Philosophy and Ethics

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Thursday, 28 May 2020

The horror or recalling long-lost thoughts

Three years ago, I had a weird experience while working on my Through Mud and Barbed Wire book, and wrote it down to share with others. It happened again a couple of days ago, as I started to dig out material for my present project. I wonder if others – particularly other non-fiction writers – can identify with this. So here is the original piece...

It came over me again yesterday as I sat in my office, the horror at all those lost thoughts and arguments. I felt it in the pit of my stomach, inducing a kind of vertigo.  I’m starting to recover, but the experience still lurks in the back of my mind, mocking the attempt to set down anything like a coherent argument.

It started innocently enough. I wanted to check something for a book I am writing about the theologian Paul Tillich, and went to my bookshelves. Pulling down a well-worn compilation of essays on his thought, produced back in the 1960s, I came across some really good and relevant material. But, in scanning it, I could not ignore my earlier underlinings, exclamation marks and comments in the margin. Fifty years ago I had been enthused by this stuff, inspired even. But then it was lost to me, overlaid by other arguments, ideas, articles, books. Suddenly it seemed to me as though the ideas were receding away into a void.

Then the horror really struck. For these were (by my standards) wonderful arguments, unpacking important issues. They showed a richness of ideas I was exploring then, and yet – like leafmould – they had been lost beneath the surface of my consciousness. Here was an appreciation of religious ideas that was subtle, nuanced, not taking sides as in combat, but exploring them to get a rounded view.  And what had I done with it? Simplification, summary, the making accessible, the delivery of exactly the right number of words in the all-too-short timeframe of a publishing schedule; the frustration of trying to explain, whilst subtleties slip by unexplored.  

And then I thought of the cascades of tweets I attempt to scan briefly each day, tweets which often link to articles of real value or significant book reviews.  I dip for a moment into that stream and am often lucky. But in the brief moments while I explore one link, a host of other tweets passes me by, each one of which might (if I were to be naively optimistic) hold things of equal value.

And all this material, all these ideas, flee across our screens into the void. And our own brief words, however deeply felt, might hope to get no more than a quick ‘like’ in passing before they expire. Oh the horror of all that lost thought.  And there's always pressure to produce more, academics are under pressure to publish, educational writers try to keep pace with changing exam specifications, authors are expected to be active on social media, to hone their profiles, to keep up an interesting stream of material to build a readership. And it flows and flows... but mostly into a void. Time seals it off from its readers. Books go out of print and those on library shelves eventually become tattered and are sold off. And yet... all those wonderful ideas going to waste, lost to new readers.

I’d love to start again, to return to my bookshelves and appreciate again the arguments and insights massed in those long-since-closed books; but there is no time in this short life to return over the decades to re-read or use all that stuff.

And this has come fresh to my mind now as I sit before the heaped piles of notes and early draft material for my new book about two theologians who faced one another across the mud and barbed wire of Verdun in 1916.  A couple of years ago, sorting out copies of the ‘Teilhard Journal’, I came across an article of mine from the early 1970s entitled ‘Through Mud and Barbed Wire: notes for an unwritten book.’  And it had remained unwritten and forgotten for 40 years.  A simple coincidence, two great thinkers describing life on either side of the same battlefield – and yet here I sit surrounded by endless notes on the huge impact of the Great War on the 20th century and the development – for good or ill – of religious ideas over the century.

The horror of battle – particularly at Verdun – is the way in which rank upon rank of men hurl themselves forward into destruction, into a hell of mud and exploding shells, deprived even of a semblance of glory at engaging the enemy as they encounter only the incoming scream of shells and the showers of mud.  Hundreds of thousands of men were killed on those slopes, French and German together in the mud, inseparable in death, their bones now lying together in the great ossuary at Douaumont. The horror of lost lives.

And why write of it? Perhaps to do homage to two great thinkers who inspired me and whose lives and thoughts were shaped a century ago on that battlefield. Perhaps because, by chance, I have a new angle on things already written about so many times. 

To see more on the book I was working on then:
Or to see more of the thoughts that did make it only the page:

Monday, 25 May 2020

Home - a philosophy of personal space

An ideal rural 'home'? Not everyone's experience.

Appropriately, during lockdown, I'm working on a book that has been planned for many years. Entitled Home: a philosophy of personal space, it explores the way in which a sense of home impacts on how we understand ourselves and how we change as we move through life.
My present draft has reached the opening of chapter 4 this morning. Having explored the threat posed by the dimensions of the universe revealed by modern cosmology, and the process of mapping, by which we locate ourselves in our world. It then looks at what homes do in terms of our vision of ourselves... 
"Where there is no vision, the people perish."
                                                              Proverbs 29:18
Homes move, change, decay, or may slowly recede from emotional view. New homes offer hope, a glimpse of a desired lifestyle, potential identity.
We take all our previous homes with us, in the traces they have left on our personality, the gifts we received from them, the hurts they inflicted.  We are our homes. Layer upon layer, map upon map, they shape our confused selves. They jostle for attention; strive for primacy. They guide our shifting eyes.
To be genuinely homeless is to drift free, with no sense of self, no place. It is a terrible curse.  
At the opening of this chapter there stands a quotation from the Book of Proverbs. What does it mean to perish for lack of vision? What is vision? Clearly, nobody is going to perish because they fail to understand the relationship between quantum mechanics and relativity; it has to be more personal than that. The sort of vision needed is one that can see the place of mankind within the universe, accept it with all its limitations and still find within the sphere of human activity the sense of something that is of value, noble, tragic or beautiful. Lack of vision leads to despair. The failure to find any purpose or goal that is not immediately destroyed by an overall futility, may lead to frustration, or an obsession with the petty, an escape into trivia.
People need some vision by which to live. But how do you decide between a vision (which sets you in context and therefore gives valid and realistic bases for action) and an illusion - a mental image that is imposed on life in order to avoid the unpleasant features of its reality - a comfort and a return to childhood in a world that has grown up?
The sense of home is universal, but what are its implications?

