When you write it is because there are certain ideas and thoughts that obsess you and you find that all to often you are reworking familiar themes, no matter what the subject matter of the essay. In my case it is the learning of the past, I cannot dismiss the writings of the Christian fathers or the medieval Islamic philosophers as being rooted in the past and as having no relevance to today. What could be more relevant in the age of Isis, than St. Augustine’s thoughts on the nature of evil. He offers a far better explanation of the actions of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and his followers than any contemporary analyst. Not only that but the hateful ideology of Isis and the Salafist strand of Islam which it encapsulates, obscures the wisdom and learning of the medieval Islamic scholars. What has been forgotten is the debt that medieval Christianity owes to the great Sufi scholars of Spain, who had preserved the teachings of the classical and Hellenistic philosophers in their writings. Without their knowledge medieval Christianity would have been much the intellectually poorer. Yet Islam is now seen as a religion of cruelty and barbarism, a religion of the stoning of adulterers. What has been lost is the compassionate and sophisticated religion of the Sufi’s of Islam. Could anybody today know that the great Sufi thinkers saw Christianity and Islam as two different approaches to one the true religion, religious brothers in arms not enemies?
The Devil depicted in the Temptation of Christ, by Ary Scheffer, 1854.
One such lost wisdom is the understanding of evil, an understanding that evil all pervasive and constantly needed to be countered. St. Augustine’s conception of evil as ignorance or not knowing God is easily misunderstood today. Obviously the members of Isis know God but still commit horrible atrocities. What they claim is that they are the true followers of God, who are opposed to kafirs or those individuals who do not know God and are therefore not worthy of humane treatment. However knowing God is not knowing as its usually understood, it’s far more than a knowledge of the correct religious tracts. It’s a knowing that is beyond words and cannot be explained in the words of the everyday language of the world of human experience. A knowledge and understanding the religious texts is just the first stage towards knowing God. Knowing God is a transforming life experience, knowing God means accepting a life changing experience through religious enlightenment. Perhaps it can be described as an engagement with God, an emotional commitment or living a life informed by God. However one tries, words remain inadequate for explaining the experience of knowing God. As Plato writes once a person knows good (God) they never want to know anything else, it is a sufficient principle for life. The sufi’s explain knowing God as moving beyond religious ritual and practice to a higher level of understanding, an understanding that can only be achieved with the guidance of a teacher. One Christian text that explains this level of knowing, is medieval Christian classic ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’, in which the author describes the various clouds of misunderstanding and misapprehension that obscure a knowledge of God.
What I am arguing for is a Christian sensibility to be part of the mainstream of human thinking. A perception of the world that is infused with the language of morality, but the sophisticated moral practice of the past. The Christian Fathers such as St.Anthony, Athanasius and Augustine spent a life time trying to understand what it meant to lead a good life. Unfortunately the language in which they write makes them seem alien to today’s readers. The sin about which they write should be understood as human fallibility or weaknesses, a weakness which makes a person liable to commit act badly. It takes a determined act of the will to act well. Christian belief and practice gave them the strength to overcome their very human fallibilities and act well. This lifetime of study and prayer gave them an intuitive knowledge of the good, but they were never so naive that they did not realise that they had to constantly revise their thinking in terms of what they understood to be the good, as they were constantly beset by human weakness that plague us all. Augustine while being a caring father to the people of Carthage who looked after their welfare, could also,support the cruel persecution of heretics. However they had a better grasp of human psychology then today’s generation of leaders and how to better overcome its flaws.
The Christian sensibility of Augustine is founded on a very different psychology to that of today. He sees the human personality divided between two opposing drives. There is the sensory or appetitive drive that tends to the indulgence of selfish interests. Then the soul which is the self reflective drive that directs the individual towards a higher level of behaviour be it spiritual or philosophic. These two parts of the personality are tendencies within the human personality and not a literal description of that personality. Accepting Augustine’s theory of human personality does not mean rejecting later theories of personality, it’s just a different perspective on human behaviour.
Walter Benjamin offers a different approach to the past. He writes that the past is that part of the past that lives within contemporary culture. Europe for centuries embodied this past in the form of Christian culture living within the mainstream of society. Christianity and with it the learning of the past has been now been expelled from the main stream of contemporary culture. The fundamentalist Christianity of the American mainstream or the Wahhabism Islam is a contemporary creation. It is the crude reimagining of a golden religious past, it is religion in monotone, it excludes the kaleidoscope of understanding that is real religion. Whether a state is secular as with contemporary Britain or religious in practice as with the USA or Saudi Arabia, all are bereft of the learning of the past.
