Why is religion absent from good conversation.

Why religion so absent from good conversation? When I speak with my friends I avoid the subject, good manners deeming as embarrassing subject not fit for polite conversation. Similarly religion is missing from serious public and political debate. Why when it informed the thinking of so many political and intellectual greats in the past?One reason is that peculiar kind of unthinking religion has crowded out other types of religious thought from the public and political debate. This religion is subordinate to a political ideology, that of the political conservatives. They use this sacred something from the past to counter all that they hate about modernity. Women controlling their bodies through contraception or abortion, is one such hated modernity

Religious conservatives may claim that I am wrong in calling there’s an unthinking religion or more unkindly a religion of ignorance. Having an interest in Hellenic philosophy and the Neo-Platonists, I have found that an American Catholic publisher that is a good source of texts on this subject. When scanning reviews of other books in the catalogue, I noticed one book by an author opposed to abortion. He claimed that abortion had long been regarded as wrong by Western thinkers, even those from the classical period. He cited Musonius Rufus, the Roman stoic thinker as such opponent of abortion. This was the same Musonius Rufus who in his role as magistrate had condemned Justin Martyr to death and ordered the torture and execution of his Christian followers. This writer’s failure to adequately check on his source is illustrative of the ignorance, so often demonstrated by the political religious right.

Obviously the barbaric actions of Muslims extremists as demonstrated in the Bataclan attacks discredit religion thinking from a place in the mainstream of political and public discourse. However there is another Islam that is very different, an Islam typified by Sufism. An Islam tolerant of others and one that emphasises concern for the community. A religion that has been subject to more violent attacks by Muslim extremists than any Western community.

What I want is good religious thinking and practice to replace bad religion so often used in the public discourse. A religion that admits of the mystery of life, best explained in the words of Heraclitus, ‘nature hides in plain sight’. Life is not knowable or at least in its entirety, there remains the part that is unknowable, and it is this unknowable that religion addresses. Religion is a paradox, it admits to the unknowable and yet claims to this unknowable makes itself known to man. William Hague is an unlikely figure to quote in support of my contention, he spoke of a feeling of oneness with nature, being part of something greater, when walking in remote parts of Yorkshire. A Christianity described as nonsense by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Yet for a deist it speaks of the mystery that is at the heart of religion.

What William Hague was expressing was the belief that appearance is not all, there is a something beyond immediate experience, that gives it its unity and coherence. When Carlo Rovelli suggests that there is a something, probably information that gives reality its structure, I feel that I am not so wrong after all. Heraclitus wrote that nature was hiding in plain sight. A statement of the religious experience that cannot I believe be bettered. This sentiment Pierre Hadot states has been the inspiration for thinkers since the classical period, German Romantic writers such as Goethe demonstrate this. For Goethe it was metamorphous that was the engine of natural evolution and change. He searched for the originals from which all things developed through the process of metamorphous. Later Romantics such a Schelling saw will as mysterious something that drove human development. He used the meanderings of the Rhine as a metaphor for the German will. The inevitable something that although it took many unexpected turns was the driving force of German history.

For me this something is an unknowable, I find the medieval text, ‘The Cloud of Unknowing,’ an expression of the mysticism which I share. Can I quote Joe a former teaching colleague and former Jesuit priest, ‘God is not some father figure up there, beyond the clouds‘.

There is a rational mysticism which I believe was demonstrated in the lives of the great medieval scholastics such as Duns Scotus. He writes that God is infinite and as such finite beings such as ourselves cannot have the means to know God. Although God is unknowable as such he does make himself known to humanity, though a variety of religious experiences. The rituals of the religious service are one such way. For a Catholic Christ’s presence is present in the ritual of Holy Communion. Although Duns Scotus practised those contemplative mystical practices of a cleric, yet he was also a supreme logician. Religious mysticism was the foundation on which his thought rested, but that mysticism did not cloud his thinking or make him less of a rational thinker. Descartes was one more secular minded philosopher that mined the writings off Duns Scotus for his use in his own work. Mystics can be as hard nosed and practical as others of a more secular persuasion. It is unfortunate that for many religious mysticism is associated with orange robed Hari Krishna monk.

Mysticism is for me accepting the mystery of life, a mystery that is not amenable to the reason or rational thought. Yet a something that informs my life. Not knowing means humility, accepting limits on knowing. Unlike the realist who knows, as everything that is, is out there to be seen and observed. Realism of this kind dominates the political debate. There is an arrogance in the speaking and conduct of those who know, if there are only a limited number of facts at your disposal, it is easy to know. Particularly if these known truths come in simple easy to understand ideological boxes, such as Neo-liberalism. The Neo-liberal confidence belief that they and only they know the truth means that it that they adopt a hectoring, bullying and often irritated tone towards those who don’t know. One merely has to hear a ‘knowledgable’ British politician speak to recognise this truth.

Not knowing means being respectful to others or other ideologies or beliefs. What it means is a profession of tolerance towards others. Perhaps this example illustrates my viewpoint. The Knights Templar were the successful shock troops of the Crusader army that invaded Palestine. Residence in Palestine bought them into contact with the ‘unknown heathen’. Evidence suggests that they adopted some of the beliefs and practices of the more educated and sophisticated Muslims. One was the requirement for initiates to the order to tread on and deface an image of Jesus Christ. This was not as the inquisition thought an act of blasphemy, but the Sufi religious practice of defiling images of God. In doing so the initiate learnt that the worship of God was not to be confused with the worship of idols. Ignorance of the Inquisitors prevented them from understanding that these Templars were acting according to the Biblical injunction that Christians should not worship any graven idols.* A very old story, but one that illustrates my point, that those who know that they know all to often act in ignorance.

