Tag Archives: kierkegaard

Epictetus and our narcissistic politicians

Epictetus (AD 55 – AD 135) is a Greek philosopher whose writings never seem to date. One particular discourse is which impresses me is addressed to those who wish to be admired. A very apt discourse in an age which is obsessed with celebrity. Not only obsessed with celebrity, but an age in which our politics is dominated by a group of narcissistic celebrity politicians. Leaders who crave the adulation of the crowd. Epictetus offers these people a stark rejoinder, which is that there very actions are going to win them the affections of those who can be most easily swayed. These peoples affections change quickly, today’s hero is instantly forgotten when these people find a new subject for there affections. Our narcissistic politicians are aware of this and their politics is reduced to a  constant struggle to retain the affections of the volatile crowd.

The crowd’s affection is retained by maintaining a high profile in the media. What this media wants is a constant series of highlights to hold the fickle crowds attention. Media celebrities such as the Kardashians are the masters of media manipulation. They can create daily stories for their social media followers a series of eye catching and glitzy events. However a politics that consists of just a series of media highlights is bad politics. What should be a reasoned deliberative practice is now reduced to the practice of producing simplistic stores of headline grabbing nature? Now the politician is no longer the master but the slave.

What Epictetus states is the affections these politicians win are not real or substantial. They are merely the latest glittering media toy that catches  the crowds attention. One politician who is admired for his japes or media catching antics does not have the respect of the crowd, just their attention. He might think he is the new Churchill, the man who will change the nation’s destiny, but to the crowd he is an amusing distraction. A distraction from the dull difficult stuff that is the reality of politics. Unfortunately these narcissists are reducing politics to a reality game show. What matters is who has the most engaging personality, it’s  a political Love Island. Politics is reduced to the jostling of the politicians, each determined to come out on top in this personality contest.

Epictetus makes clear that the popularity these politicians seek to win is with the worst kind of people. What our narcissistic politicians must win the support of the representatives of the people. These representatives are the media bosses and their journalists. These representatives are the interpreters and explainers of the will of the people. However they are not of the people. Journalists and those working in the world of media overwhelming come from elite backgrounds. Only 8% of the population went to private schools, and even less to Oxbridge, yet people from these backgrounds dominate the media. This leads to the curious situation in one group of the elite, tabloid journalists speak to the political elite as representatives of the people. What the people speak to our leaders is mediated through these media filters.  A filter that is not impartial, but one that gives the people the voice that it thinks they should have. All one can add is that whatever the tabloid press and media express is not the voice of the people, but one that is a creation of the media world. When Kierkegaard said that public opinion is the dogs opinion he gave the best description that I can find of today media world.

What our narcissistic politicians are incapable of doing is making good decisions. Deliberation and reason are alien to there thinking. What matters is how will there decisions sit with the crowd. In consequence today is the time of bad politics, when politicians make only those decisions that will please the crowd. There politicians shy away from difficult decisions that would make them unpopular, instead such decisions are postponed or delayed in the hope that the people won’t notice.


Against Riches

Socrates is perhaps the first of the great philosophers and he was hopeless with money. His wife was driven to despair when he instead of working at his profitable trade as a stone mason, he spent his time in philosophical discussions with his friends in the market place. There is some dissonance between philosophers and wealth. Even when such as Bertrand Russel they inherit wealth, they usually mismanage it and bequeath their heirs less wealth than they themselves inherited. Wittgenstein was a philosopher in the true socratic tradition, he gave the estates he inherited to his brother, as managing an estate would be a distraction to his study of philosophy. There is something about the love of wisdom that causes philosophers to disdain wealth.

Wealth does seem to produce trivial or just plain silly thinking in the people that possess it in abundance. Possibly best demonstrated in the life style website Goop of the actress of Gwyneth Paltrow. There one can find all manner of bizarre lifestyle practices that are claimed to enable the practitioner to lead a better life. While such sites are easily mocked and are of little real significance, what is disturbing the reverence with which the thoughts of the very rich are treated. Billionaires think that the possession of such great wealth distinguishes them from the common run of mankind. They see themselves as supermen, who think that they should be privileged not just for their possession of great wealth, but for there thinking, they are the thinkers of exceptional thougts. I remember reading as a child that the common man would be out of their depth at the dinner table of the Mountbatten’s*, because these gifted individuals thought thoughts beyond the comprehension of the ordinary man.

These ‘great thinkers’ can rely upon myth makers to weave a story that demonstrates their superiority. Ayn Rand is the latest of the myth makers who claim the possession of great wealth as an indicator of a great mind, a person who is one of society’s shakers and movers. Prior to that it was people such as Lord Blake who claimed that membership of the aristocracy was the best qualification that a person could have for leadership roles in society.

