Archive for the 'Reality' Category


May 6 2015

What is there in common between an annihilation through death, an exit into nirvana through self-extinction, and an entry into a communion of saints? On first thoughts, these three visions of ultimate reality look as if they were irreconcilable with each other, but on second thoughts we can see that they each present a picture of an identical goal. They each testify that the cause of sin and suffering and sorrow is the separation of sentient beings, in their brief passage through the phenomenal world, from the timeless reality behind the phenomena, and that a reunion with this reality is the sole but sovereign cure for our ailing world’s ills. Communion, extinguishedness, and annihilation are alternative images of reintegration. They are symbols of a consummation that is ineffable because it is the antithesis of Man’s experience in his ephemeral life on Earth. They are variations on a single theme: the return from discord to harmony, or, in Sinic terms, from Yang to Yin. “To Him return ye, one and all.” “Das unbeschreibliche, Hier ist’s getan.”

Footnotes for the quotations:

Qur’an x.4.

Goethe, Faust, ll. 12108-9: “The ineffable – why, here, this is accomplished” […].

With Jane Caplan, A Study of History, new one-volume abridgement, with new material and revisions, a Foreword by Toynbee, maps and, for the first time, illustrations, Thames & Hudson, 1972

A limited period

May 5 2015

I believe that at death a human being’s soul is re-absorbed into the supra-personal spiritual presence behind the universe. I believe that personal human individuality is acquired at the price of being separated from this supra-personal reality. I feel that this price is high, and I am therefore glad that it has to be paid for a limited period only.

Surviving the Future, OUP, 1971

Temporary personalities

May 4 2015

The value of my temporary personality is, for me, two-fold. It allows me to live among other temporary personalities whom I love, and it gives me the possibility of personal achievements. But these personal achievements have value, it seems to me, only in so far as they are of some good to other people. In that case they redound “to the glory of God”. I am here using a traditional Christian phrase for a human being’s spiritual need to serve the spiritual presence behind the universe, besides serving his fellow men and women.

Surviving the Future, OUP, 1971

The last and the first

April 28 2015

“If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all and servant of all.” – “And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” – “The last shall be first, and the first last.” – “He that is least among you all, the same shall be great.” – “The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner.”


Mark ix. 35 = Matt. xxiii. 11 (cf. Mark x. 43-4 = Matt. xx. 26-7).

Matt. xxiii. 12 = Luke xiv. 11, and xviii. 14.

Matt. xx. 16, as the moral of the Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard. Compare Matt. xix. 30 = Mark x. 31, and Luke xiii. 30.

Luke ix. 48.

Matt. xxi. 42 (quoting Psalm cxviii. 22), as the moral of the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen. Cf. Mark xii. 10; Luke xx. 17; Acts iv. 11; Eph. ii. 20; 1 Peter ii. 7.

A Study of History, Vol IV, OUP, 1939

Celestial light

January 11 2015

Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.

No footnote. Milton, Paradise Lost, Book III.

A Study of History, Vol X, OUP, 1954

One hundred years ago

November 9 2014

“For one throb of the Artery,
While on that old grey stone I sat
Under the old wind-broken tree,
I knew that One is animate
Mankind inanimate phantasy.”


Yeats, A Meditation in Time of War (whole poem). November 9 1914.

Young and old

November 8 2014

“When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself and walkedst whither thou wouldest; but, when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands and another shall gird thee and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.” [Footnote: John xxi. 18.]

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

The tailor’s soul

November 4 2014

Muqaddamāt, de Slane’s translation (Paris 1863-8, Imprimerie Impériale, 3 vols.), vol ii, pp. 366-7; chapter headed: “He who possesses the capacity for practising some particular art very rarely manages to acquire another art perfectly […]”:

“A tailor, for instance, who possesses a capacity for sewing, who uses it with the greatest skill, who is really a master of his art, and who has made it part and parcel of himself, will be unable afterwards to acquire, to perfection, the art of being a cabinet-maker or a mason. If he did achieve this, that would mean that he did not yet possess, to perfection, the former capacity; it would mean that the dye of that capacity in him had not yet taken fast. Here is the explanation: it is that the capacities – being attributes of the Soul or colours which the Soul is apt to take – cannot overlay one another on the Soul and can only settle on the Soul one at a time. In order to acquire a capacity easily, and to be in a favourable condition for the reception of it, the Soul must be in the primitive state of its nature. Afterwards, when it takes the colour of this or that capacity, it departs from its primitive state; and, since the tincture which has now just been imparted to it is bound to have weakened in the Soul its aptitude for receiving another tincture, the Soul no longer has as much strength as before for acquiring a second faculty.”

A Study of History, Vol V, OUP, 1939 (footnote)

Broken lights 2

November 2 2014

The spiritual weapons, plucked from an Hellenic charnel house, with which Modern Western Man had brought to the ground the Hildebrandine Respublica Christiana had been as destructive as the material weapons with which Cromwell’s soldiers had once shattered the west window of Winchester Cathedral.

“When ye shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the Prophet, standing where it ought not (let him that readeth understand), then let them that be in Judaea flee to the mountains.” [Footnote: Mark xiii. 14; cp. Matt. xxiv. 15-16.]

Nevertheless, there is a bow in the cloud. [Footnote: Gen. ix. 12-17.] At Winchester, on the morrow of the Puritan iconoclast’s deed, it must have looked as if a mighty work of Medieval Christian art had been utterly destroyed; and in truth it had been damaged beyond all possibility of reinstatement in its inimitable medieval pattern. Yet the broken and scattered fragments were pieced together again, by the piety of a later generation, in a labour of love that – sheer disorder though it might have suggested to the eye of the original artificer – was in truth a new pattern, [footnote: See Bergson’s exposition of the relativity of the concept of disorder in […] L’Evolution Créatrice, 24th ed. (Paris 1921, Alcan), pp. 239-55 […].] fraught with unpremeditated beauty and letting in unforeseen light in the sight of eyes open to the self-revelation of a God who makes all things new. [Footnote: Rev. xxi. 5.] A boy once watched, spell-bound, while this miracle of creation conjured out of destruction was being lit up by the level radiance of a setting summer sun; and a man could catch a glimpse of the spiritual meaning of this visual allegory as he recalled it in his mind’s eye in after-life, in the light of his generation’s experience of a forty years’ wandering in the wilderness. If the same sunlight could thus shine again through the same glass in a new pattern offering a fresh vision, might not the eternal and unchanging incorporeal light of the Beatific Vision again illuminate men’s souls in a society that had been broken and remade by the sufferings of a Time of Troubles?

Winchester west window

Flickr credit: Steven Vacher

Flickr: “A composition of 64 images, combined in Photoshop. The cathedral’s huge west window is made up of fragments of medieval glass put together randomly, in a manner something like pique assiette mosaic work. The original panes were deliberately destroyed by Cromwell’s forces following the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642. Soon after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the broken glass was gathered up and used again.”

Was this done with any windows destroyed by bombs in the Second World War?

St Mary the Virgin, Isleworth

Religio lignarii (not the piece’s name): St Joseph the carpenter, St Mary the Virgin, Isleworth, north chapel east window, single light, by Thomas Derrick (my grandfather), 1954, glass and lead by Lowndes & Drury; chapel designed by HS Goodhart Rendel, built 1952-54; he had used TD in other churches

Flickr credit: Peter Moore (do not reuse)

A lost art.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Broken lights

November 2 2014

… or, Religio historici 4.