Being religious to me means accepting the mystery and wonder that is life. What I profess is a Socratic ignorance. I don’t know the answers, as that would be thinking that I had the powers and knowledge of a being far superior to me. However what I do know is several possible and probable answers. In fact my knowledge of particular topics and subjects is often superior to those who ‘know’.

Practising mysticism is a uniquely individual experience. It’s a unique and exciting voyage of exploration, one in which there are no guides other than yourself. Mysticism is a uniquely individual act, is an act which is beyond the control of the church authorities. As it is a questioning of everything that is known, it is regarded as suspicion by these very authorities. Past mystics such as Theresa of Avilia are acceptable to the church as their works are part of the church’s canon and as such present no challenge to its authority. Contemporary mystics challenge the churches’ authority. The mysticism of the questioning individual is the religion for those that believe the best life is a pilgrimage, that is a constant but unfilled search for the truth. As J.S.Mill stated better a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig.

As J.S.Mill wrote better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig.

*in 1307 the French king Phillip (a monarch desperately short of money) wanted the Knights Templars suppressed so he could acquire their wealth. The Inquisition provided a justification for the suppression of this order, by forcing these men under torture to confess to blasphemous acts.

How not to manage a national economy – Britain 2021

Economists have always bemoaned about the lack of economic understanding demonstrated in the actions of our political leaders. However in Britain at least we have come to a unique time in our political history, a time when our leaders display an almost complete ignorance of the art of economic management.

The golden rule for the management of the economy should be don’t play fast and loose with the economy, because if you do it will come back and bite you. This our government did when the prioritised ideology and political advantage in negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU. They negotiated a deal that maximised the damage that would be inflicted on the British economy. The terms were so bad for the fishing industry that Scottish fisherman are registering their boats in Copenhagen as Danish, so they can sell their catch to the Europeans. The terms of the deal make it very difficult if not impossible to sell fish direct to Europe from Britain. Already with shortages in the supermarkets and a fuel crisis the government is having to backtrack on the terms of it deal, trying to minimise the negative impact of the deal. Already its going back on its hard line on European immigration in an attempt to persuade European HGV drivers to return to Britain, as a shortage of native HGV drivers mean food products are being left to rot in the fields or warehouses. Slowly step by step the government is removing the restrictions on European HGV drivers that it imposed in January.

Britain is a trading nation and whose peoples well being the well being is dependent on International trade. Only about 60% of Britains food is produced in the country the rest has to be imported. A fact understood by both the German Kaiser and Hitler in both world wars. They tried to bring Britain to its knees by stopping or limiting the import of food and essential raw materials through submarine warfare. Surprisingly the government of Boris Johnson has done something similar to what both the Kaiser and Hitler aspired. It has imposed barriers to the trade with our largest trading partner Europe. The barriers are the imposition of a complex system of controls on trade, so complex that many businesses either side of the channel have withdrawn from trading with Britain or Europe.

What passes under the political radar Westminster is businesses complaints about the large quantity of paperwork required to export to Europe, now we have left the single market. One exporter claimed that now they have to complete 28 separate forms when exporting to Europe, whereas before January that number was the imposition of new border controls trade with Germany has fallen. Imports from the UK have fallen by 56% and exports to the UK by 29%. If Germany was a small insignificant trading nation this would not matter, but Germany is the economic powerhouse of Europe, its largest economy. Soon if not already the UK will cease to be one of the top ten nations with whom Germany trades. Only a politician blind to reality could show indifference to such a catastrophic decline in trade.

Already significant sectors of the economy show marked signs of economic distress. Agriculture, fishing and the food processing industries are examples of this distress. The export of British cheese to Europe has become almost impossible. This downturn in foreign trade is significant because it means there will be a downturn in the level of economic activity, most likely leading to a recession. How far the downturn will go is hard to predict, all that can be said is it’s foolish to deliberately engineer a downturn is economic activity, as any downturn can gain momentum and leading to a very nasty recession. Golden rule number 2, it is easier to start a downturn in economic activity, than to stop one, so don’t start one unless there are compelling economic reasons for doing so.

What appears an unknown to our political leaders, is something called the economies of disintegration. Through reducing production on site and outsourcing it to the cheapest suppliers in the world, the cost of manufacturing has come down rapidly. There is no longer such a thing as a British car, parts come from all over the world. Under this system a car part such as the carburettor can go back and across the English Channel eight times, before the its assembly is completed. Now the government has hit the supply chains with a wrecking ball, no longer can manufactured goods pass freely between Britain and Europe. This wrecking ball is the mountain of paper work required by the import/export authorities of each country. While it can be said that the supply chains of business are far too long and too easily disrupted, it does not make any economic sense for the government to suddenly interrupt the free flow of goods in this supply chain. This will cause shortages and disruption in the domestic industries, as they have been denied the time to adjust to the changes. I cannot predict what will happen in the long term to British manufacturing industry, but the short term effect of interrupting the supply chain will be a decline in manufacturing industry.

If Boris Johnson and his Brexiter government is correct, all previous governments that believed British prosperity depended on increasing it trade with the rest of the world were wrong. Although this government boasts of increasing trade with the rest of the world, its rhetoric gives away the reality. When the government talks of the need for the spirit of the Blitz it is telling a different story. The Blitz was a time of shortages and rationing. Already there are plenty of indicators that the British economy is heading into a dark time, when shortages of goods become common place. A cartoon in a German newspaper sums this situation. A travel agent is talking to a couple who want to travel somewhere, where they can experience the shortages and inconveniences of the former East Germany, the agent recommends a stay in Brexit Britain.

