Tag Archives: #Augustine

Intellectual stupidity a practice common to both Economists and Politicians

Intellectual stupidity is not a concept that is to be found in book on either the subject of economics and politics. This is a concept that was created by Robert Musil. He distinguishes between two types of stupidity, natural and intellectual. The first is the one due to physiological factors, it occurs when an individual lacks the mental capacity for higher order thinking. Although he would be criticised today for his use of this offensive word, he can be justified when its contrasted with intellectual stupidity. A term Hannah Arendt had in mind when she criticised evil as personified by Adolf Eichmann as banal. This was a man who lacked intellectual curiosity, he was unable to empathise with the millions of victims of the holocaust. He thought the was a good man because he made the trains to the death camps run on time. The fact that these trains took millions to their deaths was no significance to him. Their deaths were somebody else’s responsibility. He was in his mind a good administrator not an essential player in the holocaust.

Politics and economics practitioners are blighted with a similar failing. Milton Friedman was guilty of this failing. When Milton Friedman was told that the Chilean government when introducing the free market reforms he advocated were imprisoning, torturing and killing opponents of these reforms, he said it was a price worth paying. Just as with Adolf Eichmann his vision all that mattered was the introduction the Chicago School of Economic management to human societies. Human rights was for him just a matter of secondary concern. Recent political history has been dominated by such practitioners of intellectual stupidity.

In Britain such stupidity has been demonstrated by successive governments in there implementation of the free market economy. They see there role as being facilitators of a Hayekian free market system. When ever such reforms produce failures such as the collapse of Carillon, a company to which many government sources had been outsourced; it was a consequence of poor management with the company. Never was the policy of privatisation of government services considered to be a flawed concept. The ‘Economist’ magazine while exposing the failures of Carillon’s management mounted a strong defence of the outsourcing of government services. Now two other outsourcing giants Capita and Interserve are in trouble. Yet our government remains committed to outsourcing as a policy practice. This is demonstrates intellectual stupidity, as government ministers cannot contemplate any alternative policies or thinking.

Intellectually stupid politicians are always trying to second guess their civil servants. Rather than seeing them as experienced administrators who can offer them practical and useful advice on policy matters; they are seen conspirators who are trying to obstruct their policies. The traditional civil service practice of providing the minister with a series of policy alternatives from which to choose is seen as a threat to the integrity of government policy making. Just recently a senior politician who studied history at University decided that economists at the Treasury were conspiring to undermine Brexit, by producing erroneous data on the consequences of leaving the EU. This politician who has only a brief acquaintance with the subject of economics, claimed he could see not just errors but treachery in the work of these Treasury economists. This failure to accept any alternative view of events to the individual’s own is typical of the intellectually stupid thinker.

Why is intellectual stupidity the default mode of thinking of our politicians?

Perhaps part of the explanation lies in the books they read. Friedrich Hayek’s book ‘The Road to Serfdom’ can be read in a few hours, possibly on a wet afternoon, when there is nothing else to do. In this short book he claims to offer the solution to our contemporary malaise. There is no end to these books that claim to have the answer. Another such is Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Unchained’, yet another writer who claims to provide the solution to our current malaise. What these books encourage in their readers is a cult like belief, that they alone have the exclusive possession of the truth. The blinkered mindset of an ‘Moonie’, Jehovah’s Witness or Scientologist, is mirrored in the thinking of so many of our leading politicians. The lack of curiosity about alternative thinking is characteristic of the intellectually stupid.

These politicians have also been to the elite universities and this has given them an intellectual arrogance. They after a short period at university just ‘know’. One exemplar of this type is the politician who is an English graduate who decided that he did not need any advice from experts in their field (educationalists and economists), as he had acquired sufficient understanding ‘to know’. He as with so many of his colleagues ‘knows’ any further knowledge would be superfluous to the task in hand. These politicians can be best described as ‘generic’ politicians, as such they believe that they have already possess all the skills and knowledge necessary for the most demanding of political positions.

