Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

“Mahabharata”: a modern retelling by Carole Satyamurti

Well – I’ve knocked the bugger off, as they say!

Some 900 odd pages of blank verse. Some two and a half times the length of Paradise Lost. (Or so I’m told: I didn’t count the words.) And it was still an abridgement.

The poet A. K. Ramanujan once remarked that no-one reads the Mahabharata for the first time. He was referring to Indian readers, of course. The stories are so widespread, that everyone knows them, or, at least, some of them. Even I, who have lived in the West from the age of five, have been acquainted with the stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata from comic strip children’s versions, which, as I understand, are ubiquitous in India. Indeed, when Indian television, Doordarshan, dramatised the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in the 80s and 90s, it was effectively these comic strip versions they adapted, thus meeting expectations of its target audience, but producing (as far as I could discern, at any rate) merely a festival of kitsch.

Of course, as I grew older, I wanted to look beyond these comic strips. I read the Ramayana in Ashia Sattar’s excellent (though abridged) translation (I do get the impression that the full, unabridged version is for the specialist rather than for a lay reader such as myself), but the situation is considerably more complex when it comes to the Mahabharata.

There are two complete translations currently under way, one published by University of Chicago Press (nearly complete), and another in the Clay Sanskrit Library (published by NY University Press). Penguin Classics publish a complete translation in ten volumes by Bibek Debroy, but that’s not very easy to get hold of outside India: at least, I have never seen it in even the bigger British bookshops, though it can, no doubt, be ordered. More easily available in Penguin Classics is a translation by John Smith, but Smith only translates selected passages, with the bits in-between narrated in parentheses. I found that a bit fragmented, to be honest, and kept losing the thread. There’s an older complete translation from the late 19th century by K. M. Ganguly, but, having looked into it, I found it written in a very correct and somewhat pedantic English, and I didn’t think I’d be able to manage it all.

There are also, of course, several complete translations of the Bhagavad Gita (which is a part of the Mahabharata); and mention should also be made of W. J. Johnson’s thrilling translation, available in Oxford World Classics, of the Sauptikaparvan, the terrifying 10th book of the Mahabharata: it stands up as a great poem in its own right.

I was considering placing an order on the Debroy translation, or maybe starting on the other complete translations currently in progress, but, to be frank, I wasn’t sure I wanted to devote a year or so of my life to reading the whole thing. Did I really want to plough through the various genealogies?  The details of Vedic sacrificial rites? I am, after all, but a lay reader, and the Mahabharata seems too vast an ocean simply to dive into.

And in any case, what do we mean by “completeness”? Both internal and external evidence suggest that it was written across a few centuries – from, perhaps, 400BC to about 400 AD – and, very obviously, by different authors. However, from what I gather, there is, despite the vast diversity, also a unity, which suggests that at some time, a poet, or, perhaps, a committee of poets, collated them all together, and maybe adapted their material to impose some sort of unity. But a text such as this never stays still. As Wendy Doniger says in her introduction to the Satyamurti book, there are literally hundreds of Mahabharatas – translations, recensions, and retellings into different Indian languages – each one a new creation, and each a valid creation, in its own right. Indeed, many of these versions are themselves great literary creations. The very idea of putting together a “standard text” seems an absurdity. But nonetheless, given the importance of the Mahabharata (both in literary and in other terms), some sort of standard text seemed desirable, and, to this end, the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Poona (now Pune) collated and calibrated all existing manuscripts from different parts of the subcontinent, and published a critical edition in 21 volumes between 1919 and 1969, and that edition is, I believe, generally regarded by scholars about as close to a standard text as is possible. I am, of course, in no position to judge: I am, as I say, but a layman.

Carole Satyamurti’s version is not a translation: she describes it as a “retelling”. It is, and should, I think, be taken as, a modern English poem (it was published in 2015). Satyamurti casts her retelling in blank verse based on iambic pentameters, as this is the form that approximates most closely to the natural patterns of English speech. She stays very close to the content and to the structure of what we may (despite quibbles) refer to for convenience as the “original text”. There are abridgements, of course, but despite this, she still produces a poem that is about two and a half times the length of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Not knowing Sanskrit, she has worked from literal translations, especially the version by K. M. Ganguly. And of course, inevitably, she has refracted the entire material through her own poetic sensibilities. I see no problem with any of this: to insist of textual purity in the case of something such as this is an absurdity; and in any case, given the hundreds of Mahabharatas Wendy Doniger talks about, Satyamurti’s “retelling” seems very much a part of what is a time-honoured tradition.