When the economist John Galbraith discussed the means by which the horrors of the Great Depression of 1929 could have been averted, he said steps should have been taken to restore business confidence. A series of meeting between the President and business leaders would have done a lot restore confidence in the business community. Knowing that the government was taking their concerns seriously and acting on them would have done wonders to restore business confidence. Confidence is necessary if businesses are to invest and that new investment would have kickstarted the economy. Of all that I have mentioned this psychological factor is the probably the most significant. A loss of business confidence can easily turn a downturn into a recession or even worse a serious depression. Again Britain is a good example of what not to do in terms of leadership. The impression it gives is that it’s not listening to business. In response to concerns about the negative impact of the rise in gas prices on the biggest users, the government has made it clear it is not willing to help, except in extremis, as business has had plenty of government money already to tide it over during the pandemic, there is no more left. If anything can be more calculated to destroy business confidence, I cannot think of it. All this is compounded by the character of the Prime Minister. He is known for his lack of interest in the detail of government, as a leader he lacks gravitas. At the last Conservative party conference he amused those in attendance with a series of jokes. Those not at the conference noted his lack of interest in the crises that were happening outside the conference hall. The government’s actions, plus the knowledge that we have a lightweight as political leader, will do little to restore business confidence. Golden rule number three, when an economic crisis threatens government should act appropriately, it must never seem indifferent to the crisis. The sterling crisis of 1976 was in worsened by the Chancellor, Jim Callaghan on being questioned at the airport on his return from an international conference about the crisis, said’ ‘what crisis” giving the impression of being somebody not in command of the facts.

In the future students of economics and business studies will be given Brexit Britain as a case study in how not to manage an economy, or to put it more brutally how to turn a formerly prosperous nation into a basket case.

Hibernating Bear Politics or an Explanation of the Dullness of Contemporary Political Practice

Whenever I try to explain contemporary politics to myself, I look to simple analogies or metaphors. I find the metaphor of the hibernating bear most useful in this respect. The bear to survive in winter when food is short, hibernates. Waking only in spring when food supplies are plentiful again. To me this explains perfectly the behaviour of the British Labour Party.

They have been beaten in serial elections and the last in 2019 suggested that they face an existential crisis. Supposedly core voters have defected to the winning party giving them an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons. Their dominance is such that they can pass legislation that disadvantages the opposition making it almost impossible for them to win the next election, without facing any real opposition in parliament. Labour as serially defeated party have opted for survival mode. Hibernating during the long winter of Conservative ascendancy and only coming out of hibernation in the political spring. The political spring is expected to occur in or about the time of the next election, when the increasing unpopularity of the government renders then vulnerable.

Political hibernation is a peculiar thing, it means keeping your heads down and doing nothing that would attract negative headlines.In practice this means doing just enough to remind people that you are still around, but nothing anything dramatic that might attract negative headlines or offer any hostages to the future. Operating in this mode the leadership will criticise the government, but not go as far as offering any policies of their own. Just this week the opposition criticised the government for funding social care through an increase in national insurance charges as it would impact negatively on the lowest paid, but avoided making comment to any alternative policy. A somnolent politics or as the opposition would describe a cautious and realistic politics. Whatever it might be it a curiously dull, stupefying type of politics.

Again referring to the hibernating bear, that bear through hibernation is husbanding their strength, waiting to use it again in spring, when food sources are abundant and its strength will be used most profitably. Similarly the opposition can and does argue that it must husband its strength, that is resources until the general election, when those resources can be used to greatest advantage. The election is the only contest that matters and as with the bear, over activity now will only exhaust its resources for little return. It might even threaten its survival.

While opting for survival over a more active politics might appear sound practice it has its disadvantages. When the bear awakens in spring it’s weak and must immediately find food if its to survive. Similarly the long period of somnolent or minimalist political politics leaves the opposition weakened. Going from a time ultra cautious practice to a period of hyperactivity is fraught with danger. If politics is not practised with vigour it can ossify. The young idealistic activists would have long left the party, putt off by its caution and switched allegiance to other radical parties that share their idealism. A problem particularly true of the Labour Party, whose young idealistic activists practise a left wing radical politics not shared by the leadership. Fearing these young pretenders to the throne will alienate the media and key swing voters, the party leadership seeks to discourage and repress them. Offering a collective sigh of relief when these disruptive activists leave the party in disgust at the leaderships passivity and conservatism. However these enthusiasts are the very people the party needs at elections. Being at a huge financial disadvantage, the Conservatives have huge financial resources compared to the Labour Party and they can massively outspend them at elections. What the Conservatives lack is a youthful enthusiastic membership that can knock on doors and campaign actively in the constituencies. An advantage that can offset the Conservatives financial muscle. I fear the Labour Party will be like the hibernating bear that has slept too long and found that all its rivals have already taken possession of the best food sources.

The hibernating bear metaphor leaves me pessimistic for the future. While the politics of hibernation may enable a political party to survive it does not turn it into a winner. Probably the best that can be hoped is that at the next election the party retains sufficient MPs be competitive at some future election. Although there is an alternative scenario, a harsh one that derives from the cruelty of nature. Old bears weaken through age may not be able to compete with younger bears for food and consequently die. Similarly there is a chance that the somnolent Labour Party will be displaced by a younger radical rival, as happened when the Labour Party replaced the Liberal Party as the other majority party in the 1920s.

