What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Lack of Naturalness 2

Last week I was talking about why people are not living naturally in the present.

I noted a lack of good ideology (capitalism is a joke because it’s obviously self-destructive), and I could have mentioned lack of good religion too (Christianity being useless in this regard because it obviously isn’t true).

For a religion we should have one that is not based on worship of a false idol of a ‘sky-father’, cut off from the world he is supposed to have created. Instead we should embrace a religion that talks about life on earth and the energy that courses through natural systems as the energy that courses through us, our being and our instincts. We should also think of a religion that has regard to the ancestors and the descendants, and then we would not think so lightly of our treatment of the environment, or think that in talking of ‘discount rates’ and the consequent lack of any urgency in altering our actions, we were not excusing the worst of crimes.

In last week’s blog, I also noted people not sleeping enough, eating badly and having the wrong sort of exercise (if any) leading to a society where people live longer, however longer with poorer life quality, and where people are half-sick all the time.

This week I’m going to talk about other factors which ensure that people do not, in generally, have natural vitality.

I have already inveighed excessively against the lack of good literature in society. People are not used to creative use of language and hear only clichés and half-truths and so tend to think with these, and then wonder why their lives don’t make sense.

Similarly I have already written about the lack of good music in society. In that blog post I was mainly talking about classical music, but I expect the same holds true for popular music: that despite a small stream of high quality music, the great majority of music produced is low-quality and highly stereotyped in form and content. The lack of vital music to listen to, is another reason for the dullness and stolidity of society.

In the same category belongs our lack of contact with the natural world and our lack of becoming hand-made things (just as the Arts and Crafts movement said). People everywhere should have access to the natural world in the sense that they should be able to walk from where they live and from where they work to ‘semi-natural habitat’ (as the ecologists say). If people could do this it would be a refreshment to their spirits and a tonic, and a source of wisdom to be able to observe life in the fields and paddocks and in woodland and forest.

And with hand-made artefacts the story is the same, it is the refreshment of spirit that comes from something well-made that fulfils its function well, not something that doesn’t work, looks ugly and is constantly in need of replacing, as with so many things.

All these points together cause me to diagnose society as being composed of people who are living longer, but living sub-optimally.

This brings us to the most difficult argument in these two posts. This is the argument that every failing of our society is redeemed by the increasingly peaceful nature of global society. This argument, based on the observation that violence has on average decreased across the world in the C20 and C21, despite the First and Second World Wars, has recently been summarised by Stephen Pinker in a book, The Better Angels of our Nature. This argument is a familiar one from those who like to trumpet western exceptionalism (and is similar to the one that celebrates longer western life-spans), but it only really applies to developed countries, and some non-developed countries, eg Congo, are more violent places than they have ever been. In this regard the peacefulness and lack of violence in the west can be seen in the same terms as the peacefulness and lack of violence in a US gated estate compared to outside.

Moreover, Pinker himself acknowledges that there is no guarantee than this state of affairs will continue (it won’t, as anyone reading these blogs will have released (and I hope realised before reading these blogs)).

I would argue, by contrast, that our allegedly peaceful society is none such, because its peacefulness conceals a lack of repose and an inner war. This is caused by the constant stress with no let up that people are subjected to in modernity. Our society is such a large-scale one, that people feel isolated and intimidated by seeing and interacting with so many people. In traditional societies people lived in smaller communities and interacted with a smaller circle of people. Violence then was more likely, but when it came, more predictable.

People in our society also have to perform work they don’t want to do and which they know to be futile and useless, this is obvious a state of peaceful violence. In the past people were often required to perform forced labour, but they didn’t have to pretend they liked it or that it was ‘a career’. In other societies people had their own work and looked out for their own. They could protect themselves against threats of violence. For example in C18 London gentlemen carried swords and other men (and women) carried cudgels and knew how to use them. If they went out after dark they expect that they might have to defend themselves. Nowadays no-one expects to have to defend themselves and few people can against people who are less inhibited than themselves: drugged-up adolescents, professional criminals and the violently insane.

[Incidentally, this is probably why much populist media product is fear-based in its approach. People in modernity live in a constant state of tension, but without any obvious violence or dramatic events to correspond to their inner feelings. And so the yellow press has discovered that by covering every story from the point of view of ‘be afraid of...’, ‘the threat to your family...’ they can chime with readers’ emotions and get more attention for themselves (though not nowadays make more money).]

It would be my argument that people are happy when they are able to concentrate on their own work and live in small communities, sometimes having to defend themselves against others, than people who have to live as we do, endlessly stressed and never relaxed. [The stresses caused by advertising and the siren-songs of consumerism should not be underestimated in this regard either.]

The former of these states is real life, not a mock-life as we have.

Next Week: the Future

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Interlude: Lack of naturalness 1

Last week I blandly stated we are not living natural lives and gave a few examples. I have have decided to go a little deeper into this.

Daoism, the frame of reference adopted in these pieces, favours naturalness and not stress and artifice. The Sage, according to Chuang Zi, is to ‘mingle with the myriad things and become one with them’ (Chap 1). Elsewhere in the Chunagzi naturalness is figured in much less exalted terms: ‘Follow the middle; go by what is constant, and you can stay in one piece, keep yourself alive, look after your parents, and live out your years’ (Chap 3). And of course the Daodejing provides us with the test as to whether people, or societies, are following the Dao as they should: ‘What is not the Way will come to an early end’ (TTC 55).

There is a danger, in talking about naturalness, of people thinking that you are falling into Arts and Crafts type nostalgia. The Arts and Crafts movement began in the later C19 in England under the impetus of the Pre-Raphaelite artists and William Morris. It opposed industrialisation and everything associated with it. It stressed handicrafts, local production, traditional crafts and designs and rural living. All these things are goods in themselves of course, but the way they were figured by many in the movement condemned them, as it were, always to be located somewhere in the past and lost, (the preferred location was the English Middle Ages, or early modern period).

The point, of course, in discussing a better way of life, is not to identify a period to ‘return to’, but a suite of features from different societies which, taken together, could make us better than we are. There have been very many imperfect societies in the past, and many good ones. If we can imitate the good ones (especially the sustainable ones), then we can become better, our society can last longer and under better conditions than our current outlook promises.

