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Posts Tagged ‘Montaigne’

For source of image see link

For source of image see link

Another post it seems timely to republish, though an election campaign may or may not be an issue of immediate concern right now. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. 

As we see the election campaign just beginning to hot up, even at its most passionate it will be a far more benign affair than the political processes in less democratic countries tend to be. So far, so good – and something to be thankful for probably.

However, when we see the increasing scepticism of the average voter about our political process and boggle at the ineptitude of our representatives in parliament as they bungle their efforts to respond to the complex and often global problems that confront us, we are driven to ask how much faith should we have in such a divided, parochial and partisan system? Maybe we don’t help them do much better by our insistence on decisive clarity when a more measured caution would be more appropriate.

There are various factors underpinning this need of ours.

Politics as Security Blanket

One of the seemingly most compelling, which may have been recently working overtime in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, is that we may feel safer if we can deceive ourselves into believing our leaders know how to protect us and we may vote for them in consequence.

Life is a risky business. Emily Dickinson nailed our feeling of unease about this in a short poem:

I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my Feet the Sea –

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch –
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience –

When we are given any additional reason to be terrified, things can go badly wrong especially if our leaders lose their heads as well and/or simply exploit our fears to stay in power. Dan Gardner points out:

In reality, the fact that a politician may have something to gain by promoting a threat does not mean he or she does not believe the threat is real.

(Risk: page 143)

Sarah Bakewell describes Montaigne‘s view of how terror may distort our thinking into cruel and tyrannical shapes:

As history has repeatedly suggested, nothing is more effective for demolishing traditional  legal protections than the combined claims that a crime is uniquely dangerous, and that those behind it have exceptional powers of resistance.

Does that sound a touch familiar? Montaigne protested when it happened in his day and

. . . . pointed out that torture was useless for getting at the truth since people will say anything to stop the pain – and that, besides, it was ‘putting a very high price on one’s conjectures’ to have someone roasted alive on their account.

(How to Live: page 209)

Dan Gardner suggests, however, that the evidence may not unequivocally support the benefits of exploiting the fears of the electorate. He quotes a study that looked at the use of positive and negative emotions in adverts targeted at either well-informed or ill-informed potential voters:

. . . the effect of the emotional ‘enthusiasm’ ad was universal – it influenced everybody, whether they knew anything about politics or not. But the effect of the fear-based ad was divided. It did not boost the rate at which those who knew less about politics said they would get involved. But it did significantly influence those who knew more – making them much more likely to say they would volunteer and vote.

(Risk: page 147)

Conviction gets things done

If fear is not the main or only reason we respond well to decisive clarity in our leaders even when the problems we face are so complex such clarity is almost certainly self-deceiving, what else might be at work?

Perhaps we respond well to conviction, even if simplistic, because it promises to get things done. Obviously someone without any convictions at all is likely to be too paralysed by indecision to act at all. Not a good person then to have at the helm in a crisis. We look for people who share our frustration at the gap between how things are and how we feel they ought to be.

Susan Neiman is very good at pointing out what an effective driving force for good this discontent can be:

The demand is . . . not to abandon the ideals of our youth. . . . . . [W]hat you must abandon is the naive belief that they can be completely fulfilled. The abyss that separates is from ought is too deep to bridge entirely; the most we can hope to do is narrow it.

(Moral Clarity: pages 161-162)

And she clearly feels that it is right and proper that we do so.

What she says next gives us a clear glimpse of the dangers:

. . . the wish to bring the is and the ought together may imply a wish to be God, but it makes perfect sense.

(Op. Cit.: page 162)

This brings us to the point that Jonathan Haidt deals with so well in his brilliant book The Happiness Hypothesis.

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 proportion of violence at the individual level, but to get a really mass atrocity going you need idealism – the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

(Pages 75-76)

Montaigne apparently also had an interesting take on this;

Renaissance readers fetishised extreme states: ecstasy was the only state in which to write poetry, just as it was the only way to fight a battle and the only way to fall in love. In all three pursuits, Montaigne seems to have had an inner thermostat which switched him off as soon as the temperature rose beyond a certain point. . . . [H]e valued friendship more than passion. ‘Transcendental humours frighten me,’ he said. The qualities he valued were curiosity, sociability, kindness, fellow-feeling, adaptability, intelligent reflection, the ability to see things from another’s point of view, and ‘goodwill’ – none of which is compatible with the fiery furnace of inspiration.

