Adventure of Modern Liberal Values [MLV] ( cont’d.) – the Art Seen

The Adventure of Modern Liberal Values [MLV] ( continued)

– the Art Seen

 

Contemporary Art – funded by the global explosion in Annual Leave and Disposable Income.

Ah well, all this time and money.

So the story of most Contemporary “ART” is NOT SAYING SOMETHING but “look at me” entertaining distraction.

The sillier the better.

Like poke microphones into the soil and listen to the earthworms sleeping.

Or thermometers and feel the heat from Satan toasting deserving sinners.

Paint your self portrait in balloons, bigger the better.

So take your mind off mundane monotony.

From Jeff Koons down.

Or is that up?

As Cole Porter warned us all, Anything Goes”

 

Roots of the West? Christianity’s Half Nelson on “progress” for a millennium

The roots of the “West” / “Western values”.

  • Give thanks to the Channel, the Germans, and rugged radical old Greece.
  • Not Christianity, which had a Half Nelson on “progress” for nigh on a millennium.

 

FEATURED. The AD Painter, c 500BC, Attica, ie near Athens. Painted hydria [black figure water vessel], showing Dionysus above, and two ‘eye-sirens’ on the side. British Museum.

 

CONTENTS

Summary
0/ Prologue
1/ Background
2/ Unravelling causality: were the Greeks enough? Did the “West” need Christianity? The Germans?
3/ The British connection? As for the Greeks, a kind geography was vital.
4/ Proto-modern aspects of ancient / Classical Greece
5/ Criticism of the Greek roots of the “West” – Christianity seen as a badly needed corrective.
6/ The Germans mattered?
7/ Christianity’s role? The inherently illiberal anti-democratic Church.

  

Summary

  • The cornerstone of communities embracing liberal modernity is secular citizenship, ie
    • first, collective primary loyalty to a set of liberal values, NOT to any notion of religion, race / ethnicity or class;
    • and, second, collective understanding that this life is it, and the outcomes of this life are up to humankind applying its capabilities, not relying on any supernatural or divine agency.
  • In unravelling causes, the roots of the “West”, the on the ground history is important. The key ingredients enabling the birth and eventual emergence of “Western” values, liberal modernity, liberal democracy were:
    • A loose group or groups of enterprising individuals, not yoked by proximate predatory states or in thrall to distracting religion;
    • An accommodating geographic space where unscathed they could get on with harnessing their talents.
  • This happened for a time in parts of ancient Greece from about the 7th C BC, then started again in Britain about a millennium later, some centuries after Rome’s fall, among descendants of enterprising recent German and Norse immigrants.
  • Fortuitous geography played a key role in both cases, allowed constructive freedom to gain traction: Greece’s rugged isolation, and Britain’s moat, the Channel, and in both cases proximate to much larger societal action.
  • Notwithstanding a diverse and sometimes violent experience, and a then finite life, the main drivers of “Western” values became evident in parts of Classical Greece for about 4 centuries, around 2.5 millennia ago, radical and eeriely proto-modern outcomes: democratic government based on citizenship (albeit a restricted franchise), practical freedoms, rule of law, respect for individuals, radical advances in philosophy / science / maths, timeless literature (drama, poetry and history), art and sport, all in the context of a thriving economy.
  • Christianity and the Church are keenly promoted by some as another – or even the – vital ingredient for the “West”, highlighting its respect for the individual. This insults the facts.
  • Some Church texts respected individuals, but within a doctrinal framework which demeaned flawed Man’s earthly capabilities, proclaiming that only submission to an alleged supernatural power could “save” him, and this available only through the Church.
  • Second, the Church’s actions spoke / speak louder than words. They condoned slavery on an improbable scale, Catholic overseen imperial depredations in the Americas, and suppression of women.
  • And once the Reformation erupted they fought reform tooth and nail in the 16th and 17th C in Europe, allied with sympathetic conservative secular authority, at a huge cost.
  • Still today the Catholic Church response to sex abuse within their ambit remains illiberal and anything but democratic, let alone “respectful of individuals”. No opening the books to independent assessment and adjudication of charged suspects.
  • Rather the Church as a typical autocratic traditional institution has been the antithesis of a liberal democratic institution, and for near 1000 years had a Half Nelson hold on Western civilisation, staunchly defending its beliefs and institutional presence, and inhibiting, fighting reform.
  • The Germans matter for some, and here there seems some truth, for they, with some Norsemen, comprised much of the population in post-Roman Britain, to where modern liberal democracy can directly trace its roots. The isolated forest inhabiting German tribes were handy fans of freedom, who then took their chance in Britain.
  • Finally, important thing about “Western” values is while they were “discovered’ in the West they now – like many “Western” scientific laws – have universal relevance, as a broad template for organising societal affairs, based on democratic “respect for the individual”, as citizens loyal above all to these values, not to class, clan, tribe or race.

 

Athena and her owl ……… … the Church Militant and Triumphant ….

11  12

 The Brygos Painter (attributed) c490–480 BC.  Athena [associated with wisdom, handicraft, and warfare], helmet and a spear, owl. Attic red-figure lekythos. Met. Museum New York. COMMENT: is the face on the dress a self portrait? Or graffiti?

Andrea di Bonaiuto da Firenze (active 1343-77) 1365-77, Via Veritatus (the Church Militant and Church Triumphant), Spanish Chapel, Santa Maria Novella Church, Florence. COMMENT: a useful mid 14th C (post Black Death) Italian depiction of the Church at work, and its business story, selling Salvation. Through the Dominicans, less than happy with Jews in their community. Not much respect or tolerance there.

 

0/ Prologue

In the grand sweep of human history there aren’t many more relevant debates than about the origins of “Western” values, the heart of democratic liberal modernity, which astounding reality – finally gaining traction post WW2 – is the single biggest shift in millions of years of hominind history.

The causes of such a shift are unlikely to be complex, at least at a high level.

But the debate is heated, especially from the side defending a vital role for Christianity.

But, a priori, if “Western” values are deemed to have universal relevance, applicability, it seems odd that their origins would be crucially influenced by one religion out of countless others manifest among peoples around the globe.

 

1/ Background

David Gress (“From Plato to NATO”) works hard to downplay the Greeks, and boost especially the German tribes and Christianity, an unlikely alliance! He does this exhaustively, including Rome in the story, which swallows Greece then launches Christianity, fortuitously, allowing it to quickly spread far and wide by inhabiting the remaining still large Imperial political extent. Then it slowly converted incoming Germanic tribes.

But in probing the causality sequence ask a simple logical question, would modern secular liberal democracy have happened without Christianity? One way or another?

 

2/ Unravelling causality: were the Greeks enough? Did the “West” need Christianity? The Germans?

To answer this we need to address the specific relevant history of ‘Rise of the West’, the direct ancestry of today’s circumstances, which means focussing on the story in Britain where the West we know today was surely born.

Gress complains that in untangling the roots of the West we are not fully addressing history. In this he is right, except he then energetically chooses the “history” which suits his arguments, ie down with the Greeks and up with Christianity and the Germans!

 

When you lay out (as below) the full Greek achievement it seems hard not to argue that the main drivers of “Western” Values were indeed present in Classical Greece. The radical breakthroughs were profound, have an eerily modern resonance, an improbable 2500 years later.

So how do we connect with them.

 

Did we need the Germans? They certainly helped. But the Vikings contributed too.

What Britain – the British Petri dish – needed to nurture an eventual revival of societal open eyed scrutiny was a body of dispersed enterprising independent people, not too in thrall of religion.

 

Did we need Christianity? Did the historical sequence unfolding in Britain need or rely on Christianity? It’s hard to see how.

Many of the historical figures involved in Britain post Rome through the Middle Ages were Christian but in the hands on practical conflict over the sharing of power in Britain they were not much influenced by their Christian beliefs, except of course much later when monarchs like 17th C Charles I spruiked the divine right of kings, looked to the Church and God to validate their absolute royal power, the antithesis of democracy.  So the barons were simply fighting for a measure of freedom, for their rights (not the mass of peasantry) as individuals against an acquisitive king.

 

So the radical Greek experience from over a millennium before presumably counted for little in the minds of William Marshall and colleagues, bit it certainly mattered later, after finally being rediscovered, especially during the Renaissance, and increasingly thereafter, alongside the 16th C Scientific Revolution and through the Enlightenment across Europe in the 18th C.

 

3/ The British connection? As for the Greeks, a kind geography was vital.

An essential aspect of the historic context which allowed the proto-modern Classical Greeks to suddenly and so surprisingly emerge and prosper for some centuries – which facilitated their radical inquisitive and creative democratic model – was a holiday from oppressive religiously sanctioned imperial rule, allowing comparatively free men to indulge their talents.

This happened through a combination of exogenous historic intervention – ie the climate change enforced end of the Bronze Age, c1200BC, simultaneously snuffing out civilisations around the Eastern Mediterranean – and geography, the Greeks comparative peripheral coastal isolation, and a degree of protection afforded by rugged topography.

 

In looking at the relevant history in Britain the key circumstances which arose as a vital first step on the long road to modern liberal democracy were an alliance of barons standing up to the monarch, resisting monarchical overreach, establishing a loose proto-democratic rights and obligations contractual relationship, formalised by Magna Carta in 1215.

These barons were descendants of the various German tribes, commingled with Vikings then Normans (ie other Vikings, once removed). All these antecedent peoples were free of experience of repression by imperial states, not accustomed to submission to hereditary monarchies.

Tribes had chiefs as leaders but their survival in office let alone any desire to keep the job in their family, depended on their performance. And they had little or no relevant support from tribal religious figures? So there was a seed of informal rough democracy here.

 

However, beyond Magna Carta it then took over another 700 years to reach full fledged democracy in Britain, through a long sequence of developments:

  • Slow emergence of an effective Parliament, and associated courts of law.
  • The 16th C Reformation.
  • Late 16th C Elizabethan progess consolidating British power.
  • The 17th C English Civil War, bloody diminuition of the king’s role, and a victory for Parliament. However protest calling for a wider franchise was suppressed,
  • 17th C Restoration then the Glorious Revolution, removing a second recalcitrant king.
  • 18th C, the Industrial Revolution commences in England, takes hold.
  • End 18th C, England key role in subjugating Napoleon. And early 19th C abolition of slavery.
  • 20th C, Britain finally extends a full voting franchise.
  • 20th C, Anglo-American led alliance defeats Germany in WW1 and, with Russia again, in WW2.