This lack of intelligent curiosity is demonstrated in these three remarks made by politicians about food banks in the U.K. The first said that increase in food bank use food was because people were attracted there by the free food on offer. Another said increased food bank use was a good thing, as it had shown that his government was more effective than the former at publicising this service. The last said people go to food banks for many reasons. What none of these politicians could say that people on low incomes were reduced to such desperate straits, that they were forced to go to food banks to get the food they needed for themselves and there families. Just as Adolf Eichmann could not bring himself to admit the his trains were taking the Jews to there death, so these conservative politicians cannot admit that there policies are creating such widespread impoverishment that thousands are now forced to go to food banks in order to survive.

This callousness is not the consequence of intellectual dishonesty, but a thinking that prevents thinking of either the Jews or the less well off, as people of any consequence. They are demonised either as a threat to the well being of the German people or a threat to the well being of the British economy and society. The political philosophy of both Adolf Eichmann and contemporary conservatives treats certain groups of people as inferior beings who lack the rights accorded humanity in general. A world view best summed up by the Nazi official who called Jews vermin.

What Robert Musil writes about intellectual stupidity is very similar to the thinking of Augustine on evil. He describes evil as a not knowing of God. People who don’t know God commit what we term bad acts. Augustine as a Neo-Platonist also equated God with Good, so people who did not choose to know God could not know good. The intellectually stupid chose not to know the evil of their actions and as such are unable to know good. These intellectually stupid would be the people who Augustine’s would accuse of doing evil acts.

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How to spot a bad economist

What cannot be doubted is that if a mysterious plague had wiped out all living economists twenty years ago, the world would be a better place than it is now. Economists despite their supposed understanding of the economy have consistently failed to predict any of the major crises that have occurred. Just before the crash of 2008/9 economists were speaking of a new paradigm in which the old rules no longer applied. The huge debt or credit mountains that had developed in the financial sector were no a cause for concern but a welcome development. It was evidence of the efficiency of the banking sector in creating credit to meet the needs of industry and consumers. Banks were at the forefront of the technological advance, an example for the rest of the business to follow. The new paradigm was of course no such thing, old fashioned credit bubbles had built up within the financial sector and would inevitably burst as they did causing a near melt down of the banking sector. There were a few economists that spoke against the new paradigm but the majority  were in favour of it. Since the few perceptive economist were ignored by governments it only goes to demonstrate that we would have been much better off without the profession of economists. What is most worrying is that economists have become cheerleaders for the worst economic practices and behaviours instead of being its critics. Very few economists wanted to spoil the party, most choose to go along with the partying.

As one of the few economists (letters published in the national media), who predicted the bust of 2008, I think the role to which I am best suited is to identify those traits in an economist which clearly identify them as a bad economist. While I am not in a position to advise ministers on the choice of economist, what I can hope is that my advice will get wider dissemination and over time and will eventually reach the political classes, so enabling them to make a better choice of economist to advise them.

A bad economist can be identified quite simply, they claim to have the answers, they just know. They never express any doubts ,they are unique in that they always know what will happen in the future. Usually they are one trick ponies, they  have learnt and rehearsed the arguments for their particular brand of economics and see no need to ever change their views. What these economists lacked was what I experienced, student’s on my economics course were pointed in the direction of  J.S.Mill in the 19th century philosopher, who argued for  the impossibility of there being a science of society and in particular a science of economics. His argument was that it was impossible to make sound predictions about what would happen in the future, as there were too many variables (people) who behave unpredictably, unlike the natural sciences where the subjects studied do behave in predictable ways.

The British Treasury as one of the doyens of economic forecasting has spent a century or more proving J.S.Mill correct. The Treasury has never produced one correct forecast about the future of the British economy. They at the best make predictions in line with what has been the trend of the past few years. The only accurate forecasts they make are those that are revised after the event, when adjustments can be made to the forecast on the basis of what really happened. Despite its massive  investment in technology the British Treasury has always been caught by surprise whenever a crisis occurs. It failed to predict the financial crash of 2008/9, the bursting of the dot com bubble in 1999 and the property crash of 1990.

