Nov-Dec2017

Concealment and Revelation

[From IMDB Movie Poster]

Finding the ultimate truth about anything in this world is not easy.  Science gives up its secrets only with much labour, endless experiment and focussed thinking.  So also with philosophy.  To the rigours of philosophical thinking there has to be added wisdom.  And where does wisdom come from?  It comes from wrestling with human nature which is notoriously devious and deceptive.

Concealment and truth is woven into the very fabric of reality, and is a ubiquitous theme of literature and art.  I have almost finished re-reading Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”.  [I’m at page 1054 in my edition – only 23 pages to go!].  Tolkien presents us with a string of characters whose first appearance belies their real nature.  We meet the almost sinister ‘Strider’ in the Prancing Pony Inn – “a strange looking weather-beaten man……  he wore a hood that overshadowed his face; but the gleam of his eyes could be seen as he watched the Hobbits.”  As the character of Strider unfolds we come to know him as Aragorn, heir to the throne of Gondor.  And we see him finally in all his royal splendour on the day of his restoration to the throne:-

“But when Aragorn arose all that beheld him gazed in silence, for it seemed to them that he was revealed to them now for the first time.  Tall as the sea-kings of old, he stood above all that were near; ancient of days he seemed and yet in the flower of manhood…..”   

We have similar challenges to our perception in the fall of Gandalf the Grey and the rise of Gandalf the White.  The Hobbits are halflings, and along with their Shire, small and seemingly insignificant.  Yet their indomitable endurance and wholesomeness is the critical factor that saves Middle-Earth from ruin.  Even the degenerate and desiccated creature Gollum, a ruined Hobbit – even he becomes an essential part in the overthrow of the power of Sauron.  

Tolkien was staunchly Catholic, both in religion and outlook.  I am not of his denomination, but I hope I am of his outlook.  I think Tolkien would have approved, in this month of December, quoting some words that must have inspired his own understanding of how the unlikeliest of characters proved to be the ultimate Ring Bearer:-

“The land of Zabulon, and the land of Nephthalim, by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles; the people which sat in darkness saw great light, and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death, light is sprung up”.

 

Sept-October 2017

ARMAGEDDON SAILING BY

In the film version of  Nicholas Monsarrat’s novel ‘The Cruel Sea’, the first voyage of HMS Compass Rose is her journey from the construction yard in Clydebank Scotland, down the estuary of the river Clyde and out to the open sea of the Atlantic.  If I had lived in my present home in 1953, when the movie was made, I would have seen Compass Rose sailing past my front window.  My home looks straight onto the Clyde.  If I look out diagonally to the left, I can see the opening to Gare Loch, the home of Her Majesty’s Naval Base Faslane.  HMNB Faslane houses the UK’s fleet of Trident submarines, and is a hub of activity for all kinds of naval vessels.  When NATO exercises are in full swing an impressive array of overseas ships uses the shipping lane, and flag spotting is the hobby of the day.  The estuary is just over two miles wide from my front door to the opposite coastline, so my household cameras with standard telephoto lenses can easily capture sailors going about deck duties.  My wife gets slightly nervous that my photography hobby will earn me a visit from naval security.  In war time it probably would, but in peacetime the vessels are on show for all to see, and photograph!

When a nuclear sub enters or leaves its home base it is accompanied by a small flotilla of escort vessels.  These included Navy escorts, river police boats and small heavily armed outriders who deal with any stray fishing vessel or yacht that looks as if it might cross the path of the massive sub.  So, what does it feel like to have a Trident sub sail past the front window?  Well, no one will fail to be impressed by its sheer size and ominous looking deadliness.  Its destructive capability is meant to be ‘deterring’ and on that score it succeeds.  Does it make me feel any more nervous than anyone else in the UK that nuclear deterrence incarnate is sailing a mile off from my front garden?  Not really.  In the unthinkable scenario of actual nuclear conflict, the main targets for an aggressor would be the large cities of the UK.  All of us would be caught up in such a holocaust.  So, armageddon sailing by peacefully is OK by me, and long may peace be the order of the day.

Those of us who live in democracies are fortunate.  Democracies are not infallible.  But built into the system are checks and balances which put military capability into the broader picture of the overall good of the nation.  Dictatorships have no such restraint operating on them.  The Dictator’s personality type and method of government was described at the very dawn of political science in Plato’s Republic.  In book 8  he writes,

“….. When he has dealt with his exiled enemies by making peace with some and destroying others, so that all is quiet on that front, the first thing he does is to stir up a war, so that the people will continue to feel the need of a leader…… Besides if he suspects some people of having thoughts of freedom and of not favouring his rule, can’t he find a pretext for putting them at the mercy of the enemy in order to destroy them?  And for all these reasons, isn’t it necessary for a tyrant to be always stirring up war?”   [Republic Bk VIII, 566e & 567a, from Plato Complete Works, Edited by John M Cooper, Hackett Publishing Co., Indianapolis/Cambridge.  1997]

Can anyone put faces to that description from the histories of the 20th. And 21st. Centuries?  I can think of a few! 