This was a long bruising and sometimes bloody process, a blunt contest over power with the factions in power resisting sharing it more widely, till they were forced to.

 

The geography of Britain was obviously important, then and later. Geography – peripheral location and large forests – had allowed the Vikings and the German tribes to stay out of the clutches of any large predatory state.

Rome made some inroads against the “barbarians” but were then finally overrun in the West from c400AD. Once the various strands of Germans etc had established themselves in Britain they were even more secure than on the Continent.

Then the geography – particularly the English Channelremained importantcrucial? – in protecting Britain, like in the late 16th C resisting a Spain strengthened by looting the Americas, then resisting the rampaging Napoleon c1800, right down to May 1940.

 

4/ Proto-modern aspects of ancient / Classical Greece

The radical proto-modern group organisation / behaviour / outcomes which emerged for a time in ancient / Classical Greece is striking.

The story is now well known but this familiarity now perhaps disguises its sudden and unlikely appearance and its radical import.

The radical essence of the experience, which is now the cornerstone of communities embracing liberal modernity is secular citizenship, ie first, collective primary loyalty to a set of liberal values, NOT to any notion of religion, race / ethnicity or class; and, second, collective understanding that this life is it, and the outcomes of this life are up to humankind applying its capabilities, not relying on any supernatural or divine agency.

 

Summary

This set of precepts below was utterly radical compared especially with the preceding Bronze Age empires, or with the contemporary empires, eg especially Persia, Mesopotamia, all of which were profoundly anti-democratic, where was one-man rule, where individuals had no rights, only obligations, and they were to serve the “state” and especially its head, and moreover this head was usually not just a superior human being but semi-divine, anointed by a ruling religion, represented by a complicit self-interested cadre of priests.

 

The ancient Greek outcome was not perfect, and it was not sustained, lasted only some hundreds of years.

It was not perfect in that the degree of authentic “democratic” behaviour varied from polis to polis, and then it waxed and waned within poleis.

The most famous example is obviously Athens, prima inter pares. It undoubtedly left the strongest “modern” democratic achievement, in its development of democratic governing processes, and especially its cultural legacy.

But then fatefully Athens succumbed to overweening ambition, first – post the famous early 5th C BC victories over Persia – by transitioning to imperial predation upon nearby other Greek cities, under the pretence of needing to be vigilant against resumed Persian incursions, then second, by allowing itself to come to blows with rival powerful city-state, the much differently organised oligarchic Sparta.

The resulting long and bloody end 5th C BC Peloponnesian Wars (431-404 BC) did not immediately destroy Athens, the economy and society recovering in the 4th C (thus Aristotle was not born till 384BC, 20 years after the War ended), but it became inevitable prey for a rising Macedon about 70 years later, especially when by some fluke of history that Macedon was led not just by an old fashioned autocrat but by a formidably able one.

 

Five key ingredients oversaw the Greek proto-modern flourishing?

1/ Greece’s core radical breakthrough was a self-critical opening of the eyes, to scrutinise, observe, try understand and explain the world – nature and its people – without preconceptions, especially religious, to bring a ‘critical consciousness’ (VDH) to bear.

As Protagoras famously wrote 5th C BC: Man is the measure all things. So there is no logical place for God(s).

 

2/ Acknowledgement of the private individual. Each person matters and this informed democracy, that each individual had a right to a say.

Through the Homeric celebration of the hero, going back into the “Dark Ages” (c800BC) – the superhuman achievers like Achilles and Heracles – they celebrated the striving, ambitious individual, both for himself and the community.

But a key achievement of Classical Greece was to then democratise this ideal, to allow each individual the opportunity to strive for “heroic” outcomes, in work and play.

 

3/ a meaningful freedom, for individuals, to think, say, and act, if constrained by rational obligations to the collective.

 

4/ competition among free individuals. This was a key ingredient, in daily life, especially in economic life, but also in “play”, ceremonially in sport, like the Olympics. But interesting is how it applied culturally too, like with the major playwrights facing off each year.

 

5/ no central authority. Ancient Greece was not a country but an informal federation of well over 500 diverse “city-states”, or poleis (singular polis), most small or very small, a handful much larger, led by Athens and Sparta (at two extremes, one democratic the other a near dictatorship), also Syracuse, Corinth etc. The total peak population was around 8m?

They shared a common language and heritage but individual political arrangements varied greatly

So this swarm of entities was not overseen by any ruler, rather competed among themselves, between c800BC and 300BC, co-operating when it suited.

 

These founding ingredients or themes were expressed in the radical organisation / operation of this government / community / society thus:

a/ democracy. This was a radical step by a community in organisation of its collective affairs, ie that all individuals participate as citizens in government. The Greeks gave us this word, which does not exist in other languages.

At heart was a two part “contract” / agreement between individual as citizen and “state”, the communal group:

i/ rights: recognition as individual,

  • right to vote,
  • right to speak free / have a say,
  • right to own private property, undertake economic activity
  • right to one’s own religion. Even atheism. Religious tolerance.

and ii/ responsibilities / obligations:

  • Especially to vote, to participate in government, eg to serve in government offices. And – even more radical, more egalitarian – these offices were usually filled by lottery. Except for special skilled jobs. Like generals.
  • And if required then an obligation to fight, and to keep fit, in case you had to fight.

An important corollary was that the “people”, civilians, would control the military, via their democratic governing procedures.

 

b/ the rule of law. In Athens in the 4th C BC. This was a second key plank of government. “The rule of law was one of the most important cultural values in ancient Athens..” (Edward M. Harris (University of Durham), Democracy and the Rule of Law in Classical Athens, Essays on Law, Society, and Politics (edited)  Cambridge University Press, 2006, and The Rule of Law in Action in Democratic Athens, (2013). Oxford University Press.

        

c/ citizenship. This was another radical proto-modern concept and basically the foundation of liberal modernity. Thus within a community members were defined not by i/ ethnicity, genes, ancestors, ory ii/ religion, but rather by loyalty, commitment to the group, as defined by a set of common values / rules.

 

From this framework flowed a series of dramatic outcomes:

 

a/ economic. For some centuries Classical Greece was very successful economically, achieved sustained rapid trade-based growth, among a diverse federation of keenly competing poleis, “city states”, not hobbled by any exploitative central authority. The competition allowed various city-states to innovate technically and specialise as it suited them.

This is often overlooked, but wass a key part of the context facilitating Greece’s cultural brilliance.

 

b/ cultural output. This also was utterly radical, and today still justly celebrated. It expressed in:

i/ Philosophy; a body of thought (or what survives) from a sequence of important thinkers over the course of about 300 years, from early 6th C BC to mid 4th C BC

ii/ Science and mathematics. The Greeks did not uncover the full scientific method but their open eyed questioning left radical scientific observations which showed the way ahead. Leucippus and Democritus speculated acutely on all matter being comprised of atoms, like Aristarchus speculating on the earth orbiting the sun, like Greeks speculating that diseases have natural not supernatural causes.

The Greeks made radical strides in mathematics, through the somewhat mysterious Pythagoras and others.

iii/ deliberations on ethics, practical guides to morally correct action, coming out of philosophy;

iv/ theatrical drama, in tragedy and comedy. These texts remain oddly modern, timeless in the themes they explore and the manner. And this is based only on the small proportion of texts which managed to survive.

v/ Art, again that which survives. Striking especially is its humanised sculpture (in stone and also bronze) and also its extraordinary (and numerous) corpus of decorated / painted pottery, from many sites in the Aegean and southern Italy. The detailed figurative images show genre scenes from daily life, and also from their myths, from the lives of their quasi-human gods. Only scarce fragments of “paintings” (frescoes) survive (eg Paestum), but surviving far older frescoes from the Bronze Age Minoan civilisation on Crete give a relevant flavour.

vi/ in recorded history. They wrote the world’s first history texts, eg Hecataeus [Fragment 1: ‚The stories of the Greeks are numerous and, in my opinion, ridiculous‘)], Herodotus and Thucydides, trying simply to “report” on events not bring an agenda.

c/ Religion. “We get the gods we deserve.” (CM Bowra). The Greeks “worshipped” gods, but accessible “humanised” gods. And generally it was voluntary.

Also their religion was not wedded functionally to a ruling elite.

Important too was their attitude to death. There was NO afterlife. This life is it, so make the most of it.

 

d/ Sport. The Greeks “invented” the Olympic Games, c776BC, celebrated athletic prowess through organised competition among individuals, precisely as the world does today on a grand scale, most of these sports originating – like “Western” democracy – in Britain.

 

Reflecting these outcomes, Classical Greek left us a string of key words.. politics (!), democracy (demos = people), aristocracy, anarchy, oligarchy, utopia, philosophy, ethics, physics (from physis = nature), history, dialogue, rhetoric, tragedy, comedy, democracy, aesthetics. But not citizen (from Anglo Norman).

 

“Western” values.

The interesting thing about “Western” values -traced back to the “Greek Enlightenment” – is while they were “discovered’ in the West – like many “Western” scientific laws – they now have universal relevance, are available to all countries as a template for organising societal affairs, based ultimately on “respect for the individual”.

Thus post WW2 we have seen many countries outside the traditional Western countries (ie Europe and offshoots) adopt / adapt “Western” values, more or less.

Japan is a striking example, and some other Asian countries have joined in

The experience varies a lot depending on the full local context.

 

5/ Criticism of the Greek roots of the “West” – Christianity seen as a badly needed corrective.

The idea of “Greek roots of the West” is often criticised today.

Eg Greece had many slaves, and denied women the vote, denied citizenship to both.

True. But all other contemporary societies were much the same.

And it was the “Greek” approach which finally “freed” slaves and women, albeit it took another c2500 years.