(How to Live: page 200)

In other posts I have already explored the dangers of conviction.  There are also obvious difficulties in asserting uncertainty as of any value in a politician. So where do these insights take us? Is there any way of avoiding the pitfalls of zealotry without crashing into the abyss of ineffectual indifference?

I think there is.

Widening the Moral Imagination

Robert Wright’s fascinating book The Evolution of God, in its closing pages, discusses a concept that might prove helpful to us here.

. . . 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.

(Page 429)

And, because the book concerns God and religion, he concludes:

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

(Page 430)

It is important to emphasise one crucial point. Here he is referring to a salvation of the whole world that is objectively so, not just so in the fanatical imagination of some partisan sect bent on imposing its will by force on the rest of us. On that basis I would wish to extend that conclusion to every ideology including those of the major political parties represented in the UK Parliament even if they would wish to substitute some term such as ‘benefit’ for the word ‘salvation’ drenched as the latter is in religious associations.

Wright’s idea or ideal of expanding ‘the moral imagination’ would imply that what gives us our sense of certainty, in that case, and our drive to change things would also make us more tentative (i.e. less arrogant) in our understanding and more compassionate of others. It would at the same time  enable us to recognise more effectively potentially dangerous limitations in our own and other people’s views and combat them vigorously but humanely.

Present day party politics doesn’t do a lot to widen the moral imaginations of its participants. Michael Karlberg presents the weaknesses of this system clearly:

As Held points out:

“Parties may aim to realise a programme of ‘ideal’ political principles, but unless their activities are based on systematic strategies for achieving electoral success they will be doomed to insignificance. Accordingly, parties become transformed, above all else, into means for fighting and winning elections.”

. . . . Once political leadership and control is determined through these adversarial contests, processes of public decision-making are also structured in an adversarial manner.

. . . .Western-liberal apologists defend this competitive system of electioneering, debate, lobbying and so forth as the rational alternative to political violence and war. Based on this commonsense premise, we structure our political systems as nonviolent contests, even though most people recognise that these contests tend to favour more powerful social groups. . . . . [T]his premise embodies a false choice that arises when the concept of democracy is conflated with the concept of partisanship. . . . . [W]e lose sight of a third alternative – non-partisan democracy – that might be more desirable.

(Beyond the Culture of Contest: Pages 44-46)

He describes in far more detail than is possible to include here an alternative model, based on the  Bahá’í experience. The nub of his case is:

Bahá’ís assert that ever-increasing levels of interdependence within and between societies are compelling us to learn and exercise the powers of collective decision-making and collective action, born out of a recognition of our organic unity as a species.

(Page 131: my emphasis)

This insight that the whole of humanity is interconnected – is one family as it were – and our sense of the need to devise ways of expressing that understanding in our political processes, would give us the means to judge the value of our politicians as individuals rather than as party members – we might be asking not how good a Tory they are or Liberal but rather how broad are their sympathies and how widely do they identify with all humanity as against some small sub-group? We might not be as concerned to ensure that they are promising to promote our particular interests but rather to know that they see the well-being of all peoples as the central issue.

This is antithetical to the partisan spirit of party politics which by definition owes its existence to an identification with some interest group or other.  Maybe though this system of government is well past its sell-by date. The problems that face us are too global in reach and affect us all too significantly, though in different ways, for any single and simplistic perspective to provide the required solutions.

I am not even probing in this brief post other unhelpful dynamics within our current system such as how the dependency on the popular vote places the candidate for election in a double bind: (s)he must promise both to cut our taxes and increase our services. In mental health, a double bind was thought to be linked to the creation of psychotic states in the growing child: in this different situation perhaps we end up with quasi-delusional ones.