To return for a moment to the Arts and Crafts movement; although this movement had no practical influence on the development of English society, it has shaped many attitudes both in England, the US, Australia and elsewhere. I personally don’t like William Morris’s poetry, or his wallpapers, but I do like the music of Gerald Finzi, and the poetry of Edward Thomas, both arguably influenced by the movement, and I am glad that under its influence Vaughan Williams and others began collecting English folk-song and Arnold Dolmetsch starting making lutes, viols and other neglected instruments again (thus beginning the Early Music revival). I can also recognise the influence of this movement on the later C20 Green movement and I celebrate this.

The point is not to say ‘here is an ideology that is ahistoric, mistaken in part and wrong in its emphases’, it is to say, ‘here are these influences, let us weave these into our beliefs where they serve, (and seek out other influences that can add to our world-view, like Daoism).’ We cannot escape being part of an ideology that is blind to certain aspects of the world (‘The way that can be expressed is not the true Way’), but we can instead accept this and always be working on our ideology to make it better suit the times.

In fact, as chronicled through these blog posts, lack of a good ideology is the principal reason why we have unnatural lives; we need an ideology that helps us with living, not with what our lives might be in some impossible future.

To deal with some aspects of unnaturalness:

People in today’s society do not sleep enough, which is a danger to health, and do not follow the natural pattern of the day, by rising early with the sun and going to bed soon after it sets. It is also natural for people to sleep a little in the afternoon (the siesta). Alas the Anglo-Saxon culture of busyness has decreed that people have to work long hours pointlessly, so naturally many people in our society try to fit in everything they have to or want to do on top this and end up sleep deprived. The northern European cold-climate non-siesta culture is also infecting the world, making even people in warmer climates conform to this foolish frenzy of activity.

Similarly people do not eat well. Humans are highly adaptable omnivores and human society can show a vast range of diets from vegetarianism to almost total carnivory. Nevertheless in modernity people’s diet have become detached from all reason: the food industry that we have evolved in the C19 to supply the industrial workers with cheap and dependable slop. This is in contrast to earlier less dependable food provision which could sometimes dry up leading to famines. After this age of low quality abundance began people were no better off except for escaping the chance of inconveniently starving some times. Their diet did not supply all the nutrients required for good health, but people died of infectious diseases or accidents long before they died from the chronic ones produced by their diet.

However, now in the C21 century people are increasingly suffering from chronic diseases brought on by this poor diet and are being kept artificially alive by modern medicine.

Specifically our diet is mostly composed of low-quality carbohydrates and fats, with most foods being processed with these ingredients and stored far longer than they should be. Our food is same all year round, with none of the variety of seasonal foods that our ancestors ate (vegetables, for example, are often available year round, but in order for this to happen they have to be stored too long in cold storage, or (insanely) transported around the world).

Thirdly, people do not have the right types of activity to keep healthy. People used to keep healthy by their day to day activity, but people now have to find time to fit in ‘exercise’, which is frequently the wrong type of exercise at the wrong time of day (evening, when energy levels are naturally low). People think that exercise that tires you out and leaves you aching is good exercise. Contrast this to exercise that actually conserves your energy (such as Tai Chi and other traditional Chinese exercises). These exercises increase a person’s energy and strengthen the joints, instead of sapping one’s energy and straining the joints and muscles.

Many people, of course, do no exercise at all.

The net effect of these three types of unnaturalness is a population which has a long lifespan, but which passes it in a state of artificially-maintained life; a sickly population full of aches and pains and prone increasingly to auto-immune conditions, and with no vitality.

Next week: To be continued

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Grumble 13: Obstacles to a Virtuous Populace

In these posts I keep on circling around this issue and have already written a full post on the lack of virtue in society.

If we had virtue widely in our society we would not be in the mess we are currently in (people would easily see through political conservatism, advertising, public relations, and all other manifestations of unprinciple). We would probably not have got into our earth-killing rut in the first place.

What seems to me to be the main obstacles to virtue in our society is that:

  • People don’t have skills, and have pointless jobs
  • People have a sense of entitlement
  • People are cut off from the facts of the world
  • People lead unnatural lives

In the past people had all these things and it was easier for them to be virtuous, instinctively virtuous. The only advantage we have now is more information, so it is easier to be intellectually virtuous, not misled by ignorance. But intellectual virtue is less useful than instinctive sort, and is more easily led astray.

For example in these pieces I have been relying on a type of ecological analysis known as ‘global footprint analysis’. Now for many years thousands of highly intelligent and highly educated people have been looking at the ecological impacts of various human activities. Almost all of these have concluded that our activities are sustainable, but almost all of these have in fact confused the issue by saying in effect, ‘this activity by itself is unsustainable, that is it requires further inputs from outside the system considered, however, we have confidence that ultimately it will be found that the totality of human activities will be found to be sustainable, and therefore inputs can be sourced from outside this system with confidence.’

It is only recently that people have begun to do the whole calculation, adding up the totality of human activities, and have found that this totality has in fact been unsustainable since the 1960s. (‘It is easy to cheat when you work for men, but harder to cheat when you work for Heaven.’ Chuang zi Chap 4*).

Now it would be argument that concentrating on one part of the range of human activities and not considering the whole, though understandable, is not virtuous. It is a type of the ‘I’m alright, Jack’ thinking that our individualistic society encourages and supports all the time.

To expand on my points above.

People are not virtuous because generally they have no skills: a hundred years ago most people were multi-skilled, that is, any task that was not very highly specialised could be performed by anyone. Nowadays not only do people not have these skills, but even if they do, are not allowed to practise them. For example, I might have very good teaching skills, but I couldn’t walk into classroom and begin to teach unless I had requisite qualifications (which if I did wouldn’t guarantee I was a good teacher). In the Great Depression many Australians, men and women, who were out of work and desperate just went bush, living off the land for shorter or longer periods. It’s difficult to think of so many people doing this successfully nowadays (and the occasion for this situation to recur might be nearer than people think).

If we add to this the fact that most people have worthless jobs which perform no useful function, we can see how people are far away from having a life that is meaningful and which would encourage them to think virtuously. It is all very well for our beloved Prime Minister Julia Gillard to bang on about the dignity of work, but work only has dignity when it performs a useful function. At present in our societies very few jobs do and whole sectors of the economy are completely redundant: advertising, marketing, public relations, insurance, ‘entertainment’ &c &c.

The protestant work ethic didn’t start with Protestantism, it started with agriculture. In hunter-gatherer societies it’s obvious that if you don’t go hunting or gathering you’re not going to eat. When agriculture began it was necessary to invent a work ethic to motivate the less imaginative members of society—‘if you don’t plough this field today, you won’t eat in eight months time’. Nowadays we should recognise that necessary work to keep society going adds up to a few hours per person per day, not nearly 8 hours a day, and to keep people at work for longer than this is dishonest and deleterious to people’s wellbeing and sense of what is right, and it entrenches the existence of parasitic and useless ‘industries’, such as those listed earlier, and others.