Which goes to show how ingrained or intractable are Traditional Values, the Old Order. As we saw in the dreadful violence accompanying the long gestation of the “West”, from 17th through 20th C, and given their important residual impact today, particularly through the remnants of the two major “Communist” revolutions.

 

David Gress takes a big swipe at the Greeks in “From Plato to Nato”. He sees the Greeks overdoing the out of control Narcissistic Homeric heroic individuals, leaving no room for “Christian belief in justice and in the value of human life”.

So he sees them overdoing “individualism”, such that the West requiredcollaboration . . the humility to recognize that achievement rested on interdependence… [and this comes only from].. the Influence of Christianity”.

Thus “The democratic pursuit of individual autonomy needed the balance of humility if it was not to degenerate into anarchy or the rule of some ideology.”

Thus the “Christian teaching of original sin [imparted “humility”, thus] made modern democracy possible.”

Throw in Christian love, compassion for thy neighbour?

So “For the West to emerge, Greece had to die”.

This is heavy stuff, so heavy that – given the total package of radical achievements of the old Greeks – you wonder if he is not bringing an agenda?

 

But is it so?

Thus the Homer in The Iliad who celebrates heroic values in the same book also criticizes the destructive consequences for others if these values are misapplied.

And in The Odyssey he writes of the humanised eponymous hero going home, to hearth, wife and dog, not accepting Calypso’s offer of immortality.

The Greeks also talked a lot about “hubris”, about the risks, dangers of excessive individual focus, of overweening pride, ambition, of flying too close to the Sun.

Then Greek philosophers like Aristotle stressed the importance of the Mean, of balance in life.

Greek playwrights in particular stressed in their tragedies the dangers of out of control individuals, like the awful consequences of needless war, of needless violence in the name of false causes promoted by certain selfish individuals.

And in comedies they satirised, morally upbraided ambitious politicians, holding them to account. But note the same politicians by and large tolerated this critical public theatre.

Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (411BC) attacked misogynism, saluted the rational capacities of women.

 

The Greeks appetite for curiosity knew few bounds, so they even understood, recognised the limits of rationalism, to remain humble, that even with best efforts knowledge will never be complete, eg Sophocles in Oedipus Tyrannos or O. Rex (431BC) shows the rational Oedipus tripped by not knowing all.

Similarly Euripides in the later Medea explores the dangers of irrational passions.

 

Also this stress on the mindless excessive Greek appeal forf heroic individuals, and disregard for the total old Greek achievement, seems to deliberately overlook historical outcomes, the eventual (post WW2 20th C) historic manifestation of a near full developed Greek democratic construct, the heart of which model, when its rational implications were implemented in West Europe and beyond, through parliaments and courts and police, and particularly a full adult franchise.

Thus finally respect for the individual rights of all citizens was achieved, including slaves and women, not just “heroes”, propertied or otherwise select adult males.

And strenuous resistance by the Old Order, including the Church, ensured this process was protracted.

 

Many other critics (like Nietzsche) have famously regarded the ethical teachings of Christianity as vital, by implication seeing the relevant parts of Greek philosophy as insufficient, so that humankind in abandoning the Lord will be cast adrift, condemned to nihilistic instability, inherently incapable of managing his affairs.

 

For some / many critics this stress on Christianity however comes with an agenda – a conflict of interest – that of the Christian adherent, believer, which belief instructs that God – their God – is good, here for all, to save all, including those of all other beliefs!.

 

6/ The Germans mattered?

David Gress also spruiks the Germans. “The Germanic contribution to the West was broader, richer, more significant, and more ambiguous than the [Enlightenment] model suggested.”

Through John Adams and Thomas Jefferson: “Americans adopted the Germanic model of freedom because it seemed to suggest that their own claims to independence were rooted in history as their ethnic heritage.”

And yes the Germans avoided “divinizing rulers; Caesar found some tribes ruled by councils of warriors..

But so did the Greeks.

So Gress sees the Germans contributing a strong sense of freedom, unwillingness to submit to imperial autocrats?

However they were also almost wholly “uncivilised”, left no written account of their life and thoughts, and were very violent, given to almost ceaseless warfare among themselves (eg refer The phylogenetic roots of human lethal violence, José María Gómez, Miguel Verdú, Adela González-Megías, Marcos Méndez; Nature, October 2016.), as tribes waxed and waned, presumably depending a lot on the ambitions and capabilities of individual chiefs.

 

In the event the Germans certainly mattered because it was they – the Angles and Saxons – who took hold of Britain from about the mid 5th C AD, shunting aside the Celts. The Norsemen then materially intervened from c800AD – not in the end displacing the then settled Germans, but certainly leaving a lasting imprint – as they did importantly in northern France, which then redounded on Britain from 1066, when the Normans arrived.

So the Germans, with a leavening of Norsemen, became the backbone of the country which in due course bore or midwifed the “West”.

 

In hindsight the forest dwelling German tribes can be seen as somewhat analogous to the ancient Greek poleis, ie as a peripheral dispersed group of semi-independent smallish bands, speaking similar languages, keen to get on with life in this world, and not bothered by proximate states.

But, they needed civilising.

 

7/ Christianity’s role? The inherently illiberal Church.

Supporters of the case for Christianity’s vital role in seeding “Western values” comb the Christian texts for words highlighting for them relevant central aspects like:

  • The Church valuing, recognising the individual, each person’s “dignity”.
  • Christians favoring compassion for and by individuals, and mercy, humility, and overseen by a redemptive merciful God.

 

But on the matter of recognising the “dignity” and worth of the individual it seems clear the Greeks basically got there first. Respect of “rights of the individual” drove the whole then radical notion of democracy, that everyday people had a right to be heard.

The Greeks of course predated Jesus by say 500 years. So just maybe the Greek thoughts on individual rights filtered through to the Holy Land and beyond.

 

Second, the Church, especially later, had a strange take on humanity in stressing the notion of Original Sin, thus depicting Man as an inherently flawed creature, from birth, because Adam and Eve had disobeyed God.

Then the Church as an institution stressed this construct to attract people to their business, explaining that the only escape from their squalid imperfection was through salvation by God, and that, by chance, was only available via the [monopolistic[ services of the Church.

This view of Man as a feeble beast who could only be rectified through supernatural intervention via the Church stood in flagrant contradiction to that of the Greeks, who per contra viewed Man, each individual, as capable of great achievments if they strove accordingly, and – more importantly – were given the opportunity to do so.

Yes Man was not perfect, made mistakes – as Greek drama highlighted – but the core Greek mindset was optimistic, recognising Man’s capabilities.

So the Greek notion is rational and “modern”, and hence “Western”.

The Church’s traditional view of Man, by contrast, irrational, manipulative and demeaning.

 

Also interesting in hindsight is how the later leadership of the ambitious institutional Church tweaked the ruling creed to facilitate its business objectives, ie attracting customers to its salvation machine, in particular by stressing a/ Original Sin [cf Saint Augustine], Man’s inherent inadequacy; and b/ the penalties of non-compliance, ie a long hot post-corporeal date with the Devil; and c/ the joys of compliance, ie everlasting life in the hereafter.

 

However the role of the Church and its creed – its many religious texts – needs to be assessed through actions not words, through the historical behaviour of the institution, given also that for many centuries it was close to the political levers of power.

 

Here we see first up the Church behaving as a familiar traditional institution that is fundamentally illiberal and anti-democratic, in its own internal institutional processes and operations, and externally in its actions, repeatedly, comprehensively.

We see a body which is the antithesis of rule of law based, rights respecting liberal democracy

 

Thus in terms of the rights and dignity of the individual this never applied to slaves and women, nor to non-Christians.

Slavery within Western Christian countries flourished on its watch, especially the large scale transatlantic slave trade [approx.. 10m shipped to the “New World”], in which sternly religious Catholic countries like Spain played a key role (as well as economically opportunistic Protestant leaders like Britain), culminating in the egregious economically opportunistic 19th C US slavery experience [the Confederacy running with near 4m slaves at the outbreak of the Civil War], at a time when slavery had finally been abolished in Europe.

 

Then looking at the course of European history, when the winds of reform started to fan Europe after say the continent shattering Black Death (1348), coming to a head in the 16th C Reformation, the Church fought democratic advances tooth and nail, culminating in the catastrophic religious wars of the late 16th / early 17th C.

 

In today’s times the graphic failure of the institutional Catholic Church to honor the “dignity” and rights of individuals is evident in the now chronic matter of globally widespread sex abuse by members of the Church of people under their care or supervision.

This abuse concerns not just the criminal actions, and the scale of violations, but particularly the Church’s arrogant defensive response, in keeping with its longstanding autocratic illiberal practices.

Thus the Church has tried to avoid publicising the abuse, and second, in its response to complaints it has strenuously avoided a liberal democratic approach to seeking accountability, ie opening the books to thorough independent investigation, to fully expose the facts, to identify, and bring to justice, the culprits.

The Church is here exposed as a typical traditional autocratic institution lacking any kind of effective rule of law, ie independent processes for investigating and adjudicating complaints.

Instead the current Pontiff talks about “codes of conduct” and blames the problem not on man but Satan, which would be laughable if the matter was not serious.

At a recent conference in Rome on the very matter there was not the faintest reference to real reform, starting with independent supervision of dealing with complaints.

 

Stepping back, it’s clear that the “we know it all” monotheistic mindset at the heart of the Church’s principles is simply incompatible with liberal modernity.

The same intolerant close-minded mindset is evident today in many Islamic countries, where the religion is allowed a political role.

Gloom is cool! In the well off First World

FEATURED IMAGE: John Martin (1789 – 1854), c1853. the Great Day of His Wrath (The end of the World), oil on canvas. 197 cm × 303 cm.Tate Britain. COMMENT: It’s huge. The final panel in a triptych of a Biblical apocalyptic extravaganza, The Last Judgement.

 

Irrational pessimism“ – Why do people worry when the sun’s out?

Interesting is not the (obvious) reality of Progress but why it’s not recognised.

And why some people keep worrying.

At least among the „chattering classes“ (cf Auberon Waugh)

 

1/ Why the current pervasive „irrational“ gloom?