Why do people study History? Why, to put the question ad hominem, had the writer of the present work been studying History since he was a child and been spending thirty years on this book which he was now finishing? Is an historian born or made? Every historian will have his own answer to this question, because he will be speaking from his own experience. Quot homines; tot sententiae: [footnote: Terence: Phormio, Act II, scene iv, line 14 (= line 454 of the play).] each must speak for himself. The present writer’s personal answer was that an historian, like anyone else who has had the happiness of having an aim in life, has found his vocation in a call from God to “feel after Him and find Him”. [Footnote: Acts xvii. 27.]

If this personal answer finds any favour with the reader, it may help us also to answer a second question that is implicit in the one from which we have started. In beginning by asking ourselves why we study History we have begged the question: What do we mean by History? And the writer, continuing to speak simply for himself from his personal experience, would reply that he meant by History a vision – dim and partial, yet (he believed) true to reality as far as it went – of God revealing Himself in action to souls that were sincerely seeking Him. Since “no man hath seen God at any time” [footnote: John i. 18; 1 John iv. 12.] and our clearest visions are but “broken lights” of Him, [footnote: Tennyson: In Memoriam, Invocation, stanza 5, line 3.] there are as many angles of vision as there are vocations, and the historian’s angle is only one among a number of diverse angles from which souls with diverse gifts and diverse experiences obtain diverse partial visions of God seen through diverse fractions of His “inconceivably mighty works”. [Footnote: “Die unbegreiflich hohen Werke” – Goethe: Faust, l. 249 […].] Besides the historian’s angle there is the astronomer’s, the physicist’s, the mathematician’s, the poet’s, the mystic’s, the prophet’s, the priest’s, the administrator’s, the lawyer’s, the soldier’s, the sailor’s, the fisherman’s, the hunter’s, the shepherd’s, the husbandman’s, the artisan’s, the engineer’s, the physician’s – and this roll-call could be extended over many pages, since human vocations are as numerous and as various as the glimpse of God that each of them gives is narrow and feeble. Among these innumerable angles the historian’s angle is only one; but, like the others, it makes a distinctive contribution of its own to Mankind’s piecemeal vision of reality. History’s contribution is to give us a vision of God’s creative activity on the move in a frame which, in our human experience of it, displays six dimensions. The historical angle of vision shows us the physical cosmos moving centrifugally in a four-dimensional frame of Space-Time; it shows us Life on our own planet moving evolutionarily in a five-dimensional frame of Life-Time-Space; and it shows us human souls raised to a sixth dimension by the gift of the Spirit, moving, through a fateful exercise of their spiritual freedom, either towards their Creator or away from Him.

A plumber has a religion. Religion is your angle on the universe, nothing more or less.

Old posts:

Religio historici

Religio historici 2

Religio historici 3

The Chinese nurse


A Study of History, Vol X, OUP, 1954

Antitypes of cosmic dawns

September 29 2014

The joy of dawn is the emotional charge in some of the most famous scenes in Western history – the Latin Christian warriors’ shout of “Deus le volt” in response to Pope Urban II’s preaching of the First Crusade, the ministry of Saint Francis of Assisi seen through Giotto’s and through Saint Thomas of Celano’s eyes, the landfalls of the Pinta [footnote: Though the first member of Columbus’s first expedition to sight land was a sailor on board the Pinta, this vessel’s name had not won equal renown with the Santa Maria, which was the Admiral’s flagship.] and the Mayflower, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the taking of the Tennis Court Oath – and the poetry in some, at least, of these historic events has been uttered in lines that speak more eloquently than volumes. The poetry in the American Revolutionary War has been distilled by Emerson into one quatrain:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the World.

[Footnote: Emerson: Concord Hymn, stanza 1.]

The poetry in the French Revolution has been distilled by Wordsworth into two lines:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven.

[Footnote: Wordsworth: The Prelude, Book XI, ll. 108-9, incorporating The French Revolution as it appeared to Enthusiasts at its Commencement.]

It is no wonder that, in these rejoicings at a dawn, the historians should have had to let the poets be their spokesmen; for the joy awakened by the dawn of a new era of History is the Soul’s response to an epiphany that is something more than a merely temporal event. The dawns that awaken such joy as this are irruptions into Time out of Eternity. What has happened on these historic occasions likewise happens at the birth of every child:

“A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come; but, as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the World.”

[Footnote: John xvi. 21.]

In a mother’s joy the Soul hails an incarnation; and, since “alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis”, [footnote: Goethe: Faust, ll. 12104-5.] the dawns of mundane eras that have this poetry in them are antitypes of cosmic dawns in which a Divine Light breaks into This World. A radiance which shines in upon us through Botticelli’s picture, in the National Gallery in London, of the birth in the stable at Bethlehem is likewise manifest in the enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, in the descent of the Dove at the baptism in Jordan, in the transfiguration on the mountain, in the vision on the road to Damascus, and in the imprinting of the stigmata in the wilderness; and, as Milton’s voice strikes up in a Franciscan ode on the morning of Christ’s nativity, Gibbon’s voice dies away.

A Study of History, Vol X, OUP, 1954


September 24 2014

Habe nun, ach! Philosophie,
Juristerei und Medizin,
Und leider auch Theologie!
Durchaus studiert, mit heissem Bemühn.
Da steh’ ich nun, ich armer Tor!
Und bin so klug als wie zuvor …
Und sehe dass wir nichts wissen können!
Das will mir schier das Herz verbrennen.

[Footnote: Goethe: Faust, ll. 354-9 and 364-5.]

Tor means fool.

A Study of History, Vol X, OUP, 1954

Dread of birth

September 12 2014

Among people who have believed in the reality of rebirth, the dread of it has always been stronger than the dread of death.

Surviving the Future, OUP, 1971

The screen

September 9 2014

When it rises to [an] active response, the Soul finds that the effacement of the characteristic form of the disintegrating civilization has brought it face to face, not with a Chaos void of any form at all, but with a Cosmos whose circumambient form and divine architecture are now at last coming into view through the rents in the screen of lath-and-plaster work with which Man has sought to shut out an overwhelming vision of Eternity and Infinity.

A Study of History, Vol V, OUP, 1939

Shades of the prison-house

September 9 2014

When it rises to [an] active response, the Soul finds that the effacement of the characteristic form of the disintegrating civilization has brought it face to face, not with a Chaos void of any form at all, but with a Cosmos whose circumambient form and divine architecture are now at last coming into view through the rents in the screen of lath-and-plaster work with which Man has sought to shut out an overwhelming vision of Eternity and Infinity.

[Footnote: An almost naïvely self-complacent boast of juvenile proficiency in this art of self-protective spiritual jerry-building is made in the following passages from Mr. H. G. Wells’ Experiment in Autobiography, vol i (London 1934, Gollancz), pp 78-9, 96, and 144:

“I was glad to think that between the continental land masses of the World, which would have afforded an unbroken land passage for wolves from Russia and tigers from India, and this safe island on which I took my daily walks, stretched the impassable moat of the English Channel. I read, too, in another book, about the distances of the stars, and that seemed to push the All Seeing Eye very agreeably away from me. …

“I felt it must be rather empty and cheerless beyond the stars [Victorian “beyond”], but I did not let my mind dwell on that. My God, who by this time had become entirely disembodied, had been diffused through this space since the beginning of things. He was already quite abstracted from the furious old hell-and-heaven Thunder God of my childish years. His personality had faded . …

“It must be hard for intelligent people nowadays to realize all that a shabby boy of fifteen could feel as the last rack of a peevish son-crucifying Deity dissolved away into blue sky, and as the implacable social barriers, as they had seemed, set to keep him in that path unto which it had pleased God to call him, weakened down to temporary fences he could see over and presently hope to climb over or or push aside.”

