Tag Archives: Karl Jaspers

A Remembered Country Childhood 2

Growing up in the countryside you experience a sense of intimacy with nature. There is no feeling that nature is something alien or distant from your lived experience. Then my world was that limited by the distance I could walk. Even the occasional trips to distant towns by bus did not change this perception. The slowness of motion meant that I was constantly observing the environment in which I travelled. In spring I knew where to go to pick primroses for my mother, in summer I knew of the best places to pick wild strawberries and blackberries, in autumn hazel nuts and in winter where to look for frozen puddles on which to skate. As a country child you have a sense of oneness, you are part of countryside. Family visitors from the town were different to us, as they were alien to the ways of the countryside. They were missing a vital part of the human experience.

Although as a child you saw the countryside as a friend, you were also aware of the dangers. Never drink black water that gathered in the hollows within tree trunks, that was a warning given by my father. He told by me of two brothers who died from drinking such water. The first when thirsty on a hot summers drank it to assuage his first. He soon died from a bacterial infection and his brother out of remorse committed suicide by doing the same. Usually warning tales were less threatening. Never eat blackberries with the morning dew on them, as it would give you diarrhoea. As the folk tale had it they had been ‘pissed on by the devil’, which is why they made you ill. It was the latter which always stuck in my mind, not the former. These tales were suggestive of an easy going familiarity with nature.

One tradition I remember was the beating of the parish boundaries, something which I always wished to attend, as it sounded fun. I thought because it fell on a school day, that was the reason for which I could not attend. However it was because whenever the men stopped to beat the boundary, they passed around the flasks of spirits. It was an occasion of adult merrymaking which boys were forbidden from attending.

This familiarity extended to the names given to features and places. There was Tom Miles’ pool, so named after the Tom that fell into it. A field given the name the lump of dirt explains itself. There was North America, that part of the farmland which was so named, because it was so remote from the home farm. Later as a teenager I thought no such part of the local landscape could be so named. It must be a joke name known only to the local farmhands and gamekeepers. However a map of locality revealed an area named North America.

There was certain magic to this name giving. There was the fairy glen. A glen created within woodland at the express orders of the lady of the manor. We children were told that it had been made to provide a home for the fairies on the estate. In springtime it was ablaze with colour with, the various yellows of primroses and daffodils. An imaginative child such as myself could easily be persuaded that such a beautiful place was the home of fairies. Often when passing the glen my sister and I argued about whether not we had a spotted a fairy amongst the daffodils and ferns.

What I felt in the villages of my childhood was a sense of ‘at homeness’. Names given to easily identifiable sites gave you a sense of place and belonging. A certain ‘oneness’ with nature. I loved dusk when the darkening sky changed the landscape, when growing shadows changed the shapes of things. Old trees bent over and distorted with age took on new shapes, shapes that I could associate with the stories I heard. The dark hollows beneath the trees became entrances to another world. One of the themes of the many children’s stories and folklore was the luring of people by the fairies down to their magical underground kingdoms. Only returning as old men to there former homes as strangers finding that all the people that they knew had died. As an imaginative child I never feared nature, even at night. Nature to me was a friend somebody or thing with which I identified.

There was a mystery to nature, I was aware of a greater something or presence that was the spirit of nature. Heraclitus explained what I felt when he stated that nature is hiding within plain sight. Despite the evidence of nature being all around us, we don’t really know nature. Nature is that eternal something that gives shape and form to the nature we can see, we can know nature by its appearance but not its essence.

This is an understanding developed by the Czech philosopher Erazim Koháv*. Nature to him as is that mysterious being we cannot know but of which we cannot but be aware. We exist he states at that point in which our temporal being intersects with that eternity which is nature. That eternity has a place for us within its order, a place superior to all the other fauna. This superior position in nature comes with responsibilities. the duty of care. Given the ephemeral nature of our existence, it is our duty to pass nature undamaged to those millions of beings that in the future will be dependent on it. The nameless Saxon noble who compared the human timespan to that of the time spent by a sparrow passing through the Great Hall, understood human existence. Nature is there to be used, but it must be used correctly, exploitation of the type practised today agri-business is to be condemned.

As a father and grandfather I wish that my children and grandson will know something similar to the nature that I knew as a child. Then butterflies were not seen in ones or twos, but as a moving colourful moving mass that swarmed over the green verges of the roadsides. Not so rare that butterfly collecting Fields that were not subject to today’s monoculture, hosted a variety of flora. Wildflowers such as buttercups, milk maids, poppies, birds eyes and lords and ladies slippers gave colour to the dull greens and yellows of the cultivated hay meadows and cornfields.