Yet when the thoughts of these great men are examined, they are notable not for there genius but their mediocrity. I remember reading of what billionaire who claimed to be able to solve Britain’s unemployment problem. He claimed that it could be done by abolishing the minimum wage. What he claimed was that the current wage rates made too many people to expensive to employ, therefore there was unemployment. Obviously if wages were cut all would be employed. What never occurred to him was that a certain minimum level of income was necessary for human survival. The fact that low wages would lead to hunger and other social ills was of no consequence to him. For him the poor never featured in his thinking as fellow human beings.

The question I want to answer is why does the possession of great wealth make it impossible to think great thoughts. I am not condemning the possession of wealth, just the possession of great wealth. As a person of modest wealth that would be hypocritical, I do believe that there is a certain minimum level of wealth that is necessary for the good life. There is no virtue is not being able to pay the bills.

When trying to ask why such ordinary men believe that they alone are uniquely gifted with knowledge denied to others, one answer is arrogance. The vast majority of the wealthy were born into wealth and as such from the very moment they were conscious, they expected to be deferred to by those around them.Whatever they said would be treated with respect, no matter how silly their ideas. Growing up on a country estate, I soon learnt that the greatest misdemeanour was to show disrespect to the seigneur or a member of his extended family. Disrespect meant uttering some disagreement no matter how moderate the thoughts expressed by a member of this group. The father of the current seigneur demanded that his workers only spoke to him if he spoke to them first. Anybody who disrespected this rule was immediately dismissed. While this is an extreme example, it does demonstrate how privilege of birth leads to the corruption of the intellect.

All of these people it can be argued have been educated at our elite universities, so they should as Lord Mountbatten thought be better educated than the common place individual. However such education seems to be designed to give them an elegance of expression rather than of thought. All the lazy prejudices of the wealthy are given a literary sheen that makes them when expressed appear profound. A friend of mine who was a former member of the working classes, always criticised Bob Crowe* when he appeared on television for the inarticulate nature of his expression and thinking. What he was doing was equating a limited verbal vocabulary with an unsophisticated manner of thinking. Yet I never heard him utter such criticisms of the various representatives of the employing class or the political right who appeared on TV. He as with all of us was over impressed with an elegance of speech which disguised a vacuity of thinking.

Probably it helps that the ideas of the wealthy are so often part of the mainstream of the public dialogue.  In an unequal society the ideology of social and intellectual inequality is one of the essential props necessary for the perpetuation of the system. Therefore it is easier to get one’s thinking accepted and into print if such thinking accords with the accepted belief system. Finding a publisher is much easier if an individual writes in the language of the mainstream. The media then confirms the thinking of the most mediocre of the class of the wealthy. It really should be of little surprise that the wealthy and privileged should think that their thoughts are those that are correct and true, as they are rarely exposed to contrary thinking in the media.

What I want to argue for is the superiority of the thinking of the lower middle classes, a group for whom life is often a struggle. This is not a struggle for survival but a struggle for success. A struggle to gain those material goods thought necessary for the good life. Yet they are also group which has sufficient leisure for study and whose education introduced them to the writings of the great thinkers of the past. Aristotle was a doctor and as such is one whose life is an exemplar for the middle class thinker. There is no privilege, one has to earn the right to heard, one has to compete within the market place of ideas. Not having a privileged status one is denied to opportunity to think stupid thoughts, as such thinking would be ridiculed. Isaiah Berlin wrote that the case for right wing philosophy is almost impossible to make*. A reasoned philosophy cannot have as it’s founding principles self satisfaction, complacency, greed or the abuse of power. When people such as Lord Blake defend privilege they rely upon tradition, they see tradition as the passing down of a superiority in thinking and manner from one privileged generation to another. Bear and bull baiting were traditional sports practised in Britain for centuries, yet this did not make them right, both were justly outlawed because of they were barbaric. Blake’s defence of privilege is equally fallacious.

Not having a privileged upbringing makes one aware of the inequalities and unfairness of human society, whether one wishes it or not you are constantly being reminded of the failings of that society. One is born a critic of society, a discontent being inured which makes one instantly critical of existing human practices and ideas.  Without this critical faculty, thinking becomes trivial ,insubstantial and uninteresting, it is the thinking of the self satisfied. This sense of a lack of an indefinable something in society is what drives us to look for new and different answers. Kierkegaard writes of the abyss, the point at beyond which the thinking person comes to that point at human thought ceases provide any meaning to life. For Kierkegaard it is at this point that people turn to Christ. Only Christ can provide this missing something . Although I love Kierkegaard as an author, I would suggest that this sense of an abyss instead forces on one a recognition of the inadequacy of existing ideas and the desperation to seek new answers.  I don’t believe philosophers can ever adequately answer the problem posed by the abyss. Every generation will find fault with existing thinking and will feel the need to find new answers to the challenge of the abyss. It is the reinventing of the wheel but a very profitable reinventing. Being born to wealth means the sense of the abyss will never be as acute, as wealth can always buy distractions from the abyss. Possibly this is why the life of the super rich is one of conspicuous consumption, they constantly need new toys to distract them from the emptiness of their lives.