I compared some of her text to parts of the John Smith translation; to the various translations I have of the Bhagavad Gita (which is, of course, a part of the Mahabharata); and to W. J. Johnson’s translation of the Sauptikparvan. While Satyamurti’s wording and versification are, of course, her own, she certainly has a respect for the original text (however we choose to define it), and remains close to it in terms of content. For those not wishing to wade through one of the complete translations, and even for those who do, this version seems admirable – a most welcome addition to the tradition of new evolving Mahabharatas.

The content itself, as one would expect given the history of the book, is almost unbelievably diverse. Heroic legends, mythology, folklore, animal fables; historical chronicle, courtly romance, fantasy and magic, high tragic drama; religious instruction, philosophical disquisitions, homely wisdom, cosmic visions … it’s all there, and placed in a narrative structure of startling sophistication (Vinay Dharwadkar discusses the narrative structure in some detail in a fascinating afterword to Satyamurti’s book). And she doesn’t just focus on the narrative: much of her volume is devoted to the various other aspects too, thus giving a sense of the range and plenitude of the work, rather than merely reducing it to what may be found (at least in outline) in the comic strip retellings. After all, the major event of the poem, the great apocalyptic battle of Kurukshetra, is over after Book 10: there are still eight more books to go, and many of these are taken with Bhisma’s long disquisition to Yudhisthira – firstly on how best to rule a kingdom, then on the nature of dharma (of righteousness),  on how society is to be structured, on what happens to the soul after death, on the will of the gods and the action of men, and so on. One may understand why the comic strip adaptations may skimp a bit here, but Satyamurti gives these passages their full weight. The whole isn’t reduced merely to a sequence of events.

The narrative itself is splendid. And, underlying all the dazzling diversity, there runs insistently the question: “What is the right thing to do?” The concept dharma is often translated as “religion”, but in its Sanskritic context, it means considerably more than that: it refers to righteousness, to the moral code that one lives by. That dharma exists is never questioned: indeed, there exists a god Dharma, who exemplifies the very concept. Dharma is often presented as something humans must follow in order to keep the cosmic forces in balance, in order for existence itself to be possible. What is at issue is what dharma entails, and many characters, throughout this vast epic, are puzzled by this. Even when they are given answers to their dilemma, sometimes by divine authorities, they remain puzzled.

The most famous of these answers comes in the extended passage known as the Bhagavad Gita, still revered by many Hindus as their principal scripture. Here, the hero Arjuna, before the great battle of Kurukshestra, tells his charioteer Krishna (an incarnation of the god Vishnu), of his horror of what he knows will come: in this battle, countless thousands will die; he will have to inflict injury and death upon his own kinsmen, his revered teachers – upon men whom he loves and respects; such a thing can only be a great evil, and he would rather renounce his claim to the kingdom than take part in such an atrocity. Krishna’s answer forms the substance of the Bhagavad Gita, and, while it is resplendent and magnificent – expanding as it does to depict a vision of divinity, and of the cosmos itself – I must confess that I have never personally found it morally or aesthetically satisfying.  And even in the context of the epic, Krishna’s answer does not silence the questioning: the same question recurs, in different forms, and proposed answers never quite satisfy.

Krishna’s answer is effectively this: Arjuna must act according his dharma, which is his duty, and, as a kshatriya, that is, as a member of the warrior caste, his duty is to fight. He must carry out his duty for its own sake, without expectation of earthly reward, without attachment to anything of this earth. He will not be morally responsible for anyone’s death, as the soul itself cannot be killed: it is immortal, has always existed and will always continue to exist. One’s individual soul is not entire in itself, but is part of the Brahman, the Godhead, the universal soul that has always been and always will be, that is in all things, in all beings, past, present, and future, created and uncreated. Arjuna, as an individual human, is contained in all parts of the cosmos, as all the cosmos, including all other humans, is contained in him.