I have already fulminated about middle class welfare last week and talking about ‘a sense of entitlement’ isn’t a dig at people who don’t have jobs and who, in my view, have a legitimate right to expect better treatment at the hands of society than they get. If society had a better distribution of necessary work, then everyone would have enough to do and no-one too much.

My last two points are one: because we are cut off from real life, we cannot have real, virtuous feelings and thoughts. Amongst Native Americans, it is said, young people as part of an initiation had to go into wild country to undergo ordeals (going without food, water or shelter). During these they would have visions of the spirit world and it would be revealed to them which animal or bird would be their spirit guardian. A parallel case is the totemic system of Aboriginal Australian traditional life. Obviously we now have no general first-hand knowledge of how animals and birds live and behave in natural habitats and we do not have the knowledge and spiritual strength that such knowledge would give us.

When you add to this our unnatural lifestyles (not getting up at dawn and going to bed at nightfall, not sleeping in the middle of the day, eating the same types of food year round, lack of access to real foods, exposure to harmful chemicals at every turn, lack of the right types of exercise), it is obvious that it is impossible for most people to understand and be guided by the turning of seasons and the life of the natural world. And this is why people can, ‘unvirtuously’, countenance the destructiveness of our environment; ‘unvirtuously’ because virtue is a dedication to and following of life in its most vital forms and our ecological destructiveness cuts against that in the most direct and unconscionable way possible.

If we fight against the environment we are fighting against ourselves, if we destroy the natural world we are destroying ourselves—we will not long survive the loss of so many fellow species at this time, in the same way that we would not be able to survive losing a large part of our bodies. Virtue is recognising this, or, more properly, living so that this issue never arises. As is easy to understand, virtue is difficult to find and difficult to live at present.

* Trans Burton Watson, Columbia UP 1968.

Next Week: Another Interlude, ‘Unnaturalness’

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Grumble 12: Lack of Leadership

In the previous post I was arguing that our society finds it difficult to make necessary changes because the holders of power (the 1%) have made sure that their media has brainwashed people into supporting their interests, not their own interests.

One of the problems we have at present that contributes to this is a lack of leadership. Now leadership of the properly virtuous kind is a thankless task, firstly because to be properly virtuous is immensely difficult, and to be properly virtuous for long stretches is impossible, and secondly because to be truly virtuous in this age is to stand against received wisdom at every turn and be battered and bloodied by the wrath of media.

Nevertheless, to my way of thinking, the effort is worth making, even if results in nothing, because what is the point of entering public life only to do the wrong things?

A true leader has to do two things. Firstly he or she has to find out what is the correct course of action for a given situation. Secondly, he or she has to work out how the existing opinions and dispositions of the people can work towards the correct solution. Additionally the true leader has to find ways to deflect wrong opinions from the public so that they do not affect public policy.

The very worst kind of leader is the kind that seeks out all the bad ideas and incorrect positions that the people hold and panders to them (I’m sure that the reader will be able to think of several recent leaders of countries who fall into this category).

Now the interesting thing is that although there are very few politicians in the world today who are prepared to go through the process of steering their people on the correct path, there are and have been many who have used all their skills and energy leading people the wrong way. For example Paul Keating, former Prime Minister of Australia, took Australia down the path of deregulation and globalisation (globalisation=accelerating ecological destruction in the name of prosperity). When he was queried about his ‘economic rationalism’ he replied ‘would you prefer economic irrationality?’ To describe living beyond our ecological means as ‘rationality’, of course, is to give the word a sense it has never had before.

The good news is, I think, that most people still have a fundamental sense of what should happen, even if this sense has been manipulated by engines of public opinion production. For example many Australians are fervent racists. However, instead of deploring this, I prefer to believe that this is partly a survival of the human (or social primate) instinct to distrust anyone who isn’t a part of your group, and also a survival of the very acute sense that social primates possess for when their own group gets too large for its resource base.

Australians’ racism has been noted and channelled by the powerful into an anti-immigrant sentiment, and more recently further refined into a hatred of asylum-seekers. This last animus is very convenient for unscrupulous politicians as they can be seen to be ‘tough on refugees’, and deflect people’s attention away from the 120,000 odd immigrants that Australia accepts each year, who, realistically, are far more likely to ‘take away the jobs of Australians’ than are the 10,000 refugees taken each year.

In this case true leadership would not hide behind racism but might say: ‘I recognise that you are concerned about the future of the country. I believe that the future of the country is best served by having a declining population; so we are planning to reduce to almost nothing the intake of immigrants, (though we will continue to take refugees). However, we have to recognise that even if we cut off immigration Australia’s birth-rate is still too high and we will need to introduce policies to encourage people to have fewer children.’

A notable feature of the sorry story of democracy in the latter half of the C20 and into the C21 is the corruption of key demographics by selective tax cuts or other government benefits (‘Middle Class Welfare’). Elements of this in Australia include federal government funding of ‘private’ education at the expense of public education, a rebate for ‘private’ health insurance at the expense of the public health system, negative gearing for would-be property speculators at the expense of people wanting to buy a house for the first time, and ‘family benefits’ which are paid too high up the income scale at the expense of the poor, whose own welfare benefits are almost non-existent. It should be a principle of good government that benefits are only paid to people who need them, if they are paid to people who don’t it simply inflates prices in, eg education, health and housing.

I did also point out earlier in one of these pieces that our woeful and out-of-date electoral system makes it too easy for politicians to choose the demographic to bribe and cobble together a majority in parliament from the bribed and less-than-virtuous citizenry in the constituencies.

By contrast to modern politicians consider Winston Churchill, taking office as PM of the UK in May 1940. Faced with the disasters of the Norwegian Campaign, followed closely by the prospect of the Fall of France, you might have expected him to introduce a tax cut or two, or announce a new welfare benefit for the middle classes. Instead of this he said: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.’ Can you imagine any politician of the present saying that, and then being followed by the majority of public opinion? Sadly I don’t think I can, and yet, the situation we are in currently is worse than that of Britain in May 1940. Granted we don’t (metaphorically) have Panzer divisions revving their engines across the English Channel, or the London Blitz, but, in contrast the situation of May 1940, the crisis we are in is literally global, and there is no possibility of evading the consequences of ecological overreach, no USA to come and save us, merely the prospect of facing these consequences.