Despite their record of failure the British Treasury has no hesitation about advising the government on economic policy. They never feel any sense of doubt and they have been the driving force behind the adoption of free market economics. They were in the 1980s advocating an end to security of tenure (be it home ownership or lifetime tenancies), they argued that there was a problem of accommodation blocking in the areas of economic growth, as people hung on to their accommodation denying them to those workers needed by the growing businesses. The Treasury believed security of tenure was the enemy of economic growth. They were one of the leading advocates in government that led to those policies that effectively led to the end of security of tenure for the majority of people. It was not so long ago that the Treasury were congratulating themselves on the success of their policies, as they claimed that insecure tenancy system of private rentals system had freed up accommodation for the large influx of the migrants from the European Union. The victims of the housing chaos, that is the young professionals and families being priced out of London would disagree.

The next criteria for identifying the bad economist is a wilful forgetting of their past errors, they can never admit that they have been wrong in the past. There are never any failures in their curriculum vitae. Treasury economists despite their mixed record move to senior positions in the finance sector, where the businesses that hire them foolishly believing that they are buying into their unrivalled expertise in economics.

Another of the criteria for judging whether an economist is bad or not, is do they over rely on economic modelling? Do they have an inability to speak in understandable English or do they rely on incomprehensible economic terminology to convince their listeners of  their expertise? When trying to sell a policy that the purchaser (the politician) themselves could have thought of themselves these economists use baffling economic terminology to dress up what is a very simplistic policy proposal.  I can never forgive the tutor who recommended a book on market economics written by an eminent Chicago professor of economics. A book that for all its use of difficult economic terminology taught me nothing that I did not already know. Not only that it was in hardback and cost far too much; however it was a lesson well learnt. I saw my role as an economics teacher to translate the economic texts I gave my students into comprehensible English. Close reading of the texts showed how authors would use economic terminology to cover up gaps in their knowledge and understanding. Now that I am retired I wonder if this use of unnecessarily complex language was not a deliberate ploy to hide their failings as economists.

One other criteria is does the economist sound like so many others in the profession? All to often rather than analyse a problem and make reasoned suggestions, economists will take short cuts and rely upon repeating what is the common stock of economic knowledge. If they repeat it in their reports they know that they are immune from criticism, as no other economist will criticise them for repeating the mantras from the economist’s creed. While the agreed understandings and beliefs of the profession are not quite the holy writ, no criticisms of it will be tolerated by members of the profession. In conclusion it can be stated that a bad economist is a lazy thinker, someone who relies on the knowledge of the herd, one who follows convention.

Einstein once said that to do the same thing over and over again and yet expect different results each time is the height of folly. This happens regularly at the British Treasury which  insists that public services should be put out to tender and run as private enterprises, each year the Treasury finds new sectors of the public service to be farmed out to the private sector. Most recently it was the prison service, individual prisons are now to function as private companies. These new prisons will be judged on there reoffending figures. Incomes for the enterprise will depend on reoffending rates, those with the best record for reducing reoffending will get the biggest bonus payments. Profitability will depend on their success at cutting reoffending.  The only problem is that human behaviour does not respond this profit and loss model in the way the politicians assume.  If an effective method of reducing reoffending had been discovered it would have been introduced to the system long ago, as it would have been the most effective of reducing crime and costs of criminality. What methods of reducing reoffending that have been discovered are expensive to implement and one of the criteria for the new Prisons Ltd is that they keep costs to a minimum. This cost minimisation criteria goes contrary to the demand to reduce reoffending. This demonstrates another criteria naive over optimism, it is seeing the solution to complex social problems as being the adoption of simplistic business models.

When I attended my first philosophy lectures I remember Professor Oakshot talking about the various philosophical models adopted in the past. One was that adopted in the medieval period  was to examine human behaviours from the perspective of a super human being, a God’s eye perspective on mankind. Obviously mankind was found wanting or to use Augustine’s phraseology human behaviour was all too often dominated by the lower appetitive instincts. If today such a super human judged mankind he would recommend the elimination of the tribe of economists. This action would bring immediate benefits to human society and if it did not bring heaven down to earth it would lead to human society becoming much nicer.