This cosmic vision is indeed magnificent, but what it enjoins us to do, I must admit, I find less than satisfying. For what sort of dharma is it that results in such immense suffering, such mass carnage? Of course, we all hold to some of this: no-one attaches blame to the soldier who, following his duty, kills on the field of battle – much though we may deplore the battle itself. But the idea of a duty that is allotted to us by birth, predestined, that we must carry out, struck me as unsatisfactory when I first read the Bhagavad Gita as a young lad, and strikes me as unsatisfactory still. And, despite the Mahabharata’s significance as a book of religious instruction, this answer doesn’t seem entirely to satisfy the writers of the epic either. That collective authorship is continually questioning, never wholly satisfied by the answers put forward, even from divine mouths. Arjuna, many years later, says, astonishingly, that he has forgotten what Krishna had told him. Yudhisthira, the most righteous of men, poses similar questions to the great seer Bhisma, and receives similar answers, but he, too, is failed to be convinced by them. This is not to say that these religious teachings are debunked: rather, that there can be no one satisfactory answers to such questioning. Various contradictory things appear simultaneously to be true. And these contradictions are acknowledged. The dharma that tells us to do our duty, even if that means killing, is not compatible with the dharma that tells us to have compassion fir all, and to harm no living thing. Far from papering over such contradictions, they are pointed out.

And dharma itself proves to be a slippery concept. Bhisma actually explains to Yudhisthira (in a disquisition on the nature of power that isn’t too far removed from the writings of Machiavelli) that there can be different types of dharma, not merely for different people on account of caste, but also in different situations, and eventually, the wise man must decide for himself what the true dharma is at any given point. Nothing, in short, is fixed, or can be fixed, in this endlessly complex and ever-changing world. But even that isn’t the final answer: there is no final answer – merely a multiplicity of questions that we cannot stop asking ourselves. Arjuna’s voice of distress at the start of the Bhagavad Gita remains potent, and cannot be silenced.

The principal story tells of a dynastic struggle between the sons of two brothers – Dhritarastra, who was born blind, and Pandu. Dhritarastra has one hundred sons by his wife Gandhari (and here, we have to go into the realms of folklore and of magic to explain this miraculous occurrence), and Pandu has five, by his two wives, Kunti and Madri. (Although, to be accurate, Pandu is not the biological father: the poor man is under a curse that decrees that his point of orgasm will also be his point of death. His “sons” are fathered by various gods.) The Kauravas (the sons of Dhitarastra) and the Pandavas (sons of Pandu) become embroiled in a dynastic conflict. From the beginning, the two sets of cousins have not got on well together. The kingdom is split between the two sets, but then, Yudhisthira, the eldest and most virtuous of the Pandavas, is invited by the Kauravas to a game of dice, and here he loses everything to his cousins – his kingdom, and even his brothers, his wife Draupadi (who is the wife of all five Pandava brothers); even his own self. Draupadi, now no more than a slave, is called for, and is humiliated, while her five heroic husbands sit by, unable to protect her.

The penalty for losing the game of dice is reduced to years of exile in the forest, but afterwards, a dynastic struggle emerges between the Pandavas and the Kauravas – a struggle that climaxes in the catastrophic battle of Kurukshestra: the Pandavas emerge victors, but it is a pyrrhic victory, as the slaughter on both sides is overwhelming. Yudhisthira, the eldest of the Pandavas, and the most righteous, is horrified, and is determined to renounce all he has won. His brothers remonstrate with him, but neither they, nor all the wisdom imparted to him by the great seer Bhisma, can convince him otherwise: it is only a horse sacrifice to the gods that somehow reconciles him to his fate, which, we are told, was preordained by the gods anyway.

At the end, the Pandavas, now old and feeble – even the heroic Arjuna can no longer wield his arms – journey into the Himalayas to reach heaven, and all but the righteous Yudhisthira die on the journey: only Yudhisthira may enter heaven in his bodily form, but even there, he refuses to do so unless the dog that has accompanied him is allowed entry also. His compassion for, and attachment to, the dog is seen as virtuous, even though we have repeatedly been enjoined to leave behind all earthly attachment. For here, everything is true – even contradictory things.

