Tag Archives: philosophy

Victorian Values?

Politicians are often keen to hark back to the values and standards of some imagined better era. When it was, varies but the gist is always the same. Back then, people had more respect for each other and the state. Marriage was the bedrock of society. There was less crime. And quite often, people adhered to Christian values and it was so much better.

Recently there’s been some enthusing in the UK about good old Victorian values. Now, there was a good culture of invention, innovation, lots of interesting art and literature going on… but there was also a lot of abuse, cruelty, lack of social mobility, child labour etc etc. It was a criminal offence back then to be gay. There is no former golden age in which it was all great. What there was, through a lot of the past, was a reduced willingness to talk about things that were wrong. Dickens was radical as a writer for even mentioning the existence of the poor. These days, we have a far greater awareness of wrongs, thanks to the news and media.

We live in a radically different world to that our ancestors inhabited. The ways in which we communicate and the speed at which information travels has changed a lot. Children do not go barefoot from poverty in the UK any more. People in the UK do not starve to death as any kind of normal either. The world changes, it keeps changing. There are some people who look at increasing tolerance and see, not something to celebrate, but horror and the decay of standards. There are folks for whom freedom of sexual expression and identity is an abhorrent lapse of decency. There are plenty of places in the world where the old values rooted in fear and prejudice still hold true.

It is important to look to the past. We can learn from it. It’s not the case that the move from then to now marks steady, unequivocal progress. As societies, we get some things right for some people, horrify others. What seems like progress to one appears as setback to another. I don’t see the rise of consumerism and increased material wealth as unequivocally good. I’m very much in favour of a basic level of wealth that allows wellbeing, but we have so much affluence that we make ourselves sick with it, destroy our environments and squander the earth’s resources. Progress? I don’t think so.

We can’t create a future just by harking back to what was. We have to deal with the realities of now, and those keep changing. We learn all the time, we explore new possibilities – or we should. If there’s a golden age of values, respect, care and responsibility out there, it doesn’t lie in our history, it lies in our futures. The only way we get there is by working towards it, creating is as we go. Right now, that looks to me like a very long and challenging journey to make, but not an impossible one.

Who we choose

We choose who to be, from one moment to the next. Our actions, words, silences and inactions define us. They express who we are. No matter what we imagine ourselves to be, or dream we could be, the truth of each of us lies, moment to moment, in every choice we make.

There’s a huge, ongoing debate in psychology about the degrees to which nature (genetic inheritance) and nurture (how we are brought up) affect us. From what I’ve seen, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal out there about the degree to which we are able to consciously choose who we are. The more I consider it, the more certain I feel that we actually have a lot of choice in this regard. Yes, our genetic inheritance will predispose us in certain ways. There’s some consensus that intelligence is inheritable, but it also looks like that only plays a part if the environment you grow up in isn’t very rich. We learn a lot in growing up – about relationships, families, society, we learn what is expected of us. The odds are that we learn some unhelpful stuff in the mix, drawn from the fears and foibles of our immediate relatives. As Lady Midnight says in The Mistress and the Mouse, no one gets out of childhood entirely unscathed. I think it’s just part of being human.

We aren’t clockwork machines, we do not run along preset tracks. We are able to think and learn. Nature and nurture set us off with some tools and raw material, but it’s down to us as individuals to decide how we use them. We do not have to repeat the patterns and mistakes of our childhoods, our parents, our ancestral line. We are not doomed to play out some narrative coded into our DNA.

Over the years I’ve run into far too many people who act without thought, ascribe this to their ‘nature’ and consider it unassailable. This too, is a choice. You can view it as a choice to be spontaneous, in the moment and acting out your nature. You can also view it as being reactive, following habits and not really thinking about what you are doing. To me, the innate nature of a person that shines through when they act like this, is one of carelessness, both for those around them, and for their own well being. People who speak and act carelessly seldom do themselves any favours, and then follow through with a refusal to acknowledge there was anything untoward. What this gives you is a total absence of power. 