A Sceptical Economist’s understanding of War and War Making

The sudden rush of enthusiasm for war in Syria made me realise that there is no commentary on the economics of war and war making. What I don’t intend to do is repeat the moral and political arguments on the subject of war making, which others are better qualified to make. The question that I want to answer can economics justify war, is there an economic equivalent of the churches ‘just war’? (As defined by St.’s Augustine and Thomas Aquinas)

  
Image of  Syrian  War taken from  Geopoliticsmadesuper.com
The first thing to note is that there is a peculiarity embedded in the economics of war making. All war materials be they planes or tanks are built to be destroyed. Each item will be used repeatedly until it is either no longer fit for purpose or destroyed by enemy action. War weapons are a very poor investment one that adds little to the wealth of the community. This represents a problem for accountants and economists, how do you value an asset whose only purpose is to be destroyed? The simple answer is that these war weapons are valued according to their cost of production, they can add nothing to the future wealth of society.

There is another strange feature of war weapons that represent their paradoxical nature. They are designed not to be used, the best weapons are those which are an effective deterrent to war. One such weapon is the Trident nuclear weapons system, it works if it’s never used. The government’s of the sixty years have invested vast amounts of money into a product that has never been used. It cannot be stated often enough that the best weapons are those that are never used. This was a policy practised by the British Empire in the 19th century, it always had a fleet of warships that was at least twice the size of twice the size of its rivals. No rival power ever threatened the Empire, because it risked the annihilation of their navy. Trident as a weapon of mass destruction is unparalleled as a weapon of deterrence. Perhaps this is the only occasion in which vast amounts of resources and time is spent on a product that is intended never to be used.
Although military men might object, this is where marketing proves invaluable. It is very rare for these weapons to work as described. One version of the Trident missile was rumoured to be equipped with war heads that could malfunction when in action. There was the Lockheed Starfighter nicknamed the flying coffin because of the regularity with which it fell out of the sky. There are numerous other examples of under performing expensive weapons of war, but the military of both sides keep to the pretence that their weapon systems their super weapons work perfectly well. Given the success of the intelligence services of both sides in discovering the military secrets of their rivals, they must know about the underperformance of their rivals weapons systems but prefer to keep quiet. There is an omertà in the world’s military one that prevents them ever being honest about the poor performance of their weapons systems because that would undermine their credibility as masters of war.There are no marketing men in existence as effective as the generals when it comes to marketing a dud product. 
This is another strangeness of the war market, while military men claim to be men of action, they are more accurately termed men of inaction. The most successful ones never have to do the task for which they are paid. What the good general most wants to do is avoid action and the destruction of much of his military assets. A philosophy best demonstrated in medieval warfare. Then a battle would involve such huge loss of life, that each army would usually lose a third of their manpower in battle, more in the losing army. Therefore medieval monarchs tried to avoid open battle as it would leave their army so depleted that it would be unable to fight another war. When Henry V left France in 1405, the army that remained was so depleted that it was unfit for any further battle. Only the weakness of the French acing lost the Battle of Agincourt, kept this weakened army safe from attack and destruction.