I write this as a disillusioned Labour supporter, trying to make sense of the nullity of the politics practised by the party of which I have been a lifelong supporter. Why a former party of radical idealism, has become an uninspiring party of caution? A political party that appears dead in the water. Also I must add that I think the survival politics as practised by the British Labour Party is not unique to the UK.

This Economist’s explanation of why nothing ever appears to happen in the Westminster political scene

Politics in Britain appears to be a in state of stasis, nothing seems to happen. No longer is Westminster forum were the decisions crucial to our future well being are made, dullness and a ‘do nothing’ manner seem to prevail. In part this can be put down to Britain decline, both relative and real. Being now of relative global insignificance seems to have a negative impact, realising that are now figures of little significance, fearing that they can do little any import, they have lost the desire to do. However it might not he the loss of empire and the loss respect of the world’s leading statesman that account for this sense of ennui at Westminster. Economic theory offers an alternative explanation.

Parliament is dominated by two parties, although the rise of nationalist parties, in particular in Scotland pose a threat, the power duopoly of Conservative/Labour has not yet been seriously threatened. Duopoly is the extreme example of an oligopolist market and it is the theory of oligopoly that explains this political inertia or caution. Caution is the word that best describes the behaviour of oligopolists. They have reached this position of great power and don’t want to do anything that might threaten this power. What they realise is the power of their rivals is such that they have the potential to do great damage to them. Therefore they will do all in their power to avoid radical or aggressive actions that could provoke a damaging war with their powerful rivals. What they fear most is losing votes to their rival, much as the oligopolist fears losing market share to its rivals. What exist between oligopolists is an undeclared war or a truce of kinds. All fearing a damaging trade or political war that could inflict a death blow to their business or political party.

Oligopolists compete within certain parameters, fearing not to upset the apple cart. Businesses compete not with price but through advertising, marketing. Hoping at best to make modest inroads in a competitors sales. Similarly politics in Britain is another phoney war, conducted within strict parameters, parameters defined by the mainstream political culture. One of these parameters is responsible. Policies be responsible, not commit the partly to a great spending programme, because voters fear for their wallets. The political truism observed by all is increasing taxes is a vote loser, while reducing them is a vote winner. Also responsible politics doesn’t threaten powerful vest interests. The best example is the property lobby. Any policy that might threaten house prices is a ‘no-no’. This mainstream view also excludes as possible policies, those that while they may promise needed radical change, are too difficult to implement as they will upset power groups in society or voters.

In consequence politics is predominantly a war of words, each party claims that they possess that unique set of values that make them best suited to governing the country. Policy statements or policies spelt out in detail are anathema, as they can start a political bidding war in which each strives to out do the other. Potentially damaging to both parties as they have to make good on their policy promises. A leader can state that he wants every person in the country to have a job that guarantees a fair wage, an income that maximises their well being, but must never state how that would be achieved.

This can lead to the politics of dullness, with each party hoping to keep their share of the vote and remaining a major party. Hoping that this caution will be rewarded with those few extra votes that translate into a majority in parliament. The peculiarity of the British electoral system is that a marginally small but larger share of the vote can translate into a disproportionately larger number of parliamentary seats.

One other characteristic that political parties share with oligopolistic corporations, is a ruthlessness in preventing new entrants coming into the market. They are aware that their majority position in politics is always under threat, they are aware that the once in a lifetime event that changes the political landscape. A change which gives an outsider the opportunity to replace one of the two main parties, as occurred in the 1920s, when Labour replaced the Liberals as one of the two main parties.

This strategy is action is demonstrated by the risky strategy that the Conservative party adopted over Brexit. Its vote was threatened by the Brexit party, which one a majority at the last European election, through the support of disaffected Conservative voters. To crush this upstart the party adopted the Brexit party policy so depriving it of the political oxygen which it needed to thrive. This was a risky strategy as it meant their rivals the Labour Party could have opted for Remain, which would have put at risk their candidates in strongly Remain constituencies. Fortunately for them the Labour Party read the political runes and decided that majority opinion or the voters that mattered were for leaving the EU*. This about volte face by two predominantly Remainer parties, deprived the half of the nation wanting to stay in the EU unrepresented.

What can be said is that the British political system works to favour the two main parties in situ? No matter how outrageous their behaviours or betrayals, they need fear being voted out. British politics will continue in its outrageous but merry way refusing to countenance any change. Change that might threaten the power of the two dominant parties. Even when the crisis of climate change is becoming increasingly apparent neither of the two main parties will be willing to make the radical change necessary to help avert it. When the Conservative government reneged on its promise to install a national charging grid for electric cars, Labour remained silent. Fearing being accused of making irresponsible policy commitments that would threaten existing jobs in the motor trade, forcing on the country a change they may not want. Giving the leadership of Cop26 to any British politician is detrimental to the well being of the world. All that can be expected is lots of words, words used to say the right thing but devoid of meaning or commitment. Possibly this is a sign of Britain’s decline, a not willing to commit to anything that might threaten to diminish further Britain’s international power and reputation.

The fallacious misunderstanding of the medieval world and why it matters

The medieval world has been characterised as the Dark Ages, a misconception that remains current today. One example that comes to mind is the television presenter and historian who on describing the fall of Constantinople, said that the siege was of little concern to the monks of St.Sophia who would be spending their time debating such unworldly issues as to how many angels could dance on a pin head. What the presenter did not realise was that he was repeating the black propaganda used by the Protestants to discredit there Catholicism. In fact if he had read William of Ockham, he would have discovered that the thinking of medieval theologians was both pragmatic and sophisticated. In fact David Hume cited William as one of key thinkers that influenced his philosophy. His essay the ‘Treatise on Human Nature’ echoes William’s scepticism about the limitations of human reason. Although separated by five hundred years and starting from different intellectual standpoints, there conclusions are remarkably similar. Seb Falk a historian decided to turn this thinking on its head by writing a book about medieval science, that he called ‘The Light Ages’.