 

theuncommonphilosopher

[Click the link above to read the book]

July-August 2017

Horror Movie Commentary on Work and Career

Still from Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

The UK Prime Minister currently has an annual salary of around £150,000 [ i.e. about $197,000 or 168,000 ]. We have the oddity therefore in the UK (and many other Western democracies), that the PM earns a lot less than others whose ‘job’ is vastly less important – check out Pop stars and Football players to name a few. Even in the professional ranks of public life, the PM and other Cabinet members are often interviewed on the media by journalists whose salaries are 4 times and more higher. I am not sure if the PM is ever interviewed on BBC Radio 2 by Chris Evans, but the salary discrepancy then becomes embarrassing.

Clearly if our only motivation for the work that we do was income, then all of us would want to be Pop stars, Football players and Radio 2 presenters. That is obviously an absurdity. Mercifully the motivations that we all have for jobs and careers are a lot ‘richer’ than monetary considerations, important as those are. It would be easy and probably a bit clichéd to refer here to the caring professions, so let me refer instead to some homespun philosophy from an unusual source. Just about any novel or movie has the ability to throw up interesting or even profound insights far deeper than the overall merits of the production itself. It so happens that one of my all time favourite horror classics is ‘Quatermass and the Pit’. First broadcast by the BBC, it was released in film format by Hammer Studios in 1967. Alongside Professor Quatermass is the Palaeontologist Dr. Matthew Roney. The storyline is about the discovery of ancient human skulls alongside and inside an unusual object. The strange object is unearthed by tunneling for an extension to the London subway system. In discussing the weird phenomena generated by this object, Roney, at one point in the story, says something like this to Quatermass:-

“Do you ever find aspects of your earlier career catching up with you again?” The killer reply from Quatermass is:-

“I never had a career, just work!”

That simple line is a clincher in this whole argument about career, status and money. The only real satisfaction for any of us in the work we do is if it is inherently worthwhile, and motivates us to develop and grow as human beings in every facet of our lives. If our work is actually blocking that kind of fulfilment then we need to be seriously looking at what we are doing and why we are doing it. I know that in saying this it doesn’t solve any of the complex financial arguments about the promotional ladder and equal pay etc. But what is the use of gaining ‘success’ at the cost of your self?

So, get your real interests and abilities sorted out first, and the money problem will take care of itself. ‘Quatermass’ in the real person of Andrew Keir is a good example of this. As a young man he worked in the Scottish coal mines. He discovered amateur acting. He pursued acting because he enjoyed it. From there, his talent was recognised and he went on to have a very successful professional ‘career’ – or should I say he found the kind of work he enjoyed, and fulfilled his life through that.

 

theuncommonphilosopher

[Click the link above to read the book]

May-June 2017

In The Year Of Grace 1929, I Dropped My Spoon In My Soup

The Anglican divine and philosopher, Austin Farrer, opened one of his college addresses with the line above. A friend of C. S. Lewis, he was an Oxford Don, and Warden of Keble College Oxford.

[ Photo by DAVID ILIFF      GNU Free Documentation License   ]

I came across this quote as part of a random search for material. It was a stand alone quote with no context. I took it in humorous vein as an example of the little, and often very trivial, dramas of the everyday round. After all, most of life for most of us is very ordinary. Life is not as we see it in cinemas, in novels, or even in the devastating news headlines of tragedies and atrocities. News headline tragedies are real and terrible for those touched by them, but the majority of us are onlookers. The big challenge for most of us is making the trivial less trivial, and boredom less boring.

It came then as something of a rebuke when I did stumble on the setting for Austin Farrer’s quote. He dropped his spoon as a startled reaction to being told of the suicide of a college friend. I found the wider story in a homily that Farrer gave at St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1958. He recalled on that occasion how enjoyable his school and undergraduate years had been for him. Among the friends of his college years was ‘Philip’ (not his real name!). Philip was a bit lackadaisical. Farrer describes him like this:-

So clever, so idle, so amusing…. playing bridge all night, drinking too much, getting into a rather queer state really…. When he went down, Philip wasn’t so easy to place. He tried a job, hated it, threw it up, was said to be skulking at home….. I went to see him and we played chess, we played chess and staved off conversation”.