To do this we need better, in the sense of more virtuous, and cleverer politicians than we currently have.

Next week: Grumble 13: lack of a virtuous populace

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Grumble 11: the difficulty our society has in making necessary changes

This grumble follows on from last week, where I asked why we can’t make a fairly simple change, legalising voluntary euthanasia for terminal or seriously ill people. This, I said, was a symptom of a wider problem, that we can’t seem to make necessary changes in our society very easily. This is very important because in the next few decades we’re going to need to change faster than any other society has ever done in order to escape the consequences of self-inflicted environmental changes.

The basic problem is that our whole society is geared to serving the people who got us into this mess in the first place: businessmen, bankers, advertising people &c &c. Instead of concentrating on the whole of society and what is best for the people as a whole, successive governments in all English-speaking countries and most other countries have, since at least the 1970s, simply been following policies to make the rich richer. And the problem with this is that when the rich (‘the 1%’) become richer, they simply want to get still richer and maintain their power, which is only maintained by continued ecocidal policies.

Continuing this way of running society is about as sensible as asking the iceberg for advice on how to steer the Titanic.

So, my argument would be that we need to dissociate ourselves from our ‘stakeholder society’ and embrace the good of the people as our goal. However, of course, the 1% have made sure that this is a very thankless task for any political organisation. The enemies of the people and the planet have made sure that almost the whole of media has become an echo-chamber for their propaganda, so that a majority of conservatively-inclined citizens (and a great many non-conservative ones) have become rabidly attached to any number of positions which stand in the way of necessary changes. The difficulty that the current Australian Labor government has had in enacting its so-called Carbon Tax is a case in point, and one made even more pointed when you realise that the centre of it is not a straightforward carbon tax, which might reduce emissions, but a ‘a market mechanism’ that will almost certainly become yet another scheme that the international banking canaille can rort and get rich off, and which will fail in its stated aims.

The long-continued campaign which the 1% have waged to continue their control over global society has had as its central plank convincing people that their prosperity depends on the continuation of the existing order when in fact the opposite is the case. Any acquaintance with the world will prove this thesis, but one example can suffice: in Australia at present housing is more expensive relative to average wages than it has been since the Second World War at least, and yet, in this situation, where even a modest new house can cost $600,000-$700,000, it is difficult to find one that has even basic adaptations to the Australian environment, such as correct orientation, double glazing &c. In other words the price of the house is pure inflation, and does not include actual improvements in quality.

(Of course, in a society which had a declining population, housing would be much cheaper).

As well a compliant media, another platform for the rule of the 1% is advertising. The extent to which advertising shapes our perception of the world cannot be underestimated. In the C18 there was an occupation of ‘barker’, a person paid to wander around the streets of a town shouting out advertising for businesses. Doubtless this person was as irritating as the leaflet profferrers in today’s malls, and as effective. The basic problem for merchants in the C18 was that almost everyone manufactured their own essentials, they merely required the raw materials, fabric for clothing which was made in the home and so forth. Even as late as the mid C19 most households in the English-speaking world still manufactured their own soap. It took an enormous and concerted effort of many generations on the part of manufacturers and advertisers to turn the population into modern consumers of finished products.

The main weapon of advertisers then, as now, was dishonesty. For example in the 1930s a Scottish poet, Norman Cameron, worked in an advertising agency in London. He was charged to sell a brand of cocoa and did so with an advertising campaign which told people that they were at risk of ‘night starvation’ if they didn’t have a cup of cocoa before going to bed. Night starvation, the campaign implied, it had all sorts of deleterious consequences, however, there is no such condition and it was an invention of Cameron’s. Cameron, despite, or perhaps because of, his Calvinist upbringing, thought this was hilarious. But we can view it as merely symptomatic.

The worst consequence of the dominance of advertising, and the creation of a false consumerism across society*, is that it encourages the idea that ‘market mechanisms’ are a way out of our present situation. Have said before here that no opportunity to make products more energy efficient and less resource intensive should be neglected, but this in itself is clearly not going to reduce total global consumption back to sustainable limits without a decline in population as well. We can’t have our cake and eat it, we have moved from a global society whose consumption was so little it made no long-term difference to the global environment, and now we have passed 7 billion people, so either we can all have the same standard of living as the average for people in somewhere like Chad**, or we can have a high standard of living for a lower number of people; energy efficiency and resource intensiveness of products aren’t going to make that much of a difference.

The power of the 1% can be gauged by the fact that the population argument is not widely argued, then dismissed, instead, it is hardly articulated at all.

* Of course people need to consume things in order to live, they just don’t need to consume everything they currently do.
** And if the population is to grow any more we would need the average consumption per capita of people living in Haiti.

Next week: lack of leadership

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Grumble 10: Voluntary Euthanasia

My grumble this week is about inertia in the face of public demand for legalised voluntary euthanasia.

A greater part of the opposition to voluntary euthanasia is doubtless religiously motivated. The real reason why we aren’t allowed to have voluntary euthanasia is that religious people feel that God wants people who are sick to suffer or to be in a position of dependency. Of course, like all arguments involving a personal, omniscient God this argument is a nonsense. If God created us and has foreseen all our history then she could easily not have created the desire for voluntary euthanasia in us, and the question would never have arisen.

Those of us who don’t believe that God likes to torture people, of course, would treat this argument with the contempt that it deserves, however this argument is almost never made, and instead we hear that we can’t have voluntary euthanasia because it ‘cheapens life’, or because people would be forced into it by their families when they became a burden.

As to the first argument, I can see clearly the difference between voluntary euthanasia and involuntary euthanasia, the clue is in the first word. I don’t imagine that many people can’t see this difference, and I’m quite sure that if voluntary euthanasia were legalised then the legal system would be able to discriminate if people couldn’t. The second argument bears slightly more examination, it is probably true that people would sometimes would come under pressure to undergo voluntary euthanasia from their families. However, there are already situations where the legal and medical systems adjudicate whether a person is mentally competent to take decisions and that these decisions are voluntary, and the case of voluntary euthanasia could easily be added to this area. To say that we can’t have voluntary euthanasia because it would be abused is about as sensible as saying we shouldn’t try to collect taxes because people will always try to evade them!

The case of voluntary euthanasia seems to me very like that of abortion. My solution to the abortion debate is: if you’re a woman and you oppose abortion just make sure you don’t ever have one, and if you’re a man and you oppose abortion, mind your own business. In the case of voluntary euthanasia if you find this ‘offensive’, then don’t take that decision, but stay the so-and-so away from those who want to.