We need a shared global vision and a strong sense of common humanity if we are to move beyond the mess we see around us. Somehow I don’t see any political party, with its limited views, coming up with the answers we need. But – and maybe it is a big but – it needs many more of us to stand up for something bigger and better before the sustainers of the present system will expand their horizons beyond what they imagine are our immediate interests. They will continue to pander to us with their inadequate fictions as long as we continue to pander to them in return with our votes or our indifference.

Maybe there really is a third way. I think there is if enough of us believe there is.

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For source of image see link

For source of image see link

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I will be republishing earlier posts on related topics as this sequence of posts unfolds. Below is a post from 2010, slightly amended and of particular relevance right now. 

As we see the election campaign just beginning to hot up, even at its most passionate it will be a far more benign affair than the political processes in less democratic countries tend to be. So far, so good – and something to be thankful for probably.

However, when we see the increasing scepticism of the average voter about our political process and boggle at the ineptitude of our representatives in parliament as they bungle their efforts to respond to the complex and often global problems that confront us, we are driven to ask how much faith should we have in such a divided, parochial and partisan system? Maybe we don’t help them do much better by our insistence on decisive clarity when a more measured caution would be more appropriate.

There are various factors underpinning this need of ours.

Politics as Security Blanket

One of the seemingly most compelling, which may have been recently working overtime in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, is that we may feel safer if we can deceive ourselves into believing our leaders know how to protect us and we may vote for them in consequence.

Life is a risky business. Emily Dickinson nailed our feeling of unease about this in a short poem:

I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my Feet the Sea –

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch –
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience –

When we are given any additional reason to be terrified, things can go badly wrong especially if our leaders lose their heads as well and/or simply exploit our fears to stay in power. Dan Gardner points out:

In reality, the fact that a politician may have something to gain by promoting a threat does not mean he or she does not believe the threat is real.

(Risk: page 143)

Sarah Bakewell describes Montaigne‘s view of how terror may distort our thinking into cruel and tyrannical shapes:

As history has repeatedly suggested, nothing is more effective for demolishing traditional  legal protections than the combined claims that a crime is uniquely dangerous, and that those behind it have exceptional powers of resistance.

Does that sound a touch familiar? Montaigne protested when it happened in his day and

. . . .pointed out that torture was useless for getting at the truth since people will say anything to stop the pain – and that, besides, it was ‘putting a very high price on one’s conjectures’ to have someone roasted alive on their account.

(How to Live: page 209)

Dan Gardner suggests, however, that the evidence may not unequivocally support the benefits of exploiting the fears of the electorate. He quotes a study that looked at the use of positive and negative emotions in adverts targeted at either well-informed or ill-informed potential voters:

. . . the effect of the emotional ‘enthusiasm’ ad was universal – it influenced everybody, whether they knew anything about politics or not. But the effect of the fear-based ad was divided. It did not boost the rate at which those who knew less about politics said they would get involved. But it did significantly influence those who knew more – making them much more likely to say they would volunteer and vote.

(Risk: page 147)

Conviction gets things done

If fear is not the main or only reason we respond well to decisive clarity in our leaders even when the problems we face are so complex such clarity is almost certainly self-deceiving, what else might be at work?

Perhaps we respond well to conviction, even if simplistic, because it promises to get things done. Obviously someone without any convictions at all is likely to be too paralysed by indecision to act at all. Not a good person then to have at the helm in a crisis. We look for people who share our frustration at the gap between how things are and how we feel they ought to be.

Susan Neiman is very good at pointing out what an effective driving force for good this discontent can be:

The demand is . . . not to abandon the ideals of our youth. . . . . . [W]hat you must abandon is the naive belief that they can be completely fulfilled. The abyss that separates is from ought is too deep to bridge entirely; the most we can hope to do is narrow it.

(Moral Clarity: pages 161-162)

And she clearly feels that it is right and proper that we do so.

What she says next gives us a clear glimpse of the dangers:

. . . the wish to bring the is and the ought together may imply a wish to be God, but it makes perfect sense.

(Op. Cit.: page 162)

This brings us to the point that Jonathan Haidt deals with so well in his brilliant book The Happiness Hypothesis.