  • Modernity’s core problem: relentless change, technical & economic, now global:
    • undermines tradition, communities.
    • complicates people resolving their existential life purpose?
  • Too good for too long?
  • Many not aware of the „facts“.
  • „Gloom is cool!“ Especially in the First World.
  • Irrational“ fear an innate protective defensive reaction?
  • Always something to worry about!
  • Bad news sells!
  • Social media, 24 hour news, fan
  • Fear exploited by self-interested parties.
  • Many are pyschologically prone to seductive „spiritual“ quick fix.

2/ And yet… a recent survey in US reports around 80% were optimistic, suggesting a disconnect between widespread media concern and the real community.

3/ Modernity demands care and hard work to make it work.

 

pinker1

Andre Derain (1880-1954). 1903-05. The Golden Age (L’Age d’Or), oil on canvas, 177 cm x 189 cm, Tehran Mus. of Contemporary Art, Iran. COMMENT: Nostalgia.

pinker2

Dana Schutz (b. 1976). 2018, Painting in an Earthquake. COMMENT: A worrier. Peter Schjeldahl, New Yorker, Jan 28, 2019. “Dana Schutz’s Paintings Wring Beauty from Worldwide Calamity, The artist vivifies the conditions of life on a faltering planet as dramatically as one can while staying devoted to aesthetic ideals.”

pinker4

 Vincent van Gogh (1853-90), 1881. Peasant Sitting by the Fireplace (‘Worn Out’), watercolor.   COMMENT: Another worrier.

 

 Introduction

By many key measures – health, income, security – outcomes in the world today are historically quite unparalleled, especially post WW2, and notwithstanding ongoing „problems“.

And yet there appears pervasive anxiety among the leading „Western“ economies about the state of play and the outlook, at least if one relies on mainstream media, and also if one acknowledges the rise of fractious Nativist anti-immigration Populism.

And yet this view appears confounded by a recent US survey reporting around 80% were upbeat on achieving the American Dream (reference, The American Dream Is Alive and Well )

 

1/ the FACTS: „PROGRESS“ and Modernity             

1.1/ Progress

The key indicators:

1/ health, life expectancy, diseases reduction. antibiotics.

2/ income, hence food, shelter, and entertainment

3/ literacy, education

4/democracy, enfranchisement

5/ reduced violence. War, domestic homicides

So individual should ask themselves (per John Rawls’s famous ‘veil of ignorance’ thought experiment) IF they knew nothing about their gender / class / sexuality would they rather be living today or at any other time in human history?

 Thus the post WW2 outcome was an economic and political miracle, which was mostly not expected in 1946:

1/ the economic boom, the „progress“ as outlined by Pinker and others, cf Steven Pinker’s new book “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress” (2018, Penguin Random House).

2/ political outcome, the spread of democracy.

Notwithstanding  especially the Cold War, 1945-89, spawning wars in Korea and Vietnam, and more recently Islamic terrorism, triggering the US led the hugely counter productive interventions in Mid East and Afghanistan, the war in Iraq etc.

 Progress? Penn World Table research project: “average real (inflation-adjusted) per capita GDP .. world in 1980 was 80% better off than it was in 1950, and another 80% better off in 2010 than it was in 1980…  our average material wellbeing is three times what it was in 1950.  .. if anything it’s a low estimate..  way we measure real GDP accounts.. doesn’t properly account for value that exists but cannot be measured – such as the immense benefits that accrue to social-media users

China’s real per capita GDP in 1980 was 60% lower than the world average, but today it is 25% above it.

India’s real per capita GDP in 1980 was more than 70% below the world average, but India has since closed that gap by half.”

 

1.2./ WHY? Why the Progress?

We might call it the emergence of “liberal Modernity”.

Man’s capabilities were unleashed practically by the emergence – finally – of governments providing the right rules and institutional framework, allowing private agents to organise and operate competitively, to develop / apply technical knowledge for constructive economic purposes, within a relatively secure rules-based legal framework.

The first clear sustained meaningful example of these circumstances was the experience of post Bronze Age Classical Greece, for about 3 centuries to 4th C BC.

 

Pinker on :secular humanism”:

To what do we owe this progress? Does the universe contain a historical dialectic or arc bending toward justice?

The answer is less mysterious: The Enlightenment is working.

Our ancestors replaced dogma, tradition and authority with reason, debate and institutions of truth-seeking.

They replaced superstition and magic with science.

And they shifted their values from – privileged the wellbeing of individual men, women, and children over – the glory of the tribe, nation, race, class or faith toward universal human flourishing –—life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience..

. It is individuals, not groups, who are sentient – who feel pleasure and pain.”

Arm waving but not a bad answer.

 

2/ The WORRY.

a/ Current pervasive anxiety

Certainly is anxiety today, pervasive even, eg in recent (2018) art review, about Grant Wood exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York: “For her part, Haskell sees a resonance between the disquietude Wood captured in the 1930s (even if it was inadvertent) and the anxiety that permeates our world today.We’re living in a disquieting, alienating age,” she muses. “So Wood’s work feels especially relevant right now.” ”

Try another art review, Dana Schutz’s Paintings Wring Beauty from Worldwide Calamity, Peter Schjeldahl, New Yorker, Jan 19, 2019, “Dana Schutz’s Paintings Wring Beauty from Worldwide Calamity, The artist vivifies the conditions of life on a faltering planet as dramatically as one can while staying devoted to aesthetic ideals.”

 

b/ Criticism of Modernity and the Enlightenment

It has a long history.

In modern times it started early, eg with 19th C Romantics? Yes, poets and painters especially.

And some philosophers.

And all were mostly nostalgic dreamers? Oblivious to evidence, alarmed even then by the ugliness and disruption consequent to economic take off.

Some succumbed to appeal of a lost Golden Age.

 

But see an ongoing reactive fightback by Tradition!

i/ By churches and believers.

We see „..religious resistance to the secularisation”.

We see committed antagonism by those who believe in God etc.

There is no harm people religious beliefs provided they stay private, are not allowed into politics and government.

For some believers there a “belief that reason itself is a thin veneer covering human irrationality”. And that only God can save us.

Much as Nietzschze worried what Man would do for a moral compass after realising He had ditched God.

And some charge the “Enlightened” with “scientism”, a quasi-religious conviction that science cures all. But that’s a straw man. Most claim no such thing.

 

ii/ nostalgic Nationalism / Populism.

This includes opponents of the progressive secular Enlightenment who along with the Christian warriors basically blame these „progressive“ views – „dehumanising utilitarian rationalism“, the abandonment of loyalty to God and community – for the French Revolution, WW1 and WW2 and Auschwitz..

It reminds of The Life of Brian. „What’d Romans ever do for us?“

Thus Modernity’s disruptions are a major stimulus for the current eruption of Populism, is Europe and the US, stoking fears of people whose main loyalty is to their identity, their group (community and nation) and who see the welfare of their group threatened by economic change and now particularly in Europe by immigration of the wrong people, especially Muslims..

 

iii/ „Socialist“ criticism of „capitalism“.

The most egregious culprits are „bright“ Left intellectuals, who condemn Western capitalism, dream of a socialist paradise.

These are the same minds who in the day supported Communist Russia and China, notwithstanding appalling violence, repression and economic failure.

 

iv/ Neo-Romantic environmentalism”.

These extreme critics reject development, desire return to subsistence.

 

c/ Irrational fear Case Study: Climate change?!

The widespread current fear of Global Warming (GW) – now usually euphemised as Climate Change (CC) since many forecasts in recent decades have over-estimated warming – is a prime example of „irrational“ fear

Thus there has always been „climate change“.

Homo sapiens is only here today in great numbers because of GW, blessed as we currently are by coinciding with an Inter-Glacial Period, just over 100,000 years after the last one, when hippos wandered Trafalgar Square.

Man’s main CC issue through deep history has not been GW but the reverse. Cooling. Generally life grows better with GW than vice versa.

Within the last 10,000 years abrupt adverse CC has devastated civilisations a number of times.

But what’s striking this time –  uniquely profound for the species – is that for first time ever in Man’s millions of years of history he will have the technology and economic resources to resist, accommodate, fight back. A staggering outcome.

 

3/ WHY THE WORRY?

A./ Why the irrational gloom?

Why do people worry so much? Despite the facts.

Why do they overlook manifest progress?

1/ Modernity’s core challenge: now relentless change

The primary source of contemporary anxiety is the relentless technical and economic change inherent in the material success from applying Reason and the Enlightenment – particularly through the regulated private market economies of the „Western“ liberal democracies – which has manifested particularly post WW2, now globally.

Since WW2 the pace of economic and technological has been sustained, and development has spread, especially to Asia.

However the economic success in Asia is now evident through two models:

a/ the „Western“ private, rule of law

and b/ the state run authoritarian Chinese model.

This change is inherently disruptive of daily lives, employment patterns, entails constant adjustment, sometimes painful, inconvenient.

The „rat race“.

The advent and rapid spread of social media, supplementing traditional media, is now an important aspect.

These conditions of hyper-change have sowed discontent, anxiety, fears in two dimensions.

 a/ First is the practical.

Progress“, economic change, undermines relations wth traditional circumstances.

It disrupts or erodes traditional employment patterns and hence related communities, traditional community relations, the traditional material fabric,

Baron Haussman’s re-making of central Paris c1870s is a famous physical example.

b/ Second the spiritual / psychological.

Modernity’s „Progress“, change, knowledge upheaval complicates people – each person – coming to grips with, resolving life’s ultimate questions, existential life purpose?

 

Francis Fukuyama touches the issue in his latest book (Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition,  Profile, 2018), sees somes outcomes of modern Liberal Democracy offending for many participants their “dignity”, their sense of recognition, which he relates back to the Greek notion thymos, meaning “spiritedness”, appetite for recognition. Thus Plato saw thumos / thymos as one of the three parts of the human psyche: a/ epithumia. “bodily desires”; b/ thumos / thmos, “passion”; and c/ nous, “reason”.