As to the reasons why I think voluntary euthanasia is a reform that should be introduced as soon as possible, they are as follows.

In the first place although our Christian heritage has a great horror of suicide, other cultures have not had this, for example in Classical (ie Greek and Roman) culture to kill oneself before you were captured by your enemies, or before you were incapacitated by illness, was considered a good and honourable death. The horror of suicide evinced by some in our society is merely a silly cultural foible which stands in the way of people who are incapacitated by illness from ending their suffering.

Secondly, whilst I recognise that great advances have been made in palliative care, there are some types of pain which are completely immune to the range of pain killers that are currently available. So for some people all the palliative care in the world isn’t going to help, these people would be better to have the option of voluntary euthanasia at an earlier stage in their illness. There are also conditions that result in a very unpleasant death; in Motor Neuron Disease, for example, muscles atrophy and a typical patient will experience great difficulty breathing at a certain stage in their decline. At this point people basically suffocate (unless they have indicated they wish to be kept alive by artificial respiration). Now, 30 years ago this information would have been kept a decent medical secret, but thanks to the wider dissemination of knowledge nowadays most people suffering from the condition will be aware of what I have just outlined and will spend their last few months anticipating death by suffocation. Again in this case voluntary euthanasia could be taken earlier in the decline and save the patient weeks or months of mental suffering.

Thirdly, doctors have for centuries been practising involuntary euthanasia on terminal patients by their decisions about when to stop treating, and more recently when to withdraw life support, and so forth. It seems odd that a mentally competent person shouldn’t have the same rights over their own case.

Finally I would also like to see patients who are not terminal, but who require high levels of care to be given the right to voluntary euthanasia. There are two aspects to this, people who are not mobile, require high levels of care and whose condition is not going to improve may decide that their quality of life simply isn’t good enough and that they don’t want to go on. People in this situation may also decide that whilst they could carry on they don’t want their resources spent on high level care, they would rather they ended their lives and allowed their heirs to inherit. And so long as it could be established that this desire was a genuine one, and not prompted by other family members’ pressure, then I can’t see anything wrong with it.

Voluntary euthanasia enjoys majority support in several countries and yet it is legal to some extent in only a few, such as Switzerland and the Netherlands. It is a good example of an obvious social change with many advantages and eminently manageable disadvantages. And yet its introduction seems remote in prospect anywhere, largely due to the influence of conservative social gatekeepers, themselves largely influenced by religious views that the majority do not share. Theirs is the eternal tasks of all religionists: to make what they call their ‘standards of morality’ belong to everyone. It is also a good example of how our society is not very quick to embrace necessary change. If something as simple as voluntary euthanasia is so difficult to bring in, how are other vital changes, like the change to society of declining population, going to happen in time?

Next Week: Grumble 11, more on society not being able to move decisively

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Grumble 9: Freedom from Religion

As can be seen in these blogs I am anything but unspiritual, but I find argument for religions of the theistic sort nonsense, particularly ones which see God as participating directly in human affairs. It has been an annoyance to me for many years that ‘our Judaeo-Christian heritage’ is constantly held up in front of us as a source of everything good, whereas I would argue that our way of life owes far more to the Common Law, for example, and our Anglo-Saxon heritage of bloody-minded independence. I also believe that religious precepts are largely restatements of the Primate Code of Conduct we inherited from our remote ancestors. (Oh, and of course there is no such thing as ‘Judaeo-Christian’, there is Judaism and there is Christianity, that’s all).

What follows is just a unordered list of what I see as some of the most irritating and senseless ways in which religion impinges on our lives despite the fact that the majority of Australians are secular (either by designation, or by less than full participation in their nominal religion).

For years religious bigots have blocked attempts to make access to abortion legal, and are still making trouble in this area. You would have more respect for them if they encouraged a view of society in which men and women were totally equal and women were not disempowered vis a vis men, so that, for example, many women were not forced to have sex without contraception and risk unplanned pregnancies. You would also have more respect for the religious opponents of abortion if they promoted actions that might lower the demand for abortion, such as full sex education and easy availability of contraception.

In the more recent past religionists have also led the campaign to deny the wishes of a majority of Australians and block any legislation allowing for voluntary euthanasia.

It is also intolerable that the Australian Government supports religious schools. This is unconstitutional and should not be allowed to continue. (However, religious history (ie the study of religion in history) should be compulsory for all Australian school pupils. These classes should also teach the history of non-theistic religions (ie Buddhism and Daoism), these are usually ignored in school curricula.

What a freedom it would be for children not to have religious brainwashing! I know, of course, that very few children emerge from religious schools with a fully developed interest in participating in Catholicism, Anglicanism or whatever. However, what is more insidious is the way in which religious school entrench the idea of a ‘them and us’ society. The school which charge higher fees, of course, have as their purpose the inculcation of snobbery, so that people who have been to X Grammar School feel superior and entitled all their life (especially entitled to government payments to private schools so they can send their own children to their old schools or similar). However, even the humblest school, by its teaching of (usually) Christianity, imprints in the minds of children the idea of their being special and different from society. Instead of teaching pluralism, ie ‘Here is our society as it is, we are teaching the information and skills you need to be a useful member of it’, their school teaching can be expressed as something like, ‘God loves everyone, especially you. God wants us to come to Heaven with him, we should practise charity and caring on earth, but the really important thing is going to Heaven to be with God, and remember, you can, though we’re not sure about…..’

It is astonishing that male circumcision is still widely practised in Australia. Circumcision is a grotesque mutilation and as well as being a physical assault with lasting consequences for the man, it is an affront to women, as it detracts from full sexual functioning. It crept into secular society from some obscure source in C19 American Protestantism and has infected medical practice in the US where a majority of male children are circumcised at birth, and to a lesser extent in Australia (it is almost unknown in the UK). All infant circumcision should be banned in Australia and religious circumcision should only be allowed to men of Jewish and Muslim background once they reach 18, after a course of psychological and medical counselling.

[The fact that many men who are circumcised report no harm or problems because of it is not a valid argument for it. Of course these men aren’t going to admit that their parents did wrong in mutilating them for no good reason when they were babies.]

Religion still dominates the discourse around marriage and relationships. A way out of this would be for the state to refuse to recognise any form of marriage and the courts to deal with disputes about relationships and custody of children on common law principles. It would be then up to individuals to decide whether to have their relationships sanctioned by a religious or secular ceremony (which would have no legal standing).