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 proportion of violence at the individual level, but to get a really mass atrocity going you need idealism – the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

(Pages 75-76)

Montaigne apparently also had an interesting take on this;

Renaissance readers fetishised extreme states: ecstasy was the only state in which to write poetry, just as it was the only way to fight a battle and the only way to fall in love. In all three pursuits, Montaigne seems to have had an inner thermostat which switched him off as soon as the temperature rose beyond a certain point. . . . [H]e valued friendship more than passion. ‘Transcendental humours frighten me,’ he said. The qualities he valued were curiosity, sociability, kindness, fellow-feeling, adaptability, intelligent reflection, the ability to see things from another’s point of view, and ‘goodwill’ – none of which is compatible with the fiery furnace of inspiration.

(How to Live: page 200)

In other posts I have already explored the dangers of conviction.  There are also obvious difficulties in asserting uncertainty as of any value in a politician. So where do these insights take us? Is there any way of avoiding the pitfalls of zealotry without crashing into the abyss of ineffectual indifference?

I think there is.

Widening the Moral Imagination

Robert Wright’s fascinating book The Evolution of God, in its closing pages, discusses a concept that might prove helpful to us here.

. . . 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.

(Page 429)

And, because the book concerns God and religion, he concludes:

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

(Page 430)

It is important to emphasise one crucial point. Here he is referring to a salvation of the whole world that is objectively so, not just so in the fanatical imagination of some partisan sect bent on imposing its will by force on the rest of us. On that basis I would wish to extend that conclusion to every ideology including those of the major political parties represented in the UK Parliament even if they would wish to substitute some term such as ‘benefit’ for the word ‘salvation’ drenched as the latter is in religious associations.

Wright’s idea or ideal of expanding ‘the moral imagination’ would imply that what gives us our sense of certainty, in that case, and our drive to change things would also make us more tentative (i.e. less arrogant) in our understanding and more compassionate of others. It would at the same time  enable us to recognise more effectively potentially dangerous limitations in our own and other people’s views and combat them vigorously but humanely.

Present day party politics doesn’t do a lot to widen the moral imaginations of its participants. Michael Karlberg presents the weaknesses of this system clearly:

As Held points out:

“Parties may aim to realise a programme of ‘ideal’ political principles, but unless their activities are based on systematic strategies for achieving electoral success they will be doomed to insignificance. Accordingly, parties become transformed, above all else, into means for fighting and winning elections.”

. . . . Once political leadership and control is determined through these adversarial contests, processes of public decision-making are also structured in an adversarial manner.

. . . .Western-liberal apologists defend this competitive system of electioneering, debate, lobbying and so forth as the rational alternative to political violence and war. Based on this commonsense premise, we structure our political systems as nonviolent contests, even though most people recognise that these contests tend to favour more powerful social groups. . . . . [T]his premise embodies a false choice that arises when the concept of democracy is conflated with the concept of partisanship. . . . . [W]e lose sight of a third alternative – non-partisan democracy – that might be more desirable.

(Beyond the Culture of Contest: Pages 44-46)

He describes in far more detail than is possible to include here an alternative model, based on the  Bahá’í experience. The nub of his case is:

Bahá’ís assert that ever-increasing levels of interdependence within and between societies are compelling us to learn and exercise the powers of collective decision-making and collective action, born out of a recognition of our organic unity as a species.

(Page 131: my emphasis)

This insight that the whole of humanity is interconnected – is one family as it were – and our sense of the need to devise ways of expressing that understanding in our political processes, would give us the means to judge the value of our politicians as individuals rather than as party members – we might be asking not how good a Tory they are or Liberal but rather how broad are their sympathies and how widely do they identify with all humanity as against some small sub-group? We might not be as concerned to ensure that they are promising to promote our particular interests but rather to know that they see the well-being of all peoples as the central issue.

This is antithetical to the partisan spirit of party politics which by definition owes its existence to an identification with some interest group or other.  Maybe though this system of government is well past its sell-by date. The problems that face us are too global in reach and affect us all too significantly, though in different ways, for any single and simplistic perspective to provide the required solutions.

I am not even probing in this brief post other unhelpful dynamics within our current system such as how the dependency on the popular vote places the candidate for election in a double bind: (s)he must promise both to cut our taxes and increase our services. In mental health, a double bind was thought to be linked to the creation of psychotic states in the growing child: in this different situation perhaps we end up with quasi-delusional ones.