This, in essence, is the main story of the Mahabharata, though there are also innumerable sub-stories, interpolated stories (including the entire story of Rama that had been the focus of the earlier epic, the Ramayana), parallel stories, that, taken together, form a vast and magnificent collage of the entire range of Indian folklore and mythology. These stories have taken on their own life, in all sorts of ways. Right at the start, for instance, we are given the story of Sakuntala, whose son Bharata, begins the dynasty that is later to tear itself apart in the Battle of Kurukshestra: the poet Kalidasa later expanded the story of Sakuntala to create the most famous play of Sanskrit literature.

And there are stories told almost in passing, such as the story of Ekalavya, a tribal youth, who asks the great Drona to teach him the arts of warfare. Drona, given Ekalavya’s low birth, refuses. So Ekalavya builds a statue of Drona, and practices in sight of the image. Later, when Drona is out hunting with his royal students, they come across a feat of archery that surpasses anything even the great Arjuna could do. Arjuna is aggrieved, as Drona had promised him that he would be the finest. Drona asks Ekalavya who is teacher had been, and Ekalavya answers it was he, Drona, in the shadow of whose image he had studied and had practised his art. So Drona, as teacher, asks for a fee: he asks of Ekalavya the thumb of his right hand, without which all his skills would become useless. Ekalavya, without hesitation, slices off his thumb. This story is told only in passing, but such is its resonance that the figure of Ekalavya has been adopted as a symbol for the struggle for Dalit rights.

And there is the story of Karna, one of the great tragic figures of all literature. He is a half-brother of the Pandavas – though neither he nor the Pandavas know it: he was born to Kunti, an illegitimate son, before her marriage, and his father was Surya, the sun god (as in Greek mythology, Hindu gods often impregnate mortal women). And as a baby, to hide the mother’s shame, he had been, like the infant Moses, placed in a cradle, and allowed to drift down the river. He had been found and brought up by Adhiratha, and had grown up not knowing his origin. And as he grows up, he develops skills in warfare every bit as great as Arjuna’s, but his assumed low birth is held against him. In the tournament to decide a suitable husband for Draupadi, he is the only one who could match the extraordinary feats of Arjuna, but even before he can begin, Draupadi herself calls out that she will not marry anyone of such low birth, and he has to withdraw, humiliated. (Draupadi, lucky lady, ends up marrying all five Pandava brothers.) But Karna is offered friendship by Duryadhana, the eldest of the Kauravas, and Karna becomes his loyal friend.

Later, as battle looms, Krishna, in an attempt to persuade Karna not to fight, tells him his true parentage: if he fights for Duryadhana, he would be fighting against his own brothers. Even Kunti, his mother, comes to him, makes herself known, and tries to persuade him not to fight. (This meeting is the theme of a very famous poem by Rabindranath Tagore.)  At last, Karna knows what he had desired to know all his life: he now knows who he is. But as soon as he knows it, he knows he must reject it. Duryadhana had offered him friendship, and nothing, not even the fact of his own origin, could weigh against that.

Throughout, the question is asked – sometimes explicitly, but always implicitly – how much of what happens is of these characters’ agency, and how much is pre-ordained by the gods. Krishna tells us it is all pre-ordained, and, being himself an incarnation of the god Vishnu, I suppose he should know: Bhisma says the same thing. But then we run upon the usual objections: if all is pre-ordained, humans can have no agency – so why the insistence upon dharma?  Of course, it is an old dilemma, and after millennia of musing upon it, no culture, eastern or western, has come across a solution to it: it is one of those questions we must learn to live with unanswered, as reasonable answers appear to contradict each other, but the Mahabharata does not shy away from this contradiction either. The actions of the individual characters do certainly shape the events, but at times, the characters themselves seem to be in the grip of something larger than themselves, something over which they have no control. This is particularly apparent in the fateful dice game, where Yudhisthira, playing against the expert gambler Shakuni, keeps on staking more and more, even though he knows he will lose. This is, of course, on one level, a psychologically accurate depiction of addiction, but in the context of the wider narrative, we must question whether his will had become subordinate to something greater – to what the gods have willed for him. And later, before the war begins, Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas, repeatedly rejects all overtures of peace, insisting that he can win, despite being told at each turn by his advisers that he cannot, and that, furthermore, he is in the wrong. Furthermore, all the omens are portents are against him. But he is adamant: he will fight, no matter what. Once again, we cannot help but feel that he is not in command of himself here, that he is being ruled by something greater than himself – perhaps, once again, the will of the gods. At the end, we see him, arguably the villain of the whole piece, in heaven: for, after all, he has carried out his dharma – he has done what his dharma had demanded of him. As with so much else in this epic, this raises far more questions than it answers.