Australians are also frequently betrayed by their elected representatives, who conceal their religious beliefs and the effects these are likely to have to their decision-making. As part of the electoral process candidates should have to sign a statement indicating their membership of any religious group and whether they would follow the teachings of this group rather than the wishes of their constituents in their decision-making. As well as this there should be a mechanism for examining whether elected representatives are following the teachings of a religious group in their voting record, and if this proves to be the case, for replacing them.

Prayers before the beginning of the Parliamentary year and before each session should also cease (what is to stop those parliamentarians who wish to from praying privately?)

Why does Australia still have diplomatic relations with the Vatican? The Vatican is not a state.

Government grant-giving bodies are frequently also swayed by the religious beliefs of their members. As far as possible such bodies should not have any members of religious groups on them to avoid this. (This applies particularly to bodies granting funds for scientific research, and especially bodies with oversight of ethical issues, which for some reason seem particularly overrun with priests).

The Public Service should also be areligious as it is apolitical (the APS Code of Conduct, for example, has no explicit sanction against the influence of religion in the work of the service).


[A note on terminology: I object to the terms ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’ because it implies that God exists, only atheists are without her and agnostics refuse to comment on whether they believe she exists. That’s why I hardly ever use these terms. Instead I use unmarked terms such as ‘people’ to refer to anyone, whether religious or not, and ‘religionists’ for people who belong to a religion].

Next week: Grumble 10: Voluntary Euthanasia in more detail

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Grumble 8/Interlude: Duties of Creative Types under Modernity

This isn’t a proper grumble and it isn’t a proper interlude.

In the past few posts I have been excoriating the lack of decent literature. I have also been raising issues with the promotion of what I see as bad music by Classic FM in Australia, and the ignoring of good music as a consequence of this. Both of these phenomena I have diagnosed as a lack of virtue in society, which, it is obvious, is also responsible for our so far meagre efforts as a society to dig ourselves out of the rather deep ecological hole we are currently in (and for allowed us to get into it in the first place).

It should be clear that I am recommending that everyone in society should attempt to align themselves with virtue (in the sense I am using it here) and take to necessary actions for this time and situation. Composers and writers will continue to produce their works as part of this imperative.

Composers’ duties are clear: to keep on producing effective music, despite the fact that large part of the (classical) music industry is smitten with kitsch and seems to be on a mission to propagate only this type of music. The existence of record labels interested in effective music and a small, but sympathetic, listening public is a guarantee that effective music will continue to be performed and recorded. The same argument would apply to handicrafts—although the predominance of the mass-produced is a hallmark of modernity, there exists a small market for items produced in alternative ways and with regard to the niceties of craftpersonship.

The duties of writers are harder to perform because in modern publishing the enforcement of stupidity is that much more rigorous than in other artistic spheres. Add to this the problem that whereas music and handicrafts are, to an extent, not restricted to their own time, yet the written word is necessary identified with the period that produced it because language is time-bound.

A good metaphor for the writer’s task is this: in Ecuador archaelogists have discovered artefacts made in Pre-Columbian times which seemed to be made of platinum. This was astonishing as the high temperatures required to smelt platinum could not, it was thought, have been reached in the furnaces of the time. The answer that emerged when the pieces were analysed was, if anything, even more interesting than the supposition of highly-advanced Pre-Columbian furnaces. It seems that the craftspeople of the area had employed a technique known as sintering: they took nuggets of platinum (which could then be found in stream-beds along with nuggets of copper and gold) and ground them to a fine powder. They then added a small amount of powered gold and heated this mixture in a crucible. The gold melted, even though the platinum did not, and flowed around the fine particles of platinum producing a piece of metal that looked like smelted platinum, but was in fact a mass of platinum particles cemented together with gold.

This I take it is the ideal state for quality written work: the timeless particles of wisdom held together by the slightly less precious gold of rhetoric. What we have in modernity, of course, is work that is almost always base metal, almost never contains any precious metal, and whose rhetoric is anything but golden.

As many writers have noted, words are fleeting, and the written language documents the changing nature of language over time. Although many works have been lost over time—the complete poems of Sappho, for example—many have survived, and where their language has become outdated or disused people have taken the trouble to learn it so they can read and perhaps translate these older works. Recently for example I was reading a translation of Sumerian poetry written in the Third Millennium BCE. The language itself became extinct in the Second Millennium BCE, but by studying translations made into later languages scholars from the C19 have learnt to understand Sumerian again.

We can hope that as we now have sophisticated means to store and perpetuate written records we can now look forwards to a future in which no works of valuable literature are lost and people can rely on scholars and translators to continue to keep alive the words of the past. On the other hand it may be that this steady state future will not eventuate and works of literature will just have to take their chance, as they have done previously.

Meanwhile writers have to keep on writing and serving virtue and the Way as they see fit: provoking thought, overturning outworn ideas and renewing language.

One problem for writers is that languages such as English and French, which have been written for centuries, are being held back from necessary change. For example how many times have you heard the argument: ‘we must distinguish between “uninterested” and “disinterested”, “disinterested” does not mean “without interest”, it means “without financial or other involvement”’. In any normal language this distinction would have been lost a long time ago and two new common words meaning ‘without interest’ and ‘without financial or other involvement’, respectively, would have emerged. Now all that happens is people who don’t write well don’t distinguish these two, those who do, distinguish, but there is no vernacular way of expressing this difference.

English is in fact being held back from changing across the board by its written form. English is a Germanic language which has absorbed an enormous amount of vocabulary from French and other Romance languages and Latin and Greek. In the normal course of events borrowed words would be assimilated to the pattern of the language, but, several centuries on, English still has a very mixed inventory of word forms and is sadly polysyllabic. What needs to happen is for all these polysyllables to contract into dignified one or two syllable words, as is done in the spoken language (‘rehab’ for ‘rehabilitation’, for example). After several centuries of unchanging form English is getting old and tired and words that were once noble and purposeful have been applied to too many enormities over time for them to have preserved their freshness.

If you add to this handicap the handicap of generally foolish and unlearned publishers, you can see the extent of the writers’ difficulties. Really one could carp about this topic forever, but suffice it to say that the publishing industry generally can be relied upon to find and promote stale rather than fresh writing, crass rather than wise writing, and best sellers rather than works of value. (Best sellers, of course, are forgot almost as soon as the millionth copy leaves the bookshop shelf. Remember the Da Vinci Code, anyone?)