 

The implications of ongoing science, its evidentiary revelations, contradict, undermine traditional authority, especially religion, reliance on nostalgia, and hence for some complicates finding purpose in life.

Thus Modernity erodes confidence in traditional answers to ultimate life questions, addressing the Spiritual Predicament.

 

The simple choice for each person involves:

a/ accepting some version of traditional collective spiritual authority, like religion, or some analogous relationship with an ethnic / nationalistic identity.

Or b/ self serving DIY bells and whistles fabricated personal beliefs,

Both these courses are manmade delusional spiritual or quasi-spiritual antidotes.

Or c/  Living with the improbable but now evident Inscrutable Mystery, of how Schubert’s music issues from life which has evolved over plus 3.5b years, from stellar dust clouds collapsed to forms stars and associated planetary solar systems, from atoms in elements baked by the explosive processes of stellar formation and destruction over billlions of years.

 

2/ Too good for too long.

People naturally focus more on the present and on the witness from their own lives.

But it’s now been so good for so long there are few survivors now from the Bad Old Days, like WW2 and before. Which really were bad times, thus before … antibiotics,.. food a plenty, the consumer revolution, a material cornucopia unparalleled in 5m years!

 

3/ Many not aware of the „facts“

Thus popular appreciation of „progress“ is clearly imperfect. „almost everyone is mistaken about basic measurements of the state of the world.” (Gottlieb, NY Rev. Books Feb. 2019), as illustrated by Hans Rosling research. „For several decades, he gave simple questionnaires to various audiences around the world, and in 2017 a version of his quiz was administered by two polling firms to 12,000 people in fourteen countries.”

Rosling’s survey showed most people don’t know some basic relevant observations; and most are biased negatively.

 

4/ „Gloom is cool!“ Fashionable.

This „irrational“ fear feeds on itself and pessimism becomes fashionable?

The collective confrontation with perceived impending / imminent adversity – however real or not – becomes a back-slapping group feel-good cause, reminding one for example of the reaction of some British Londoners to the 1940 Blitz.

As Sarah Bakewell notes (NY Times 2/3/18) optimism is „uncool“ for many, quoting John Stuart Mill from 1828:

I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.”.

This applies particularly in the well off First World, where most people are well fed and housed and can afford to indulge their collective mental anxieties, unlike many/most in poorer countries.

 

5/ „Irrational“ fear an innate defensive reaction? Psychological insurance? Especially in First World.  

Human nature, behaviour is complex.

Thus behaviour that seems “irrational” one way might be rational in another way.

„Prepare for worst and feel better when not happen.“ Or Dont expect much and you won’t be disappointed!

This behaviour more understandable among well off First World, with more to lose.

Is irrational worrying an evolved natural behaviour? A built-in natural survival trait?

Interesting. Is there for some a genetic predisposition here? Some people seem born worriers and vice versa.

 

6/ Marketing of „fear“.

The predisposition to emphasizing fear is faciltated thus:

a/ Always something to worry about!

Thus material progress is the product of, intimately linked to, economic change and economic change is inherently disruptive, especially for employment patterns.

So whatever the NET benefits, the net improvement, it always costs through adjustment somewhere.

Supplemented by natural change, especially like climate and geology).

So the outcome will never be perfect, will always be sub-optimal, ragged, untidy, always be some problems.

So there will always be fodder for the gloomy, the irrational „quick fixers“.

There will always be some bad news for the irrationally inclined to feed on, latch onto.

b/ Bad, dramatic news sells better than good.

This is well known.

For example with guns in US the mass shootings like Las Vegas and the many school shootings catch headlines, but the main gun problem gets little coverage, accounting for most casualties, thus about half total casualties are suicides

c/ Fear is now more easily, readily fanned by the net and social media? Ironically products of technical progress in communication. Plays to the „madness of crowds“.

d/ Fear is exploited by self-interested parties. Thus deliberate propaganda by relevant entities, self interested manipulation of truth, for power and money. Especially by:

  • „Dark“ governments, extreme political movements. Like Russia particularly.
  • Also of course churches.
  • Criminals. Bad People! Prepared to lie and steal. Bearing in mind there is now a lot more to steal.

e/ People are pyschologically prone to an holistic „spiritual“ quick fix!

People are gullible, pre-disposed, susceptible, ready to suspend faculties of Reason, especially when offered seductively appealing belief systems, offering a simple enveloping purpose in life, and even help in the supernatural realm, suspension of mortality, life after death.

i/ This applies especially to religion, of all kinds.

The mainstream monotheistic religions.

Then the hoardes of DIY religions. Especially in the US. Mirroring the freedom of opportunity in a new land! Especially like Mormon.

Then home made DIY gurus, cults. Like ex traffic cop in Russia, on ABC Foreign Corriespondent.

For some it’s Millenerianism, apocalyptic end of world mania, a subset?

Also aliens? Astrology? Fairies?

ii/ But includes gullible loyalty, devotion to a group identity, especially ethnic, nationalist or even racial.

It can be soft as in the wave of Populism now evident in Europe and the US, a clannish attraction to preserving, defending a national Way of Life, against unreasonable economic disruption and against immigrants deemed too different, threatening, to be admitted.

And it can grow into a fanatical racist nationalism,  obviously like Hitler and Nazism, but also Stalin and his Russian „Communism“, superficially Marxist, ie based on an imported politico-economic ideology, but which became an imperialist neo-Tsarist Russian model, the ostensible mission of World Revolution cloaking de facto old fashioned imperialism, advancing Old Russia rather than saving the world proletariat from rapacious capitalists. This was illustrated definitively by its 44 year post WW2 occupation of East Europe, 1945-89.

iii/ And it covers nostalgia! The Golden Age syndrome. The G.O.D!! Good old days.

Except the GA is part fiction, did not exist as such.

 

Also – blinkered, suspending Reason – the „quick fixers“ will choose facts to fit their desired conclusions, wear rose tinted glasses, filter out the bad, keep the good. Select facts to fit, all for Fake News.

 

Where does this happen? More in poorer countries, like Russia. But also wealthy countries, especially like the US.

Why is this so? Why the appetite for a religious / spiritual quick fix?

It’s an easy way out, however delusional.

It’s tempting, the promise of everlasting life etc!

Is there some deep evolutionary purpose? A functional evolutionary reason for „religion“?

 

B/ And yet… a recent survey in US reports optimism

A recent survey in US reports around 80% were optimistic, „ Collectively, 82% of Americans…  optimistic about their future..  a fairly uniform positive outlook across the nation.

Factors such as region, urbanity, partisanship and housing type….. barely affected these patterns, with all groups hovering around 80%….

Even [no variation by] race and ethnicity .. 81% of non‐Hispanic whites; 80% of blacks, Hispanics, mixed race; and 85% with Asian heritage said that they had achieved or were on their way to achieving the American dream

(Survey by American Enterprise Institute and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, reported by Samuel Abrams, NY Times 5th Feb. 2019).

This suggests a degree of disconnect between the thinking / perceptions as reported widely by mainstream and social media and that out in the real community.

 

4/ MODERNITY DEMANDS CARE FOR BEST RESULTS

Modernity is hard work, demands constant tending to deliver its promise.

Like Sisyphus‘ task it is a neverending job.

And progress is not inevitable?

Thus Pinker is not „forecasting“ sustained good times, not predicting anything, not claiming discovery of some Hegelian historicist pattern of history, rather simply asserts that if we remain assiduous and thoughtful,  keep applying Reason and Enlightenment in practice then Progress should generally continue.

But there is always chance of setbacks.

As the 20th C showed graphically.

Like a garden, it needs constant care, cannot tolerate complacency.

And it is always vulnerable to exogenous shocks, especially natural.

 

Lessons from history?

History is not discouraging?

So far there have been no cases where well established liberal democracies have succumbed to authoritarian takeover?

The Germany which fell to Hitler was not such a democracy?

And very important it seems that „Western“ liberal democracies emerged from the catastrophic turmoil of first half of the 20th C, particularly the challenges of Nazism and Stalinism.

But there are recent cases of mismanagement leading to sharp national setbacks, and vice versa.

Cases of self-inflicted failure: Argentina, Venezuela.

Cases of relative improvement: Colombia, Indonesia, Peru.

 

Some references

Articles

Accentuate the Positive. Anthony Gottlieb. NY Review Books , 7 feb 2019

The American Dream Is Alive and Well, Samuel J. Abrams, political scientist.  NY Times, Feb. 5, 2019

Pessimism Amid Plenty, Project Syndicate. Feb 23, 2018, Michael Spence

Economic Trend Is Our Friend, Project Syndicate. Aug 31, 2016, J Bradford DeLong.

Steven Pinker Continues to See the Glass Half Full, Sarah Bakewell, NY Times, March 2 2018

Books.

Abundance (2012). Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler.

Enlightenment Now: A Manifesto for Science, Reason, Humanism, and Progress,  Steven Pinker (2018, Allen Lane)

Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, 2006, Robinson, James A, and Daron Acemoglu. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund   Flatiron, 342 pp.

Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition, Francis Fukuyama, Profile, 2018

It’s Better Than It Looks, Gregg Easterbrook Public Affairs, 2018.

It’s Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years, Julian Simon Progress (2016), Johan Norberg,

The Moral Arc How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, 2015. Michael Shermer. Henry Holt.

The Rational Optimist (2010). Matt Ridley.

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, 2012, Robinson, James A, and Daron Acemoglu.

 

 

 

 

Bruegel’s ‘Two Small Monkeys’ (1562).

Pieter Bruegel (1525-69, 44)    Two Small Monkeys (1562).

What does it “mean”?

Simply the traditional moralistic warning to Man not to become “chained to”, addicted to, sinful behaviours of whatever stripe?

 

 FEATURED..  Pieter BruegelTwo Monkeys,1562, oil on panel, 23 x 18cm, Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

12

Gentile da Fabriano. (c1370-c1427). 1423, Adoration of the Magi (DETAIL from), tempera on panel, 203 cm × 282 cm, Uffizi, Florence. NOTE. From late in his life, this is the artist’s most famous surviving work, “commissioned by the Florentine literate and patron of the arts Palla Strozzi”.