If the rich and privileged are not capable of great thoughts, I would argue that they are disqualified from great holdings of wealth which give them power over the lives of others, which they are not qualified to possess. There is one contemporary example which demonstrates the unfitness of the rich to their wealth. Hugh Hefner the millionaire publisher used his magazine ‘Playboy’ as a vehicle for promoting his thinking and superior lifestyle. A man whose written thoughts were no more than a manual on how to exploit young women, which demonstrates the essential nastiness that is at the heart of the culture of the rich and powerful.

* A former member of the Royal family at whose table the now Prince of Wales regularly dined.

  • The former leader of the RMT union who in negotiations regularly outsmarted his opponents. Men all of whom had been educated at the elite universities and whom one would think would be superior in the skills of reasoning and argument. I do suspect Bob Crowe overplayed his inarticulacy, so as to give his opponents a false sense of superiority.
  • One exception to the rule is Michael Oakshott, but his conservative philosophy was a philosophy of scepticism, which was inherited  from the Greek philosophers of scepticism, men such as Pyrro and Sextus Empiricus. Reading Wikipedia `I see that I have a very different understanding of Michael Oakshott to that of the author of an article on him.

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.

Religious mysticism and economics

Javanese Mystical Beliefs The New York Times

All my adult life I have been trying to come to terms with what I learnt in my undergraduate philosophy classes. Coming from a relatively isolated rural Anglican background I had a belief in moral absolutes such as good and truth. Such terms where regularly used in conversation in my rural community, local villains were known as such and there was no ambiguity in our moral understandings. However at university I was introduced to a critical philosophy that undermined my belief in moral absolutes. One such example were the writings of Gilbert Ryle in which he dismissed the concept of a moral good. Good he explained was a term incapable of definition, as people would give differing explanations of what good meant, therefore could could be no more than an emotion. The same philosopher dismissed human consciousness as the ‘ghost in the machine’. He was sceptical of the notion of a special quality called consciousness existing apart from the biological mechanisms, which produced emotions and feelings. The idea of self was suspect, it did not fit with the understanding that biologists had of the human being. Consciousness and self were unscientific, their existence could not be proved, so it was illogical to believe in them. I guess I like many students felt the moral tectonic plates shift beneath my feet and realised the moral truths in which I believed had no firm foundation. Using the biblical analogy I was living in a house built on the shifting sands of contemporary morality.

However these relativist philosophers had not abandoned any notion of moral good. In practice they saw good as having some functional value, they behaved as would good men and women. They were fair in their treatment of us, turned up regularly to lectures etc. If they had behaved immorally the whole system would have collapsed. The first lesson I absorbed as that even if they did not see good and truth as moral absolutes, they saw them as having a practical utility.

I never really abandoned my Anglican beliefs, although I ceased to be a practising one. The 1960’s and 1970’s were an age of secularism and I used to enjoy discomforting my friends by telling them I was a Christian. Christians were for them a kind of pre-modern being, who were as distant from modern man, as were the Neanderthals from Homo Sapiens. Intelligent people for them could not believe in the myths and fairy stories of which organised religion was composed.

What I have sought since my university days is some intellectual underpinning or substance for my pre-modern beliefs in good and bad. I could not accept that there only purpose was that of enabling men to live together in an organised society. Interestingly I did learnt of one community in the Pacific, where stealing and dishonesty were valued. However this particular community, because of its dysfunctional nature was dying out.

Obviously I read widely, there is probably not a major philosopher of whom I do not have some knowledge, but it was not until I studied theology as a postgraduate that I began to make progress in finding solid ground on which to found my beliefs. The answer lies in the paradoxical nature of the unknown God, whose is both unknown and known. All theologians are to some degree negative theologians, they admit God is beyond human understanding, yet they claim some knowledge of this unknown God. Bertrand Russell scoffed at these theologians who believed in an unknown God as he pointed out that it was absurd to claim belief in a being that had no existence. However he misunderstood what theologians mean when they say they have no knowledge of God. God is unknown because he cannot be known through the usual methods of human understanding, as he exists beyond human existence. There can be no book of God as it is impossible to describe or explain what God is in language. There can be no science of religion, the science of observation or the laws of cause and effect have no relevance to the study of God. Yet this God can be known to the individual, but not through the usual means of human understanding.