The unconscious irony of these passages is heightened by the very expressiveness of the author’s literary genius. Mr. Wells here reveals himself building up defensive screens and fancying all the time that he is pulling down constricting barriers; contracting the spiritual bounds of his microcosm and imagining that he is enlarging the span of the Universe because he is pushing the physical frontiers of his macrocosm out to a mathematical infinity. To all appearance he is unaware of the truth that, as God dissolves into blue sky, the shades of the prison-house are closing around the growing boy [Wordsworth, Intimations of Immortality].]

On the other hand, Wells in his teens sees God as having been “diffused“ through the Universe “since the beginning of things”.

Wells was an atheist in most of his later life, but went though a quasi-religious phase in the 1910s.

Surely God’s disembodiment was merely an instance of the human tendency to etherialise.

A Study of History, Vol V, OUP, 1939

The best of all possible worlds

July 13 2014

All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction which thou canst not see.

[Footnote: Pope: An Essay on Man, Ep. i, ll. 289-90.]

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

Living in the sight of God

February 10 2014

The worth of a blind and paralyzed painter who has never dipped a brush in paint would be no less than if he were articulate. I do believe that there is an absolute value in the human spirit quite apart from its material effects on society. There are many such people in the world. They would probably say – if they were religious – that their emotional and spiritual life was between them and God, that living and working in the sight of God was sufficient for them; they didn’t need their fellow men. Would this impoverish the spiritual estate of man? Yes, I think it would, not only because the estate of man is poorer for not having these people being articulate, but also because they had some unique and priceless quality to give which they have, in fact, not given.

Toynbee on Toynbee, A Conversation between Arnold J Toynbee and GR Urban, New York, OUP, 1974

Eastern Christianity and sacred space

January 19 2014

Transcript of a good piece by William Dalrymple, BBC Radio 4, December 20 2013. There’s also a podcast (BBC A Point of View series).

“There used to be widespread sharing of sacred space. I have seen Syrian Christians coming to sacrifice sheep at the Muslim [Sufi] shrine of Nebi Uri. While at the nearby Christian convent of Seidnaya, I found the congregation in the church consisted not principally of Christians but instead of heavily bearded Muslim men and their shrouded wives. As the priest circled the altar with his thurible, the men prayed as if in the middle of Friday prayers at a great mosque. Their women, some dressed in full black chador, mouthed prayers from the shadows of the narthex. A few, closely watching the Christian women, went up to the icons and kissed them. They had come, so they told me, to Our Lady of Seidnaya, to ask her for children. Now that precious multi-ethnic and multi-religious patchwork is in danger of being destroyed forever.”

My links. (Is Nebi Uri near Seidnaya?) Similar patchworks have been destroyed, or seriously damaged, in the Balkans.

In India, sacred space is still sometimes shared. I have been with a young Hindu in Chennai who took me into the San Thome Basilica and said a prayer there. He said he went into mosques too. This isn’t rare in India.

Some Palestinian Christians give their children names like Omar. Old post [and see comment below]. It would be nice if European Christians did, too, but it might sound rather pretentious and Beckhamish.

I love Malaysia, but it contains some peculiarly small-minded Muslims. Last October, a court there ruled that non-Muslims would be prohibited from using the word Allah, even though Christians and Hindus had been using it for centuries to refer to their gods.

One should speak of christianities, not Christianity:

Ottoman people and Orthodox churches (old post).

Light and darkness

December 20 2013

“The issue is now quite clear. It is between light and darkness and every one must choose his side.”


The dying GK Chesterton, apropos nothing in particular, early summer 1936, reported in Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Sheed and Ward, 1944.

The pitchfork and the flute

November 23 2013

It was Human Nature that Horace had in mind when he wrote that Nature will always keep on coming back at you, even if you drive her out with a pitchfork; [footnote: “Naturam expellas furcâ, tamen usque recurret.” – Horace, Epistulae I, x, 24.] and, in the Subconscious Psyche’s repertory of “primordial images”, this Nature that is Man’s inseparable and intractable companion is expressively portrayed as a bull. This creature, far stronger physically than Man, which Man has precariously subjugated by the exercise of his Intellect and his Will, is an apt symbol for those subconscious principalities and powers in the Psyche which are so much more difficult for the Intellect and the Will to cope with than any veritably non-human living creature is.

Two antithetical alternative policies for coping with this psychic bull are commended in two significant myths. In the Mithraic myth a hero slays the monster and staggers forward with his victim’s inseparable carcase weighing on his shoulders. In the Zen Mahayanian Buddhist myth a boy-herdsman makes friends with the great ox and comes home riding on the monster’s back to the music of the rider’s flute. The boy’s deft diplomacy is a more effective way of dealing with Man’s problem than the hero’s crude resort to force; for the force which sometimes recoils upon its user, even when Non-Human Nature is its target, is a wholly inappropriate instrument for dealing with the psychic bull.

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956

The religion of Humanity

November 6 2013

In all the instances of idolization which we have examined […] so far, the idol on to which the adulation of an ephemeral self has been projected has been fashioned out of some fraction of Mankind: a camarilla or a community or a race. We have still to consider the case in which the self is idolized in the shape of Humanity at large with a capital “H”.

This idolatrous worship of Leviathan has been advocated in all seriousness by one of our modern Western philosophers, [footnote: The Hellenic philosopher-king Alexander’s gospel of “the Brotherhood of Man” (ὁμόνοια) [homonoia] appears to have been grounded on a worship, not of Humanity, but of a God who is the common father of all men] Auguste Comte (vivebat A.D. 1798-1857).

“The whole of Positive conceptions [is condensed in] [bracket in Toynbee] the one single idea of an immense and eternal Being, Humanity. … Around this real Great Being, the prime mover of each existence, individual or collective, our affections centre by as spontaneous an impulse as do our thoughts and our actions. … The growing struggle of Humanity against the sum of the necessities under which it exists offers the heart no less than the intellect a better object of contemplation than the necessarily capricious omnipotence of its theological predecessor. … Humanity definitely substitutes Herself for God, without ever forgetting his provisional services. … We adore Her not as the older god, to compliment Her, but in order to serve Her better by bettering ourselves.”

The sentences, according to footnotes, are from

The Catechism of Positive Religion, English translation, second edition (London 1883, Trübner) […].

Pages 45-6, 294 and 61 in the Trübner edition.

Another footnote:

[…] Comte frankly admits that his corporate human object of worship is not an absolute or omnipotent godhead (see Caird, E.The Social Philosophy and Religion of Comte (Glasgow 1885, MacLehose), p. 31). Comte maintained that the new science of Sociology had made it plain that this limited object of worship was a satisfactory one (Caird, op. cit., pp. 28-9). But he might not have found it easy to meet his Scottish critic’s objection that “a relative religion is not a religion at all” (Caird, op. cit., p. 165). […].