Seb Falk’s contention is that despite its mischaracterisation, this time was a period of remarkable scientific and mathematical advance. Sun dials he states that despite their rudimentary construction could be sophisticated means of measuring time. He gives as evidence of this sophistication the astrolabe. A flat disc that when used with a sighting device for checking the position of the stars or sun could determine the viewer’s latitude and longitude. They knew that there location could affect their astronomical reading, as position of the stars the sky would change according to their latitude. John Westryk a monk from St.Albans knew that when he was relocated to Tynemouth could still use an astrolabe made for use at the southern location of St.Albans, because the small variation in latitude would only effect a minimal change in the position of the stars.

Despite their wrongful belief that earth was at the centre of seven concentric circles of heaven, each one being ever closer to God, they were remarkably accurate in their charting of the night sky.

Sailors in the open sea would use the cross staff or astrolabe to find their position. By the fourteenth century sailors were using compasses and charts marked with rhumb lines. The latter were lines leading to various ports. Despite what appears to be the rudimentary nature of their navigational aids, they were capable of accurately navigating the seas. British and other fishermen by the end of this period were beginning to use this technology to find the fisheries located off Newfoundland. Manuscripts suggest that St.Brendan (an Irish monk) of the early medieval period may have been the first European to discover America.

What Seb Falk establishes is remarkable scientific understanding and practice existed within the learned clerical class.

This class also displayed a remarkable openness to non Christian thinking. The Arab philosopher Avicenna was significant, it was through familiarity with his writings that medieval theologians became familiar with the works of Aristotle. It was through the writings of these theologians that Aristotle was reintroduced into the Christian world. Such was the sophistication of their philosophical reasoning, that later philosophers made use of their findings. In fact the use of Avicenna in their writings was controversial, it was the two path controversy. Christians believed that truth could only be found through faith, now Avicenna was saying that truth could be found through philosophy. In fact he believed that only the philosopher could truly know the truths of God. Theologians would accuse their rivals of being adherents of the two truth theory, which was anathema to the church. This and other contentious issues ensured that medieval universities were lively and stimulating centres of learning. Often earning the censure if the church authorities, as happened to the university of Paris.

There is the intriguing story concerning St.Francis of Assisi. He took time out from his reforming work to travel to Spain. Idries Shah believes that he was hoping find the master, a man he made many references to. Shah thinks the master was Rumi the great muslim thinker and poet. Speculation perhaps, but the medieval church was more open to new ideas that is usually thought.

Medieval universities could be lively places of intellectual discovery, but there was a dark side to the medieval university. William of Ockham a particularly controversial thinker was accused of heresy by the master Oxford university, and had to flee to the continent.

I am aware that in describing medieval England as a time of enlightenment and intellectual advance, is painting as partial a picture as that of the Victorians who described it as the dark ages. How should we judge or characterise this period? By its monsters and the crimes they committed or by its best and most enlightened and their achievements? If the former it should be noted that the twentieth century regarded as a time of progress and advance, was a time when there were men such as Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot who committed far worse crimes than there medieval predecessors.

At my last school my colleague taught the ‘Wars of the Roses’, as it was he said, an interesting period of history. Perhaps if we view education as a making a positive contribution to the students development, we should not glorify a group of arrogant, brutal men, who gloried in the butchery of their rivals.

I have always thought we neglect teaching what is best from the past. Once Erasmus’s’ ‘Adages’ was regarded as essential reading for statesman. Now a book only read by the intellectually curious. I value from that book the essay entitled ‘War is sweet only to those who have never tried it’. I think this should be required reading for any aspirant politician on a PPE course.

When we reflect on the achievements of the medieval period, does it not undermine the theory of human history as a constantly upward progressive movement? There are a group of Anglican theologians who think the high Middle Ages represent the peak of human civilisation. These radical orthodox theologians have among their adherents, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

The fallacious misunderstanding of the medieval world and why it matters

The medieval world has been characterised as the Dark Ages, a misconception that remains current today. One example that comes to mind is the television presenter and historian who on describing the fall of Constantinople, said that the siege was of little concern to the monks of St.Sophia who would be spending their time debating such unworldly issues as to how many angels could dance on a pin head. What the presenter did not realise was that he was repeating the black propaganda used by the Protestants to discredit there Catholicism. In fact if he had read William of Ockham, he would have discovered that the thinking of medieval theologians was both pragmatic and sophisticated. In fact David Hume cited William as one of key thinkers that influenced his philosophy. His essay the ‘Treatise on Human Nature’ echoes William’s scepticism about the limitations of human reason. Although separated by five hundred years and starting from different intellectual standpoints, there conclusions are remarkably similar. Seb Falk a historian decided to turn this thinking on its head by writing a book about medieval science, that he called ‘The Light Ages’.

Seb Falk’s contention is that despite its mischaracterisation, this time was a period of remarkable scientific and mathematical advance. Sun dials he states that despite their rudimentary construction could be sophisticated means of measuring time. He gives as evidence of this sophistication the astrolabe. A flat disc that when used with a sighting device for checking the position of the stars or sun could determine the viewer’s latitude and longitude. They knew that there location could affect their astronomical reading, as position of the stars the sky would change according to their latitude. John Westryk a monk from St.Albans knew that when he was relocated to Tynemouth could still use an astrolabe made for use at the southern location of St.Albans, because the small variation in latitude would only effect a minimal change in the position of the stars.