Knowing God is a peculiarly individual experience, it is not as Kierkegaard states something that can be picked up from an afternoon’s study. There are no texts of instruction as such or a required reading list. Following Kierkegaard we cannot use direct language to speak of God, he cannot be described, but instead the language of God must be indirect language. The great religious teachers of the past are largely ignored but to learn the way to knowing truth or God it is to them that one must turn. It’s a knowledge quite unlike the knowledge of science or the humanities. Indirect learning or knowledge is the means of accessing these higher truth. The twentieth century philosopher Jasper explains that myth is one very successful way in which these truths can be accessed. Probably he’s thinking of Plato’s myth of the cave, in which he compares humanity to a group of men chained in a cave facing a wall behind which is a fire. Behind that wall are passed images which cast shadows of the cave wall and the chained men believe that those shadow images are reality. When one of the chained men escapes and goes into the sunlight and returns to tell the chained men what he has seen they refuse to believe him; they prefer the shadows or appearances with which they are familiar. What Plato is demonstrating is that the knowledge for understanding everyday existence is inadequate for the task of understanding what he and his Islamic successors (Sufis) would term the real. Plato has another a myth that explains the link between the real and the world of appearances in which we live. The creator God fashions the world and humanity out of clay and he uses as his model for creation the ‘real’. We are but copies of what the creator God could see, but which are concealed to us. Plato never believed the myths he created were ‘real’ but they was the only way he could explain, the complex nature of reality and existence. Jaspers put it more succinctly, there are some truths that can only be told through the use of myths.

Plato’s separation of the world into two spheres that of appearance and reality has remained influential. It is an understanding of existence that has been developed within the religious traditions of both Christianity and Islam. Rather than myth the Sufi sages use poetry, metaphor being a substitute for myth. One of my favourite phrases is taken from Rumi’s poem ‘The North Wind’

‘No matter how hard you stare into muddy water
you will not see the moon or sun’

It’s one of the best summaries of the Platonic need to search for truth beyond the world of ‘appearances’. However describing this world as one of ‘appearances’ does contradict our understanding of reality. Doctor Johnson gave the best retort, when he criticised Bishop Berkley’s theology, which saw the world as a product of God’s imagining. He said the pain he felt when stone he knocked his foot against was all too real, and was not a product of somebody’s imagining. All I can say is that Plato was trying to describe a level of reality that as it was not immediately visible and it could be distinguished from a reality that was all too apparent, which appears to us.

A person such as myself is described as a mystic, a term which I feel is derogatory as I believe my approach to knowing truth is quite rational. There is however a good reason for writing about my understanding of mysticism as a economist. Mysticism gives a very different understanding of the world to that of a practitioner of a science of the world of appearances. Economics judges the world in quantitive terms, using terms such as cost, loss and profit; it has no place for values. Therefore its practitioners are capable of making the most inhumane decisions, as they lack any sense of value. Milton Friedman could approve the torture and killing of trade unionists because their destruction paved the way to the free market. Ian Duncan Smith the minister for welfare can pursue a policy that through the removal of benefits impoverishes the poor and which even in extreme cases has led to suicide, as a means of incentivising people to return to work. To an economist misery and suffering are good if they produce the right result. Religious mystics could never accept such an inhumane belief system, they value the individual human too highly. Inflicting suffering is never an option for them, one hungry child is never the justification for this cruel method of incentivising work. Only an economist of the Neo-Liberal persuasion could be indifferent to human pain. Economics will constantly fail as it lacks a value system that would enable it to satisfy human wants. What economics so lack as a contemporary science is a knowledge of the old.

Plato (428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BCE) Classical Greek philosopher
Jelaluddin Rumi (30 September 1207 – 17 December 1273) Islamic jurist, theologian and mystic
Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (5 May 1813 – 11 November 1855) was a Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, social critic and religious author
Milton Friedman (July 31, 1912 – November 16, 2006) American economist

Is not ‘Black Friday’ but a symptom of a sickness that infects British society?


Shoppers competing to get discounted televisions on Black Friday. (London Evening Standard)

Seeing the gardarene swine like behaviour of the Black Friday shoppers, with customers fighting each other to get bargains, reminded me so much of the emptiness of contemporary Life. Thus behaviour longer attracts much criticism of these it is more likely the competitive zeal of these shoppers will earn them admiration. If this frenzied hyperactivity was restricted to shopping, it would be a problem but one with limits. However this frenzied hyperactivity is not limited to bargain hunters but is a behavioural practice characteristic of contemporary Britain. This practice is at is most dangerous when practised by our politicians who rush out a frenzy ill considered legislation to meet whatever crisis or problem occurs. Criminal law reform is one such example it seems that each successive government has to make major changes to criminal law to satisfy the apparent public demand for new laws to protect them from dangerous criminals. Reflection not something practised by contemporary politicians, no contemporary politician would copy would as did Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan read Trollope’s novels while in office, reading would either be some serious economic or political tome for fear of not being seen to be ‘on the job’ or a collection of DVD’s, acceptable frivolity. They are truly the ‘One Dimensional Men’ as described by Marcuse. Men with no depth or breadth of vision. One unfair but a comment with some truth in it is that legislation is rushed out to meet tomorrow’s media deadlines.