But virtuous writers will, of course, keep on writing, and their writing will, eventually, work its purpose.

Next week: Grumble 9: Freedom from religion

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

100 Great Books

As a follow up to last week’s discussion of the dearth of literature in our age, here is a list of 100 Great Books that I wrote some time ago in response to a challenge by a friend. You will note that the nearer we come in time to the present the more my choices are historical or scientific, I think it will be obvious why. I think that the most recent works are also the most provisional, because with the other works time has winnowed them, but with these works this has not yet happened.

The list is in chronological order.

The Illiad (C8 BCE)
The Odyssey (C7 BCE)
Sappho, Poems and Fragments (C7 BCE)
Book of Songs (C5 BCE)
Herodotus, Histories (450s-440s BCE)
Aristophanes, Plays (420s-380s BCE)
Te Tao Ching (C3 BCE)
Sun Tzu, The Art of War (C3 BCE)
The Chuang Tzu (C3 BCE and later)
Biblical and Apocryphal Wisdom Literature (C3-C1 BCE)
Catullus, Poems (60s-50s BCE)
Ovid, Metamorphoses (8 CE)
Tacitus, Works (90s-110s CE)
Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars (110s-120s CE)
Apuleius, The Golden Ass (160s CE)
Li Bo, Poems (730s-760s)
Du Fu, Poems (730s-760s)
Beowulf (C8 CE)
The Tain (C8 CE)
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (C8-C11 CE)
Old English Riddles (C9-C10 CE)
Khayyam, Rubaiyyat (C11 CE)
The Troubadour Corpus (C11-C13 BCE)
Mediaeval English Lyrics (C13-C15 CE)
Njal’s Saga (c 1280)
Ap Gwilym, Poems (c 1340s)
Chaucer, Poems (1370s-1400)
Childe, Traditional Ballads (C14-C18 CE)
Malory, Mort D’Arthur (1450s-1460s)
Dunbar, Poems (1490s-1510s)
Skelton, Poems (1490s-1510s)
Eramus, In Praise of Folly (1511)
Elizabethan Song-book Verse (C16 CE)
Montaigne, Essays (1560s-80s)
Shakespeare, Plays and Poems (1590s-1610s)
Jonson, Plays and Poems (1590s-1620s)
Cervantes, Don Quixote (1590s-1610s)
Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1610s-1630s)
Ray, Flora of Cambridgeshire (1660)
Traherne, Poems and Prose (1660s)
Molière, Plays (1660s-1670s)
Aubrey, Brief Lives (1670s-1680s)
Hume, Treatise of Human Nature (1740)
White, Natural History of Selbourne (1760s)
Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1760s-1780s)
Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1774)
Boswell, Life of Johnson (1780s-1790s)
English Folk-Song (collections of) (C18-C19 CE)
Clare, Poems (1810s-1850s)
Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (1816)
Melville, Moby Dick (1851)
Darwin, On the Origin of Species (1859)
Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871)
Dickinson, Poems (1850s-1880s)
Hardy, Poems (1860s-1920s)
Rimbaud, Poems (1860s-1870s)
The Oxford English Dictionary (1880s ->)
Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest (1894)
Conrad, Nostromo (1904)
Tovey, Essays in Musical Analysis (1900s-1930s)
Thomas (Edward), Poems (1910s)
Akhmatova, Poems (1910s-1960s)
Rilke, Dunio Elegies (1910s-1920s)
Graves, Poems (1910s-1970s)
Vallejo, Poems (1910s-1930s)
Graves, Goodbye to All That (1929)
Borges, Poems (1920s-1970s)
Riding, Poems (1920s-1930s)
Hudson, Nature in Downland (1923)
Sturt, In the Wheelwright’s Shop (1923)
Heidegger, Being and Time (1927)
Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930)
Graves, I, Claudius and Claudius the God (1934-5)
Orwell, Essays and Journalism (1930s-1940s)
Borges, Fictions (1930s-1970s)
Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (1940s)
Graves, White Goddess (1948, 1962)
Pearsall, Mountains and Moorlands (1950, 1971)
Ostragorsky, The History of the Byzantine State (1952, 1969)
Graves, Nazarene Gospel Restored (1953)
Durrell, My Family and Other Animals (1956)
Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962, 1970)
Chang Chung-yuan, Creativity and Taoism (1963)
The Oxford Book of Food Plants (1969, 1997)
Brunskill, Illustrated Handbook of Vernacular Architecture (1971)
Strehlow, The Songs of Central Australia (1971)
Lewis (David), We, the Navigators (1972)
Le Brun Holmes (Sandra), Yirrawala: Painter of the Dreaming (1973)
Foucault, Discipline and Punish (1975)
Lack, Island Biology as Illustrated by the Land Birds of Jamaica (1976)
Simpson, Robert, Carl Nielsen Symphonist (2nd Ed 1979)
Stewart (Harold), The Old Walls of Kyoto (1981)
Rackham, History of the Countryside (1986)
Munro, Emerarra: Man of Merarra (1996)
Banfield, Gerald Finzi: an English Composer (1997)
Dixon and Koch, Dyirabal Song Poetry (1996)
Dixon, The Rise and Fall of Languages (1997)
Cavilli Sforza, Genes, People, Languages (2000)
Rackham, Nature of Mediterranean Europe (2001)
Mayr and Diamond, Birds of Northern Melanesia (2001)

Next Week: More on literature

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Grumble 7: Lack of good literature

I have already dealt with this theme, here and, briefly here.

Previously I have been arguing that literature was largely an excuse for modernity, buying in to its truths. There is no shortage of literature telling us to be ‘good people’ in the sense of Christian-virtuous, or secular humanist-virtuous, but very little showing us how to be virtuous in the sense I have been using it here (Grumble 6), that is using the Daoist de to move closer to the Way.

Here I’m going to talk about how people who are wanting to be authors encounter the publishing ‘industry’ (which like anything else with the suffix -industry, isn’t very good, think coal-industry, nuclear-ditto, sex-ditto, gambling-ditto, education-ditto, health-ditto &c).

A few years ago I was speaking to a local luminary, a novelist and poet, who said ‘everyone wants to write, no-one wants to read’; I thought instantly this is because the published work people are likely to encounter is not much good, including his own; the literary gatekeepers are not much good. Like the situation in many areas it’s partly a generational thing. Literary types, like this author, who are now in their 60s, grew up in an age of increasing government expenditure on the arts, benefitted from it, and now control it, being naturally reluctant to relinquish the shrinking pile of public funds (never large to begin with), to others.