A couple of months after this visit, Farrer was attending a college event. His neighbour, making polite conversation, said to him, “Philip – now there was a clever chap; he could have done it! If only he hadn’t gone and put his head in the gas oven!” That was when the spoon hit the plate.

To be told of the death of someone close to us is always unsettling. But to be told of the suicide of someone close to us is utterly devastating. Guilt is inescapable. What did we do or not do that contributed to such a shocking outcome?

The Hampshire and Isle of Wight section of the BBC News website recorded the death of a mother last year (October 2016). The mother took her own life just days after the first anniversary of the suicide of her son. A tragedy doubled.

The Samaritans statistical report for 2015 shows that in the UK and the Irish Republic 18 people commit suicide every single day. Globally one person commits suicide every 40 seconds (figure from Suicide.org).

No one can take that burden of tragedy on their own shoulders. But it is possible to note suspect behaviour in those we know personally. Often quite simple strategies can be effective prevention. Samaritan’s UK advise this:-

Don’t be afraid to approach someone you think isn’t coping. Just showing that you care will be a positive step towards supporting them”.

That doesn’t sound a lot and yet it could save a life.

 

theuncommonphilosopher

[Click the link above to read the book]

March-April 2017

The Last of the Mohicans Muggletonians

Coelacanth From Wikipedia Illustratrion

In 1938 the world of paleontology was astounded by the discovery of a living coelacanth. Experts had believed that this finny marvel, swimming happily today in our oceans, had been extinct from the time of the dinosaurs. Although the time scales are considerably different, historians had a similar jolt to the system when in 1979 they discovered the last living specimen of a Muggletonian. A certain Mr Philip Noakes of Matfield Kent was not only the last practising member of the Muggletonian sect but had in his possession a substantial archive of manuscripts. When Philip Noakes died in 1979 the British Library purchased the entire archive. So, who were the Muggletonians and why was the British Library so interested in them?

The story goes back to the time of Oliver Cromwell, to the rise of the Puritans and the emergence of numerous radical religious movements. A London tailor, John Reeve and his cousin Lodowick Muggleton, influenced by the book of Revelation, believed they were the two chosen prophets of the ‘end times’!

Just as the coelacanth has some very unusual physical features, the Muggletonians had some very unusual beliefs.  Not only did they dispense with a trained ministry and a formal liturgy, but what they put in its place was unique. A private gathering at a local inn or tavern with a reading or two, and the singing of divine songs to traditional tunes over a few beers – that would be considered a service. These services were so unusual that most onlookers regarded them as private parties – quite a useful disguise in times of intolerance and persecution.

The British Library, of course, was interested in the historical insights their manuscripts gave to the mind set of their times. But of more relevance to us today, their oddities and overblown elitism serve as a warning, – a warning of what sincere people are capable of if religious, philosophical and cultural outlooks are not widened, challenged and criticized by the wider society around them. Small enclaves shaped by passionate beliefs become warped and error bound in their sheer isolation. They become a sad caricature of the truth and reality that they so desired to find in their original searching.

So take heed. If you think you have found absolute truth, read a book by someone who disagrees with you. If your belief is on the right lines, it will be widened and illuminated by the dialogue that you engage in. And it will be a rare thing if you do not find some area of weakness that needs to be revised by that kind of exchange. That’s how all of us become educated, civilized and hopefully a little wiser.

theuncommonphilosopher

[Click the link above to read the book]

January-February 2017

Weizsacker

Weizsaecker

The physicist Friedrich von Weizsacker had a long and varied career in his earlier life – a controversial career. He worked with Werner Heisenberg on the German nuclear programme during the war, a project that mercifully never came to completion. There is considerable controversy as whether the scientists involved, in the case of Heisenberg an eminent and venerated scientist, were motivated purely by academic drive, or would have created a nuclear weapon for the Hitler regime. Historians and biographers are still arguing over that complex question of motivation.

For Weizsacker, the whole tragedy of the war, and his own part in the story, turned him into a very reflective person. In later life he devoted much of his intellectual energy to questions of ethics and social responsibility. After his retirement in 1980 he became a radical Christian pacifist. The direction his experience was moving in can be found in this paragraph from his writings in the late 1950’s:-

“There is one thing I would like to tell the theologians: something which they know and others should know. They hold the sole truth which goes deeper than the truth of science, on which the atomic age rests. They hold a knowledge of the nature of man that is more deeply rooted than the rationality of modern times. The moment always comes inevitably when our planning breaks down and we ask and will ask about this truth.” [Quoted in Hans Kung “On Being a Christian”, Collins London 1977, p.83]

That is a cry from the heart from someone who came close to the brink of moral and spiritual catastrophe.