In Saudi Arabia and Western Europe and the USA, what is happening iis the removal of all traces of the past learning from contemporary culture. In Saudi Arabia it takes the form of the physical destruction of the buildings of the old Islam. Their presence is regarded as a temptation to heresy, Muslims who identify Islam with particular holy sites, are behaving like the pagans who identified their temples as the dwelling place of God, confusing idols and icons with God. In Western capitalist countries the destruction of the thinking of the past, is through the teaching of post modernism which teaches that a philosophy or belief system are only valid for a particular time and place. There can be no universally valid belief systems, and those of the past should have no claim to validity in contemporary Britain. Britain is a post ideological society, a society that believes in nothing or perhaps whatever is considered right at a particular moment. There is no great inclusive vision such as the Christian belief system of previous generations, a belief that gave politicians an vision of what makes a good society.
Philip Jacques de Loutherbourg:Battle Between Richard I Lionheart 1157-99 and Saladin 1137
This is not to deny that in the Christian past there were not leaders who committed horrendous atrocities in the name of God. Richard the Lionheart slaughtering thousands of Arabs when he captured the Acre. There was the lesser known Arnaud Amaury, Abbot of Cîteaux the leader of the Albigensian crusade who went his forces captured the city of Béziers ordered the killing of all the inhabitant with the immortal phrase “Kill them all. God will know his own”. About 20,000 were slaughtered in this brutal massacre. Yet throughout this period there was a moral counterweight opposed to the brutality of the medieval knight. Churchmen tried to civilise the barbaric knighthood by trying to persuade them to accept the code of chivalry, which insisted that the victorious Knights treated the defeated with compassion. One of the great stories of the Middle Ages, that of the Holy Grail, was an attack on brutal ways of the medieval knight. The greatest knight of Christendom (Lancelot) is denied any vision of the Holy Grail because of his sins, which included adultery. Only three Knights who are pure in spirit get to see the Holy Grail and unlike the Knights of the Round Table they accept martyrdom at the hands of a Saracen king. Any other of the knightly heroes would have fought there way out of such situations with the slaughter of hundreds or thousands of their enemies. There were always great churchmen and women such as Saint Francis or Hildegard of Bingen who lived lives that were a constant criticism of the knightly ideal.
With the relegation of Christianity and ideologies such as socialism to the history books, there is no longer this moral counter weight to the self seeking actions of the political and financial elites. Some of the most brutal of the medieval leaders accepted the Christian critique of their actions and endowed the churches with money to build great cathedrals, or money to relive the suffering of the poor. Unlike today when only monuments the great and good will leave behind are shopping malls and offices blocks. The super rich of today no longer have to contend with the criticisms of a thriving moral counterweight in the community. Instead contemporary culture lauds them as the heroes of the age, they are the ‘movers and shakers of society’. A view expressed at its most extreme by Ayn Rand (Atlas Unchained) a book in which the heroes of our age are the billionaires and the poor are nothing but the dregs of humanity, worthless beings who must die their thousands to relive society of the burden of providing for such worthless beings. This book despite its inhumanity is a book popular with with people of this new uncaring world.
Perhaps this problem is best expressed in the words of Hannah Arendt in her book on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, when she writes of the ‘banality of evil’. What astounded her was the very ordinariness of this monster who had been responsible for the gassing of millions of Jews during the holocaust. Evil did not give him any distinguishing features, there was no hint of evil in this appearance of this very ordinary looking man. Even his speech was undistinguished,he was unable to give more than a matter of fact account of his activities. If this was the Nazi superman, he was indistinguishable from the ordinary clerk, the myth of the superman was merely that, a propaganda exercise. Judging by Eichmann evil is extraordinarily average, evil comes with a smile on its face and with a modest demeanour. Eichmann could easily be a member of the British Parliament, he is indistinguishable in appearance and demeanour from the average British MP. He has no understanding of morality that went beyond being kind to his family and friends, which is also characteristic of the majority of our politicians. Having no concept of evil politicians are extremely poor judges of what is wrong. They are products of the Neo-Liberal society of the 1980’s that declared that there is no such thing as society. In a society of individuals there can be no public morality, there can only be the morality of friends. It’s a society in which tax avoidance and evasion becomes elevated to a moral good. Through avoiding tax, the family income and assets are maximised for the benefit of its members and its contributions to that meaningless abstract, society are minimised. What is lacking from the public and political debate is common moral belief against which the actions of the great and good can be measured. Perhaps which could be best achieved by reintroducing the sophisticated Christianity of Augustine into the mainstream belief system.