I put my hand through a rotting cucumber in the bottom of the fridge this morning and was struck, not for the first time, by the fact we live in an imperfect and imperfectible universe.
‘I’m not absolutely certain of the facts, but I rather fancy it’s Shakespeare who says that it’s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.’
– P G Wodehouse
Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop (Belkanp Press, 2014)
This book contains a neat, telling little anecdote from 2001 when a proposed constitution was being devised for the European Union and the issue of the Christian roots of Europe was brought up.
There were vigorous pro and anti arguments- author Larry Siedentop notes the more vehement voices in favour were from Poland and the most vociferous against tended to be France.
The overwhelming feeling, though, he observes, was more awkwardness than anything else: ‘one of embarrassment, and an uneasy wish that the question would go away.’
The question did go away, because the proposed constitution was dropped.
It is that embarrassment that I find most interesting.
I think it’s got several sources. One is the largely unexamined assumption by educated Westerners that while Christianity might be part of their heritage it is a heritage which belongs with childhood and should be left in the intellectual kindergarten along with psychological equivalent of fingerpainting and peeing in the sandpit.
But whether or not you’re a Christian believer, Siedentop argues, it is clear that for whatever reason there was a ‘moral earthquake’ shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus.
Christianity, he says, changed the grounds of human identity because, by combining Jewish monotheism with an abstract universalism derived from later Greek philosophy, it emphasised the moral equality of human beings.
That was new. It meant that the moral equality of human beings was more important than any social roles they might occupy.
And that presumption of moral equality is at the root of modern secular liberalism.
His argument is endorsed – though Siedentop is not mentioned – in this piece from last week in the New Statesman, which I’m grateful to Philip Matthews for posting on the Twitter.
Historian Tom Holland notes that his own researches into the ancient world showed him the values of Greece and Rome were further from our own than we often realise: he concludes, more or less, that what made the difference, what caused the change, was the ‘moral earthquake’ Siedentop writes about.
Siedentop gives Paul rather than Jesus most of the credit for this, asking rhetorically, at one point, whether Paul was ‘the greatest revolutionary in human history’.
I’m not so sure he gets the balance quite right: Christ’s instruction, ‘render under Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto the Lord that which is the Lord’s’ has for a long time seemed to me to be the most subversive religious instruction in history.
It set up the question of what one does, in fact, owe to the secular authority/state, and what one owes to one’s God/conscience.
Setting that boundary was not just the source of the Reformation but also the Enlightenment and beyond.
I suspect we are going to have to fight that battle again: the information revolution, the tools I am writing this article on and you are reading it on, is increasingly blurring the boundary between what belongs to us as individual citizens and individual souls; and what belongs to the great collective, whether that collective is the government, Facebook or some other global entity, or just the social media chorus crowd demanding we share our private selves.
But Seidentop – the first ever holder of a university post for intellectual history in the UK – is less concerned with this and more with highlighting the debt modern secular liberalism owes to Christian thought.
He points out that so far as is known, the main themes of the Jesus ministry were repentance, the imminent end of the world, and a God who loved all human beings, including and especially ‘the least of these’.
There was no unanimity at all amongst Jesus’s followers about his mission: some seeing him as a political leader while others believed the ‘kingdom’ spoke of was of a more mystical realm.
Paul took this and fashioned it into something more. Paul turned those teachings into the ‘moral earthquake’ away from patriarchal family and the tribe as the agency of immortality.
With Paul, individual replaced the family as the focus of immortality.
Paul, whose writings on Jesus are the earliest we have, translated the word ‘Messiah’ or ‘anointed one’ into Greek – and translated the idea of the Messiah in the process.
When he began talking of ‘the Christ’ – the son of God who died for human sins and directly offers each individual the hope of redemption, Paul shifted the concept from one who would deliver Israel from its enemies to one who would offer salvation to all humanity. The Christ stood for the presence of God in the world, and offered each individual their own salvation – on an equal basis.
Which is pretty radical stuff. It was morally radical because it overturned the presumptions of our natural inequality based on social categories.
‘For Paul, Christian liberty is open to all humans. Free action, a gift of grace through faith in the Christ, is utterly different from ritual behaviour, the unthinking application of rules. For Paul, to think otherwise is to regress rather than progress in the spirit. That is how Paul turns the abstract and potential of Greek philosophy to new uses. He endows it was an almost ferocious moral universalism.’
This meant that, below the surface social roles and divisions of labour, there is a shared reality: ‘the human capacity to think and to choose, to will’.
Siedentop then takes the reader from Paul through the Gnostics, onto Augustine, and through to the medievalists such as Abelard, Aquinas, and Ockham, right up to the edge of the rise of the Enlightenment and modern liberalism – where he stops.
The epilogue, ‘Christianity and Secularism’ which summarises his arguments, is worth reading alone. Christian ‘moral intuitions’ – his phrase – and way of thinking, thought patterns and habits of mind, (my way of putting it) lead to liberalism and beyond, to the modern, secularism of today.
Indeed there is a delicious irony in the fact that the pattern by which liberalism and secularism developed between the 16th and the 19th centuries follows the pattern developed by canonical law between the 12th and 15th centuries. The sequence of argument, Siedentop says, is extraordinarily similar.
That sequence begins with the insistence on equality of status of all human beings, with this idea based on a range of basic human rights. It concludes, he says, with the case for self-government.
The war between religion and secularism is ‘an intellectual civil war’ because of the shared moral roots of their arguments.
‘Why do Europeans feel happier referring to the role of ancient Greece and Rome than to the role of the church in the formation of their culture?’ he asks, rhetorically.
Secularism, he says, is our belief in an underlying, moral equality of humans, and this belief implies there is a sphere in which ‘each of us are free or should be free …it is a sphere of conscience and free action.’