Everything matters. Every so often some bright spark will tell me I take life too seriously. I think I take life about seriously enough – it is, to the best of my knowledge, the only one I’ve got, and I don’t intend to squander it. So for me, there is a second or two of thought before every word, every action, every decision to stay still. Sometimes more thought than others, granted, but I seldom find I’ve done something without knowing why. I don’t come home with impulse buys that make no sense to me, and I don’t think I’ve ever hurt someone by saying something I didn’t mean. (If you know me, and I have injured you with words at some point, this does not necessarily mean I meant to cause pain, only that the words were meant.)

It’s easy to go through life on autopilot, doing what you always do, acting from habit and ‘nature’ rather than from a basis of constantly choosing who and how you wish to be. To be Pagan, is to take responsibility for your life. To be a Druid is to seek to act honourably in every word and deed, not just the big, obvious stuff. We can choose, peace, honour, integrity and compassion moment to moment, or we can snap at someone because why should we walk round on eggshells all the time? If you shout at me, that entitles me to shout back because I’m angry, right? Or I can choose to control my anger and speak reasonably. It’s a choice. We are not just products of nature and nurture, we are also the consequence of our own, individual ability to choose.

Responsibility

It’s a word I throw into essays a lot. To be free requires taking responsibility. To be honourable calls for it too. Owning our actions, the consequences of them – intended and unintended and everything arising from our inaction as well. It’s big, scary and overwhelming, but facing up to it is essential if you want control of your life and the option at least of living honourably. What we don’t take responsibility for, we are powerless to do anything about.

However, there are people who society deems unable to take responsibility for themselves. Children, and the mentally unwell are the biggest group, along with some folks who have learning difficulties. People in comas can’t take responsibility either. At first glance, this makes a fair amount of sense. In reality, there are a lot of grey areas.

Let’s start with children. They all mature at different rates, with varying abilities to cope with ideas of right and wrong. At eight, my son is more morally aware and more inherently responsible than a fair few adults, but the law will not view him as such. It would be insane to make laws pinning down who can take responsibility for what, when, because each person is different, but that’s what we’ve got. Some adults never become morally aware, so where does that leave them?

What happens when someone not legally able to take responsibility for themselves becomes a threat to themselves, or others? What happens when a child commits murder? Every now and then, one does. What happens when a child becomes a persistent, abusive criminal? Are they responsible? Are their parents? There are no clear cut answers here. If a person with mental health issues behaves in antisocial ways, is that the same as a ‘well’ person doing it? Who is responsible if an adult goes off the rails and becomes unable to manage their own behaviour?

Back when humans lived in small groups, we must have related to these issues in a very different way. A group of humans has shared responsibility for everyone in it. I suspect the solutions to members who became dangerous were not as compassionate as we moderns might like to imagine they should be, but they were probably a lot more decisive. What we don’t have now is any sense that we, as humans, share responsibility with those around us, for each other. When there are issues, it comes down to systems, rules and officialdom, and from what I’ve seen, that’s not especially compassionate either.

Butterflies

Currently I’m reading David Attenborough’s ‘Life on Earth’ – a lovely book full of very thought provoking details. One of them was the explanation of how caterpillars become butterflies. In the egg, there are two kinds of cells. Initially the caterpillar cells grow and the others do not, then, when the caterpillar can get no bigger, it becomes a chrysalis. Inside, the caterpillar cells break down, feeding the butterfly cells which now become active. The new creature develops and emerges.

This really got me thinking. To what extent is the caterpillar turning into the butterfly? It seems to me like one creature dies and another emerges, as though two separate entities had somehow managed to harness the same reproduction process, living in symbiosis. I’ve wondered before what caterpillars know of themselves, and if that seems like death to them – the turning into a butterfly being such a great and tempting death metaphor anyway.

 For many people, the way science takes apart and explains things takes away the mystery and the sense of wonder. It’s one of the key issues in the theist/atheist conflict – whether we lose wonder for gaining insight.

I’ve yet to find an answer that didn’t lead to more questions. The butterfly business is a perfect illustration. Yes, it unravels some of the mechanics for me, but it doesn’t actually tell me why this happens, or more importantly, what it means. I have more questions, for knowing about the two kinds of cells, than ever I did before hand – not just about the caterpillars, but the whole nature of life, death and experience. Does this say something about a fluidity between life forms?

