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Edmundson

Given the themes of my current sequence this two-parter from February last year 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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 . . . . . religion must be conducive to love and unity among mankind; for if it be the cause of enmity and strife, the absence of religion is preferable.

( ‘Abdu’l-BaháPromulgation of Universal Peace page 128)

A recent post by Sue Vincent on recycling posts triggered me to have a look at some earlier stuff and I came across this pair of posts from 2012 that still seems relevant in terms of its main ideas. I posted the first part on Monday.

In the previous post, focusing on the role of religion in society, I tried to convey some of Jonathan Haidt‘s key points, from his penetrating overview of the area – The Righteous Mind. He contends amongst other things that the sense of belonging religion brings is an essential foundation stone for more general human cooperation. He tested this idea against the evidence and found it rang true. He then moves on to look at other evidence that provides a test from a different angle.

Long-Term Social Glue

What was really interesting to me was that he finds that religions are better than other ideologies at binding communities together long-term. He quotes evidence of where communes were compared (page 256):

Communes can survive only to the extent that they can bind a group together, suppress self-interest, and solve the free rider problem. . . . Which kind of commune survived longer? Sosis found that the difference was stark: just 6 percent of the secular communes were still functioning twenty years after their founding, compared to 39 percent of the religious communes.

He looks at the analysis of the key ingredient of this superiority (ibid.):

What was the secret ingredient that gave the religious communes a longer shelf life? . . . . He found one master variable: the number of costly sacrifices that each commune demanded from its members. . . . . . For religious communes, the effect was perfectly linear: the more sacrifice a commune demanded, the longer it lasted.

This did not work for secular communes even though such sacrifices are necessary for longevity (ibid.): for them, ‘demands for sacrifice did not help.’

The inescapable conclusion seems to be, as Sosis argues, that (ibid.):

. . .  rituals, laws, and other constraints work best when they are sacralized. . . . In other words, the very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship.

As we have already seen, Haidt is very aware that there is a sting in the tail of this position that absolutely needs to be acknowledged (pages 265-266).

So religions do what they are supposed to do. As Wilson put it, they help people “to achieve together what they cannot achieve on their own.” But that job description applies equally well to the Mafia.

This is where Haidt’s close analysis of the kind of community a religion helps develop kicks in (pages 266-267):

Whether you believe in hell, whether you pray daily, whether you are a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, or Mormon … none of these things correlated with generosity. The only thing that was reliably and powerfully associated with the moral benefits of religion was how enmeshed people were in relationships with their co-religionists. It’s the friendships and group activities, carried out within a moral matrix that emphasizes selflessness. That’s what brings out the best in people. . . . “It is religious belongingness that matters for neighborliness, not religious believing.”

The Downside not Unique to Religion

As we have already seen, he looks closely at the old and thorny problem. You certainly can’t accuse him of ducking it (page 268).

Anything that binds people together into a moral matrix that glorifies the in-group while at the same time demonising another group can lead to moralistic killing, and many religions are well suited for that task. Religion is therefore often an accessory to atrocity, rather than the driving force of the atrocity.

The subtle point he makes, which should be obvious to anyone who looks dispassionately at the history of atheist regimes such as those under Stalin or Pol Pot, is that the problem is not religion per se, but the loss of a compassionate perspective that can come from identifying strongly with a group of any kind rather than with humanity as a whole.

This is the potential cost of the tool that can bring huge collective benefits in its wake that help everyone. However, to focus simply on the costs of religion without also weighing in the same scale the costs of secularism is hardly fair and certainly not objective. Haidt makes it very clear that even in terms of evolutionary success, i.e. reproductive superiority, secularism isn’t doing very well, let alone in terms of more subjective measures such as happiness and well-being (ibid.).

We evolved to live, trade, and trust within shared moral matrices. When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide, as Durkheim showed more than a hundred years ago. . . . the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades. They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).

He accepts that it is still early days in the history of such societies but feels that extreme caution is warranted before we can conclude that societies without a God can function any better on average than those with one, and he suspects that in the end they might come out worse for the comparison.

The Seed of Universal Fellow Feeling?

So, in spite of the well-attested dark side of belonging to a group, Haidt still feels that the potential is basically benign. He sees groups, which are demonised as the source of division and prejudice, also as the seedbed of fellow feeling (page 307):

We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude nonmembers. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital. . . . . To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.

It helps if we factor in what Robert Wright has written in his book The Evolution of God. One of his key ideas could also apply with equal force to any ideology (page 439):

Any religion whose prerequisites for individual salvation don’t conduce to the salvation of the whole world is a religion whose time has passed.