It may be addressed primarily to theologians, but it also includes “others”, and those others would comprise not only moral philosophers, but also ordinary people like ourselves. We should heed the heart felt warnings of those who have plumbed the agonized depths of conscience and accountability. We may not have the fate of nations in our hands, but the actions of all of us impinge on the lives of others in a myriad ways. That surely calls for a bit of reflection and heart searching from time to time.

November-December 2016

Defending The Hot Gates – 1941

leonidas-bronze-statue_large

1941 was not a good year for the Allies in WW2. France had fallen, and much of Europe was occupied. The U-boat commanders had just experienced the first “happy time” – sinking thousands of tons of allied shipping, with great loss of life. In North Africa British and Commonwealth forces were reeling under the advance of the Afrika Korps led by Rommel. An expeditionary force that had been sent to support Greece from invasion lacked the strength and resources needed for such an undertaking. Soon it too was in full retreat from attack from superior forces. In order to ensure an orderly evacuation to Crete and North Africa, a small part of the army was given the formidable task of carrying out a holding action on a narrow part of the coastal strip. Their task was ‘simple’ – to slow the enemy advance. New Zealand and Australian forces blocked the advance for a day. More than a dozen attacking tanks were destroyed littering an appalling scene of combat. The Commonwealth troops then withdrew to another defensive position north of Athens. It was a remarkable feat of arms.

What made this action all the more astonishing was where it took place – at none other than Thermopylae. The even more astounding feat of arms that took place there in 480bc is now legendary. A Greek army of about 7,000 led by King Leonidas of Sparta faced an invading Persian force of several hundred thousand. The Greeks held the pass for several day until a traitor informed the Persians of an outflanking secret route. When the plot was discovered it was too late to stop it. Leonidas then took a decision that will always be remembered as the epitome of courage. He sent the bulk of his force to rejoin the main the Greek army and made a last stand with 300 of his Spartans and a number of auxiliaries. Every man knew what was being asked them. Militarily the position was hopeless. They were making a last stand to buy time for the main army. The pass was held until the 300 had been killed to a man.

Greece was the birth place of Western democracy, the birth place of its science and philosophy, of its art and civilization. The 300 made it possible for Greece to fulfil its incomparable legacy of high culture to the rest of Europe, and ultimately to give that legacy as a heritage for all humanity.

The historian Herodotus records that the poet Simonides penned the words of the epitaph that was placed at Thermopylae to honour those who fell there. It is stark in its simplicity and requires paraphrasing to render it into English. It reads something like this:-

“Go stranger, go to Sparta and there tell that we 300 lie here, obedient still to her commands.”

There is a sense in which the 300 still guard the gateway to Greek thought and life. They symbolize that not just courage, but truth in its ultimate forms will always triumph, even in the face of overwhelming odds.

The Greeks demonstrated it in 480bc, just as the Allies did in 1941.

theuncommonphilosopher

[Click the link above to read the book]

September-October2016

Rupert the Metaphysical Bear

rupert

[From Rupert Annual 2007]

Children’s annuals are part of growing up and I have enjoyed my fair share of them. But the one that remains in my imagination is unquestionably “The Rupert Annual”. As a child the rhyming captions were easy to read. But even without them, the pictures conveyed enough of the story to transport the young reader instantly into an enchanted world. From the ordinariness of his home, Rupert would be whisked off on some fantastic creature or bizarre contraption to strange realms in the clouds, to distant exotic lands, to subterranean domains and even undersea kingdoms. The images never failed to convey mystery, wonder, excitement, the newness of discovery. A whole assortment of animal and human companions shared in these adventures, a touch of scariness being injected by the impish adversaries or fierce looking strangers that popped up along the way.

The abiding impression left on a young mind was that new dimensions of wonder were part of life and could be encountered just round the next corner in the most humdrum of days. As adults, sadly, we become tired and jaded. We expect that what is round the next corner will not deviate one iota from the known and familiar.

It was the knowledge of this loss, this diminishing of the imaginative faculty in its rapport with nature that the poet Wordsworth lamented so deeply :-

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, The earth, and every common sight, To me did seem Apparelled in celestial light…… The things which I have seen I now can see no more.”

That we become so mundane, so cynical, so disillusioned and so hardened was distressing to the poet. At least he had the awareness to know and address his condition. Is it not a tragedy when not only has that loss occurred in a human life, but that even the awareness of such a loss has gone? Remember his cry of anguish that he might find his way back to ecstasy and wonder :-

Great God – I’d rather be a pagan suckled in a creed outworn…… have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.”