Politicians have a philosophy to justify their behaviour, it’s the market led theory of politics. They are as with businesses just there to respond to the demands of their customers. If their consumers suffer from a fear of crime, what is needed is more laws to reassure the voting political customer that their concerns are being met. Whether this crowd pleasing legislation has any impact on actual crime is debatable. What matters is reassuring the customer. Draconian anti drug legislation has had little impact on actual drug taking, but it’s there to reassure the public that the government takes drug abuse seriously. The unintended consequence of this legislation is to eliminate the small time (easily caught) drug dealer from the market, leaving the trade in the hands of major criminal cartels who are able to evade detection through either corrupting the law enforcement agencies or through using expensive sophisticated methods to avoid detection. The fact that current drug laws have inadvertently led to the creation of rich powerful criminal gangs is of no relevance to the government of the day. The fact that there are better alternatives is irrelevant as they lack the crowd pleasing factor.

One thought that occurs to me is that any drug baron would want the current laws to continue in operation as by eliminating many smaller rivals it enables them to remain a monopoly supplier.

A possible explanation

What I want is an explanation of why so many in society indulge in this frenzied purposeless activity. Kierkegaard (The Concept of Anxiety) does offer for me an explanation of this behaviour. His explanation was in part based on self analysis and in part in from observation of his contemporaries in 19th century Copenhagen. In his youth he could be described as a ‘party animal’ a person who was a popular guest at parties, because of his ready wit. However he was aware of an inner emptiness which frenzied social activities could not remove, a behaviour he observed in his friends. However he realised that this emptiness was not apparent to his friends and contemporaries who were content to live life on the ‘outside’. Yet even these apparently happy people would experience an anxiety of something missing, but suffer from not knowing the cause of their anxiety. The solution for them was to engage in more social activities to offset this feeling of anxiety.

This anxiety was consequent people’s failure to understand their true nature. *There is within the human psyche a longing for a different life, an aspiration for a more satisfying spiritual life. He identifies two forms of better life, the first a life lived in conformity to the norms of religion and the second superior a life lived in knowing God. This life may be achieved, through the individual opening themselves to God. They become as a mirror reflecting God in their lives. It is only this final group who are truly free from anxiety, they know happiness, all others know an inferior or counterfeit happiness.

It is not necessary to accept Kierkegaard’s Christianity to see the value of his analysis. Contemporary culture whether it be political or that of wider society fails to recognise the need for spirituality or any form of life that is not based on the consumption of goods or services. It is a barren and empty culture. A market society in which everything is up for exchange lacks any sense of higher value. There can be no universal value system such as Christianity which values compassion, agape (love of mankind) as they have no place in a society of aggressive self seeking traders. There is no market in agape, fairness or compassion, instead they are seen a barrier to wealth making as they demand restrictions be imposed on the businessman. Only recently the Chairman of the Confederation of British Industries spoke out against fairness and compassion. Imposing the living wage on employers or ending the cruel zero hours contracts he said would make the British economy uncompetitive in world markets. The economy demands the immiseration of the majority, if it is to prosper. It is the worship of a strange inhuman God, that is not too different in nature from the Aztec Gods that demanded human sacrifice.

A possible solution

While it is tempting to say that a happiness is dependent on a redistribution of material wealth; this fails to recognise why one of the richest world economies has descended to a level where an increasing number live impoverished lives. Why does the miserablist philosophy of Neo-Liberal dominant the political discourse? Quite simply because the majority of politicians exist at the lowest level of life as identified by Kierkegaard. Their realist philosophies have taught them that there can be no higher values as all that matters are the practical and graspable truths, so we have an opposition campaigning to reduce energy prices and ignoring the problems of a dysfunctional economy that created the misery associated with low incomes. Focus groups are set up to find what are the simple wants of the the electorate. The questions are designed to elicit simple responses that can be transferred into easily marketable policies. Never do politicians offer more than a few simple and banal phrases in place of a political philosophy, a something that is easily sellable.

Kierkegaard for me offers an answer to this malaise, that is how do you stop politicians behaving like moths flitting from one policy light to another. He writes of two religious types, religious A and B. The first practise religion without real understanding they know that they must conform to certain religious practices otherwise they will suffer the wrath of God. If fear of God made politicians believe that they should conform with the rules of Christian practice then the mindless inhumanity of Neo-Liberalism will be dropped. A minority would achieve the understanding necessary achieve to become religious B. They have the understanding necessary to develop policy in conformity with the highest moral and spiritual standards. They would be the leaders or natural aristocrats who would lead society in towards a change that would benefit all.