See further eundem: Système de Politique, vol. i (Paris 1851, Matties, Carilian, Goeury et Delmont), Discours Préliminaire, Conclusion Générale: “Religion de l’Humanité”; vol ii (1852), chap. 1: “Théorie Générale de la Religion, ou Théorie Positive de l’Unité Humaine”; vol iv (1854), “Conclusion Générale du Tome ivme”, p. 524, on the emancipation of the Vrai Grand Être from a fictitious God.

Returning to the main thread:

Comte dreamed of embodying his “Religion of Humanity” in the institution of a universal church; but this dream has not yet come true “in real life”. Though the atheist French philosopher did his best to animate a lay-figure by dressing it out in garments – at once venerable and familiar – which he ostentatiously plucked from the living body of the Catholic Church, he has not gained the advantage that he expected from his cold-bloodedly pedantic resort to the strategy of Archaism; and in our day, when nearly a hundred years have passed since the floruit of the Positivist Prophet, Positivism nowhere survives as a church with a corporate life and a regular order of public worship, except in England, where it has merely added one more to an already long muster-roll of insular sects, and in Brazil. It is true that a far wider, as well as more rapid, success has been achieved in our time by a younger and grimmer worship of Humanity which is part and parcel of the creed of Communism. The Communist dogmatically and fanatically rules out a belief in the existence of God which the Positivist merely discards as superfluous. Yet while there is no doubt at all about the sincerity of the Communist’s rejection of the worship of anything superhuman or divine, there is a distinct and increasing doubt about the constancy of his allegiance to an all-embracing Humanity. At any rate in the Soviet Union, where Communism is to-day the established idéologie d’état, there has been showing itself, under the Stalinian régime, a strongly pronounced tendency to withdraw allegiance from Humanity at large in order to concentrate it upon that fraction of the living generation of Mankind that is at present penned within the frontiers of the U.S.S.R. In other words, Soviet Communism seems at this moment to be changing under our eyes from a worship of Humanity into the worship of a tribal divinity of the type of Athene Polias or the Lion of Saint Mark or Kathleen na Hoolihan or Britannia. And this change suggests that Russian Communism, like British Positivism, may be destined to contract to the dimensions of a parochial sect instead of realizing the dream of its founder by growing into a universal church.

This is the transition from Lenin to Stalin. First footnote to that paragraph:

After Comte’s death his followers in England parted company with those in France over the question whether the apostles of the Positivist Church should, or should not, wait till they had convinced the intellect before they appealed to the emotions. The English Positivists were in favour of going our into the highways and hedges and seeking to convert the women and the proletarians en masse; and, in support of this policy of giving the claims of the heart a priority over those of the head, they cited the precedent of the Primitive Christian Church as well as the authority of their own Master, Comte, himself. An account of this controversy in the bosom of the Positivist Church in its Apostolic Age will be found in Caird, E.: The Social Philosophy and Religion of Comte (Glasgow 1885, MacLehose), pp. 171-6.


On the vexed question of whether Communism is to be reckoned as a religion or as a philosophy or merely as a political programme, it will be sufficient – for our present purpose – to point out that Communism at any rate answers to the definition of what constitutes a religion according to Comte. In Comte’s view a religion is a comprehensive coherent conception of the Universe which gives us an object upon which we can fix all our affections and an aim to which we can devote all our energies (Caird, op. cit., pp. 24-7; cf. p. 159). […]

Returning to the main thread:

Do these apparently unpromising prospects of both Russian Communism and British Positivism portend in their turn a setback to the worship of the Self in the shape of Humanity at large? This does not necessarily follow; for, while Comte’s dream may not yet have been translated into reality, it is nevertheless still in the air.

“II existe, par-dessus les classes et les nations, une volonté de l’espèce de se rendre maîtresse des choses et, quand un être humain s’envole en quelques heures d’un bout de la terre à l’autre, c’est toute la race humaine qui frémit d’orgueil et s’adore comme distincte parmi la création. … On peut penser parfois qu’un tel mouvement s’affirmera de plus en plus et que c’est de cette voie que s’eteindront les guerres interhumaines; on arrivera ainsi à une ‘fraternité universelle’, mais qui, loin d’être l’abolition de l’esprit de nation avec ses appétits et ses orgueils, en sera au contraire la forme suprême, la nation s’appelant l’Homme et l’ennemi s’appelant Dieu.” [Footnote: Benda, J.: La trahison des clercs (Paris 1927, Grasset), pp. 246-7.]

What do other nations call themselves?

When a worship of the Self is thus projected on to a human hive or columbarium that has room in it for every human being dead, living, and unborn – and leaves none but God out in the cold, does the Self cease to be ephemeral and the worship cease to be idolatrous? This question will be answered in the affirmative not only by Communists and Positivists but also by the more numerous adherents of a vaguer, yet perhaps just on that account more representative, school of humanist thinkers and humanitarian men of action whose outlook has become the dominant Weltanschauung of our Western Society in its Modern Age.

Is this answer the last word? The self-worshipper who has given expression to his heart’s desire by substituting an image of Humanity for the presence of a Living God in his panorama of the Universe, can no doubt proclaim

I am monarch of all I survey;
My right there is none to dispute.

But is there no bitterness in the boast which Cowper has placed in the mouth of Alexander Selkirk? Is not this monarch a castaway? And must he not pay for his undisputed dominion by living in a spiritual solitude which is an abomination of desolation?

“Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible Man … because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” [Footnote: Romans i. 22-3 and 21.]

Isn’t Toynbee a castaway, having rejected nation, which isn’t always a destructive allegiance, expecting humanity to form an allegiance to “world government”, and having, despite religious sympathies, refused in a Symmachan spirit allegiance to any religion?

Templo positivista

Capela Positivista, Avenida João Pessoa 1058, Porto Alegre, Brazil

A Study of History, Vol IV, OUP, 1939; the reference to Brazil was added in either the fourth (1948) or fifth (1951) impression

John Tavener

August 10 2013

HARDtalk interviewers are sometimes out of their depth with artists, but this, with Sarah Montague, is fascinating. Only one question (at 17:32) is dumb. It seems obvious to me that all religions are in a state of senility, to use Tavener’s word. They need to be reinvented. What is happening to Islam is not a revival, but a death agony, to use my words.

It seems equally obvious to me that this doesn’t make religion passé. Tavener refers to the Hindu concept of Kali Yuga, the fourth age, after which there will be “a mighty resurgence”. It is impossible, he says, to fall out of the transcendent.

Christopher Hitchens, an English atheist, a polemicist, not a philosopher, was loved by people in the US who couldn’t stand reactionary American evangelical religion and were unhappy with what they had seen of Islam. His last appearance, when he was dying, was with the smug Richard Dawkins at the Texas Freethought (why not Atheists’?) Convention, October 2011. Report.

Does that convention feel freer, larger, livelier than the religious or agnostic run of society? No, it feels cramped, fusty and parochial, like a UFO or spiritualist meeting. Dawkins dispels ignorance of biology, but is ignorant of religion beyond the Sunday school variety and seems especially ignorant of Indian religion. He gets irritated when he is told that he does not know what religion is and that he shows a boorish dogmatism. His welcome of Hitchens and Hitchens’s speech in reply are here. Understandably, sceptics in the Bible belt embrace them.