Or remember the heart rending speech of the dying replicant (Rutger Hauer) in Bladerunner :-

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears…in…rain.”

Moments of beauty and wonder enriched his life.

Let them enrich our lives also.

July-August2016

A MISGUIDED BELIEF IN WAR

army-war-tank

The above title looks like a sentence from the Chilcot report on the Iraq war of 2003.  In fact it is a phrase from the book ‘Bloody Victory – The Sacrifice on the Somme’.  The book was written by Dr Wm. Philpott, a lecturer in military history [Abacus paperback, 2009].  The context of the phrase is his reflection on the use of war to resolve the domestic and international problems of Germany in the second decade of the 20th. Century.   There clearly cannot be direct comparisons between the militarism of WWI Germany and a contemporary democracy such as that of the UK or the USA.  However, some of his observations contain eerie resonances of how the decision to go to war came about.  In the Germany of 1914 there were three elites who engineered the start and conduct of the war :-

The Kaiser and his military cabinet [Kaiser Wilhelm II];                                       

The Prussian War Ministry;                                                                                    

The General Staff [ field commanders like Hindenburg and Ludendorff].

Of their part in the outbreak and prosecution of the war he writes,  “Together (or more accurately separately, since the three bodies tended to work in isolation, and often at cross purposes), these unaccountable military cliques prepared Germany for combat and control once war broke out.”  [ p. 90]

A major criticism in the Chilcot report of the UK’s part in the use of war in Iraq is precisely that a small political clique engineered the decision.  The report clearly highlights a failure to consult properly, even within the Cabinet.  The legal basis for the use of force under International Law was weak.  Intelligence information on the level of threat posed by the Iraqi regime was incorrect.  Alternatives that might have led to a resolution of the tensions in the region were not properly considered.  No effective planning for reconstruction in Iraq was put in place.  

The outcome of the decisions taken by the military cliques of WWI Germany ended in a catastrophe, not only for the German people, but a disaster of global dimensions if the subsequent conflict of WWII is also taken into account.

The outcome of the Iraqi war is not on that scale, but the regional calamity is analogous.   There are times when war may be inevitable – a response forced on a nation to repel an aggressor.  But its use as a primary instrument of policy to achieve political or economic ends is highly dangerous and most often self defeating.

History, as well as Chilcot, teaches us that.

May-June2016

The Tried and Tested

floppy8

Many people, including myself must have been amazed by news reports over the last few days of the control systems still in use for American nuclear weaponry.

The BBC website for the 26th. May 2016 had the following headline:_

US nuclear force still uses floppy disks

 

The article began:-

“The US nuclear weapons force still uses a 1970s-era computer system and 8-inch floppy disks, a government report has revealed.”

For people used to smart phones and micro SD cards that can store gigabytes of information, this report must seem unbelievable. To use not just floppy disks, but 8 inch disks is like going back to the stone age in tech terms. The BBC article included this statistic:-

“You would need more than 130,000 8-inch floppy disks to store 32GB of information – the size of an average memory stick.”

So why are these systems still in place. Certainly not because of lack of funds. The cost of one nuclear missile boggles the mind. No, the reason they are still in place is very simple – reliability. Floppy disks are particularly good at storing digital information over the long term. Magnetic tape has proven to be unreliable. Information bleeds through adjacent layers of tape resulting in data corruption. CD’s and DVD’s can warp, get scratched and oxidise inside the plastic layer. So, there it is – the old floppy disk holding its own in the reliability stakes, and let’s face it, with nuclear systems the reliability factor has to be almost perfect.

British Prime Minister John Major (in office 1990-97) came up with a “Back to Basics” campaign slogan at a party political conference in 1993. It was meant to be a rallying cry to return to core political principles and values. As an idea it was sound enough, but alas, foundered on a succession of political scandals and sleaze stories which buried the phrase forever.

However, in general terms, ‘back to basics’ is a pretty good strategy in all sorts of practical situations, and indeed in life in general. The core principles on which to base a secure and fulfilled life have been known for almost as long as written records have existed. To name but a few,

  • A just society in which laws are fair and upheld by the ruling authority
  • Individuals upholding the common good by honouring such laws
  • Practising self restraint
  • Incorporating the transcendent or spiritual into the affairs of everyday life

The list could be extended to great length, but a few lines illustrate the point. There are simple and basic life principles that have shown themselves to be perennial and reliable.

Explore them to your benefit and ignore them at your peril.