However Kierkegaard admits that his truly spiritual man would be more likely to be an outsider. His criticisms of society would make him an uncomfortable companion to the rich and powerful. Thus man would have to be prepared to suffer in return for a life lived in imitation of Christ. Father Gleb Yakunin a Russian orthodox priest was one such man. He was a fierce critic of the old soviet regime for its persecution of christians, for which he suffered imprisonment and exile. Yet his actions led to a change in government policy, first the destruction of churches ceased and a policy of toleration adopted towards the Orthodox Church. The role of such critics in society needs to be tolerated, beneficial change only follows from listening to them. In Old Testament Israel these men were the prophets. The Jewish people had a schizophrenic attitude towards their prophets they both accepted and rejected them. They recognised the need for such men as only they kept them true to their faith, yet they also hated them for their criticisms. One of the Isaiah’s was sawn in half by angry Israelites and another John the Baptist was beheaded.

In Britain there is a need for such critics, yet their their voice is silenced. The judiciary is going through one of its most repressive phrases, critics of powerful businesses can be silenced by super injunctions or through expensive libel actions. Police spies are used to infiltrate and disrupt opposition groups. The same police through the misuse of bail conditions can effectively silence activists through making avoidance of political protest a condition of bail. Any organised opposition is emasculated and marginalised through repressive laws. Recently legislation makes it impossible for charities and other groups to campaign on policy issues during an election campaign. While the voice of opposition is so effectively silenced there will be no change in society.

It is too easy to criticise Kierkegaard by claiming that he had an unrealistic view of mankind’s potential. Even when he was alive it was said of Kierkegaard that his definition of a Christian as a life lived in imitation of Christ was practically impossible to achieve. Rather than hoping for an unrealistic change, there is an alternative. I want a return to the age of ideology, an ideology such as socialism that celebrates the potential of man, one that should replace the inhumane Neo-liberal ideology that celebrates the brutal nature of man. There can be no more depressing philosophy than that of Neo-Liberalism that sees man as a grasping egotistic animal seeking only to advance their own interests. An ideology that encompassed hope, compassion would constrain the behaviour of politicians. They could no no longer claim indifference to to what can only be described as the evils in British society. They could no longer ignore the plight of the low paid, the least cost philosophy would be replaced by the criteria of fairness. It could easily be achieved by insisting that all businesses that are in receipt of government contracts or funding pay the living wage to their staff.

The emptiness at the centre in to the political debate would be replaced by an ideology that celebrated humanity. There have been plenty such ideologies in the past such as evangelical Christianity, socialism, the ‘One Nation Toryism’ of Benjamin Disraeli and the compassionate social liberalism of Herbert Asquith and Lloyd George. Such ideologies would constrain the behaviour of politicians, their behaviours and policies would be judged against a set of higher standards. Who would not judge the parliaments of the reforming 19th century and early 20th century superior to those of today. Contemporary parliaments are where self interest in the guise of Neo-Liberalism is the only moral standard. These are the no hope parliaments of today, inhabited by politicians whose attitude is ‘that I would like to help but …’ the but being the cruel moral imperative of Neo-Liberalism.

*i have edited and simplified Kierkegaard’s psychological analysis of human spirituality

Why economists would benefit from a little Christian sensitivity

Why do economists need a Christian sensitivity? The obvious answer would be to instil in them a sense of compassion, while the suffering caused by economics does not compare to that caused by the most brutal of political ideologies it is on the same suffering causing spectrum. The spirit of the Reverend Malthus has always inspired economists and never more so than today. Population growth he believed would always tend to outstrip the resources needed to food, clothe etc. the ever growing population. Therefore his first conclusion was that there must always be the poor, as there was never sufficient wealth in any economy to enable all to have an adequate standard of living. He also saw disease, famine and war as the saviours of mankind as they kept the population within bounds. While economists particularly those in the British Treasury have persuaded politicians of the need for the first, they have not yet tried to persuade of the need for the second. There is another answer and that is economics is one of the best examples of arrested thinking, so common in contemporary Britain. What concerns me is the immaturity of thinking of contemporary economists, their overly simplistic reasoning.


The inspiration for my reasoning is Kierkegaard (Fear and Trembling), in that book he bemoans the practice of Christianity in 19th century Denmark. He writes that the Christian intelligentsia regarded an afternoons reading as sufficient to acquaint them with the essentials of Christianity. This he compares unfavourably with the Christian Fathers who spent a lifetime trying to understand Christianity and who even at the end of there life said their understanding was limited and flawed. Just like Kierkegaard’s Christian intelligentsia economists suffer from the same intellectual arrogance. They just know, they have at hand the answer to all society’s problems. The comment that the answer was worked out on the back of an envelope is intended as an insult but with economists as a statement, the truth of economics can be distilled down to a few sentences that could be written on the back of an envelope. The best metaphor that describes contemporary economics is that it arrested thinking that has never really progressed beyond that if the schoolboy. This school thinking is demonstrated in the words of the Shadow Chancellor, who spoke with glee when he said his cuts to public spending would leave the public sector reduced to its bleeding stumps. As with a schoolboy no thought of the consequences of his actions for the people of an austerity hit economy. Military terminology can be applied as for the modern economist the people are unfortunate collateral damage, who suffer for some greater good.