I haven’t listened to much John Tavener. His music (religious minimalist?) seems to be telling one what to feel at every moment. I feel led by the spiritual nose. With Pärt too. Perhaps I need to hear more of it. I was moved, like most people, by Song for Athene (1993), which was played at the end of Princess Diana’s funeral. I don’t even know The Whale (1966) or The Protecting Veil (1988).

Tavener stands apart from other English composers. People call him New Age, but he is Orthodox Christian. He shows interest in other religions, but not in a religion of mish-mash, to quote Trevor-Roper on the supposed religion of Arnold Toynbee.

There are other Tavener interviews on YouTube. He is a direct descendant, he says, of the early Tudor composer John Taverner.


July 24 2013

The miracle by which Life enters into its Kingdom […] is described by the Hellenic mythology in the parable of Pygmalion’s statue, and portrayed by our Western art in Watts’s picture of Chaos. In the Hellenic myth, a piece of marble turns to human flesh and blood in response to the prayer of a sculptor who has fallen in love with the creature of his own creative hands.

The Pygmalion story is in Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book X. The Cypriot sculptor had offered his prayer to Venus.

In Watts’s Chaos, huge figures of titans are pictured in the act of shaking themselves free from the frame of their Mother Earth. They are still clay of her clay – glowing-red forms of one earthy substance and one fiery heat with the glowing-red landscape. Some of them are drowsily stirring in a flux of volcanic flames; others, wholly liberated and fully come alive, are leaning, stupefied, upon the Earth-Mother’s breast. But we know that in a moment – the moment after this which the artist has caught in his vision – these giants will surely rise to their feet and then stride forward over land and sea. We know it because already, on the peaks of the mountains, the grim chthonic glow is turning miraculously into the ethereal flush of dawn; and because, down here in the shadow, unhurried but unhindered, there floats or dances through Space and Time a living chain of Goddesses, hand linked in hand: the endless procession of the Hours.

The Hours represent the establishment of measurable time and space.

We forget that in 1880 Watts was the most revered figure in British art, a British Michelangelo. He died in 1904. See, to return to a thread in this blog, George Clausen’s The Art of G.F. Watts RA, OM, A Lecture Delivered in the Town Hall, Manchester on 31 May 1905, Sheratt and Hughes, 1905, delivered the year after Chesterton published his book.

Watts, Chaos

GF Watts, Chaos, Tate Britain, c 1875-82

A Study of History, Vol III, OUP, 1934

The Reason I Jump

June 30 2013

Naoki Higashida was born near Tokyo in 1992. When he was thirteen, he published a book which takes humanity a step forward.

Last week a translation was serialised on BBC Radio 4, abridged by Allegra McIlroy and read by Kasper Hilton-Hille. The five fifteen-minute segments are still on iPlayer. For now, they are also on YouTube.

The translation is by David Mitchell and his wife KA Yoshida and is published in book form next week. Publisher: “Written by Naoki Higishida when he was only thirteen, this remarkable book explains the often baffling behaviour of autistic children and shows the way they think and feel – such as about the people around them, time and beauty, noise, and themselves. Naoki abundantly proves that autistic people do possess imagination, humour and empathy, but also makes clear, with great poignancy, how badly they need our compassion, patience and understanding.”


Unrelated (BBC): what is it like to live without a sense of taste or smell?

Thousands of civilisations 2

June 1 2013

I added some Toynbee to the last post.

The idea of directed panspermia has had respectable scientific attention, but was popularised by a Swiss charlatan, Erich von Däniken, in Chariots of the Gods? (Erinnerungen an die Zukunft: Ungelöste Rätsel der Vergangenheit), Germany and US, 1968.

He wrote it while manager, from 1964, of the now-demolished Hotel Rosenhügel at Davos. I stayed there for WEF Annual Meetings in the late ’90s when it was run by the much more endearingly eccentric, unforgettable, Eva Ewald and her twin brother. She looked like WH Auden and had grown up something of an anti-Nazi in East Prussia. So I dedicate the last post to her memory.


Thousands of civilisations

June 1 2013

889 planets outside the solar system (in 694 planetary systems, including 133 multiplanetary systems), orbiting various kinds of star, had been identified as of May 22 2013.

Almost all were within our home galaxy the Milky Way, but there had been a small number of possible detections of extragalactic planets.

In the Milky Way, it is thought that there is at least one, on average, orbiting each star. There are 200-400 billion stars in the galaxy. There may be many (perhaps 100,000 times) more rogue planets than stars.

Astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics reported in January 2013 that there are “at least 17 billion” Earth-sized exoplanets in the Milky Way. The nearest known exoplanet, Alpha Centauri Bb, 4.37 light years away, is Earth-sized, but outside the habitable zone of Alpha Centauri B.

The discovery of extrasolar planets has intensified interest in the search for extraterrestrial life. Data from the Habitable Exoplanets Catalog suggested that, of the 859 exoplanets which had been confirmed as of January 3 2013, nine were potentially habitable. Some could have habitable extrasolar moons.

Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution of Science and Duncan Forgan of Edinburgh University suggest that, although there is still no evidence of extraterrestrial life, there could be thousands of civilisations in our galaxy. Toynbee identified twenty-three in the history of the Earth.

When life originates, it may spread among habitable planets by natural or directed panspermia.

Besides exoplanets, exocomets, comets beyond our solar system, have been detected and may be common in the Milky Way.

Wikipedia sources.

If the biosphere were to cease to be any longer a possible habitat for life, mankind, so far as we know, would suffer the fate of extinction that would then overtake every other form of life. Moreover, the nearest potential biosphere to ours (if any other, besides ours, is to be found anywhere in the physical cosmos) may be hundreds of millions of light-years distant from our planet. In our generation, a few human beings have been landed on the surface of our planet’s moon and, after a brief stay there, they have been brought back again to Earth still alive in almost every case. [That should be every case! Bad OUP editing.] This has been a magnificent feat of science applied to technology, but it has been a still more notable feat of sociality, considering that, so far, human beings have been far less successful in managing their relations with each other than they have been in mastering the non-human part of Nature. This feat has taught us some lessons which are of practical importance for estimating our prospects and choosing our policy on Earth.

The Moon is much closer to the Earth than is any other star; it is our planet’s satellite. Yet to land a few men on the Moon for a few hours has required the precisely co-ordinated and enthusiastically co-operative work of several hundreds of thousands of human beings. It has also required a vast expenditure of material resources and a considerable draft on the courage and ability that are mankind’s rarest and most precious assets. Even if the Moon were to prove to be as rich in resources for human life as the Americas, the exploitation of these resources would not be remunerative economically. A permanent colonization of the Moon by earthlings would be impracticable. Human bodies have a physical structure that enables them to withstand, without feeling the strain, the particular gravitational pull of the Earth’s mass and the particular pressure of the Earth’s envelope of air. They need food in the form of other organic substances, either vegetable or animal. All these features and necessities of human life were present in the Americas for those Europeans who reached the Americas by crossing the Atlantic in the tenth century of the Christian Era from Scandinavia and in the fifteenth century from Spain. Their meeting with other human beings who had anticipated the Europeans in reaching and occupying the Americas was evidence that these other parts of the Earth’s dry land were habitable.