His ultimate contention builds on what Haidt is saying here (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.

In Haidt’s words (page 307):

Anything that binds people together into dense networks of trust makes people less selfish.

Neither of these authors is complacent. They are very aware of the pitfalls that lie in wait. Haidt finds evidence, for example, that proximity to other groups does not necessarily breed tolerance and understanding (pages 307-308):

Putnam examined the level of social capital in hundreds of American communities and discovered that high levels of immigration and ethnic diversity seem to cause a reduction in social capital. . . . . . Putnam’s survey was able to distinguish two different kinds of social capital: bridging capital refers to trust between groups, between people who have different values and identities, while bonding capital refers to trust within groups. Putnam found that diversity reduced both kinds of social capital. . . . . people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to “hunker down”—that is, to pull in like a turtle.

Another Complicating Factor

Jeremy Rifkin, in his searching book, The Empathic Civilisation, highlights the contradiction that might still sink us even if we learn to love all our neighbours. It is true that he is convinced of the positive power of such a kind of empathy (page 16):

Much of our daily interaction with our fellow human beings is empathic because that is the core of our nature. Empathy is the very means by which we create social life and advance civilisation.

But he’s also aware of the entropy such wide connections bring in their train. As wider empathy creates bigger civilisations we need to consume more resources to sustain them, until what we need becomes unsustainable. One of the starkest statements of that principle comes early in his book (page 44):

The tragic flaw of history is that our increased empathic concern and sensitivity grows in direct proportion to the wreaking of greater entropic damage to the world we all cohabit and rely on for our existence and perpetuation.

Even so, even though all these writers understand the risks, there is tremendous hope in their more optimistic analysis of human potential and the value of religion at its best to bring that out. And if religion can help us extend our effective empathy beyond even our fellow human beings to include future generations, all life on the planet and even the planet itself, we might have some hope of long-term survival. Of course there are powerful forces that militate against this. We are all aware of them. But there are powerfully constructive forces within our nature upon which we can draw to effectively oppose them:

The faculties needed to construct a more just and sustainable social order—moderation, justice, love, reason, sacrifice and service to the common good—have too often been dismissed as naïve ideals. Yet, it is these, and related, qualities that must be harnessed to overcome the traits of ego, greed, apathy and violence, which are often rewarded by the market and political forces driving current patterns of unsustainable consumption and production.

(From a statement by the Bahá’í International Community.)

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EdmundsonAs 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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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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 . . . . . religion must be conducive to love and unity among mankind; for if it be the cause of enmity and strife, the absence of religion is preferable.

( ‘Abdu’l-BaháPromulgation of Universal Peace page 128)

In the previous post, focusing on the role of religion in society, I tried to convey some of Jonathan Haidt‘s key points, from his penetrating overview of the area – The Righteous Mind. He contends amongst other things that the sense of belonging religion brings is an essential foundation stone for more general human cooperation. He tested this idea against the evidence and found it rang true. He then moves on to look at other evidence that provides a test from a different angle.

Long-Term Social Glue

What was really interesting to me was that he finds that religions are better than other ideologies at binding communities together long-term. He quotes evidence of where communes were compared (page 256):

Communes can survive only to the extent that they can bind a group together, suppress self-interest, and solve the free rider problem. . . . Which kind of commune survived longer? Sosis found that the difference was stark: just 6 percent of the secular communes were still functioning twenty years after their founding, compared to 39 percent of the religious communes.

He looks at the analysis of the key ingredient of this superiority (ibid.):

What was the secret ingredient that gave the religious communes a longer shelf life? . . . . He found one master variable: the number of costly sacrifices that each commune demanded from its members. . . . . . For religious communes, the effect was perfectly linear: the more sacrifice a commune demanded, the longer it lasted.

This did not work for secular communes even though such sacrifices are necessary for longevity (ibid.): for them, ‘demands for sacrifice did not help.’

The inescapable conclusion seems to be, as Sosis argues, that (ibid.):

. . .  rituals, laws, and other constraints work best when they are sacralized. . . . In other words, the very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship.

As we have already seen, Haidt is very aware that there is a sting in the tail of this position that absolutely needs to be acknowledged (pages 265-266).

So religions do what they are supposed to do. As Wilson put it, they help people “to achieve together what they cannot achieve on their own.” But that job description applies equally well to the Mafia.

