almost from the start of the book (page 25):

If there were any lingering doubt as to how close our species is coming to the very limits of its sustainability on earth, a single statistic is revealing of our current state of affairs: our scientists tell us that the nearly seven billion human beings now inhabiting the Earth make up less than 1% of the total biomass of all the Earth’s consumers. Yet with our complex global economic and social infrastructure, we are currently consuming nearly 24% of the net primary production on Earth . . .

He then spells out what that means (page 26):

Our journey begins at the crossroads where the laws of energy that govern the universe come up against the human inclination to continually transcend our sense of isolation by seeking the companionship of others in evermore complex energy-consuming social arrangements. The underlying dialectic of human history is the continuous feedback loop between expanding empathy and increasing entropy.

In terms of Wright’s position, entropy notwithstanding, what we need to understand is what is blocking the process he describes of expanding the scope and range of our ‘moral imagination,’ or in my terms the compass of our compassion.

My very battered copy of this classic.

Our Objects of Devotion

In his attempt to understand the horrors of Nazism, Erich Fromm writes in his masterpiece, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, a dog-eared disintegrating paperback copy of which I bought in 1976 and still cling onto, something which deserves quoting at length (pages 260-61):

The intensity of the need for a frame of orientation explains a fact that has puzzled many students of man, namely the ease with which people fall under the spell of irrational doctrines, either political or religious or of any other nature, when to the one who is not under their influence it seems obvious that they are worthless constructs. . . . . Man would probably not be so suggestive were it not that his need for a cohesive frame of orientation is so vital. The more an ideology pretends to give answers to all questions, the more attractive it is; here may lie the reason why irrational or even plainly insane thought systems can so easily attract the minds of men.

But a map is not enough as a guide for action; man also needs a goal that tells him where to go. . . . man, lacking instinctive determination and having a brain that permits him to think of many directions in which he could go, needs an object of total devotion; he needs an object of devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings and the basis for all his effective – and not only proclaimed – values. . . . In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity.

The objects man’s devotion vary. He can be devoted to an idol which requires him to kill his children or to an ideal the makes him protect children; he can be devoted to the growth of life or to its destruction. He can be devoted to the goal of amassing a fortune, of acquiring power, of destruction, or to that of loving and being productive and courageous. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols; yet while the difference in the objects of devotion are of immense importance, the need for devotion itself is a primary, existential need demanding fulfilment regardless of how this need is fulfilled.

When we choose the wrong object of devotion the price can be terrifying.

Eric Reitan makes essentially the same point. He warns us that we need to take care that the object of devotion we choose needs to be worthy of our trust. In his book, Is God a delusion?, he explains a key premise 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, including the secular variations such a Fascism and Nazism.

In Wright’s terms, if the compass of our compassion is set too narrow, and we only identify with a subgroup of humanity rather than with humanity as a whole, we’re doomed.

Idealism, Ideology and Mistaking our Maps for Reality

Once we have taken that fatal step into mistaken devotion we are in the danger zone of idealism. 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.

McGilchrist’s contribution towards enriching my understanding of this issue is in his profound interrogation of the negative impact of the dominant left-hemisphere’s processing on our thinking. The conclusion he reaches that most matters when we look at our western society is on pages 228-229:

The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity. This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth. . . . . .

There is a huge disadvantage for the right hemisphere here. If . . . knowledge has to be conveyed to someone else, it is in fact essential to be able to offer (apparent) certainties: to be able to repeat the process for the other person, build it up from the bits. That kind of knowledge can be handed on. . . . By contrast, passing on what the right hemisphere knows requires the other party already to have an understanding of it, which can be awakened in them. . .

On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, and perhaps also because it is more easily communicated than the subtle, nuanced, tentative, fluid and directly sensed approximation of reality that constitutes the right hemisphere experience, the left hemisphere view becomes the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships though are far better understood by the right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a rich morality, whereas the left hemisphere tends in its black and white world fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.

Group Dynamics

There are also social facilitation, group difference and status differential effects. Take, for instance, Zimbardo’s perspective, which is rooted in the study he initiated at Stanford University. Student volunteers were divided randomly into two groups: prisoners and guards. It did not take long for the guards to descend into abusive behaviours that meant the study had to be halted before serious harm was done. From this, and after examining the behaviour of American troops at Abu Ghraib, he came to disturbing conclusions about human behaviour in situations that steer us towards evil. He feels strongly that good people can do bad things, not necessarily because they are bad apples who should bear full responsibility for their crimes, but because they are placed in a bad barrel that rots them. More than that, it is too simplistic to then blame the barrel for the whole problem. The barrel maker has to take his share of the responsibility. Corrupt systems can corrupt good people. Only the minority in his experience are able to resist. (It is only fair to add that Bregman’s recent book Human Kind casts serious doubt on the validity of Zimbardo’s Stanford University experiment, citing evidence to suggest that the dramatic results were manufactured by the research team. A properly conducted study filmed by the BBC in 2001 failed completely to replicate the Zimbardo patterns of behaviour.)  

The power of such influences, even if they are less dramatic than Zimbardo alleged, is reinforced by Haidt’s idea of the hive effect.

Haidt, in his other brilliant book The Righteous Mind, comes back to our need to belong and to the role of religion as one of the main ways we meet that need. Haidt discusses this at some length in his book and what he says is both fascinating and critically important (page 247):

Why do the students sing, chant, dance, sway, chop, and stomp so enthusiastically during the game? . . . From a Durkheimian perspective these behaviors serve a [particular] function, and it is the same one that Durkheim saw at work in most religious rituals: the creation of a community. A college football game is a superb analogy for religion.

How does he justify that apparently bizarre statement? He feels the fundamental effect is the same (ibid.):

. . . from a sociologically informed perspective, . . . a religious rite . . . . pulls people up from Durkheim’s lower level (the profane) to his higher level (the sacred). It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply a part of a whole.”

Being ‘part of a whole’ can have an unacceptable price, though, as I will explore next time.

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