As we approach the battle, there is a growing sense of terror, and of the inevitable: this is an approaching horror that cannot be stopped. The great Battle of Kurukshestra itself takes up some five or so of the Mahabharata’s eighteen books. The whole is narrated in three voices – not three distinct voices, as they merge into each other, but three very recognisably different voices. The first of these belongs to the realms of heroic narration; it tells of great heroes and of their superhuman feats of courage and skill, providing so exciting a spectacle that even gods gasp in wonder and in astonishment; the second speaks of the sorrow of it all, of the horror, as men in their countless thousands are horribly slain, mangled, and mutilated; and the third voice speaks of the apocalypse: what we are witnessing, this unspeakable carnage, is the promised end, or an image of that horror.

As the battle progresses, all rules of warfare, all considerations of chivalry, fall by the wayside, and it soon becomes unmitigated butchery on all sides. Karna is killed by his nemesis Arjuna, but Arjuna breaks all rules of warfare in doing so: he attacks Karna when Karna’s chariot is stuck in the mud, and beheads him:

                    It fell to earth

as the red disc of the sun

drops at sunset. It was afternoon. 

                  When Karna fell

the rivers ceased to flow, the sun turned pale,

the planet Mercury seemed to change its course

Karna is not, of course, the only victim, although he is perhaps, with Arjuna, the most heroic. Gandhari, the wife of Dhritarashtra, had voluntarily put on a blindfold when she had married, swearing never to take it off, so she would never see more than her blind husband; but in the aftermath of the carnage, she is granted a special vision to see the devastated battlefield for herself, where all her hundred sons have perished. It’s not just the heroes who have died: there are men, just ordinary men, for whom, we are explicitly told, no poems will ever be written, but who have died horribly. We are given the image of a woman who has found her husband’s headless trunk, and is now searching for the head she had once loved – that she still loves. A mother sees her daughter-in-law weeping over her husband’s severed arm:

His wife is bathing it with her hot tears,

mourning the hand that lately would have loosened

her clothing, stroked her breasts, caressed her face.

Even the queen who had donned a blindfold, and had sworn never to see again, cannot turn away from visions such as this. There is no victory here, for anyone. And afterwards, Kunti tells her Pandava sons to say special prayers for their great enemy Karna, for he had been their brother.

Much later in the poem, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari, and Kunti, mother of the tragic Pandavas, are granted a mystic vision, where, for one night, all the dead arise from the waters, and are reconciled with each other, and with the living too – a radiant vision in which all losses are restored, and sorrows end. It is up to the reader whether to take this as but a vision of something wished-for but impossible, a fulfilment of a much-desired fantasy; or whether it is some sort of foreshadowing of what will, some day, happen. But even if it does happen in some realm beyond human imagining, all we are left with in our mortal lives is loss, and devastation. An epic of the range of the Mahabharata has a bewildering variety of tones and registers, but, on the basis of this version at least, it is hard to see the overriding tone as anything other than tragic. Even by the end, where Yudhisthira and the dog enter the Kingdom of Heaven, it is the tragic mode that predominates.

All these various registers are accommodated with seeming effortlessness in Satyamurti’s blank verse. The underlying metre is the iambic pentameter, but Satyamurti is by no means rigid in this: most lines have nine, ten, or eleven syllables, and five stresses, but Satyamurti allows such things to vary as and when she needs to. She achieves narrative drive when required, but also repose, contemplation. The verse is supple enough to depict magic and wonder, sorrow and tragic intensity; and it can accommodate as well the various philosophical and moral disquisitions. It is, indeed, a quite extraordinary achievement. Even if we think of it purely as a modern English poem, it is a remarkable work in its own right. Satyamurti passed away in 2019, a few years after the publication of this poem in 2015, and it is a worthy, and quite majestic, memorial.