Economics unlike contemporary theology is a closed subject, the truths are already known and its the work of the economist to apply those known truths correctly in their analysis of any given problem. In a closed subject such as economics, no new thinking is needed because all the fundamental truths have been discovered, all that is required is some tinkering to achieve perfection. Theology by contrast is an open subject, all the truths are not known and those that are are but imperfectly known. It would be ridiculous for any theologian to claim to know the mind of God, yet Christianity has been a closed subject many times in the past, when it claimed this knowledge. It has an unfortunate past record of persecuting and killing those who did not accept the acknowledged truth. Galileo Galilee was silenced by the church for challenging the prevailing orthodoxy, that the earth was the centre of the earth, by the simple expedient of showing him the instruments of torture. Unlike my predecessors as a theologian I claim to know little about God, I am a negative theologian a theologian who admits that God is unknowable. However this does not mean negative theologians have no knowledge of God. They have knowledge of the presence of God in human society, the means by which the unknown makes themselves known. They can glimpse aspects of God’s nature and explain it to others. The aspect of God that I know is the good, the good that characterises all good actions. Good can never be explained except through good actions and as a Neo-Platonist I believe that within all these good actions, there runs an indefinable good. It is a good I know but whose essence I can never adequately explain. All I would claim is that I know something of God’s nature as in is known through the medium of human existence. I am looking through a very dark glass which obscures most of the truth, what a much better theologian than myself called the ‘cloud of unknowing’. What I do know is the limits of my knowledge. I only know a little of one aspect of God’s nature and I shall spent a lifetime trying to develop that understanding.This is unlike an economist who does know and they even know what forms of economics are in error, something I would never claim about other religions. To paraphrase Uriah Heep, I am ever so humble, whereas the good economist possesses the arrogance of truth.

A negative theologian such as myself is keenly aware of the limitations of their knowledge, whereas all economists are positive theologians, who are aware that they know everything and have little if anything to learn about the world. Whereas the truth is the opposite the theologians have spent centuries studying the nature of God and the few truths they know are greater than the imagined truth of economics. Economists have discovered one economic truth, the market and having achieved that they think they know all economics. What they need instead is the perspective of the negative theologian, which one of ignorance. The truths of theology are but a small part of the truths of Christianity, and therefore they are open to any approach that might shed new light on the ultimate truths. Economics needs similar enlightenment it needs to seek new ways to go beyond the few truths it has discovered. When doing a thousand piece jigsaw I always try to fit together first the pieces that make up the edge of the jigsaw and give it its shape. Having put together the outline it is tempting to think that the main task has been done, yet the jigsaw remains a hollow square, with most of the content missing. Economists are in the same position they have some awareness of the outline of the economy, but they are largely ignorant of its content. The pieces that make up the content are missing from the jigsaw economy. Only arrogance prevents them from seeing the truth. What economists lack is humility, if they acquired this very Christian virtue the practice of economics would improve immeasurably.

The Dog’s Opinion or the Received Wisdom of Westminster


Kierkegaard has a wonderful phrase which he uses when referring to public opinion, he calls it the ‘dog’s opinion’, in that it contributes as much to public debate and has as much truth value as the barking sounds made by his neighbour’s dog. It is worthless, I put a similar value on the consensus of opinion that passes for the received wisdom of the Palace of Westminster. This consensus of opinion at present has determined that the priority of any government is to reduce the public sector deficit. Only policies that contribute to reducing that deficit are judged to be worthwhile. Trying to make new policy commitments that don’t involve spending any extra money are next to impossible and lead to nonsensical policy statements by our leading politicians.


David Cameron was the first to make a meaningless sound bite on the flooding problem. He said money would be no object in tackling this problem. Afterwards it was quickly established what he really mean was not what he appeared to be saying. There was to be no extra government money, other than a few small sums to spent on diverting troops to flood control, he was addressing others. What I think he meant was that the insurance industry should not hold back on compensating homeowners for their losses. Not to be out done the leader of the opposition had to produce his own nonsensical policy pronouncement. Ed Milliband said he would commit much more money to resolving the problem than the current government. He then made the statement completely meaningless by saying that the money would not come from extra government spending but through reordering its priorities. However given that most government spending has already been committed to a variety of projects only a small sum of money is available to be redirected to compensating flood victims or spending on flood defences. What he is really trying not to say is that his policy is exactly the same as David Cameron’s.