The Moon is not habitable for any form of life. The only lunar matter that could be a resource for human beings would be inanimate matter that has never been even temporarily organic. In order to be made useful, this lunar matter would have to be transported from the Moon to the Earth by human beings camping and working on the Moon under the handicap of extremely trying conditions. This would not pay, as it did pay to convey tobacco from America to Europe and to cultivate in Europe and in Asia other plants – for instance maize and potatoes – that had been domesticated in America by the Europeans’ predecessors who had reached America from the opposite side.

Though neither the Moon nor the Earth’s sister planets, which are far more remote from the Earth than the Moon is, are habitable for inhabitants of our biosphere, it is conceivable that some other sun than ours, perhaps a sun in some other galaxy, might have a planet that would be habitable for us; but, even if we could locate another habitable planet, it would hardly be feasible for travellers from our biosphere to reach it. Suppose we were to discover how to steer the course without being attracted, en route, into one of the burning fiery furnaces of the innumerable suns that are on the move through space; the journey might take a hundred years. [That assumes a travelling speed of about a fifth of the speed of light to Alpha Centauri Bb.] We should therefore have to devise a spaceship on board of which the passengers could beget children who would be able to live on board and beget children and grandchildren there in their turn, before the conveyance could land and disembark the third or fourth generation. And, even if this arriving and landing generation could count on finding breathable air and drinkable water and edible food and tolerable air pressure and gravitational pull in this hypothetical replica of our biosphere, the conveyance (a modernized Noah’s Ark) in which they had made the voyage from one habitable biosphere to another would have had to be stocked with rations of air and food and drink that would keep successive generations on board alive for a century. It seems most unlikely that this fabulous voyage will ever really be made.

Thus our present knowledge and experience point to the conclusion that the habitat of the denizens of the biosphere on the face of the planet Earth is going to continue to be confined to this capsule within which life, in the form known to us, has made its appearance. Though it is possible that other biospheres, habitable for denizens of our biosphere, may exist, it is so improbable that we could ever reach and colonize any of them that the possibility cannot reasonably be taken into account. This fantasy is, in fact, Utopian.

If we do conclude that our present biosphere, which has been our only habitat so far, is also the only physical habitat that we are ever likely to have, this conclusion will admonish us to concentrate our thoughts and efforts on this biosphere: to survey its history, to forecast its prospects, and to do everything that human action can do to ensure that this – which, for us, is the – biosphere shall remain habitable until it is made uninhabitable eventually by cosmic forces beyond human control.

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous

Ptolemy to exoplanets

May 31 2013

Circa AD 150 – Ptolemy, Almagest

1543 – CopernicusDe revolutionibus orbium cœlestium

1992 – Aleksander Wolszczan (another Pole) and Dale Frail, first definitive detection of exoplanets, two orbiting pulsar PSR B1257+12, 1,000 light years away, at Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico

The high price

April 2 2013

I believe that at death a human being’s soul is re-absorbed into the supra-personal spiritual presence behind the universe. [This is based on a conversation. He might have written “behind the phenomena”.] I believe that personal human individuality is acquired at the price of being separated from this supra-personal reality. I feel that this price is high, and I am therefore glad that it has to be paid for a limited period only.

Surviving the Future, OUP, 1971

The song of creation

February 23 2013

In Lebensfluten, im Tatensturm
Wall’ ich auf und ab,
Webe hin und her!
Geburt und Grab
Bin ewiges Meer,
Ein wechselnd Weben,
Ein glühend Leben,
So schaff’ ich am sausenden Webstuhl der Zeit
Und wirke der Gottheit lebendiges Kleid.

[Footnote: Goethe: Faust, ll. 501-9 […].]

In the tides of Life, in Action’s storm,
A fluctuant wave,
A shuttle free,
Birth and the Grave,
An eternal sea,
A weaving, flowing
Life, all-glowing,
Thus at Time’s humming loom ’tis my hand prepares
The garment of Life which the Deity wears!

Translation by Bayard Taylor. He preserves the number of syllables in each line. Is it possible to like (or perform) Goethe in English?

The work of the Spirit of the Earth, as he weaves and draws his threads on the Loom of Time, is the temporal history of Man as this manifests itself in the geneses and growths and breakdowns and disintegrations of human societies; and in all this welter of life and this tempest of action we can hear the beat of an elemental rhythm whose variations we have learnt to know as Challenge-and-Response and Withdrawal-and-Return and Rout-and-Rally and Apparentation-and-Affiliation and Schism-and-Palingenesia. This elemental rhythm is the alternating beat of Yin and Yang; and in listening to it we have recognized that, though strophe may be answered by antistrophe, victory by defeat, birth by death, creation by destruction, the movement that this rhythm beats out is neither the fluctuation of an indecisive battle nor the cycle of a treadmill. The perpetual turning of a wheel is not a vain repetition if, at each revolution, it is carrying a vehicle that much nearer to its goal; and, if “palingenesia” signifies the birth of something new, and not just the rebirth of something that has lived and died any number of times already, then the Wheel of Existence is not just a devilish device for inflicting an everlasting torment on a damned Ixion. On this showing, the music that the rhythm of Yin and Yang beats out is the song of creation; and we shall not be misled into fancying ourselves mistaken because, as we give ear, we can catch the note of creation alternating with the note of destruction. So far from convicting the song of being a diabolic counterfeit, this doubleness of note is a warrant of authenticity. If we listen well we shall perceive that, when the two notes collide, they produce not a discord but a harmony. Creation would not be creative if it did not swallow up in itself all things in Heaven and Earth, including its own antithesis.

Steve Jobs, 2005 Stanford University commencement:

“Death is very likely the single best invention of life.”

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939

William Dunbar

January 28 2013

I that in heill was and gladnèss
Am trublit now with great sickness
And feeblit with infirmity:
Timor Mortis conturbat me …

That strong unmerciful tyrand
Takis, on the motheris breast sowkand,
The babe full of benignitie:
Timor Mortis conturbat me …

He spairis no lord for his piscence,
Na clerk for his intelligence;
His awful straik may no man flee:
Timor Mortis conturbat me …

He has done petuously devour
The noble Chaucer, of makaris flour,
The Monk of Bury, and Gower, all three:
Timor Mortis conturbat me …

He has tane Rowll of Aberdene,
And gentill Rowll of Corstophine;
Two better fallowis did no man see:
Timor Mortis conturbat me …

Sen he has all my brothers tane,
He will nocht let me live alane;
Of force I mon his next prey be:
Timor Mortis conturbat me …

From William Dunbar’s Lament for the Makaris, written in Scots c 1505.

Dunbar was associated with the court of James IV, who was killed at Flodden Field in 1513. Makar meant maker, ie poet or bard. The phrase in the refrain comes from a responsory of the Office of the Dead in the third Nocturn of Matins and was often used in late medieval Scottish and English poetry. The two Rowlls are unidentified. There are twenty-five verses, but only these are quoted.

A Study of History, Vol IV, OUP, 1939


January 11 2013

Men loved unkindness then, but lightless in the quarry
I slept and saw not; tears fell down, I did not mourn;
Sweat ran and blood sprang out and I was never sorry:
Then it was well with me, in days ere I was born.

[Footnote: Housman, A. E.: A Shropshire Lad, xlviii.]

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939

The Sky at Night

December 9 2012

Patrick Moore may have had unappealing political and social views, but his programmes and books and enthusiasm made an impression on nearly every child in my generation in the UK. (Or do I mean boy?) He was eccentric, like Pluto. He was never Astronomer Royal. Was he trying to look like GK Chesterton? Sky at Night music from Sibelius’s Pelléas et Mélisande.