This philosophy of nature which I share with Heraclitus and Koháv can be dismissed as mysticism. When Koháv speaks of the mystical experience he undergoes with the coming of dusk, when senses the presence of God; his philosophy of nature can be dismissed as mere romanticism. However anyone who has experienced the coming of the dusk in the countryside know that he speaks of a real experience. With the coming of dusk perception changes, certain senses such as hearing become strengthened, while others such as sight become weakened. What were once prominent features of the daytime landscape slowly disappear and the landscape of sound becomes more prominent. I have experienced the same magic to which Koháv has become subject to, it’s a wonderful moment when the world slowly takes on a new shape.

The lived experience of a country childhood has made me a deist. I was aware of a greater presence within nature, which as Heraclitus states is hiding within plain sight. Unlike Koháv although I love the religion of my fathers, I cannot call myself a Christian. Nature for me is still in essence the great unknown, the indescribable. Codifying it, enclosing it with a framework of beliefs merely diminishes it. All the criticisms of my rural mysticism I can understand and find difficult to refute. The only justification is that my country upbringing left me in awe of nature and deism is the only way I can express that awe. It is that sense of the presence of a greater something within nature.

Jaspers wrote that myth is the only means of expressing truths that cannot be expressed in any other way. If my deism is a only a myth or story well told, I can accept that as it an expression my respect for the natural order. Industrial farming that I have witnessed is disrespectful and damaging of that natural order. When I read that with current farming methods that there are only 65 harvests left before the soil becomes too impoverished to support agriculture, I see this as a justification of my deism. No deist would wantonly destroy the natural order for profit our values a very different.

* Erazim Koháv The Embers and the Stars

A God for an Economist

Whenever I confess my belief in a God my friends are incredulous. They cannot understand how a person who they consider an intelligent rational thinker can believe in such a superstition. What makes my position seem even more ludicrous is that I am a negative theologian, that is I believe that God in his essence is unknowable. Bertrand Russell pointed out that is illogical to believe in something or someone that is unknowable as a knowledge of such a being is impossible, it’s a logical contradiction. How could you know if you did not know? However I want to turn these arguments on their head. As an economist I talk about the economy but I as with my thousands of fellow economists don’t really know what the economy is in its essence. I can talk about markets, the balance of payments but they are only certain highly visible parts of the economy. Classical economists and those of a Neo-Liberal persuasion will claim that the economy consists of a number of inter related markets. The falsity of this claim is demonstrated by this simple truth, if economists understood the true nature of the economy they would have at their disposal all the tools necessary to manage and control the economy. Economic crises would disappear instead of occurring at regular intervals and the economy would be on continuous trajectory of growth. The welfare of all would be maximised. History demonstrates the fallibility of economists, all to often they get it wrong. It should not be forgotten that when the financial crisis struck in 2008, the majority of economists were caught by surprise. Only a small minority expected a crisis, but they were a small disregarded and isolated minority.

I do then believe in the existence of two entities neither of which I can really know in essence. It can be argued that while I may not understand the real nature of the economy, I am every day affected by the reality of it, it is not something that I cannot ignore, it is just there. The economy generates the tax revenues from which my pension is funded, everyday I participate in this self same economy that has the shops and chains of distribution from which I buy the essentials and good things that make my life bearable. One such good thing is the cappuccino that I buy daily at my local Salumeria. Similarly nobody would deny that they are affected by the good and bad actions of others. What hurts most, being betrayed by a friend or being unable to buy the latest IPhone through lack of funds? We all participate daily in a network of relationships whose nature determines our sense of well being. However whether they are defined as spiteful, hurtful, mean, bad or evil actions, the consequences of such actions can be devastating for the victim, more so than any economic loss. Similarly friendly, helpful, kind or good actions can transform the life of the beneficiary of such actions.

Fiction provides the classic example of a life transforming good action. The Priest in ‘Les Miserables’ who forgives Jean Valjean for his theft of the church’s candle sticks. If he had not forgiven him, Jean Valjean would have been sent back to the prison galleys where he would have lived out a short and wretched life. Human relationships can be explained or described in many terms, but all too often they are permeated with a sense of good and bad. Theologians such as myself identify that sense of good with God.

There is a tradition of Christian Neo-Platonism that goes back to St.Augustine, a tradition to which I belong that identifies God with the Good. Identifying God with the good, transforms God into a solely moral entity, an identification which I find sufficient. God as the Good, that is the source of that sense of goodness that informs all moral actions. Constantly we speak of good actions that is actions which have in common that thing which we call good. Yet this good is indefinable except through descriptions of good actions. It is this indefinable essence that theologians such as myself call God.