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Walking in the Swiss Alps

Two months into lockdown, and I'm starting to dream about travelling again.

On a warm, sunny afternoon like this, I'd love to be walking in the Lauterbrunnen Valley, deep in the Bernese Oberland. This part of the Swiss alps is just so photogenic. You hike up the valley with the bulk of the Eiger and Jungfrau on your left and the village of Murren, perched above sheer cliffs, on your right, the silence broken only by the background sound of waterfalls plunging down on either side.

My favourite view of the valley is from the pastures below the village of Wengen, a brisk walk up from the little town of Lauterbrunnen.

Here's Wengen, perched above the valley, with a dusting of snow...
And here's the view down into the valley...
But for now, travel remains a memory and a hope. 

If you'd like to see more of my photographs of this part of the Alps, click here. Stay safe!

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Is this art? Or simply a revaluation?

Some years ago, I came across this wreck on a Spanish beach.  It was an area where graffiti thrived and colonised almost every available chunk of concrete, but this, I thought, was something special – an exuberant celebration of the spraycan. But does it count as art?

I won’t get into the general question of what constitutes art. If you’re looking for that, try Nigel Warburton’s The Art Question. No; what interests me is the vision and value that the artist gives to something whose conventional value appears to have degraded to nothing. After all, there was a time when this was someone’s expensive dream in a boatyard; a status symbol, perhaps. But, like everything else, its day eventually passes and it get scrapped, or – in this case – washed up. And yet this load of scrap metal has been taken by the artist and turned into something else; an opportunity to say something, to celebrate something, to go creatively mad. It rusts and rots magnificently.

It sometimes takes art to perceive value in the neglected, potential in the discarded. And it’s not just the urinal or unmade bed, suddenly given art status, that interests me, but more generally the way that the artistic, poetic or novelistic intuition finds value in the commonplace. As we discover at car boot sales, there is almost nothing that someone wants to get rid of that someone else will not find of value, however minimal, or of interest. So too, the mundane is captured and enhanced through art.

I'm not sure this counts as art. If the boat had been more seaworthy, its treatment could as easily have been described as vandalism.  But either way, it is a seized opportunity for the graffiti artist to set his or her own stamp of what is found, neglected and public. Rust alone could not have attracted my attention, nor challenged my sense of what is of value.

Monday, 11 May 2020

Deserted hotel pool

This was my last view of a pool at our hotel on La Palma back in March - rows of empty loungers in what had been, until two days earlier, a lively place devoted to hedonism and relaxation. By taking a holiday then, we were knowingly choosing to distance ourselves from the threat of Covid-19; it was in the papers and on the news, but it was not visible, and it implications for all of us were not appreciated from as we sipped and soaked up the sun. 
Then, suddenly, that world of indulgent innocence (if that's not a contradiction in terms) had gone. The island, like the rest of Spain, went into lockdown. Hotels were preparing to close, the Dutch, Germans and Scandinavians were shipped out, most of their facilities were cordoned off, and we were awaiting a 'rescue flight' to get us back to the UK.
We hardly gave a thought, until then, of the number of staff being laid off. Within 24 hours the outside bars were closing, evening entertainers vanished, and there was no pianist to offer his background music to evening drinks.  The emptying of the hotel felt weird; we were jolted out of a unthinking acceptance of staff and everything being provided, to the realisations that something was badly wrong and were were in danger of being marooned far from home. We started to gather round any notice boards, speaking to complete strangers - yes, even us Brits - about the situation. From being fellow consumers, we were thrown together as fellow human beings in a bit of a spot. 
Seven weeks have passed since then, and I am haunted by the plight of the staff at the hotel. Many were local people who drove down from the nearby villages each morning to one of the few places of employment in the area. For them - and all those working in the other small businesses that supplied the hotel - the fear of the virus is compounded (as it is for so many worldwide) by lack of work and the certainty that, for the next few months at least, the tourist trade will remain extinguished. 
The resilience of any economy depends on the extent to which its activities are diversified. For that part of La Palma, unfortunately, life appears to be down to bananas and tourism, and I hardly think the population can survive on the former alone.
The world has become so used to cheap airfares and package holidays that local communities have understandably geared up to the potential that tourism offers. Will it return to business as usual in a year or so? For the sake of the people on La Palma - and all other destinations worldwide - I hope so, or they are going to be devastated by the resulting economic downturn. 
But, taking the long-term view, we will probably have to adjust to less travel, less pollution, and a more localised view of life - including the pleasure of taking holidays nearer home. I feel guilty at having enjoyed the benefits of cheap travel, easing my conscience with the thought of giving local employment. For the sake of the planet, we cannot go on as before.  Hopefully, the one positive thing that could come from the horrendous human cost of the Covid-19 pandemic will be the recognition that we all need to revise our priorities and use of resources. 
It's terrible, and the grief of so many bereaved families almost unimaginable. But as we all drag our way through this time, we need to start to ask if anything positive can be salvaged from its human and economic wreckage. Let's hope so.