November 12 2012

The change from Life to Death is […] the supreme peripeteia. “All men are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death that mortals realise the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.” [Footnote: Melville, Herman: Moby Dick, chap. lx.] This total change that deprives Life of Life itself must be of the same magnitude for every creature.

The poor beetle that we tread upon
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies;

[footnote: Shakespeare: Measure for Measure, Act. III, scene i, ll. 79-81.] […].

A Study of History, Vol X, OUP, 1954

Ugolino and Elias

November 4 2012

When his first adherent, Bernard of Quintavalle, asked Francis to allow him to join Francis in leading a life of poverty, Francis rejoiced, because he believed that the Christlike way was the right way for human beings to live. But Francis had also espoused humility. He had no thought of criticizing the Papacy, even implicitly, or of starting an anti-Papal movement or of becoming the Minister General of a new religious order. To follow Christ was the aim to which Francis was totally dedicated. However, this might not have saved Francis from sharing the Cathars’ and the Waldensians’ fate, for his espousal of poverty was a practical criticism of the Papacy which was the more damaging for having been inadvertent. Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) and his great-nephew and second successor Cardinal Ugolino (Pope Gregory IX, 1227-41) [and the intervening Pope Honorius III] recognized that Francis’s single-minded imitation of Christ had put the Curia in a quandary. They were painfully aware of the swelling chorus of satirical voices that was assailing the Curia from all quarters of Christendom. They decided to enlist St. Francis instead of blasting him. This decision did credit to their intelligence, though the motive was not disinterested.

St. Francis himself would have been saved acute spiritual agony if he had been martyred at his first encounter with the Curia, instead of living to receive the stigmata and also to see the Franciscan Order take a shape, in Cardinal Ugolino’s and Brother Elias’s hands, that was no longer in tune with Francis’s own conception of the Christlike way of life. However, Francis espoused suffering, both spiritual and physical, as well as poverty and humility, and, if Ugolino and Elias had not cut him to the heart by their worldly-wise interventions, the Franciscan spirit might not have outlived St. Francis himself, whereas it is still alive today, nearly three-quarters of a millennium after the date of his death, constricted, but not stultified, by its institutional container, the Order of Friars Minor.

Institutionalization is the price of durability. This is one of the blemishes of the social facet of human life, but the institutionalization of something that has great spiritual value for posterity is a lesser evil than the total loss of the volatile spiritual treasure. St. Francis did not recognize this hard truth. Ugolino and Elias understood it and took the responsibility for acting in the light of it. They salvaged an alloy of Francis’s treasure at the price of bringing odium on themselves.

St. Francis’s Castilian contemporary St. Dominic (Domingo de Guzman, 1170-1221), the founder of the Order of Friars Preachers, had an easier passage. He made the same commitment to poverty; the two saints were both combating greed. But St. Dominic’s spirit could be reconciled to institutionalization more readily than St. Francis’s. The rising cities of Western Christendom were enriched spiritually by Franciscan as well as by Dominican houses, libraries, and lecture-rooms, though, for St. Francis, masonry and books were anathema, because he saw in them perilous impediments to the leading of a Christian life. Brother Elias never forfeited St. Francis’s confidence; yet assuredly St. Francis would have been excruciated if he could have foreseen Brother Elias’s virtuosity as a fund-raiser for building a church at Assisi in St. Francis’s honour. The beauty of the architecture and of Giotto’s paintings would not have reconciled St. Francis to this outrage against the poverty and the humility with which he had been in love.

Giotto di Bondone, Confirmation of the Rule of St Francis by Innocent III, Basilica of St Francis, Assisi

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous

The Kingdom

October 12 2012

O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!

The source is shown only as Francis Thompson. The poem by the Catholic vagrant and drug addict, The Kingdom of God, in which the lines appear, contains the phrase “many-splendoured thing”.

His most famous poem is The Hound of Heaven. He also wrote a poem about cricket.

Æt 19

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939

Why should not old men be mad?

September 30 2012

“Why should not old men be mad?
Some have known a likely lad
That had a sound fly-fisher’s wrist
Turn to a drunken journalist;
A girl that knew all Dante once
Live to bear children to a dunce;
A Helen of social welfare dream,
Climb on a wagonette to scream.
Some think it a matter of course that chance
Should starve good men and bad advance,
That if their neighbours figured plain,
As though upon a lighted screen,
No single story would they find
Of an unbroken happy mind,
A finish worthy of the start.
Young men know nothing of this sort,
Observant old men know it well;
And when they know what old books tell
And that no better can be had,
Know why an old man should be mad.”



Charon and Hermes

September 29 2012

Charon: “I will tell you, Hermes, what Mankind and human life remind me of. You must, before now, have watched the bubbles rising in the water under the play of a fountain – the froth, I mean, that makes the foam. Well, some of those bubbles are tiny, and these burst at once and vanish, while there are others that last longer and attract their neighbours till they swell to a portentous bulk – only to burst without fail sooner or later in their turn, as every bubble must. Such is human life. The creatures are all inflated – some to a greater and others to a lesser degree – and there are some whose inflation lasts as long as the twinkling of an eye, while others cease to be at the moment of coming into being; but all of them have to burst sooner or later.”

Hermes: “Your simile is as apt as Homer’s simile of the leaves.”

Charon: “Yet, ephemeral though these human beings are, you see, Hermes, how they exert themselves and compete with one another in their struggles for office and honours and possessions – though one day they will have to leave all that behind and come to our place with nothing but one copper in their pockets. Now what do you think? Here we are on an exceeding high mountain. Shan’t I shout to them at the top of my voice and warn them to abstain from useless exertions and to live their lives with Death constantly in mind? I will say to them: ‘You silly fellows, why are you so keen on all that? You had better stop putting yourselves through it. You are not going to live for ever. None of these earthly prizes is everlasting; and nobody, at death, can carry away any of them with him. One day, as sure as fate, the owner will be gone – as naked as he came – and his house and estate and money will pass for ever after to a constant succession of alien possessors.’ Supposing I were to shout this at them, or something like it, and could make myself heard, don’t you think they might stand to benefit enormously and might also become vastly more sensible than they now appear to be?”

Hermes: “I am afraid, Charon, you are suffering under an amiable delusion. I don’t think you realize the condition to which they have been reduced by their ignorance and self-deception. Even with a gimlet you couldn’t now open their ears – they have plugged them and plugged them with wax (as Odysseus treated his companions for fear that they might hear the Sirens singing). They wouldn’t be able to hear you, even if you screamed till you burst. In the world of men Ignorance produces the same effect as Lethe in your Hades. All the same, there are a few of them who have refused to put the wax into their ears; and these few do see life steadily, know it for what it is, and incline towards the truth.”

Charon: “Then shan’t we shout to them, anyway?”

Hermes: “Well, even that would be superfluous. You would only be telling them what they knew already. You can see how pointedly they have drawn away from the rest and how disdainfully they are laughing at what is going on. Obviously they are finding no satisfaction at all in all that, and are planning to make a ‘get-away’ from Life and to seek asylum with you. You know they are not exactly loved by their fellow creatures for showing up their follies.”

[…] [Footnote: Lucian: Charon, 21.]