We need a shared global vision and a strong sense of common humanity if we are to move beyond the mess we see around us. Somehow I don’t see any political party, with its limited views, coming up with the answers we need. But – and maybe it is a big but – it needs many more of us to stand up for something bigger and better before the sustainers of the present system will expand their horizons beyond what they imagine are our immediate interests. They will continue to pander to us with their inadequate fictions as long as we continue to pander to them in return with our votes or our indifference.

Maybe there really is a third way. I think there is if enough of us believe there is.

Read Full Post »

As we see the election campaign hotting up, even at its most passionate it will be a far more benign affair than the political processes in less democratic countries tend to be. So far, so good – and something to be thankful for probably.

However, when we see the increasing scepticism of the average voter about our political process and boggle at the ineptitude of our representatives in parliament as they bungle their efforts to respond to the complex and often global problems that confront us, we are driven to ask how much faith should we have in such a divided, parochial and partisan system? Maybe we don’t help them do much better by our insistence on decisive clarity when a more measured caution would be more appropriate.

There are various factors underpinning this need of ours.

Politics as Security Blanket

One of the seemingly most compelling, which may have been recently working overtime in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, is that we may feel safer if we can deceive ourselves into believing our leaders know how to protect us and we may vote for them in consequence.

Life is a risky business. Emily Dickinson nailed our feeling of unease about this in a short poem:

I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my Feet the Sea –

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch –
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience –

When we are given any additional reason to be terrified, things can go badly wrong especially if our leaders lose their heads as well and/or simply exploit our fears to stay in power. Dan Gardner points out:

In reality, the fact that a politician may have something to gain by promoting a threat does not mean he or she does not believe the threat is real.

(Risk: page 143)

Sarah Bakewell describes Montaigne‘s view of how terror may distort our thinking into cruel and tyrannical shapes:

As history has repeatedly suggested, nothing is more effective for demolishing traditional  legal protections than the combined claims that a crime is uniquely dangerous, and that those behind it have exceptional powers of resistance.

Does that sound a touch familiar? Montaigne protested when it happened in his day and

. . . .pointed out that torture was useless for getting at the truth since people will say anything to stop the pain – and that, besides, it was ‘putting a very high price on one’s conjectures’ to have someone roasted alive on their account.

(How to Live: page 209)

Dan Gardner suggests, however, that the evidence may not unequivocally support the benefits of exploiting the fears of the electorate. He quotes a study that looked at the use of positive and negative emotions in adverts targeted at either well-informed or ill-informed potential voters:

. . . the effect of the emotional ‘enthusiasm’ ad was universal – it influenced everybody, whether they knew anything about politics or not. But the effect of the fear-based ad was divided. It did not boost the rate at which those who knew less about politics said they would get involved. But it did significantly influence those who knew more – making them much more likely to say they would volunteer and vote.

(Risk: page 147)

Conviction gets things done

If fear is not the main or only reason we respond well to decisive clarity in our leaders even when the problems we face are so complex such clarity is almost certainly self-deceiving, what else might be at work?

Perhaps we respond well to conviction, even if simplistic, because it promises to get things done. Obviously someone without any convictions at all is likely to be too paralysed by indecision to act at all. Not a good person then to have at the helm in a crisis. We look for people who share our frustration at the gap between how things are and how we feel they ought to be.

Susan Neiman is very good at pointing out what an effective driving force for good this discontent can be:

The demand is . . . not to abandon the ideals of our youth. . . . . . [W]hat you must abandon is the naive belief that they can be completely fulfilled. The abyss that separates is from ought is too deep to bridge entirely; the most we can hope to do is narrow it.

(Moral Clarity: pages 161-162)

And she clearly feels that it is right and proper that we do so.

What she says next gives us a clear glimpse of the dangers:

. . . the wish to bring the is and the ought together may imply a wish to be God, but it makes perfect sense.

(Op. Cit.: page 162)

This brings us to the point that Jonathan Haidt deals with so well in his brilliant book The Happiness Hypothesis.