On occasions military men forget the first rule of war, that is not making war. The most recent example was the war on Iraq. There were a number of senior officials and generals in the Pentagon who were eager to test their new weapons of war in combat. War technology was so far advanced in America that these men were eager to test their weapons in combat. While there were other reasons for the Iraq war, the American military and Pentagon officials were desperate for an opportunity to play with their new weapons. When it came to war, American technology was so superior that the war was over in a matter of weeks. However it later turned out that victory was due less to superior weapons technology and more to old fashioned bribery. The Americans had paid the generals of the elite Republican Guard not to fight. The chaos that has been Iraq since 2003 demonstrates why it is foolish to regard the military option as the first and best option. When leaving the Oval Office in 1961 President Eisenhower warned of the danger posed by the ‘military industrial complex’ a danger shown by the Iraq war when the arms salesman were able to push America into a costly and pointless war.
This leads to the first rule of the economics of war, never engage in a war unless the enemy poses an existential threat as the destruction of resources and human life is so that war can never be justified for any other reason. As a British citizen the war against Hitler can be justified as it presented an existential threat to the UK, the wars in the Falklands, Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be justified.
History provides examples of why war is such a bad investment, it is their huge cost. Recently I read a history of Edward I. He was a successful war leader constantly beating his Welsh and Scottish adversaries, yet time and time again his campaigns ground to a halt when he ran out of money. What usually happened was the foot soldiers who made up the majority of the army would desert when the campaign was well under way and approaching a successful conclusion, because they had not been paid. All medieval monarchs were in debt to their bankers, because of the huge sums they had borrowed to fight wars. Today it’s little different money borrowed to finance the campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria will be paid by our grandchildren. When I was a student in the 1960s, I was told that the country was still paying for the Crimean War, a war that was fought in the 1850s. War is a fantastically expensive enterprise for which their is little return. 
As a sceptical economist I doubt the value of making huge investments in products that either will never be used or if used destroyed in combat. If I heard the new correctly our government is preparing to invest in a fleet of new fighter planes the F35 at a cost of £100 million a plane. I cannot as an economist see the utility or purpose of investing £10 billion in a product that only has one purpose which is to be destroyed. The cost of the new Trident missile system is estimated at £100 billion or just less than 10% of our annual national income. Why I don’t dispute the value of deterrence in an irrational world I do wonder if it needs to cost so much. Is their an inverse logic that applies to military thinking, which simply stated means the more that is paid for war weapons the more utility and value they possess regardless of their effectiveness? It is often said of the British military that they want gold plated weapons systems. The British and European government’s spent billions developing a warplane that had such poor flying characteristics that it was nicknamed the ‘flying sow’.
There can only be one somewhat nonsensical conclusion, the government has to invest in a product they never intend to use or hope never to use. The investment in military hardware must be sufficient to deter possible aggressors yet never be such as to bankrupt the economy. Perhaps the ideal situation occurred during the Cold War when both the USA and the Soviet Union invested billions in a weapon they never wanted to use, that is the nuclear deterrent. However peace was maintained only at the price of mutually assured destruction (MAD). This however was far from ideal as in the case of the Iraq war warriors, if one group of leaders thought they possessed an advantage over the others, they could be tempted to use their weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps the only solution is for the leaders of the most technologically advanced nation to limit their military superiority over others so no future leaders are tempted to use those weapons in a pre-emotive strike. 