This ‘central egalitarian moral insight of Christianity’ is its legacy to the world.
Finally he argues the failure to understand the shared moral root with Christianity means there is a tendency to underestimate the moral content of liberal secularism.
That underestimate leads, he concludes, to modern ‘liberal heresies'”.
The first of these is to reduce liberalism to merely the freedom to make a buck, and, more generally, ‘a crude form of utilitarianism’.
The second is a retreat into a private sphere of family and friends at the expense of civil spirit and political participation, something which ‘weakens the habit of association and eventually endangers the self-reliance which the claims of citizenship require.’
In his final sentence he asks ‘if we in the West do not understand the moral depth of our own tradition, how can we hope to shape the conversation of mankind?’
I’m not so sure about that ‘shape’ – it’s a bit too evangelical for my tastes.
But we need, I think, to better understand and appreciate the depth of our own moral tradition – not to convert or ‘shape’ others in any way, but to understand what shaped us.
Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone. It has created the word “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word “solitude” to express the glory of being alone.’
– Paul Tillich
‘By the perverted rhetoric of Rationalism your natural instincts are suppressed and you are converted into an agnostic. Just as in the case of the other instincts, Nature has her revenge. The instincts that find their right and proper outlet in religion must come out in some other way. You don’t believe in God, so you begin to believe that man is a god. You don’t believe in Heaven, so you begin to believe in a heaven on earth. In other words, you get romanticism. The concepts that are right and proper in their own sphere are spread over, and so mess up, falsify and blur the clear outlines of human experience. It is like pouring a pot of treacle over the dinner table. Romanticism then, and this is the best definition I can give of it, is spilt religion.’
T E Hulme
You are a Child of the Universe.
Try not to piss off the grown ups.
|Yours truly, above Lake Wanaka, last week.|
Must confess I thought, when I saw the title in good ol’ Unity Books, that only a French bloke would find the need to come up with a philosophy of walking.
Shades of Sartre in the scroggin; Pascal in the polypropylene; Derrida in the long-drop.
‘We must really manage one day to do without “news”,’ Gros begins one chapter – one which seems to me to be the core of the book, headed ‘Eternities’.
This may sound strange for a journalist, but I know what he means. One of my favourite political philosophers, Michael Oakeshott, was dismayed to be told, by a star pupil, of an intention to go into journalism, telling the lad, after a long silence, that ‘I think the need to know the news every day is a nervous disorder’.
But they might have quite a bit in common: Gros writes that
‘…walking makes the rumours and complaints fall suddenly silent, stops the ceaseless interior chatter through which we comment on others, evaluate ourselves, recompense, interpret. Walking shuts down the sporadic soliloquy to whose surface our rancour, imbecile satisfactions and imaginary vengeances rise sluggishly in turn….You are no longer a role, or a status, not even an individual, but a body, a body that feels sharp stones on the paths, the caress of the long grass and the freshness of the wind….’
‘Chatter’ is the big no-no for Gros. For those of us who need a bit of solitude in our lives, it is more of a problem than ever: the ubiquitous smartphone, the addictive aspects of social media, are forever bleeping at us, trying to tug annoyingly at the metaphorical elbows of our consciousness.
“rejoicing in that suspensive freedom, happy to set off, one is also happy to return. It’s a blessing in parentheses, freedom in an escapade., lasting a couple of days or less.’
‘Suspensive freedom’. I love that.
The freedom in walking lies, he says, ‘in not being anyone, for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life.’
He is very good on what it’s like: he slows down and notices the process of walking.
There is the ‘strange impression’ made by the first steps each day: you’ve made all the preparations, navigation, food, gear, timings, weather etc, and then
‘you head off, pick up the rhythm. You lift your head, you’re on your way, but really just to be walking, to be out of doors That’s it, that’s all, and you’re there.’
‘…the authentic sign of assurance is a good slowness….a sort of slowness that isn’t exactly the opposite of speed’
‘Days of slow walking are very long: they make you live longer, because you have allowed every hour, every minute, every second to breathe, to deepen, instead of filling them up by straining the joints…When you hurry, time is filled to bursting, like a badly arranged drawer.
‘Slowness means living perfectly to time, so closely that the seconds fall one by one, drop by drop like the steady dripping of a tap on stone.
‘This stretching of time deepens space. It is one of the secrets of walking: a slow approach to landscapes that gradually renders them clearer, like the regular encounters that deepen friendship. Thus a mountain skyline that stays with you all day, which you observe in different lights, defines and articulates itself.’
This is all gorgeous stuff.
There is, if you want it, a bit of Yer Ack-Shul Phillosophee: there are chapters on those famous, and not so famous, philosophers who have liked walking, and the book starts with a quote from Nietzsche
‘We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books. It is our habit to think outdoors — walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful.’
It is also something I’ve noticed about myself: the better ideas often come while out walking. This is not to denigrate being, in Nietzsche words, ‘stimulated by books’.
The old mental appetite is certainly stimulated – and fed – by books, as well as by conversations, chats over coffee, and shouting matches over the Shiraz, gesticulating over the Glenmorangie.
But it is digested by walking. This is about balance, and the interaction between walking, thinking and feeling.
‘The climbing body demands effort; it is under continuous tension…It’s important not to weaken, but to mobilise energy to advance, to place the foot firmly and hoist body slowly, then restore balance.
So with thought: an idea to rise to something even more astonishing, unheard of, new.
and then again: it is a matter of gaining altitude,
There are thoughts that can only occur at 6000 feet above the plains and mournful shores.’
Every page has a lovely little line like this. If you like walking, thinking, and just slowing down and noticing, you won’t regret getting ahold of this work.
– H L Mencken –