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 proportion of violence at the individual level, but to get a really mass atrocity going you need idealism – the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

(Pages 75-76)

Montaigne apparently also had an interesting take on this;

Renaissance readers fetishised extreme states: ecstasy was the only state in which to write poetry, just as it was the only way to fight a battle and the only way to fall in love. In all three pursuits, Montaigne seems to have had an inner thermostat which switched him off as soon as the temperature rose beyond a certain point. . . . [H]e valued friendship more than passion. ‘Transcendental humours frighten me,’ he said. The qualities he valued were curiosity, sociability, kindness, fellow-feeling, adaptability, intelligent reflection, the ability to see things from another’s point of view, and ‘goodwill’ – none of which is compatible with the fiery furnace of inspiration.

(How to Live: page 200)

In other posts I have already explored the dangers of conviction.  There are also obvious difficulties in asserting uncertainty as of any value in a politician. So where do these insights take us? Is there any way of avoiding the pitfalls of zealotry without crashing into the abyss of ineffectual indifference?

I think there is.

Widening the Moral Imagination

Robert Wright’s fascinating book The Evolution of God, in its closing pages, discusses a concept that might prove helpful to us here.

. . . 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.

(Page 429)

And, because the book concerns God and religion, he concludes:

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

(Page 430)

It is important to emphasise one crucial point. Here he is referring to a salvation of the whole world that is objectively so, not just so in the fanatical imagination of some partisan sect bent on imposing its will by force on the rest of us. On that basis I would wish to extend that conclusion to every ideology including those of the major political parties represented in the UK Parliament even if they would wish to substitute some term such as ‘benefit’ for the word ‘salvation’ drenched as the latter is in religious associations.

Wright’s idea or ideal of expanding ‘the moral imagination’ would imply that what gives us our sense of certainty, in that case, and our drive to change things would also make us more tentative (i.e. less arrogant) in our understanding and more compassionate of others. It would at the same time  enable us to recognise more effectively potentially dangerous limitations in our own and other people’s views and combat them vigorously but humanely.

Present day party politics doesn’t do a lot to widen the moral imaginations of its participants. Michael Karlberg presents the weaknesses of this system clearly:

As Held points out:

“Parties may aim to realise a programme of ‘ideal’ political principles, but unless their activities are based on systematic strategies for achieving electoral success they will be doomed to insignificance. Accordingly, parties become transformed, above all else, into means for fighting and winning elections.”

. . . . Once political leadership and control is determined through these adversarial contests, processes of public decision-making are also structured in an adversarial manner.

. . . .Western-liberal apologists defend this competitive system of electioneering, debate, lobbying and so forth as the rational alternative to political violence and war. Based on this commonsense premise, we structure our political systems as nonviolent contests, even though most people recognise that these contests tend to favour more powerful social groups. . . . . [T]his premise embodies a false choice that arises when the concept of democracy is conflated with the concept of partisanship. . . . . [W]e lose sight of a third alternative – non-partisan democracy – that might be more desirable.

(Beyond the Culture of Contest: Pages 44-46)

He describes in far more detail than is possible to include here an alternative model, based on the  Bahá’í experience. The nub of his case is:

Bahá’ís assert that ever-increasing levels of interdependence within and between societies are compelling us to learn and exercise the powers of collective decision-making and collective action, born out of a recognition of our organic unity as a species.

(Page 131: my emphasis)

This insight that the whole of humanity is interconnected – is one family as it were – and our sense of the need to devise ways of expressing that understanding in our political processes, would give us the means to judge the value of our politicians as individuals rather than as party members – we might be asking not how good a Tory they are or Liberal but rather how broad are their sympathies and how widely do they identify with all humanity as against some small sub-group? We might not be as concerned to ensure that they are promising to promote our particular interests but rather to know that they see the well-being of all peoples as the central issue.

This is antithetical to the partisan spirit of party politics which by definition owes its existence to an identification with some interest group or other.  Maybe though this system of government is well past its sell-by date. The problems that face us are too global in reach and affect us all too significantly, though in different ways, for any single and simplistic perspective to provide the required solutions.