The first thing to note is that there is a peculiarity embedded in the economics of war making. All war materials be they planes or tanks are built to be destroyed. Each item will be used repeatedly until it is either no longer fit for purpose or destroyed by enemy action. War weapons are a very poor investment one that adds little to the wealth of the community. This represents a problem for accountants and economists, how do you value an asset whose only purpose is to be destroyed? The simple answer is that these war weapons are valued according to their cost of production, they can add nothing to the future wealth of society.

There is another strange feature of war weapons that represent their paradoxical nature. They are designed not to be used, the best weapons are those which are an effective deterrent to war. One such weapon is the Trident nuclear weapons system, it works if it’s never used. The government’s of the sixty years have invested vast amounts of money into a product that has never been used. It cannot be stated often enough that the best weapons are those that are never used. This was a policy practised by the British Empire in the 19th century, it always had a fleet of warships that was at least twice the size of twice the size of its rivals. No rival power ever threatened the Empire, because it risked the annihilation of their navy. Trident as a weapon of mass destruction is unparalleled as a weapon of deterrence. Perhaps this is the only occasion in which vast amounts of resources and time is spent on a product that is intended never to be used.
Although military men might object, this is where marketing proves invaluable. It is very rare for these weapons to work as described. One version of the Trident missile was rumoured to be equipped with war heads that could malfunction when in action. There was the Lockheed Starfighter nicknamed the flying coffin because of the regularity with which it fell out of the sky. There are numerous other examples of under performing expensive weapons of war, but the military of both sides keep to the pretence that their weapon systems their super weapons work perfectly well. Given the success of the intelligence services of both sides in discovering the military secrets of their rivals, they must know about the underperformance of their rivals weapons systems but prefer to keep quiet. There is an omertà in the world’s military one that prevents them ever being honest about the poor performance of their weapons systems because that would undermine their credibility as masters of war.There are no marketing men in existence as effective as the generals when it comes to marketing a dud product. 
This is another strangeness of the war market, while military men claim to be men of action, they are more accurately termed men of inaction. The most successful ones never have to do the task for which they are paid. What the good general most wants to do is avoid action and the destruction of much of his military assets. A philosophy best demonstrated in medieval warfare. Then a battle would involve such huge loss of life, that each army would usually lose a third of their manpower in battle, more in the losing army. Therefore medieval monarchs tried to avoid open battle as it would leave their army so depleted that it would be unable to fight another war. When Henry V left France in 1405, the army that remained was so depleted that it was unfit for any further battle. Only the weakness of the French acing lost the Battle of Agincourt, kept this weakened army safe from attack and destruction.
On occasions military men forget the first rule of war, that is not making war. The most recent example was the war on Iraq. There were a number of senior officials and generals in the Pentagon who were eager to test their new weapons of war in combat. War technology was so far advanced in America that these men were eager to test their weapons in combat. While there were other reasons for the Iraq war, the American military and Pentagon officials were desperate for an opportunity to play with their new weapons. When it came to war, American technology was so superior that the war was over in a matter of weeks. However it later turned out that victory was due less to superior weapons technology and more to old fashioned bribery. The Americans had paid the generals of the elite Republican Guard not to fight. The chaos that has been Iraq since 2003 demonstrates why it is foolish to regard the military option as the first and best option. When leaving the Oval Office in 1961 President Eisenhower warned of the danger posed by the ‘military industrial complex’ a danger shown by the Iraq war when the arms salesman were able to push America into a costly and pointless war.
This leads to the first rule of the economics of war, never engage in a war unless the enemy poses an existential threat as the destruction of resources and human life is so that war can never be justified for any other reason. As a British citizen the war against Hitler can be justified as it presented an existential threat to the UK, the wars in the Falklands, Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be justified.
History provides examples of why war is such a bad investment, it is their huge cost. Recently I read a history of Edward I. He was a successful war leader constantly beating his Welsh and Scottish adversaries, yet time and time again his campaigns ground to a halt when he ran out of money. What usually happened was the foot soldiers who made up the majority of the army would desert when the campaign was well under way and approaching a successful conclusion, because they had not been paid. All medieval monarchs were in debt to their bankers, because of the huge sums they had borrowed to fight wars. Today it’s little different money borrowed to finance the campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria will be paid by our grandchildren. When I was a student in the 1960s, I was told that the country was still paying for the Crimean War, a war that was fought in the 1850s. War is a fantastically expensive enterprise for which their is little return. 
As a sceptical economist I doubt the value of making huge investments in products that either will never be used or if used destroyed in combat. If I heard the new correctly our government is preparing to invest in a fleet of new fighter planes the F35 at a cost of £100 million a plane. I cannot as an economist see the utility or purpose of investing £10 billion in a product that only has one purpose which is to be destroyed. The cost of the new Trident missile system is estimated at £100 billion or just less than 10% of our annual national income. Why I don’t dispute the value of deterrence in an irrational world I do wonder if it needs to cost so much. Is their an inverse logic that applies to military thinking, which simply stated means the more that is paid for war weapons the more utility and value they possess regardless of their effectiveness? Is price becoming the new deterrent? It is often said of the British military that they want gold plated weapons systems. The British and European government’s spent billions developing a warplane that had such poor flying characteristics that it was nicknamed the ‘flying sow’.
There can only be one somewhat nonsensical conclusion, the government has to invest in a product they never intend to use or hope never to use. The investment in military hardware must be sufficient to deter possible aggressors yet never be such as to bankrupt the country.Perhaps the ideal situation occurred during the Cold War when both the USA and the Soviet Union invested billions in a weapon they never wanted to use, that is the nuclear deterrent. However peace was maintained only at the price of mutually assured destruction (MAD). This however was far from ideal as in the case of the Iraq war warriors, if one group of leaders thought they possessed an advantage over the others, they could be tempted to use their weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps the only solution is for the leaders of the most technologically advanced nation to limit their military superiority over others so no future leaders are tempted to use those weapons in a pre-emotive strike. 

Evil always comes with a smile on its face

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 Temptation of Christ
Ary Scheffer, 1854
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.

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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.