 

Summary

  • No mystery here? Hard to avoid a traditional explanation, ie moralistic subject alluding to the dangers ofirrational or reason challenged man becoming “chained” to, addicted to sinful behaviours.
  • Bruegel shows two birds flying freebehind, reminding the tethered beasts what they are missing.
  • Possibly he saw chained monkeys in Fabriano’s 1423 Adorationin Italy, and quite likely he saw real such monkeys in busy Antwerp.
  • The hazelnuts are important, refer to a local proverb also warning Man not to be irrational, eg to go to court over trivial matters!
  • Left wing Marxist explanations, suggesting Bruegel is taking aim at Antwerp’s successful new wealthy bourgeois class seem nonsense. They paid his bills. Also this new private market-based economy has since brought unparalleled material prosperity to about 1/3 of the global headcount.

 

Introduction

This unusual, intriguing later painting – small (only 9 x 7in.) and showing an intimate, simple scene – is very different to four important panels also completed in the same busy year, 1562, by the then well established and experienced Bruegel (age c37). All four of the major works presented serious subjects depicted in typical detailed crowded compositions: The Suicide of Saul, The Fall of the Rebel Angels, Triumph of Death and Dulle Griet (Mad Meg).

So the painting of the monkeys may have provided light relief for the artist.

Bruegel’s rendition shows the monkeys chained on a window sill, by pieces of broken hazelnut shell, views behind to Antwerp, which Bruegel knew well, where he lived c1551-1563.

According to Google the two monkeys are identified as collared mangabeys (genus ceropithecidae), native to the west coast of Africa. Presumably Bruegel may have seen this species of monkey at the important trading centre that was Antwerp then, particularly given his apparently accurate rendition of the species markings.

 

Bruegel’s painting – an interpretation

Bruegel was always serious polemical painter. In the footsteps of Bosch – though now much less militantly evangelical, now more humanised – every image carried a message or story of some kind.

So here it’s hard here to avoid a traditional explanation for showing monkeys and monkeys chained, ie alluding to irrational or reason challenged man being “chained to”, addicted to sinful behaviour.

In the sky behind Bruegel shows two birds flying free, reminding the tethered beasts what they are missing.

Yes it’s possible he recalled seeing the pair of chained monkeys in the grand Fabriano painting in Italy about 15 years previously. And also it’s quite likely he saw real monkeys in Antwerp, which given his observant eye he would have noticed.

As many have remarked the hazelnuts are important, given his then recent famous 1559 painting illustrating a collection of Netherlands proverbs. So there seems little doubt the nuts refer to the local proverb warning Man not to be irrational, eg not to go to court over trivial matters! Good advice. Only the lawyers win.

 

The reason for showing Antwerp?

The obvious explanation for Antwerp appearing is that it was Bruegel’s base for many years (c1551-1563, except for for near 2 years to Italy) where he lived and worked, and prospered. And it was a town then riding a wave of prosperity based on trade, facilitated by its strategic location, its port facilities on the Schelde River, by the Channel and not far south of the mouth of the Rhine, its population roughly doubling between 1500 and 1568.

This prosperity, however, would shortly be severely dented as Spain’s war with the rebel Dutch Republic took hold (the 80 Years War, 1568-1648).

 

There is the Left wing Marxist explanation (refer below), that Bruegel is taking aim at Antwerp’s successful new economy, at the new wealthy bourgeois class, people like the merchant Nicolaes Jongelinck who importantly patronised the artist, buying at least 16 of his paintings, until they were forfeited as collateral for debt and ended up in the collection of the Hapsburg Rudolf II, HRE, thence Vienna today.

Indeed Bruegel’s interest in the Tower of Babel as a subject (which he painted twice in 1563) can also be read as frowning on Man’s ambitious material objectives, his arrogance, his unrestrained too big for his boots commercial ambition.

But this take seems far fetched here, drawing a long bow, when the traditional symbolic reference works well?

Also this new money paid his bills.

It’s worth noting this new private market-based economy has since, finally, brought unparalleled material prosperity to about 1/3 of the global population.

 

Monkeys in art

Monkeys have traditionally been popular in art mainly to symbolise ill disciplined Man abandoning Reason, measured prudent behavior, and succumbing to base animal desires, and popular particularly because there is an obvious close resemblance between humans and apes, which Darwin later explained.

And the monkeys being chained? This almost certainly alludes to “fallen” sinful humans being trapped by, “chained to”, their improper desires, lusts, ignoble appetites, which thus in turn can be styled as addictions, because they are difficult to resist.

Monkeys appeared in many illustrated manuscripts in Medieval Europe, perhaps for iconographical reasons, but perhaps also simply for fun, as exotic quasi-human animals.

Monkeys were popular especially in art in the United Provinces (the Dutch Republic) in the 17th C where, in a subset called singerie, monkeys often appeared dressed like humans, engaged in human activities showing immoral or dissolute or disreputable “sub-human” behaviour, like playing cards (gambling), smoking and drinking, selling tobacco, or even the tulip mania (also gambling?).

This was also an allusion to the Great Chain of Being (L. scala naturae, “Ladder of Being”), popular in the Middle Ages, eg through Aquinas, and sourced from the old Greeks (Plato and Aristotle etc), being a ranking or hierarchy of the natural order, animals, plants and rocks, from rocks bottom to animal higher up then God at the top. Thus monkeys ranked below humans, as creatures that were “sentient”, meaning all they could do was feel or sense, and did not possess the faculty of reason, a capacity to reflect on their condition and manage, restrain appetites and behaviours.

Singeries stayed popular in the early 18th C in France, and 19th C.

 

What does Two monkeys “mean”? Some ideas.

A BBC writer (5th Oct. 2018) suggests the idea of pair of chained monkeys may come from an important painting by Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1427), his lush, extravagant, crowded The Adoration of the Magi (1423), an example par excellence of the reactionary International Gothic style, which work Bruegel may have seen in Florence during his Italian visit, 1552-54, ie about 8 years earlier, in his late 20s.

There the monkeys are chained near a pomegranate tree bearing bursting ripe fruit. In Fabriano’s painting the meaning of the monkeys relates to Christian iconography? The monkeys can represent fallen Man’s base condition, in Paradise Garden, ie Man prone to, lusting after, base desires, including of the flesh, desires metaphorically represented by the ripe fruit.

Meanwhile salvation now beckons through the Christ child shown left, where the Magi arrive to present themselves.

The BBC writer suggests the monkeys become “an emblem of humility [and] all that stands between us and the splendours of the world we inhabit are the fetters we clamp on ourselves and on each other…” Whatever that means?!

 

Perhaps more usefully another blogger, Angela, looks to the hazelnuts, which allude to a Netherlands proverb, “to go to court for the sake of a hazelnut”, noted by other observers. Thus for Angela the nuts can symbolise addiction, “people will do anything to obtain their desires, no matter how small”. Thus the sad monkeys are trapped by their lust for nuts! In the arched window which is their prison.

 

Gerry in Art (2015) notes Antwerp in the background, then booming commercially, then posits a textbook Marxist explanation, claims Bruegel is basically mauling the new quasi-capitalist economic system, no beating about the bush, “one founded upon exploitation and inhumanity, and the enslavement of human beings by their fellow-men…the chains on the monkeys represent the suffering brought about by contempt for the dignity of fellow human beings.

Nonsense. He’s dreaming. Look about you today.

But he does usefully mention “Nobel prize-winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska wrote a verse entitled Bruegel’s Two Monkeys, published June 1957, a year after the Poznan riots. Thus the chained monkeys become obvious symbols for a “chained” people.

Emphatically the first Australian Modernist painter

  • Emphatically the first Australian Modernist painter.

  • And therefore warrants much wider recognition for it.

  • Why not better recognised? Between two stools. Thus was not front rank in Europe. And in Australia was overlooked by parochial conservative tastes.

 

“I am a painter of nature, of nature’s moods, of sunlight and the changing temper of the sea”

FEATURED:  c1905, A Wave Breaking on the Shore, Belle Ile Oil on canvas, 46 x 65 cm Sotheby’s, Sydney.  NOTE: Through the color and coarse brushwork another colorful quasi-abstract work, and Fauvist?

  • John Russell was clearly the first Australian Modernist painter, as such a pioneer within the small Australian pond,  who clearly deserves wider recognition.
  • Why not better recognised? Easy. He fell between two stools.
  • In Australiahe was overlooked by conservative parochial tastes.
  • And at the main game in Europehe was good but not front rank, and also, blessed by family money, he exhibited rarely, did not much promote his own art. Then in 1908 he apparently destroyed c400 works, upset when his wife died at only c40.
  • From the mid 1880s he became the first Australian painter to keenly embrace modern art, ie Impressionism / Post-Impressionism, from the 19thC European revolution out of France, and was far ahead of much better known Australian contemporaries like his friend Tom Roberts, also McCubbin, Streeton etc. And this despite Roberts also visiting Europe quite a bit, as did Streeton, and McCubbin briefly in 1907.
  • Taking advantage of good fortune, he dived into Europe and stayed Europe for c40 years, 1881-1921:engaging the right company at the right time and place, in France in the late 19th C.
  • His art style shifted abruptly c1886 after meeting Monet, absorbing his Impressionism, but his approach was nonetheless distinctive, even pioneering,especially in
    • a/ his Modernist works c1890-92, from a visit to the Antibes area(on French Riviera, just west of Nice), emphasizing light and bold color, and stylised compositions, even proto-Fauvism (eg c1890 landscape with tree, View Antibes);
    • and b/ the turbulent quasi-abstractionin many of his sea paintings at his then home on Belle Ile, off the Brittany coast, eg as early as c1890 (eg Stormy Sky and Sea, Belle-Ile).
  • Like most “Impressionists” Russell’s art was staunchly aestheticin purpose, with no interest in social comment.
  • He painted some portraits to start but overwhelmingly his output was outdoors, landscapes and seascapes. Also he remained a hands on painter, not academic, not a writer / theorist?
  • His early portraits were very good, mid 1880s, in Paris, like his outstanding portrait of Van Gogh (1886), also of friend M Fabian, and a very good self portrait.
  • However his style stagnated, did not move on. Into the 20thC his style stayed stuck in the 19th C, ignored the ongoing fast moving revolution after Fauvism c1905, ie especially Cubism and Abstraction.
  • And also later his subject range remained narrow,and less interesting for it, just landscapes, no more portraits.
  • Meanwhile the physical and athleticRussell, socially easy-going, but with a temper, developed meaningful and influential relationships with famous European First Division artist peers like Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse and Rodin.
  • Thus, 1896 and 1897, he apparently played an important role in provoking Matisse’s interest in less restrained color.