By the end, one is left with a sense of the sheer wonder of it all. Yes, there are many aspects of the poem that will be alien to many readers, especially of the West: caste, for instance, which plays a major part; or the concept of reincarnation, and of karma. But then, there are aspects of The Iliad, or of The Aeneid, or even of Christian poems like the Commedia, that are similarly alien to our modern Western sensibilities, but which can nonetheless touch us to the very heart.

I am now wondering whether I should attempt one of the complete translations. I think I should. But whether I do or not, I am so glad I tackled this. For those wondering what the best way is into the vast and seemingly intractable literary masterpiece that is the Mahabharata, Satyuamurti’s extraordinary blank verse English poem can be recommended without reservation. It is masterly, and it does, indeed, touch the very heart.

“The Soul of the World” by Roger Scruton

Never write about politics or religion, they say. You’re bound to get into a heated argument and you won’t convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with you. And whatever you say, you’ll alienate a good number of your readers. However, if you’re writing on cultural matters, you can’t really keep the subjects out. Religion especially. The entire culture of the western world – and of other worlds too, I think – rests on its religious heritage. And in any case, it’s a subject that interests me, and what’s the point of writing a blog if I am to steer clear of matters I find interesting? So, having recently read philosopher Roger Scruton’s book The Soul of the World, and generally blogging as I do about what I read, this seemed to me an ideal opportunity to alienate good numbers of my readers.

This post is not, however, intended as a review. For to review anything is to set oneself in judgement, and for someone like myself, not trained in philosophy, and who is, furthermore, not even well read in the subject, to pass judgement on the writing of an eminent philosopher, a visiting professor of philosophy at Oxford University no less, would be a trifle presumptuous. But since the book The Soul of the World is not aimed solely at the specialist reader, there seemed no reason why a mere layman such as myself should not at least set down, for what they’re worth, some of his more or less random thoughts and impressions. And if I should go badly wrong, I’m not so conceited that I cannot accept correction from those who know better.

The book was a present from my brother last Christmas, who told me (tongue very much in cheek, I hope) that he thought I’d find it interesting as I was into “mumbo-jumbo”. This was because, in some of our previous conversations, I had refused to accept the contention that there can be no more to us than the sum of our constituent physical parts; or that our consciousness is contingent upon our existence as physical entities; and so on. Not that these contentions were necessarily wrong; but, since they cannot conclusively be proved to be right either, I saw no reason to reject at least the possibility that they may be wrong. And, given my temperament, it’s a possibility that I very much wanted to hold on to, for it seemed to me then, and seems to me still, that our lives are much diminished if we lose sight of this possibility.

At this point, I realised that I ran into problems: I did not have the words to articulate what precisely I meant. I could, of course, use words such as “transcendence”, or “spirituality”, or whatever, but such words are not merely vaguely defined, they have been used so glibly and so often by various snake-oil salesmen that it’s difficult to attach to them any significant meaning. Poets, of course, can express these things better, so I quoted Wordsworth’s “sense sublime of soething far more deeply interfused”; but this is the language of poetry, not of debate. The truth is I do not know how to debate these matters without sounding, after a while, like those various quacks and charlatans, and those professional purveyors of meaningless platitudes that are so regularly plastered across social media as if they were expressions of great wisdom.

We live, sadly, in times where the middle ground is not recognised as valid, or, at least, considered but as the consequence of a timid unwillingness to align oneself with one extreme pole or another. Expression even of doubts concerning the ability of science to answer, or potentially to answer, all questions we may have concerning ourselves and the universe we inhabit, marks one out as merely as a crank. But I most certainly do not wish to disparage science: I myself have a professional background in science (or mathematics, at least), and have no desire to join the ranks of creationists, proponents of intelligent design, climate change deniers, anti-vaccine campaigners, astrologers, homeopaths, crystal ball gazers, tea-leaf readers, and the like. (Oh dear – I have lost myself a great many readers with that, haven’t I? But since I have started, I guess I might as well continue.) Nonetheless, the questions I found myself asking seemed to me worth asking: can we really be so absolutely sure that we are nothing more than the sum of our constituent physical parts? Is our existence as conscious entities necessarily contingent upon our existence as physical entities? Of course, I do not know the answers to these questions. I do not even know if these questions are adequately formulated. But, given the kind of person I am, I cannot help asking them.