Despite their wrongful belief that earth was at the centre of seven concentric circles of heaven, each one being ever closer to God, they were remarkably accurate in their charting of the night sky.

Sailors in the open sea would use the cross staff or astrolabe to find their position. By the fourteenth century sailors were using compasses and charts marked with rhumb lines. The latter were lines leading to various ports. Despite what appears to be the rudimentary nature of their navigational aids, they were capable of accurately navigating the seas. British and other fishermen by the end of this period were beginning to use this technology to find the fisheries located off Newfoundland. Manuscripts suggest that St.Brendan (an Irish monk) of the early medieval period may have been the first European to discover America.

What Seb Falk establishes is remarkable scientific understanding and practice existed within the learned clerical class.

This class also displayed a remarkable openness to non Christian thinking. The Arab philosopher Avicenna was significant, it was through familiarity with his writings that medieval theologians became familiar with the works of Aristotle. It was through the writings of these theologians that Aristotle was reintroduced into the Christian world. Such was the sophistication of their philosophical reasoning, that later philosophers made use of their findings. In fact the use of Avicenna in their writings was controversial, it was the two path controversy. Christians believed that truth could only be found through faith, now Avicenna was saying that truth could be found through philosophy. In fact he believed that only the philosopher could truly know the truths of God. Theologians would accuse their rivals of being adherents of the two truth theory, which was anathema to the church. This and other contentious issues ensured that medieval universities were lively and stimulating centres of learning. Often earning the censure if the church authorities, as happened to the university of Paris.

There is the intriguing story concerning St.Francis of Assisi. He took time out from his reforming work to travel to Spain. Idries Shah believes that he was hoping find the master, a man he made many references to. Shah thinks the master was Rumi the great muslim thinker and poet. Speculation perhaps, but the medieval church was more open to new ideas that is usually thought.

Medieval universities could be lively places of intellectual discovery, but there was a dark side to the medieval university. William of Ockham a particularly controversial thinker was accused of heresy by the master Oxford university, and had to flee to the continent.

I am aware that in describing medieval England as a time of enlightenment and intellectual advance, is painting as partial a picture as that of the Victorians who described it as the dark ages. How should we judge or characterise this period? By its monsters and the crimes they committed or by its best and most enlightened and their achievements? If the former it should be noted that the twentieth century regarded as a time of progress and advance, was a time when there were men such as Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot who committed far worse crimes than there medieval predecessors.

At my last school my colleague taught the ‘Wars of the Roses’, as it was he said, an interesting period of history. Perhaps if we view education as a making a positive contribution to the students development, we should not glorify a group of arrogant, brutal men, who gloried in the butchery of their rivals.

I have always thought we neglect teaching what is best from the past. Once Erasmus’s’ ‘Adages’ was regarded as essential reading for statesman. Now a book only read by the intellectually curious. I value from that book the essay entitled ‘War is sweet only to those who have never tried it’. I think this should be required reading for any aspirant politician on a PPE course.

When we reflect on the achievements of the medieval period, does it not undermine the theory of human history as a constantly upward progressive movement? There are a group of Anglican theologians who think the high Middle Ages represent the peak of human civilisation. These radical orthodox theologians have among their adherents, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

Good and Bad economics or Creative and Destructive Economics

From the very beginning of my teaching career I felt that I was not giving my students the complete story. Then just recently my son-in-law who is a joiner taught me something about economics that I should have known. The market is but one strand of the economic complex, what I and other economists have ignored is collaborative or creative economics. An economic practice that is not based solely on price, but other values, such as trust, respect and quality of work. Self employed construction workers such as my son-in-law, may work singly or with others when the task requires it. When a task calls for collaboration, collaborates are chosen on the basis of respect, trust and work ethic. They all know the profit maximiser who will cut costs and corners so as to achieve the maximum profit. These men make poor work colleagues and are best avoided.

This does not mean that there are not a number of bad tradesmen, who will produce a poor quality product or service. Men who make a good living from their trade but who former customers are desperate to avoid using again. Our local internet network is dominated by requests for the names of tradesmen who can be trusted to deliver a good quality service. While the market economists would say that the customer looks for the tradesmen who charge the lowest price, what most people want is quality of service. If a potential customer tried to force the price down to the lowest level, my son-in-law and his colleagues would just walk away.

While in the building trade there is a rogue element of profit maximisers, who cut costs to the bone to earn maximum profit, I suspect the majority are like my son-in-law ‘profit satisfiers’. Given the ignorance of the building trade potential customers find it hard to identify these rogue traders. Rogue traders who in the present shortage of tradesman can make a good living. However that does not discredit my belief that in the building trade, quality of service is valued more than price. Obviously price matters to both the customer and tradesmen, usually what is valued is the fair price, a price for the job that satisfies both customer and tradesman. It is a deal founded on trust, a trust that can unfortunately be abused. There are the customers who are tardy payers and the rip off merchants on the traders side.

What is required to make the construction market work more effectively is more regulation, of the right kind. Electricians are compelled to take regular tests to ensure their fitness to work in electrics. Unfortunately there is no effective mechanism from preventing the bad or poor electrician working in the trade. Anybody can advertise themselves as a builder qualified in all trades. A regulated market such as that found in Germany or Switzerland would improve immensely the work undertaken in the building trade.

From my knowledge of people working in the small and medium trader market, the same standards apply there. Even businesses solely driven by profit and not quality of service, such as the banks and other financial services, the success of these profit maximisers depends on their staff adopted collaborative working practices. If staff felt they could not trust each other, the business would soon collapse. Businesses don’t thrive if their staff are constantly at each other’s throats.