Some of Russell’s pioneering modernist paintings, as an Australian exploring the new styles.

No other Australian painter at this time, c1890 through mid 1910s, came anywhere close to Russell’s modernist style.

 

Riviera, France and Italy

01

c1889 Les Terrasses de Monte Cassino, oil on canvas 65.0 x 81.0 cm, private.

NOTE: Painted while visiting his to-be wife’s family in Italy. No other Australian painters then came anywhere close to this expressive almost unnatural coloration which veers close to Fauvism? Then still about 15 years ahead.

02

1891, In the Afternoon, Oil on canvas, 65 x 65 cm AG NSW, via Sotheby’s, Melbourne.

NOTE. Another important painting from Antibes area. AG NSW: … Russell’s sojourn in Antibes in the winter of 1890-91 produced some of his most beautiful landscape paintings.

Russell had seen Monet’s 1888 Antibes paintings in Paris which he wrote to Van Gogh about, criticising their lack of form but admiring their colour.

In Russell’s own Antibes works he has synthesised Monet’s techniques with an attention to form and is now working with pure colours that he is mixing himself.

The strength of colour Russell experienced in the clear Mediterranean light is embodied in ‘In the afternoon’ where the purple shadowed foreground, orange midground, stripe of blue ocean, mauve and white Alpes-Maritimes, and intense turquoise sky epitomise Russell’s exceptional engagement with colour at this time.

Russell has thickly layered paint in a worked up surface in which colour is also experienced as texture, achieving an overall chromatic and visual intensity.

While many Impressionist paintings appear spontaneous as the artist transcribes particular effects in front of the subject, in reality they are often highly considered and ‘worked’ compositions. In the afternoon is no exception as conservation analysis has revealed an earlier version of this painting underneath in which the colour tones are lighter. Russell has allowed this to dry before painting over it to achieve the more intense colours in the final version. The reworking occurred soon after the first version as it is the colours and composition of the current painting that Russell describes in his letter to Tom Roberts in 1891. The complex interweaving of colours throughout the painting, but particularly visible in the fore and middle grounds, show an artist in full control of his technique to achieve the luminosity he sets out to convey.

‘In the afternoon’ is one of two works that Russell exhibited in London in the New English Art Club exhibition in 1891, alongside ‘In the morning’ (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra) – the two paintings embodying the impressionist interest in the changing effects of light and colour at different times of the day.

In addition to artists working in England such as George Clausen, John Singer Sargent and Walter Sickert, this progressive exhibition included work by French artists Edgar Degas and Monet.

Russell’s paintings were seen as aligned with those of Monet and the reviewer in ‘The Times’ noted the “sunshine, real, genuine sunshine in Mr J.T. [sic] Russell’s ‘Morning’ and ‘Afternoon’ [and] in Monsieur Claude Monet’s ‘Orange and Lemon Tree’. (The Times, London, 30 November 1891, p3)

 

03

C1890-92, The sea at La Spezia (La mer à La Spezia), oil on canvas 60.0 x 72.0 cm Private collection, Melbourne

NOTE: Bold colour again, coarse Impressionist brush textures and a stylised layered composition looking way ahead to Rothko?

04

1891c View Antibes, K Stokes collection.

NOTE: simple painting but bold. Is this not another proto-Fauvist work? About 15 years before summer of 1905 at Collioure.

 

05

1890-1, In the Morning, Alpes Maritimes from Antibes, Oil on canvas 60.3 × 73.2 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

06

1891c, Le Forte d’Antibes, Oil on canvas, 50 x 61 cm The Collection of Sir Leon and Lady Trout, Christies, Brisbane.

AG NSW: In Autumn 1890, John Peter Russell left Belle Île to see the Midi and Riviera, where Van Gogh and Monet had worked.

He crossed France in a cart drawn by two horses and took a house for the winter in the ancient seaport of Antibes.

Enraptured by the landscape of the French Mediterranean peninsula, Russell produced some of the most dazzling canvases of his career. He painted numerous canvases during his time in Antibes, working out of doors in front of his subject in the southern light.

A fine example from this period, ‘Antibes’ demonstrates Russell conviction to pursue pure colour and move away from the restraints of naturalistic form.

 

07

 

1891c, Antibes (View from Hotel Jouve, plage de la Sallis, looking towards the medieval walls and the Grimaldi Castle, Antibes) Oil on canvas, 60.7 x 73.9cm, Queensland Art Gall.

08

1891cView Antibes, old town (houses in Italy), 45 x 45 cm, private, Melbourne.

 

Belle-Ile, Brittany.

09

c1890. Stormy Sky and Sea, Belle-Ile, off Brittany. Oil on canvas, 32 x 40.2 cm. Sotheby’s, Sydney, sold Nov 2007, A$180,000.

SOTHEBYS: Temptuous, colour-saturated Belle-Ile seascapes such as this rank as Russell’s most important paintings; undoubtedly the point at which he came closest to the French Impressionism of Claude Monet. Russell first met Monet in September 1886 when both artists were staying here at the remote island of Belle-Ile off the Brittany coast in north-west France.  Monet assumed that the young Australian Russell was American but found him ‘tres amiable‘, and the two worked together side by side for a time on the rocky Atlantic shore.  It seems likely that seeing Monet’s Belle-Ile series exhibited in Paris the following year was a factor in Russell’s decision to settle on the island with his family in 1888. He would remain there for 20 years – the happiest, both professionally and personally, of his life.  Russell at first did not approve of Monet’s revolutionary technique, with its deliberate lack of distinction between form and colour.  But by the 1890s his own style increasingly came closer to Monet’s.  Stormy Sky and Sea, Belle-Ile, off Brittany”, epitomising all Russell’s passion for the place, is clearly heir to paintings by Monet such as Tempest on the Coast of Belle-Ile. The excitement and vigour of the brushwork, the warm pinks in the sky and icy blues of the seaspray, are also seen in Russell’s larger Rough Sea, 1900, in the collection of Dr Joseph Brown at the National Gallery of Victoria.

10

1900 Rough sea, Belle-Île (Brittany, France), oil on canvas, 63.2 × 63.1 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, per Dr Brown.

NOTE: WHO „invented“ Abstraction? Russell’s Rough Sea (1900) is certainly relevant, as a case of proto-abstraction, about 10 years ahead of Kandinsky? It’s not meant to be abstract, as the title suggests, but a „blind tasting“ might struggle to say what it does depict? Perhaps even a hilly snowscape.

 

11

1905 Storm, Belle-Île, 25.5 x 32.5 cm (sheet), watercolour, gouache on thick buff wove paper, AG NSW. NOTE. Another proto-abstract work. AG NSW: ‘Storm, Belle Ile’ 1905 closely related to .. ‘Mer agitée: tempête Belle Ile’ formerly in the Behan collection, Brisbane.

12

1886, Van Gogh. oil on canvas, 60.1 cm x 45.6 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Van Gogh Museum: “The Australian painter John Peter Russell got to know Vincent at Fernand Cormon’s studio. He painted this portrait of his friend in 1886 in a conventional, realistic style. It is clearly influenced by photography, although the face and the hand still show Impressionist touches.

The portrait was not so dark originally. Another artist, Archibald Standish Hartrick, met Van Gogh at Russell’s studio. He later recalled: ‘[Russell] had just completed that portrait of him in a striped blue suit.’ You can indeed just make out a few little blue stripes at the lower edge of the painting. Analysis has revealed, moreover, that the words ‘Vincent, in friendship’ were painted in red over Van Gogh’s head.

In Hartrick’s view, this was the most accurate portrait of Van Gogh – more realistic than the likenesses done by other artists or any of Vincent’s self-portraits. Van Gogh was very attached to it. Years later, he wrote to Theo: ‘take good care of my portrait by Russell, which means a lot to me.

 

 

“Western civilisation” works? Yes, but be honest about its dark side.

 

Liberals are undermining western civilisation, writes Professor Robert Tombs (1), April 23 2018, The Times

 

FEATURED:  Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000. The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture. 1938. Panel no. 5: “Slave trade reaches its height in Haiti, 1730.” Tempera on paper, 29.21 × 48.26 cm. Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans.

 

Not being open about “Western civilisation’s” full story significantly undermines its marketability

  • Professor Tombs is on the right track, but is telling only part of the story, leaving out the dark side of “Western civilisation’s” emergence, its ugly violent gestation.
  • Yes he leaves out the widespread predatory European imperialist / colonial engagement, in the Americas, then Africa and Asia.
  • In particular he leaves out slavery and the slave trade, especially across the Atlantic.
  • So he omits the sad and flagrant hypocritical betrayal of “Western” values by the newly born USA, in its treatment of blacks and native Americans.
  • And he could throw in two world wars in the 20th C and their appalling consequences. Thus WW1 should never have happened, was self-inflicted, caused by deficient collective leadership succumbing to deadly nationalistic ambitions.  .
  • Not being open about these failures “undermines” credibility in selling the virtues of the “Western” liberal-democratic model (WLDM). It gives greater licence to reactionary repressive authoritarian regimes today.
  • Which is a great pity for the WLDM is clearly universally valid as an optimum approach for nations managing their collective affairs in the modern world, both for 1/ demonstrated far superior economic and associated outcomes; and 2/ far superior political outcomes, human rights and freedoms.
  • Importantly the WLDM is ”Western” only because it happened to emerge there. But it’s as valid universally as Newton’s laws.

 

1/ A “chequered” history – the dark side of “Western civilisation”.

The Professor misses grievous failings in the story of “Western civilisation”.