We need a shared global vision and a strong sense of common humanity if we are to move beyond the mess we see around us. Somehow I don’t see any political party, with its limited views, coming up with the answers we need. But – and maybe it is a big but – it needs many more of us to stand up for something bigger and better before the sustainers of the present system will expand their horizons beyond what they imagine are our immediate interests. They will continue to pander to us with their inadequate fictions as long as we continue to pander to them in return with our votes or our indifference.

Maybe there really is a third way. I think there is if enough of us believe there is.

Read Full Post »

The ideas in this post have taken a long time to reach the light of day. The fact that they are doing so now is down to reading a fascinating book about someone who was blogging before blogs were invented.

Montaigne

Sarah Bakewell’s book on Montaigne picks up on this (page 6):

He was the most human of writers, and the most sociable. Had he lived in the era of mass networked communication, he would have been astounded at the scale on which such sociability has become possible: not dozens or hundreds in a gallery, but millions of people seeing themselves . . . . . from different angles.

She points out that his attraction is that we find ourselves reflected in his account of himself. And sure enough I did when I came to Chapters 6 & 7 in her book. She writes of his debt to philosophy, particularly the Stoics, the Epicureans and the Sceptics.

She describes stoics (page 114) as being ‘especially keen on pitiless mental rehearsals of all the things they dreaded most.’ They sought to achieve equanimity by confronting sources of discomfort head on. Epicureans were more inclined to avoid unpleasantness by turning ‘their vision away from terrible things, to concentrate on what was positive.’ The sceptics, she claims, sought to get to the same destination by a rather different route (page 124):

The key to the trick is the revelation that nothing in life need be taken seriously.

The way the trick is worked though is the really interesting bit. You deal with problems by what the Greeks termed epokhe. That triggered an immediate frisson of recognition in me because I recognised behind that unfamiliar Greek word a more familiar French one: époché. I’d seen this in books on existentialist philosophy and psychotherapy where it is used to mean ‘bracketing’ when referring to assumptions and beliefs (see Spinelli). This meant placing them in brackets to put some distance between yourself and your operating assumptions so that you could inspect them in a more detached way. Epokhe, according to Montaigne, meant suspending judgement, a very similar concept.

It’s beginning to be obvious why this latter version of scepticism meant something to me as I have always been taken by the power of suspending my identification with my ideas so that I could reflect on them and maybe change them, including my ideas of who I am. Reflection is a word also used in existentialism to convey this concept of disidentification, about which I have written at length in other posts. My encounter with Montaigne even at second hand in this way was rather uncannily mirroring me. He evinces the same kind of doubt and uncertainty about the validity of his preconceptions as has been my default position for as long as I can remember.

Interestingly Montaigne did not find this kind of scepticism at odds with his Christian Faith. This is a point to which I shall return.

Before we lose the initial thread completely I need to go back to why I resonated to Montaigne’s version of Stoicism and Epicurianism as presented by Sarah Bakewell.

The emphasis I derived from the stoic position was endurance, facing discomfort down. For me this connects with the idea in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) that you need to develop the capacity to enact your values in the face of discomfort and not use discomfort as an excuse to do nothing of use or value. For me this is closely allied to the idea of duty. Epicurianism on the other hand seemed to value avoidance and distraction as a means of defusing unpleasantness. Seen this way these two philosophies capture an apparent polarity that splits my mind on many occasions.

Duty calls me to exert myself which I might do until fatigue and stress flip me into escapism: I then distract myself with something less demanding. Initially it may seem as though duties and distractions are genuinely opposite. However, whether something seems a duty or a distraction can shift depending upon my point of view and most importantly what value I detect as in reality underpinning the activity.

A duty undertaken not for its objective usefulness or moral value but as a means of making a good impression on others suddenly becomes suspect. An apparent distraction such as watching Hamlet or Lark Rise to Candleford on television may inspire a deeper understanding of people or rekindle a strong sense of community that makes me a better person capable of greater empathy and kindness: what was despised as a temptation from the path of duty becomes the means of enriching my sense of common humanity.

So what seemed initially the clear contradiction between duty and distraction turns out to be a false dichotomy. My encounter with Montaigne via Bakewell has suddenly become not just a mirror but a microscope. It has brought a subtle problem into clearer focus.