The classic case of this is the Australia Council for the Arts. I don’t know what good this organisation does in other areas the other arts, but I do know that its main purpose in ‘literature’ seems to be to make sure that that the literature it patronises is of low quality. I was particularly amused to see recently that they were offering mentorship schemes to young poets, where the younger poet is guided by an older poet. The problem with this is that the older generation of poets in Australia are not very good, and it is difficult to see how younger poets’ work could be improved by their mentoring.

All this is not to indulge in the Romantic deification of the artist, writers aren’t necessarily good because they’re new or young, however, amongst younger writers and poets there may be better writers and poets than those we currently have and the advice and guidance of those older writers and poets is unlikely to lead to the younger ones improving. It is very rare to come across a truly ‘virtuous’ (in the sense used above) writer or poet and the chances that such a writer or poet could meet a similarly virtuous younger writer or poet and advise them fruitfully are just about nil in this day and age. Similarly with editors, I imagine that good editors are as rare as good poets and writers and to imagine that such editor might meet such writers and poets to produce high-quality work by their collaboration is quite fanciful. The sad truth is that writers are unlikely to meet great editors to improve their work, and great editors are unlikely to meet great writers to collaborate with.

Writers and poets of real integrity and virtue have to slog on alone, not because this is the lot of all artists and their ‘suffering’ will improve their art, but because there is precious little virtue (de) in the world at present, and if you have it, you’re likely to be alone, and this would apply to any area of life, not just writing.

You note in the above I have been assuming that valuable writing will be published mainly at public expense via subsidised publication (or in other niche publishing such as university presses). This is because mainstream publishing is quite valueless in the present (the ‘publishing’ industry is to publishing, you might say, as the ‘food industry’ is to food, or the ‘sex industry’ to sex). It is simply yet another exercise in modernistic over-production of poor quality products. Twenty years ago I read that over 100,000 books were published each year in English, this is obviously far too many and it’s difficult to think that more than a handful have any value whatsoever.

Perhaps the answer to dearth of literature lies in clever use of online collaborations, sharing of e-texts &c &c, by writers’ groups, though there is always a danger of any worthy group falling victim in our society to middle-class amateurish enthusiasm and capture by elderly and opinionated gatekeepers. Perhaps again once again citizens’ panels, as I have argued for elsewhere, are the answer. Such randomly-chosen panels could provide the necessary objective input to decisions about how to apportion public funds for publishing subsidies.

However, here as elsewhere, what we really need is a ‘virtuous’ populace. The potential audience for a volume of official verse by well-known official poet at present would be about 1000, the potential audience for a volume of poetry by good poet would be about 1000. It is important to note, however, that the two audiences would be mutually exclusive, the audience for the former volume would be official people of all kinds (the sort of people who like to listen to Bizet on Classic FM, for example), and the audience for the latter might include people of virtue.

If we had a virtuous society, then people would read and judge books by virtuous criteria, the over-production of crap books would cease, and the state would no longer need to subsidise publication of literature. However, of course, we cannot attain that state until our whole way of life reverts to sustainability in all areas. To imagine that we can have a society that is dysfunctional in most areas, but produces deathless literature, is ridiculous, as I noted before.

Next Week: 100 Great Books

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Grumble 6: Lack of Virtue

Last week I ended my tirade against ABC Classic FM by intimating that I found their championing of bad music was part of a wider pattern in our society in shutting ourselves off to real living.

Another symptom of this is the lack of virtue in our society. Virtue, in the sense I am using it here, must not be confused with the Christian concept of virtue, which is adherence to Christian moral principles. The problem with these that the way they are usually framed means that virtue in the Christian sense is often seen as simply avoidance of certain things (‘staying away from strong drink and bad women’ as they used to say in non-conformist circles), and this easily transfers into Christian-based campaigns to stop other people (most of whom are not Christian) doing things that Christians find ‘offensive’. There is also a lack of active virtues in Christianity, because, as I have argued already Christianity is focussed on the next world, not this, and so it can’t be very interested in the immediate ecological concerns that people have at the moment, and it fails to condemn, even in its own terms, the enormous immoralities going on at the moment in the world of finance and government.

However, most non-Christian societies have had a useful concept of akin to the sense of virtue that I am talking about. For example mana (Polynesia), de (China, as in the Dao De Ching), baraka (Arabic), ‘divine possession’ (Homeric Greek, Iron-age Irish, classical Hindu), and ‘medicine’ (Native North American). And of course this concept is related to the well-known phenomenon of shamanism in the traditional cultures of the many of the world’s peoples.

All these concepts are united in the idea of there being a kind of order of existence into which the person exercising virtue taps in order to complete their tasks. This is most clearly seen in the Dao De Ching, where, a section on ‘the Way’ is followed by a section on the practical application of knowledge of the Way, De or ‘Virtue’.

Virtue is the capacity to carry out extraordinary actions. Its characteristics are:
  • sure capacity
  • knowledge (but not conventional knowledge, one of the most marked features of virtue is its ability to discard conventional knowledge and embrace new, but requisite knowledge)
  • influence and suasion, so that its capacity can be seen as extraordinary, even by people who do not have virtue
Examples of extraordinary actions permitted by virtue are: feats of physical prowess, acts of heroism, or extreme persistence in some noble end, artistic creativity, handicrafts and artisanship, inspired political leadership or statecraft, and so forth.

Virtue is not a state that can be continuously inhabited, but it sheds a lustre over the life of the person who is, at times, virtuous, and those around them.

Modern life fatally erodes virtue by erecting rigid career paths and organised and well-defined bodies of knowledge which govern all aspects of life, and which do not allow unorthodox or unauthorised exercise of independent action. Modern life is also cut off from the fount of all useful knowledge, namely the daily life of the natural world, and simple, natural lives lead close to nature.

What disappears in modernity is not the occasional act of heroism or prowess, but the quieter aspects of virtue, the calm activity of creativity, the wise channels of inspired leadership, which are supplanted by authorised official arts and literature and a democratically elected rogues’ gallery, respectively.

The other difficult that virtue has in modernity is that when it does occur it often cannot be seen as virtue, because the capacity to recognise it in others is eroded by modern life—instead it is usually seen as eccentricity.

The really vital function of virtue in previous ages was to maintain personal health, mental and physical. In the antiseptic world of modernity too many people are kept artificially alive without virtue, but their existence is suboptimal at best, and is not virtuous health.

Next week: Lack of good literature