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939

Modern straits

September 8 2012

In [the modern] post-Christian Odyssey there was more than one passage to be negotiated and more than one kind of ordeal to be faced.

The two spiritual dilemmas, the “straits” Toynbee told us we needed to negotiate in 1952 – he imagines Greek sailors negotiating the straits of Messina and of Gibraltar – can be restated in modern terms, with some realignment of metaphors.

Following in Odysseus’ wake, these Phocaean seafarers would have first to negotiate the straits between Sicily and Italy without approaching either an Italian shore where they would be pounced upon by the monster Scylla or a Sicilian shore where they would be engulfed by the whirlpool Charybdis […].

[But] if they were to reach the boundless waters of a globe-encompassing Ocean, these voyagers must put to sea again [and] make for the Straits of Gibraltar between the Pillars of Hercules, where this pair of menacing mountains, towering above the African and the European shore and threatening, from either flank, to fall upon any ship audacious enough to run the gauntlet without their leave […].

In the interpretation of this parable in terms of the Western Civilization’s prospects, the finding of a passage between Scylla and Charybdis signified the negotiation of the Western World’s immediate problem of finding some way of avoiding self-destruction without falling into self-stultification. Mid-way through the twentieth century of the Christian Era the Western Society was in imminent danger of destroying itself by failing to stop making War now that a demonic drive had been put into War by the progress of a Western physical science; and it was in hardly less imminent danger of stultifying itself by seeking asylum from War and Class-Conflict in Circe’s pig-sty. […]

“Avoiding self-destruction without falling into self-stultification” is the nuclear and ecological strait.

And how can people become richer without losing some of their humanity? Scylla threatens to pounce on you for romanticising poverty. Charybdis wants to suck you into a global Dubai.

In this spiritual ordeal the forbidding Pillars of Hercules were a pair of rival authoritarian and dogmatic faiths, both of which alike were offering to the storm-tossed voyager an everlasting Nirvāna in their stony bosoms and were threatening him with the eternal punishment that had been inflicted on the Flying Dutchman if he were to be so impious and so fool-hardy as to reject their offer and sail on past them out into the blue. From the one shore this ultimatum was being delivered to Western souls by a Christian heresy in which the stone of Communism had been substituted for the bread [footnote: Matt. vii. 9; Luke xi. 11.] of the Gospel, and from the other shore by a Christian Orthodoxy in which the body of Christ, [footnote: 1 Cor. xii. 27; Eph. iv. 12.] who had “come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly”, [footnote: John x. 10.] had been petrified into a pillar of salt [footnote: Gen. xix. 26.] by a backward-looking ecclesiastical tradition. To dare the passage between these two frowning Pillars of Hercules was a venture that might daunt even a mariner whose moral had been fortified by a previous success in making his way safely between Scylla and Charybdis.

The new Pillars of Hercules are, on one side, convinced post-communist atheists and, on the other, religious men of “passionate intensity”.

When I was in my twenties, most of my contemporaries professed “agnosticism” when asked about religion. They lacked “all conviction”. Today, their nominally if that Christian equivalents in the UK – partly because of the recent example of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, partly because encouraged by Dawkinses and Goldacres – are confident enough to profess outright atheism.

Plus ultra!

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954


July 3 2012

Flashes of religious light […].

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

Remembering Mr Mahler

June 18 2012

The interviews with New York musicians recorded by William Malloch in the ’60s which appeared on the fourth LP side of Bernstein’s CBS recording of Mahler 6.

Gustav Mahler was music director of the Metropolitan Opera 1908-10 and principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic 1909-11. He rode the subway. The interviews are mainly with Philharmonic players.

In the third clip we hear Anna (not Alma), the second of his two children. The older daughter, Maria, died in 1907 of scarlet fever. Anna caught it with her and survived. Mahler had composed Kindertotenlieder, setting Rückert, between 1901 and 1904. Many of his thirteen siblings had died in childhood. Rückert had written 428 poems (which seems rather a lot) under this title in response to the deaths of two of his children, a daughter and a son, also from scarlet fever.

Mahler’s New York debut: January 1 1908 with a cut version of Tristan und Isolde. Last Met appearance: March 5 1910, The Queen of Spades. In Austria: summers of 1908, 1909 and 1910. Last New York appearance: Carnegie Hall, February 21 1911.


Bruno Walter, who knew Mahler from their Hamburg days, in a 1950 US radio broadcast (YouTube):

“I recognised in him, young as I was, not only a musical genius, but an ethical power, an educator, a leader of men. […] His deepest love and his vision went beyond the earthly sphere. He had the soul of a mystic, and I believe his work will last not only because of its tremendous musical importance, but also because it contains a message from those higher spheres for which his soul longed [and] of which a vision was given to him.”

Old post.

St Anne

May 24 2012

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

[Footnote: Watts, Isaac […].]

We are in Glenn Gould territory at the beginning of the clip below. I don’t think Gould played William Croft, and I don’t know who is playing here, but Croft is a seriously underrated composer. His St Anne is one of the great tunes.

Isaac Watts’s text, O God, Our Help in Ages Past, paraphrasing Psalm 90, was later set to it. The result is a great hymn. It could only be Protestant. It is often sung on Remembrance Day.

Croft was organist at St Anne’s Church in Soho. Watts and Croft were of the same generation, born in the 1670s. Handel used St Anne in one of his own anthems. Bach may have borrowed it in a fugue.

St Anne, in Christian and Islamic tradition, was the mother of the Virgin Mary.

After the piano, Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Then a further recording by an unnamed organist.

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

The Grand Inquisitor and Christ

May 5 2012

[The] epiphany of the ruler of a universal state as the one shepherd whose oecumenical monarchy makes one fold for all Mankind [footnote: John x. 16.] appeals to one of the Human Soul’s deepest longings, as, in Dostoyevski’s fable, the Grand Inquisitor reminds a subversive Christ.

In The Grand Inquisitor, a parable in The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan imagines Christ returning to Earth and meeting a leader of the Spanish Inquisition in Seville.

“Thou mightest have taken … the sword of Caesar. Why didst Thou reject that last gift? Hadst Thou accepted that last counsel of the mighty spirit, Thou wouldst have accomplished all that Man seeks on Earth – that is, someone to worship, someone to keep his conscience, and some means of uniting all in one unanimous and harmonious ant-heap; for the craving for universal unity is the third and last anguish of men. Mankind as a whole has always striven to organise a universal state. There have been many great nations with great histories, but the more highly they were developed the more unhappy they were, for they felt more acutely than other people the craving for world-wide union. The great conquerors – Timurs and Chingis Khans – whirled like hurricanes over the face of the Earth, striving to subdue its people, and they too were but the unconscious expression of the same craving for universal unity. Hadst Thou taken the World and Caesar’s purple, Thou wouldst have founded the universal state and have given universal peace. For who can rule men if not he who holds their conscience and their bread in his hands?” [Footnote: Dostoyevski, F.: The Brothers Karamazov, Part II, Book V, chap. 5: “The Grand Inquisitor”.]

The translator is not stated, but is Constance Garnett, as one would expect.

Dostoyevsky had encountered the figure of the Grand Inquisitor in Schiller’s Don Carlos.

The Spanish Inquisition lasted from 1480 to 1834. List of Grand Inquisitors.

Postscript: El Greco and Modernism, Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf runs until August 12.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954