This shouldn’t really have come as such a surprise to me. Since my teens I have lived with and partly through Shakespeare, and Shakespeare and Montaigne are kindred spirits.

Hamlet almost kills Claudius Hamlet (2009) Royal Shakespeare Company Directed by Gregory Doran

Hamlet almost kills Claudius
Hamlet (2009) Royal Shakespeare Company
Directed by Gregory Doran

Jonathan Bate describes this in his brilliant book on Shakespeare, Soul of the Age (page 410):

If there is a single book that . . . brings us close to the workings of the mind of Hamlet, it is Montaigne’s Essays. Scholars debate as to whether or not Shakespeare saw Florio’s translation before it was published in 1603. The balance of evidence suggests that he probably did not, but rather that his mind and Montaigne’s worked in such similar ways that Hamlet seems like a reader of Montaigne  even though he could not have been one.

And I’ve known of this connection for a long time but been too lazy or unwilling to grapple with Montaigne directly even in the most recent skilled translation of the complete essays by Screech which I bought in 2003. One of the reasons  why I have been unable to convince myself that I should invest the necessary effort in reading its 1200 pages is that I cannot make up my mind whether to do so would be enacting a duty in the face of discomfort or succumbing to a distraction that would lead me away from the path I ought to be pursuing. You see the problem? It’s also clear why I find Montaigne’s tentative scepticism so appealing. I’m like the old joke about the man who went to the psychotherapist saying: ‘I have this terrible problem. I have to qualify everything I say. Well, almost everything.’

Time to return now to the problem we mentioned earlier: how is such doubtful dithering compatible with faith? A possible key to this is touched on in Bakewell’s book (page 130). She quotes Montaigne:

We must really strain our soul to be aware of our own fallibility.

She goes on to say:

There was only one exception to his ‘question everything’ rule: he was careful to state that he considered his religious faith beyond doubt.

While this went down well during his life time, it’s interesting to note that sometime after his death he ended up on the Vatican’s list of prohibited books where he remained for a hundred and eighty years.

Clearly this is not a stance without its complications. In an age of evangelical atheism and creationism how does this idea that we can doubt everything but faith hold up?

For Bahá’ís this is an interesting issue in that our scriptures give us some hints about how this apparent contradiction might be managed in our own lives. Bahá’u’lláh tells us:

All that I have revealed unto thee with the tongue of power, and have written for thee with the pen of might, hath been in accordance with thy capacity and understanding, not with My state and the melody of My voice.

(Arabic Hidden Words: Number 67)

Our understanding is therefore never going to be the same as the truths the Revelation is seeking to convey. Bahá’u’lláh also seems to distinguish between the sort of cast-iron certainty we sometimes have about our understanding and Certitude which is the highest form of faith.

When the channel of the human soul is cleansed of all worldly and impeding attachments, it will unfailingly perceive the breath of the Beloved across immeasurable distances, and will, led by its perfume, attain and enter the City of Certitude….

(Kitáb-i-Íqán: page 126 UK Edition)

And He explains what exactly the City of Certitude is:

That city is none other than the Word of God revealed in every age and dispensation.

(Op. Cit.: page 127 UK Edition)

So certitude is about our relationship with the Word of God itself, not about our relationship with what we think Revelation means. In the first section of the Íqán Bahá’u’lláh has made it very clear how wide of the mark of divine purpose the understandings of mankind can be. This maps closely onto the distinction Paul Lample makes in his book Revelation and Social Reality between religion and Revelation. There is a crucial distinction, he feels (page 21), between Revelation as the undiluted Word of God and religion as the way the Word is applied.

Therefore a deep scepticism about my own understanding can be quite compatible with an unswerving faith in the Scriptures of a religion. Such a position is in fact preferable to a cast-iron commitment to our current interpretation of our religion which will either crack under the hammer blows of the tests life smashes into us or be used as a weapon with which to crack the skulls of our so-called enemies.

How amazing that the blogs of a sixteenth century Frenchman resonate so strongly with my 20th Century mind. We still have a lot to learn from him it seems. Perhaps I should tackle Screech’s book after all.

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