There is always more to know, and the more we know, the more questions we will find. Understanding is not, I think, a finite thing. There is no way that we will one day know everything, because each answer brings more questions. I’m inclined to think that knowledge, or the potential for it, is infinite, and that there will always be mystery, always that sense of something more, that we haven’t grasped yet.

Seeing Portents

The inclination to read meaning into random events seems to be widespread and longstanding in human thinking. Many cultures (probably all) have superstitions and attach meanings where there is no justification for doing so. When this is taken to extremes, it can be limiting and damaging to a person. But why do we do this?

I think in part it comes from a desire to have some power over or insight into what is basically a very chaotic and unpredictable world. Imagined insight gives comfort, even when we know it has no basis, weirdly. People who make something of seeing one, or two magpies. People who expect the worst on Friday the 13th.

From a certain perspective this all seems wildly illogical, and unlikely to be of any help to anyone. However, if you consider the idea that all things, people, objects, events, stars, flowers, creatures etc are connected, then a different way of considering this emerges. There’s the old gem about a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane. Things are affected by each other in very logical ways. I can look at the sky and guess what the weather will be like in a while. Animals sense tsunamis and earthquakes. Perhaps other tides and currents manifest in the natural world.

If you believe in any notion of higher powers, then it can be tempting to see natural phenomena as messages from the divine. However, a comet above a battlefield can be taken as meaning victory to all who see it – and clearly for one side it won’t be. If the sight of a rainbow, a meteor or a thunderstorm is a message from the gods, can we be confident that it was meant for us and that we’ve understood it right?

The biggest danger, to my mind, lies in imagining that we understand. The world is a complex place, full of subtle balances and relationships. Sometimes things we see as omens turn out to be relevant, and sometimes they don’t – whether that’s a matter of interpretation, or the relevance of omens, I can’t say. I don’t know. Some experiences and encounters feel laden with meaning, but is that my desire to find meaning, or does it represent something external to me?

I think the bottom line here, as with all things is, does it help? If you are forever seeing bad signs and omens of doom that make your life even more unhappy, then no, it doesn’t help. If you see too many good signs and miss the trickier realities of your life by ignoring what you need to face, that doesn’t help either. If you are able to do something that adds to your life, in the gap between those extremes, then why not explore it?

Spirit and Matter

A line of contemplation very much inspired by John’s thoughtful critique of my ‘body and soul’ piece a few days ago…

John pointed out that a belief in spirit does not automatically lead to dualistic thinking. So, I considered my own attitudes to spirit, trying to pin down exactly what I think. We’re very much in the realms of what cannot be rationally known here, but belief shapes action, and seeing the mechanics of that can be very useful. Our whole understanding of what the world is and what life is for comes from belief, not evidence.

I believe in ideas of spirit and soul, but what does that mean, what do I think it is? Energy, first and foremost, the energy that is life and ideas. But, a glance out of the window is enough to show that such energy is very much tied up with matter, and it would be hard to say which (if either) is the consequence of the other. Energy moves between physical life forms, through eating, and the release of decay. So spirit flows also (as I see it). This does not preclude a notion of individual spirit, just as our flesh forms, and falls away to other things, so might spirit, but perhaps it is also able to continue in conscious form beyond bodily death. I have no clarity of afterlife belief, or any sense of what might continue, but am conscious that early pagans largely did believe in life after death.

There are also things within the world that are present without being material – wind and sunlight for a start. Darkness feels like a very present thing to me. Inspiration the same. Where we perceive the ‘action’ is where this energy interacts with material things.

This material world around us is the one our bodies have developed to perceive and interact with. It doesn’t mean it is the only truth, and perception is not necessarily objective reality, as any stage magician can show us. We have to work with our own perceptions though. I wonder if reality is more layered, the material things we experience only being one facet of a far more complex whole. I can imagine webs of spirit, layers of thread and flow that interact creating connections and meanings beyond our ordinary awareness. My imagining it does not make it so, but my very physical understanding of the world is rooted in experience, and untrustworthy though it is, it is also the only thing I can trust.