One really popular but nonsensical policy pronouncement that comes from all parties in parliament, is that they will improve public services not by spending more money on them, but by reforming them to make them more efficient. What these reforms are and how much each reform will save is never spelt out, neither is how it will really lead to an improvement in service. Fortunately it has never to be spelt out, it is ‘responsible politics’, that it is not wasting public money. Any such announcement of reforms in the public sector, will be met with a warm response in the house, as the received opinion is that this is the correct approach to public service. Any minister that announced extra spending to improve public services would be met with howls of derision in the House, as ALL MP’S know that is exactly how not to improve public services. It’s a waste of money, as only reform will improve services.

Never having considered in any but the vaguest terms what reform means, it always in practice means the following. Cuts in staff numbers, worsening of terms of employment and cutting wages of the remaining staff. The crudest cost cutting possible, which generally results in a poorer service provision. Since the quality of such service provision is impossible to measure, it’s always possible to produce statistics to prove that contrary to what service users experience, that the service has improved.

HMRC into which the Inland Revenue has been subsumed demonstrates this clearly. Prior to the era of the great civil service reforms, which started in 1979, it was possible to ring up and speak to a tax inspector to get valuable and informed advice on tax matters. Now after the great cost cutting years of Thatcher, Major, Blair and Wilson, the same quality of advice is no longer available. What the relatively unskilled, demotivated but cost efficient service offer is a much poorer service. Advice offered is often poor or incomplete, errors are made in tax collection. Tax avoidance has grown exponentially because an underpaid, unskilled inspectorate is no match for the army of well paid tax accountants advising on tax avoidance schemes. When Gordon Brown announced that he was cutting the tax inspectorate by 10,000, he was cheered to the rafters. Those MP’s did not need facts or figures, they knew he was right.

What really provoked my ire was the triumvirate of George Osborne, Danny Alexander and Ed Balls pronouncing on the impossibility of an independent Scotland keeping the pound sterling as their national currency. It was if that if these three great men agreed on something, any opposition is but folly. They claim that if Scotland wanted to keep the pound sterling it had to submit to a currency union with the UK. Ignoring any inconsistencies in their reasoning, they knew they were right. I would want to ask them why this reasoning did not apply to the ‘treasure islands’ of Jersey, Guernsey, The Isle of Man and Gibraltar. Although small in total population, the banks of these ‘countries’ handle many times the quantity of currency handled by Scottish banks, yet their tax policies are contrary to those of the UK. They are in contravention of them as tax havens, yet this does not stop these countries using the pound sterling as their national currency. In fact the inhabitants of the Westminster Palace encourage them to pursue such policies.

What these politicians display is an ignorance anything outside the approved group think of Westminster. Any cursory knowledge of economic history would demonstrate to them that all kinds of currency unions are possible. The sterling area existed for over a hundred years and countries that wished to use sterling as a trading currency only had to deposit their reserves in the Bank of England. Their currencies were tied to the pound sterling in a fixed exchange rate and they were free to use sterling as they wished. There is no reason why a Scottish pound could not exist in parallel with sterling, but such options are closed off to Westminster consensus.

Another aspect of this group think is a commitment to the ‘purity’ of the pound sterling. The foolish notion disproved throughout history is that if the currency is right all will be right with the economy. While it is necessary for the national currency to have a certain degree of soundness, it is overdone in Westminster’s worship of the pound. Nobody in Westminster seems to know that in the 19th century when the USA experienced phenomenal rates of growth, the dollar was one of the weakest of international currencies. Some of the slowest growth in Britain occurred in the 1920’s when the government put a strong pound at the heart of its economic policy. This strong pound through overpricing British goods wreaked havoc on the export industries.

Words that I dread coming out of politicians mouths are reform and modernise as they always herald the introduction of some new and ill thought out policy measure.

‘Collective unwisdom’ is not a feature peculiar to this parliament, there have been several times in history when parliament has been equally poor. The British population in the 1930’s had a similarly low opinion of Parliament. This is the period in which the Boulton Paul Defiant was built, a fighter plane that I think embodies best the follies of our politicians. After 1938 the British government decided it had to build fighter planes quickly to counter the threat from Germany. One plane they choose was the Boulton Paul Defiant, whose only virtue was that it was cheap to build. This plane had two faults it was in terms of speed about 100 miles per hour slower than its German rival the Messerschmidt 109 and its guns were positioned in the rear of the plane. This slow moving plane was a death trap, as to get the best shot at its German rival it had to turn around so the gun turret faced the German fighter. In the process of turning around it was defenceless and this is when the German fighter shot it down. Hundreds of RAF pilots were killed in these planes without them shooting down one Messerschmidt. It is my wish that one of these planes should be positioned outside Westminster so as to constantly remind them of the limitations of the wisdom of conventional Parliamentary thinking.