I cannot help asking also whether it is indeed the case, as Dawkins and his followers seem to insist, that the entire purpose of my living is none other than to propagate my genes; that, whatever I feel, no matter how precious or valuable – whether it be love for family or the warmth of friendship, or awed wonder at rivers and mountains and seas, or the ecstatic and elevated states of mind induced by the poetry of Shakespeare or by the string quartets of Beethoven – that these are all nothing but the consequences of complex electro-chemical reactions going on in my brain. I may ask why these things should set off these particular electro-chemical reactions in the first place, and my atheist friends tell me that these are but “adaptations”, by-products of the evolutionary process, and nothing more. That even my Wordsworthian sense sublime of soething far more deeply interfused is but a reaction to some stimulus determined by the evolutionary process that has made me what I am. Only this and nothing more.

Now, all this may be so, but my point is that, given my temperament, I’m not happy for it to be so. It may well be that I am a mere machine, responding merely to stimuli in a manner determined by the evolutionary process, but I am not happy to be a mere machine. “What’s wrong with being a machine?” I am asked. Are not machines as complex and as intricate as human beings wonderful things? Why attach to such wondrous machines the adjective “mere”? No doubt, no doubt, I reply, but how can I set aside what I can’t help feeling?

All this scientific determinism seems very plausible – and may even be true for all I know – but I can’t help reflecting that if it were that easy to understand the nature of reality, it’s hard to account for philosophers still arguing and tying themselves in knots over these very questions. At the very least, all this may be worth further consideration. And in any case, we tend, perhaps, to make more of our rational faculties than is warranted. I increasingly believe that our thoughts and actions have more irrationality about them than we perhaps care to admit – that not even the most rational of us could ever whole-heartedly embrace any idea or ideology that we are emotionally uncomfortable with; that our thoughts and values are determined to a great extent – to a far greater extent than we are perhaps prepared to admit – by our emotions, and that we use reason to do no more than to justify and perhaps to fine-tune these thoughts and values. But, as I have perhaps already meandered into areas I did not mean to when I set out writing this post, let us leave that particular chestnut for later. For the purposes of this particular post, I found it, and find it still, hard to accept that I am but a machine whose purpose is to propagate my genes; and that any sense sublime I may harbour of transcendence is but an illusion – some mere by-product of the evolutionary process. It is not, after all, to deny the importance of reason, or to refuse to acknowledge the immense danger of jettisoning rationality, to insist that our emotions have their claims also.

It is at this point that my attention was drawn to the book The Soul of the World by Roger Scruton. The blurb on the dust-jacket seemed to articulate clearly the various vaguely formed and even more vaguely articulated thoughts and ideas that had been whirling around my mind:

[Scruton] argues that our personal relationships, moral intuitions, and aesthetic judgements hint at a transcendent dimension that cannot be understood through the lens of science alone. To be fully alive – and to understand what we are – is to acknowledge the reality of sacred things. Rather than an argument for the existence of God, or a defence of the truth of religion, the book is an extended reflection on why a sense of the sacred is essential to human life – and what the final loss of the sacred would mean.

This is not really a book on philosophy: it is, rather, a statement of the author’s personal values and beliefs, stated both with elegance and with passion. It is, however, informed by philosophy, and it is not possible to discuss this book without addressing the philosophical ideas the author discusses. And, since I very much want to discuss this book, I must, I fear, put aside my diffidence on this matter: I’m sure I’ll go wrong in some things, but I’ll try my best not to; and, as I have already said, I am not averse to being corrected. So, on that understanding, let us proceed.

Right from the start, Scruton rejects Cartesian dualism – this idea of “the ghost in the machine”, the incorporeal soul inhabiting the corporeal body, but not subject, as the body is, to the laws of nature. So in answer to my question “Is there no more to me than the sum of my constituent physical parts?” Scruton’s answer is a flat “no”: he holds to Spinoza’s idea of monism, claiming – although without going into it here in greater detail – that dualism raises more issues than it solves. But while he rejects ontological duality, he proposes instead a duality of a different order – a cognitive duality.