Describing good as a moral sense derived from God is a pre modern concept, but one that is given a contemporary guise by the theologian Caputo. God he sees as a weak God in the sense that his is a God of moral sensibilities not power. This weak God exists outside human society but is constantly pushing in and that pushing in takes the form of a pushing in of moral sensibilities. Sensibilities which mankind is free to accept or reject. Given that all accept that good in its essence is indefinable I see this explanation of the origin of good as the most acceptable. Neither Caputo or I know God but we both know God as this moral sense or good itself. This to me is the most acceptable explanation of the existence of that moral sense known as the good. This understanding of good and the nature of God is a myth in the Platonic sense. It is a truth than can only be spoken of in terms of a myth, the myth of a weak but moral God, exist beyond but in constant contact with human society. Framing truths in mythological terms does not make them less true. Some truths because of their nature cannot be explained in other than the language of religious mythology.

There is a simple story that explains my reasoning. Heidegger was one the greatest 20th century German philosophers, the one who subjected the nature of being (humanity) to forensic scrutiny, yet he almost completely lacked any moral sense. When Hitler came to power he became an enthusiast for the Nazis. He refused to help his Jewish lover Hannah Arendt, he in fact abandoned her to her fate. Fortunately she was able to escape to the USA, but with no help from Heidegger. This supreme rationalist thinker eagerly participated in all the intellectual nonsense propagated by the Nazi regime. He believed that the of the philosophy of ‘sturm und drang’ captured the essence of the Germanic nation. A man who never understood why after the Second World War that is was right that he should be excluded from teaching in German universities. In contrast to him there was the lesser philosopher the catholic Jaspers, who opposed the Nazis and had to flee to Switzerland. What cannot be denied is that Jaspers moral sense was greater than Heidegger’s, although he was the inferior thinker. Jaspers had far more of the nature of goodness about him than did Heidegger. Hannah Arendt later described Heidegger as a man devoid of any moral sense. Perhaps because Jaspers knew that myth was a valid means of demonstrating truth, that he was able to comprehend the true meaning of the Christian myths and resist the evil of Nazism. An understanding denied to a purely rational thinker such as Heidegger.

At the end of his life Heidegger began to turn away from rationalism and began to look for truth as expressed in poetry. He found truth in the poetry of Rilke and Holderlin that was absent from his great work of philosophy ‘Being and Time’. This new searching for truth found him attending Sunday Mass at his local Catholic Church.

If I give an identity to good surely it is necessary to give an identity to evil, a theology such as mine requires a devil as the personification of evil. Admitting the existence of the devil would take my theology back to the Middle Ages. Fortunately Augustine provides an answer as to why there is evil in the world without needing to reference a devil. Evil acts according to Augustine are undertaken by those who do not know good or God. Rather than evil being a thing it is a not knowing, a not knowing God. Men with no moral reference points commit bad acts, because they have no knowledge of good. Knowing good means more than just knowing the word, it a knowing that penetrates the very fibre of existence. It’s a knowing that involves changing one’s persona according to the strictures of good or God. As Plato said once you know good you will not wish to do evil. The most extreme practice for the knowing of good was that undertaken by the hermits such as St. Anthony who spent a lifetime as a hermit living in exile in the desert struggling to know God or good. However Kierkegaard provides a more achievable alternative, he recognises the frailty of human nature. A Christian life for Kierkegaard is one of slipping in and out of that ecstatic knowing if God (good), it is impossible he says to constantly be know good, as we are all moral backsliders. In Augustine’s word we are the ‘not so good, saints but our actions are influenced by our understanding of the good.

The problem with theology as with philosophy is that once one starts to unpick the ideas that make up the content of the subject, the investigation into their significance and meaning can be endless. Rather than undertake such an investigation I prefer to state that this theologian and economist finds it sufficient to identify God with that moral sense we know as good. Other understandings of God are unnecessary, God might be a creator God, the Triune God (the one in three God) or the God that brings the world to an end at the end of days, but they are all irrelevant to how I act. They are questions that I don’t need answering. To put it in the language of the past I am an adept in two separate spheres of knowledge the non rational knowing of God and the rational understanding of economy. As with Jaspers I subordinate the knowledge of the second to the first, as moral sensibility must always take precedence over and inform my rational thinking. Never unlike many current economists and politicians could I subscribe to Says Law which states that in any recession unemployment and falling wages must be allowed to continue until the wages of the unemployed as so low that they price themselves back into employment. The misery that is consequent on adopting this policy disqualifies it as a viable policy option. How can it be right in a rich country such as Britain to have children going hungry and living in squalor? Yet our political class practises a more sophisticated version of Says law under the cover of globalisation, which states that to keep people in work in face of competition abroad it is necessary to reduce incomes to the lowest level to retain employment in this country. There are many alternative policies which could be adopted with better outcomes for all but which are never considered.