 

2/ Slavery

We can start with the marred US “achievement”, the American Revolution, launched by the high-minded Founding Fathers’ Declaration of Rights, Constitution etc ., in the wake of 18th C European Enlightenment.

Except their admirable and just lofty ideals applied only to.. . whites! Like a club it was Members Only.

And this club was not open to slaves or native Americans, at a frighful cost, in the end to both sides, and to this day. Look at the 2017 furore over Confederate statues. Which would not be a lot different to neo-Nazis in Germany wanting Guderian etc on horseback in bronze.

Instead, at a great ultimate cost, the South chose to fight to maintain the bonanza that was their cotton-based economy, underpinned by nearly 4 million slaves and selling to a Europe then booming as the industrial revolution marched on.

Then having fought and lost the Civil War the South, with the acquiescence of the US Federal Government, managed to effectively “re-enslave” the blacks through Jim Crow laws and disenfranchisement, for nigh on another century!

The Civil War was a terrible price paid by the Republic for its hypocrisy.

 

This US experience was one facet of a much wider economically motivated criminal enterprise, chiefly in the Americas.

Yes the damning truth is that slavery has been a major blight on “Western civilisation”.

How many fancy old houses in Britain were funded by slavery and the slave trade?

 

4/ Western imperialism.

Slavery was part of the wider blight of Western imperialism, the widespread predatory foreign colonial engagement by European powers especially in the Americas to start, through Spain then Portugal, thence Africa and Asia, through England, France and the Netherlands. Then even the US joined in in a small way, end of the 19th C.

 

Taking the experience of one frustrated imperial power, look at the appalling post WW2 failure by France, its futile desperation in trying to cling to its substantial colonial footholds in Vietnam then Algeria, at great cost to locals and the French visitors. And the Algerian debacle occurred after the ignominious 1954 defeat in Vietnam, as if they learned nothing in Indo-China.

 

5/ And two world wars and the rest! Our fault?!

Finally we can throw in the two world wars of the 20th C (ie parts 1 and 2 of the same war), and their appalling consequences, certainly like the Russian Revolution, and the Holocaust, and perhaps too the Depression and the Maoist Revolution.

Yes WW1 was basically self-inflicted by the European powers, should never have happened. It was caused simply by an egregious failure in leadership by the governments of the main European powers, succumbing to the temptations of Old World nationalistic ambitions.

Except now, ironically, these countries were armed with the best the booming newly industrialised economies could provide, in volume and deadly killing efficiency.

 

6/ The value of “Western civilisation”, “Western” values.

However, the Professor’s main point is right, the value of “Western values”.

 

Importantly, they are now “Western” only in the sense they happened to emerge there, in the West.

Though their relevance is now universal – like Kepler’s or Newton’s Laws – in the sense they are by far the best practical arrangements Man has devised for management of his collective affairs, within group political entites, within nations.

 

And for two major reasons.

First, through regulated private free markets and rule of law, they are by far the most successful arrangements for economic outcomes, and associated consequent benefits, in terms of matters like nutrition, shelter, leisure and health,

Second, they provide by far the best outcome for effective freedom of individuals, human rights etc.

But the result, while far superior to all the authoritarian alternatives, will still always be messy, “chequered”, sub-optimal, not least because of a/ necessary adaptation to never-ending ongoing disruptive economic and technological change, b/ reactionary opposition; c/ bad governments and other actors.

 

7/ But avoiding the dark side of “Western civilisation” has consequences, impairs its marketability, 

It’s not an academic matter.

Not telling the truth, the whole truth, about the history of “Western civilisation”, undermines its wider appeal, especially to countries today plagued by.. ..Old Values!

It allows self-interested opponents in authoritarian countries greater licence in stirring opposition to “Western” values.

So there is a responsibility, even a moral one, to sell the value of “Western civilisation”, and to be honest about its failures on the journey,

 

Note. 1/  Professor Robert Tombs is author of The English and their History.
Meanwhile the heading “Liberals are undermining western civilisation” uses “Liberals” in a misleading way, namely the confusing American terminology referring to Left wing protagonists.

Seven Types of Atheism – Round the bend.

Seven Types of Atheism – Round the bend, a triumph of lazy Invention over laborious Experience

 

FEATURED: Allan Ramsay (1713–1784) 1754. Portrait of David Hume (1711-76). Age 43. Oil on canvas, 76.2 × 63.5 cm, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

 

 

H4  H5

Steve DiBenedetto (born 1958) 2015, Drone Souvlaki (courtesy Steve DiBenedetto/Derek Eller Gallery); Vasili Kandinsky 1942 Intime Message 49.2 x 49.6 cm tempera, cardboard, Pompidou, Paris

ABOVE:                                 Laborious Experience  

Liberal Modernity: messy, generally not pretty, never finished, but it’s actually working.

BELOW:               Lazy Invention

Religion, Nationalism: tidy, complete, pretty as you like, something for everyone, and possibly an after-life thrown in.

 

ROUND THE BEND

Brilliantly written”, but still rubbish! But not the first time.

So John Gray’s argument – when boiled down, the regulus in the crucible – is that the Atheists are all tarred with the same brush, as those they criticise, the believers.

Thus “your atheism is just another belief”. And therefore also a matter of blind faith, not of evidence, of experience.

So that’s that. Pace Robert Graves, we call this playing with words, such that debate becomes meaningless.

For the argument, the believers believe.

The theists believe in a personal or specific god, the Christians in God who “speaks” through the [hands who wrote the] Bible, the Word of God, and the legion of stories therein. And all the Saints’ stories etc.

Deists present a more elusive target, believe in a vague impersonal divine “cause”.

Atheists say there isn’t a God or gods, and agnostics just say who knows, I don’t.

 

Bit like two chaps reach a corner, and cannot see round it.

The believer says, Round the corner is a café serving the best coffee and Portuguese tarts.

How does he know? He doesn’t, he just “believes”.

Could just as well be a brass band, resting between performances. All the same to the believer.

The agnostic says, I don’t know, because I can’t see round the bend.

The atheist says, I don’t know either, but there’s not a café serving the best coffee and Portuguese tarts, which of course he cannot know for sure.

But the believer says, Your statements are all just “beliefs” too.

Which makes debate with the believer meaningless because he dismisses anything anyone says. As beliefs, detached from evidence.

So the believer makes his position untestable.

Which is a hallmark of faith.

 

But the simple reality is that the onus is on the believers, to prove their claims on what’s round the blind corner.

Ball is in their court.

Meanwhile among what the atheists / agnostics “know”, based on long Experience, is:

1/ now all the weird and weirder science of the universe;

and 2/ logical psychological reasons for humans ”believing”, as conscious animals, aware of their mortality, reasons for surrendering to seductive encompassing certainties, however they are determined, and however detached from any supporting evidence;

and 3/ most specific “gods”, in all cultures, past and present, are anthropomorphic.

 

MODERN “OPTIMISTS”

In a similar fallacious vein the cheerful John Gray also lays into the modern Optimists, like Pinker, Ridley etc, claims their “humanism”, “liberal democracy”, ”progress” are all “God substitutes”.

So “Gray.. believes… humanists are in bad faith. Most of them are atheists, but all they have done is substitute humanity for God. They thus remain in thrall to the very religious faith they reject..”

Then Terry Eagleton in reviewing Gray’s book calls Pinker et al “wide-eyed optimists”, and “.. just as one-sided as the prophets of doom”.

Which of course is total misrepresentation, fashioning a straw-man.

Per David Hume, the “humanists” views, the Optimists views, are based on laborious never ending sifting of Experience.

Not Invention.

They are based on hard work assembling evidence not on wide-eyed mute submission.

Belief is the triumph of lazy Invention over laborious Experience.

Though Mr Eagleton does at least hold Mr Gray’s feet to the fire, labels him the “card-carrying misanthrope for whom human life has no unique importance”. Spoken like an agnostic. Mr Hume would agree.  And “Gray belongs to a group of thinkers who turn to transcendence without content, epitomised by Hollywood spirituality.” Boom boom.

 

The evidence of the Optimists is extensive, wide-ranging, and emphatic, if necessarily imperfect.

So the modern outcome is also inevitably messy, untidy, always Heraclitean, always changing.

Unlike gods, which arrive box-wrapped, tidy, complete and eternal.

Which is chiefly why believers choose them! No complications.

And so there will always be something to excite that sizeable cohort of Born Worriers, those who will never quite be happy.

 

“PROGRESS”

So Pinker et al are simply addressing evidence, the outcome of Experience.

And they call the outcome “progress” – epitomised by Liberal Democracy – on the evidence, because on average, generally speaking, conditions at point A are demonstrably better than earlier point B. It is what it is.

Thus, stepping right back to get perspective, it’s fair to say approximately say three-quarters of all people in advanced affluent economies today have never had it so good.

And if they are not happy then they have only themselves to blame!

 

But meanwhile in NO way do the “Optimists” ever claim that “progress”, such as it is, will necessarily continue, that it’s somehow inevitable.

Nothing is “fated”, and also they are too aware of their evidence!

Like how the French Revolution was commandeered by the quasi-religious Jacobins, then by Napoleon Inc. rampaging about Europe, “reforming” or “modernising” France chiefly to help resource his military enterprises, in his wake installing family in imperial posts.

Like how the calamitous outbreak of WW1 punctured, shattered many decades of “progress”, when massed reactionary throwback nationalism – alas, and ironically, abundantly armed with the best means modern economies could provide – unleashed two world wars (ie parts 1 and 2 of the same war) and, for good measure, the disastrous Russian Revolution, practical ”Comminism”, the after effects of which still plague the world today.

 

Whatever the “progress” we have achieved, whatever we might keep achieving, the outcome will always be messy, not least because it will always be obstructed by the un-Enlightened Old World, by Tradition loyalties and especially the “religious mindset”, the born believers, broadly defined.

For there will always be the capable and ambitious who see a rewarding career in pandering to this mindset, offering seductive if hollow certainties.

It’s a long honour roll, including: the Pied Piper, Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, that Hubbard chap, Jim Jones.