In this respect the practice in call centres, where staff are constantly monitored and required to meet performance tasks have a high turnover of staff. This works when unemployment is relatively high, as unemployed young people can be quickly trained in the simple skills required. Given the high and wasteful staff turnover such call centres find that treating staff well, equals higher productivity and higher staff retention. In even this industry values other than cost minimisation are adopted, contrary to market economics.

Collaborative working of the type undertaken by my son-in-law is creative economics, he is a profit maker. Whatever he makes or does adds value to the property. This is contrary to destructive economics, whereby the trader or business literally diminishes the value of the nation’s wealth. In economist’s terms, the profit taker or in common sense parlance the robber baron. Private equity companies are one of the worst practitioners of destructive economics. They loot the company of its most profitable assets and then return the ‘efficient’ business back to the market. Adding the resale price to the profits gained by selling the companies assets. These enfeebled businesses rarely survive long once returned to public ownership.

Another term for these non creative looters, is rentier capitalists. One example of this is those business that buy the copyright of a particular musician. Then with the ownership of these rights they can charge exorbitant sums to those who make use of this artists music. They are assiduous in keeping control of the right to profit from that artist work, often resorting to court when they believe their rights have been infringed. Unfortunately a list of these corporate looters is most endless.

China had its cultural revolution in the 1960s and Britain hers in the 1980s. Although the British free market revolution did not produce the huge loss of life that China’s did, it was in some ways equally destructive. Rather than freeing Britain from the shackles of government and liberating the market for the benefit of all, it has created an unregulated market which in essence is becoming a thieves paradise. Only a return to a regulated market that prioritises the creative economy over the destructive economy, can return us to an economy that works for the benefit of all. What I treasure is the Code of Hammurabi which threatened bodily mutilation to profiteers and speculators. He as a successful ruler knew that he would only remain successful, if he reined in the excesses of the market.

Ecology and Nature Mysticism

Growing up in the countryside gave me a different perspective on life. Life around me changed with the seasons. As a child I was aware of the change with the seasons, but the reason for that change remained largely inexplicable. In spring I eagerly waited for the first signs of change in nature. The solitary snowdrop hiding under a tree, the bursting into bloom of the ma and the appearance of hazel nuts on the trees, each indicating the onset of a different season. Although I knew at an early age this was due to changes in the position of the sun, the process of change in nature still seemed a mysterious process. Primary school science was not sufficient to explain the changes in the moods of nature. None of the adults I knew could explain the sudden changes in the weather, why did a bright summer’s day suddenly darken with storm clouds which would erupt into a sudden downpour. An uncontrollable force which could disrupt people’s lives. The eruption of the storm would instantly change people’s lives. In a fierce thunderstorm people would take cover, as the fierce rain made work impossible. Storms demonstrated not only the power of nature and the insignificance of man, but also its mystery. How did the cows know long in advance that a storm was coming? Hours before it arrived they would sit down in a group, nobody could explain to me how the cows knew or why they sat in a group? Was it some primeval instinct that was necessary for the survival of the primeval wild cattle that roamed the land. Living the country you learned to accept the mystery and power of nature, us dwarfish beings had no choice to the live and work according to the rhythms of nature.

Our village church steeped in human history as it was, also gave testament to the power and majesty of nature. The purpose of the steeple I was told was to show distant travellers that there was human habitation here, a civilised Christian place, were shelter could be found in a storm. At the entrance to the church, at the lych gate were two ancient yews. Planted we were told to provide yew for the English bows, used by the archers at Agincourt and the other battles of the Hundred Years War. In fact this was a lie, concealing there real purpose, a purpose dating back to pre-Christian times. Now thought to either provide protection against evil spirits, or more likely due to their great age, seen to provide a link to the underworld and the Gods thereof. Just their survival and purpose added to the mystery, as when planted these yew trees would have served little practical purpose, as their berries were poisonous to livestock.

Rather than being frightened I grew to love the power and magic of nature. I loved being out in storms witnessing their power. How trees bent, swayed and buckled beneath the wind. Being careful to avoid elms, as they were notorious for shedding their branches without warning. Even in good weather countrymen were wary of elms, often keeping a safe distance from them.

Heraclitus to me sums up the essence of nature, when he said that ‘nature loves to hide’. Nature or the essence that is nature hides in plain sight. I know yet don’t know nature. To the Greeks nature was a Goddess Isis, who hid behind her veil. This was how I experienced nature, I could see the changes taking place, trees getting leaves in spring and shedding them in autumn, yet feeling that I did not really understand what was happening. Possibly I have too much of the country mans’ acceptance of what is, knowing that I cannot change it. Although I have an understanding of biology, quantum physics, chemistry, I cannot shake to the belief that these come together in a something that is both unknowable and knowable. What I have to admit to a knowledge of a thing that I cannot express in the language of ordinary or scientific discourse. Poetry with its ability to give a sense of what lies behind the words is perhaps better suited for this task.

Goethe expressed this sentiment far better. When he wrote “A.Humboldt sent me the translation of his Essay on the Geography of Plants with a flattering illustration that implies Poetry, too might lift the veil of Nature.” What he was referring to was an illustration in the book of the God Apollo unveiling the Goddess of Nature at whose feet lay a copy of Goethe’s book ‘The metamorphosis of Plants’.