This is where Haidt’s close analysis of the kind of community a religion helps develop kicks in (pages 266-267):

Whether you believe in hell, whether you pray daily, whether you are a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, or Mormon … none of these things correlated with generosity. The only thing that was reliably and powerfully associated with the moral benefits of religion was how enmeshed people were in relationships with their co-religionists. It’s the friendships and group activities, carried out within a moral matrix that emphasizes selflessness. That’s what brings out the best in people. . . . “It is religious belongingness that matters for neighborliness, not religious believing.”

The Downside not Unique to Religion

As we have already seen, he looks closely at the old and thorny problem. You certainly can’t accuse him of ducking it (page 268).

Anything that binds people together into a moral matrix that glorifies the in-group while at the same time demonising another group can lead to moralistic killing, and many religions are well suited for that task. Religion is therefore often an accessory to atrocity, rather than the driving force of the atrocity.

The subtle point he makes, which should be obvious to anyone who looks dispassionately at the history of atheist regimes such as those under Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot, is that the problem is not religion per se, but the loss of a compassionate perspective that can come from identifying strongly with a group of any kind rather than with humanity as a whole.

This is the potential cost of the tool that can bring huge collective benefits in its wake that help everyone. However, to focus simply on the costs of religion without also weighing in the same scale the costs of secularism is hardly fair and certainly not objective. Haidt makes it very clear that even in terms of evolutionary success, i.e. reproductive superiority, secularism isn’t doing very well, let alone in terms of more subjective measures such as happiness and well-being (ibid.).

We evolved to live, trade, and trust within shared moral matrices. When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide, as Durkheim showed more than a hundred years ago. . . . the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades. They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).

He accepts that it is still early days in the history of such societies but feels that extreme caution is warranted before we can conclude that societies without a God can function any better on average than those with one, and he suspects that in the end they might come out worse for the comparison.

The Seed of Universal Fellow Feeling?

So, in spite of the well-attested dark side of belonging to a group, Haidt still feels that the potential is basically benign. He sees groups, which are demonised as the source of division and prejudice, also as the seedbed of fellow feeling (page 307):

We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude nonmembers. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital. . . . . To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.

It helps if we factor in what Robert Wright has written in his book The Evolution of God. One of his key ideas could also apply with equal force to any ideology (page 439):

Any religion whose prerequisites for individual salvation don’t conduce to the salvation of the whole world is a religion whose time has passed.

His ultimate contention builds on what Haidt is saying here (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.

In Haidt’s words (page 307):

Anything that binds people together into dense networks of trust makes people less selfish.

Neither of these authors is complacent. They are very aware of the pitfalls that lie in wait. Haidt finds evidence, for example, that proximity to other groups does not necessarily breed tolerance and understanding (pages 307-308):

Putnam examined the level of social capital in hundreds of American communities and discovered that high levels of immigration and ethnic diversity seem to cause a reduction in social capital. . . . . . Putnam’s survey was able to distinguish two different kinds of social capital: bridging capital refers to trust between groups, between people who have different values and identities, while bonding capital refers to trust within groups. Putnam found that diversity reduced both kinds of social capital. . . . . people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to “hunker down”—that is, to pull in like a turtle.

Another Complicating Factor

Jeremy Rifkin, in his searching book, The Empathic Civilisation, highlights the contradiction that might still sink us even if we learn to love all our neighbours. It is true that he is convinced of the positive power of such a kind of empathy (page 16):

Much of our daily interaction with our fellow human beings is empathic because that is the core of our nature. Empathy is the very means by which we create social life and advance civilisation.

But he’s also aware of the entropy such wide connections bring in their train. As wider empathy creates bigger civilisations we need to consume more resources to sustain them, until what we need becomes unsustainable. One of the starkest statements of that principle comes early in his book (page 44):

The tragic flaw of history is that our increased empathic concern and sensitivity grows in direct proportion to the wreaking of greater entropic damage to the world we all cohabit and rely on for our existence and perpetuation.

Even so, even though all these writers understand the risks, there is tremendous hope in their more optimistic analysis of human potential and the value of religion at its best to bring that out. And if religion can help us extend our effective empathy beyond even our fellow human beings to include future generations, all life on the planet and even the planet itself, we might have some hope of long-term survival. Of course there are powerful forces that militate against this. We are all aware of them. But there are powerfully constructive forces within our nature upon which we can draw to effectively oppose them:

The faculties needed to construct a more just and sustainable social order—moderation, justice, love, reason, sacrifice and service to the common good—have too often been dismissed as naïve ideals. Yet, it is these, and related, qualities that must be harnessed to overcome the traits of ego, greed, apathy and violence, which are often rewarded by the market and political forces driving current patterns of unsustainable consumption and production.

(From a statement by the Bahá’í International Community.)

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