My notions of spirit are based on experiencing what it does – not spirit as some abstract concept, but as immediate, energetic forms impacting on me. Wind and sun, tree and bird – things that I can make some sense of. If I can hear something, smell it, or experience it as a tactile presence (there is an invisible cat in my house, I have felt it walk over me) I can do something with that. I don’t expend much energy on contemplating things I can’t in some way interact with – making very abstract notions of gods unappealing.

Spirit, for me, has a numinous quality, it illuminates. Where something is rich in spirit, I get an impression of ‘glow’, of there being depth behind the material surface. Not everything I encounter is qualitatively the same in this regard. There is a world of difference between a mass produced plastic thing (with little or no soul) and something lovingly hand carved out of wood (and bright with spirit). I can say the same of people, places, all that there is, in fact. It seems to me, to be about flow, and what passes through, a process involving give, and love, that I have only the barest sense of, but can see how it changes things.

I realise I’m scraping the surface of possibilities here, and that I have a lot more thinking to do. Thank you John for the prompt, I’ll be exploring these, and other related issues in a lot more detail, personally, and on this blog.

Body and Soul

In many religions, the physical and the spiritual are seen as distinctly different things. Many of the approaches to the spiritual life are about transcending the flesh and the physical in order to reach more elevated planes of existence. Some perceive pleasures of the body as traps, distracting us from enlightenment, or as providing trials to be overcome on the way to enlightenment.

Part of the logic underpinning this comes from the idea that things can be divided up. Mind and body are seen as separate. Male and female are two clearly defined states of being. Adult and child. Night and day. Reason and emotion. Spirit and matter. Sacred and profane. And so forth. We set up science and religion as polar opposites, even though the processes of philosophy ought to give them common ground. We draw straight arbitrary lines through hazy grey patches and create opposites where we might be better off thinking of spectrums. In terms of our own natures, we separate people into introverts and extroverts, stable and neurotic, thinking and feeling. Most people are both, the attributes emerging dependant on circumstances.

By hiving things off from each other like this, we create the idea of separate, incompatible states. Somewhere along the way, the ideas of spiritual and material things were defined as existing in opposition to each other. Eschewing worldly goods and pleasures thus becomes a way of expressing a spiritual life. Monks and nuns of various faiths will give up family and not have children. Some become beggars, depending on charity to survive. Fasting, sexual abstinence, and temperance, are often considered part of a spiritual life. To be spiritual is to reject the pleasures of the flesh as distractions, sins or otherwise unhelpful.

Christianity has tended to hold that suffering is good for the soul. Sacrifice, doing without, wearing the hair shirt and whatnot is supposed to improve you. “Blessed be the meek for they will inherit the earth.” “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” As I see it, for most people there is little need to seek out suffering. It will find you. Through death, loss, ill health, accident and heartbreak, if you have any capacity to feel at all, then pain will be an inevitable part of your life. We don’t need to court it. Hard times and challenges give some folk the opportunity they need the shine and grow, but other people are just ground down by misfortune.

People have basic needs in terms of food, water, shelter and rest. If those aren’t met, then most people will not have the energy or inclination to divert attention towards matters of the spirit. Most of us will sort out the survival issues first. Having a way of relating to the world that includes a sense of spiritual reason for hard times may be helpful, but in practice most people do not want to suffer, no matter how spiritually good it is supposed to be. My concern has long been that a doctrine of ‘it’s good to suffer’ makes it easier to maintain the status quo, keeps the poor from complaining about their poverty, allows the rich to feel justified in doing nothing.

What happens if you cast aside the ideas of difference? If the spiritual is present in the physical, then life seems very different. Let go of the distinctions (mundane and sacred, magical and not magical) and life opens up in some startling ways. If everything is meaningful, everything is sacred, and spiritual, then what makes the difference is how we approach it and whether we can see the sacred in what we do. Is cooking drudgery, or is it an act of love and creativity? Relating to it the second way enriches life. The idea of opposites is so much a human construct, and it limits us. It’s all cut up into ‘us and them’; human and animal, important and not important. If we let that go, everything changes. My beloved Tom says, “There is no them, it’s all us.” If we see the world inclusively, with no separation, no dividing lines, no ‘them’ and we embrace spirit is something that is here and now, not distant and other, then radical, wonderful change seems inevitable.