What I believe is that there are many valid modes of understanding. Jaspers and Benjamin expressed this in similar but different ways. Jaspers said there are many ways to the truth. He was thinking of the stories, parables and myths of Christianity that can express the truths of that religion in a manner that is impossible through the use of reason and rational discourse. When writing of the task of the translator, Benjamin said there was but one universal language, but one that could be expressed in different senses according to which spoken language was used. He gives the following example the French call bread pan and the Germans call it brod. They are both describing the same thing, but subtle differences in what they mean when they use the respective terms. Can not my nature mysticism and biological discourse be equally valid, are not the both expressing equally valid senses of what is understood as nature? What is being described, explained or understood are two different sensory experiences that need not be contradictory. Does not ecology suggest a reconciliation of the two experiences. Ecologists have a sound scientific understanding of nature, yet they also experience a sense of the wholeness of nature. A natural order that they wish to preserve through application of their scientific knowledge to prevent the catastrophe that the anthropocene threatens. A threat that can be simply illustrated in the words of my father a former old countryman. He said looking at a field full of cattle, does not the farmer realise that there are too many cows in that field and that many cows will destroy the drainage system and turn the field into a muddy mess. He was right the industrial farmer inflicted irrevocable damage on that field significantly reducing its value as pastureland.

Debating how many angels could dance on a pinhead, a fallacious reading on medieval education. An argument for the soundness of medieval education.

What I want to argue for is the superiority of aspects of monastic led education to that of today. Not so long ago I saw a television programme about the fall of Constantinople. The presenter, a distinguished scholar claimed that while the city was under siege, the monks in the Hagia Sophia were so completely removed from the reality the awfulness of the siege, that they were distracted by discussions such as “how many angels could stand on pin head”. This calumny directed at monkish education was in fact black propaganda used by the protestant reformers to discredit Catholicism. These unworldly monks would in fact have been very engaged with the circumstances in which they found themselves, knowing that the gold in the Cathedral would make them a target for looters from the victorious besiegers.

This famous scholar was obviously ignorant of the achievements of these monks in mathematics, astronomy and the other sciences. Monks were capable of sophisticated mathematics, calculations would be made using their hands. Not just one to ten, but my giving particular fingers symbolic values or functions they could do advanced mathematics. One monk by observing the lengths of the shadows cast by sticks in the ground calculated the latitude of the Abbey in which he lived. One of the most spectacular medieval achievements was the clock of variable hours at St.Albans Abbey. One problem that bothered the monks was the timing of the prescribed services during the day. This was particularly hard as the days varied so in length. When should the Nones service be celebrated, when given the hours of daylight differed daily, what particular point in the day was midday? If the time of daylight was divided by 12, the difference between the shortest hours at mid winter and midsummer was seventeenth minutes. St.Albans’s answer was a clock of variable hours. This mechanical clock would adjust the length of the hours in the day according hours of daylight. The monks could through a reading the figures off this clock together with a sophisticated system of mathematics accurately calculate the time.

Having now demonstrated that monks and clerics could demonstrate a level of sophistication in their thinking similar to that of today’s scientists. I can now justify my contention about that education in the medieval university could in some respects be superior to that of today. I use my now own experience of university education as proof of my contention. When given an assignment by my tutor there would always be what appeared to be a vast number of books to read. Even selective readings of these texts, that is looking primarily for those phrases underlined by previous readers as significant to note, could be very time consuming. For me at least it was often a matter of quantity over quality. The more references and quotations that I could smuggle into my essay, the higher the grade. Then and now I thought there must be a better way. When I read that for clerics and monks there was one initial essential book to study. Whose study in depth was seen as the basis for a sound theological education, I could only reflect on what I saw as so many hours wasted in study. Paraphrasing an old English phrase, my study was of forests not trees. Incidentally the primary book or books were Peter Lombard’s ‘Four Books of Sentences’. Even today I cannot understand why it was thought necessary by my tutors thought it necessary for me to read every book or article written on a particular topic What benefit is there to be gained by having a wide and superficial knowledge of a subject, as opposed to a real understanding?

The medieval professors on holy days, celebrated them by having free and open discussions with their students. Often these discussions were recorded for prosperity. I have dipped into one such Thomas Aquinas’s “Quodlibetal Questions 1 and 2”. What impresses me is not just the sophistication of the students questions, but the replies given by Thomas Aquinas. He assumes that his students are capable of understanding the most difficult of his ideas. No concessions are made in his answers, he assumes that his students can follow the sophisticated train of his thoughts This experience I can contrast with that of my students peers. One internationally recognised philosopher was complained about by some of my fellow students as giving lectures too difficult to understand. Next year he was replaced by a colleague with a more straight forward exposition manner and who gave out student handouts. Perhaps the difference in the student responses is a matter of respect. Medieval students deferred more readily to authority. However given the frequency of town and gown riots, perhaps this was not the cause. Can I suggest an alternative, in the medieval university the emphasis was on understanding, not the accumulation of knowledge?. Over a period of six hundred years students and society’s expectations of what a degree course entails had changed dramatically.

What I am suggesting is that true education is something other than the accumulation of knowledge. There is a something that resides behind and above the accumulation of knowledge, a something that makes understanding possible. A something that I can describe as a sound method of thinking, a means correct thinking and speaking. A sound technique of analysis and comprehension, the ability to derive knowledge from whatever text of subject is studied.. Real education is something that as Plato might have said, which is not readily explainable, one not given to simple common place expression. It is something whose essence once experienced is never given up. Again I wish to give myself as an example. At university I was a hopeless student of philosophy, one of my lowest marks was awarded to me in my ethics paper. However in that final year of university, I glimpsed a something, which I cannot readily put into words, but which left me with a passion for a life long study of philosophy.