The exposition of this is complex, and I don’t know that I am capable of providing anything more here than a summary that must necessarily be crude. He speaks first of all of persons as subjects as well as objects:

A person is, for us, a someone and not just a something. Persons are able to reply to the question “why?” asked of their state, their beliefs, their intentions, their plans, and their desires. This means that, while we often endeavour to explain people in the way we explain other objects in our environment – in terms of cause and effect, laws of motion, and physical makeup – we also have another kind of access to their past and future conduct. In addition to explaining their behaviour, we seek to understand it; and the contrast between explaining and understanding is pertinent to our whole way of describing persons and their world.

Scruton moves on from this to introduce the theory of Verstehen, proposed by Wilhelm Dilthey, and he describes it thus:

According to Dilthey rational agents look on the world in two contrasting (though not necessarily conflicting) ways as something to be explained, predicted, and brought under universal laws; and an occasion for thought, action, and emotion. When looking on the world in the latter way, as an object of our attitudes, emotions, and choices, we understand it through the conceptions that we use of each other, when engaged in justifying and influencing our conduct. We look for reasons for actions, meanings, and appropriate occasions of feeling. We are not explaining the world in terms of physical causes, but interpreting it as an object of our personal responses. Our explanations seek the reason rather than the cause; and our descriptions are also invocations and modes of address.

Scruton concedes that Dilthey’s thesis is both “difficult to state and controversial”, but it is a central plank in his own argument. He now introduces a second German term, used by Husserl – Lebenswelt, the world of life, the world that is “open to action, and organized by the concepts that shape our needs”. This, Scruton says, is what Dilthey’s concept of Verstehen leads towards. He equates this with the concept of the “manifest image”, introduced by Wilfred Sellars in “a now-famous article of analytic philosophy” (well – “now-famous” to philosophers, no doubt …). This “manifest image” is the “image represented in our perceptions and in the reasons and motives that govern our response to it”. This is distinguished from the “scientific image”, which is “the account that emerges through the systematic attempt to explain what we observe”. The two are not commensurate:

Thus, colors and other secondary qualities, which belong to the way we perceive the world, do not feature as such in the theories of physics, which refer instead to the wavelengths of refracted light.

[Note: although Scruton is a British writer, the book is published by Princeton University Press, and uses American spellings throughout; I have retained these spellings in my quotations.]

Scruton uses for the rest of the book Husserl’s term Lebenswelt rather than Sellar’s “manifest image”, as Sellars’ distinction, according to Scruton, “does not get to the heart of our predicaments as subjects – that there is, underlying his account of the ‘manifest image’, an insufficient theory of the first-person case and its role in interpersonal dialogue”. Furthermore, he continues, he wishes “to emphasize that the distinction between the world of science and the world in which we live is as much a matter of practical reason as perception”.

I have, so far, used direct quotations from the book wherever I can: unused as I am to writing about these matters, I am afraid I will distort the author’s argument by paraphrasing. And, as this part of the book, laying out as it does the framework for the subsequent arguments, is particularly important, I did not wish to run the danger of misrepresenting it. All this is very new to me, and despite having read these passages over a few times, I am not sure I understand them fully. However, if I continue doing this for the rest of the book, I’ll end up with a post about as long as the book itself. So I will do my best to summarise as best I can what strikes me as being the central ideas and arguments , without too much recourse to direct quotation.

After laying out this initial framework, Scruton goes on to develop this idea of a “Cognitive Duality”, citing Spinoza’s view that “thought and extension were … two attributes of a single unified reality” – distinguishing between the facts describing the real world, and ideas concerning the real world. Kant’s approach too, is similar: we may consider something to be the outcome of immutable laws of biology, but also, at the same time, “from the point of view of practical reason”, a free agent.

Scruton provides many examples of this Cognitive Duality. A portrait may be described completely in scientific terms, by listing for each pixel the shade that is determined by a precise balancing of the primary colours. To reproduce the Mona Lisa, say, the computer will not require any information other than this. But this is not how we see the painting: the shades of the pixels do not enter into what we perceive, even though that’s all there is. Conversely, an account of what we perceive when we see the Mona Lisa is of no use to the computer in attempting to reproduce the picture. We here have two quite different modes of perception of the same thing, each complete in itself, but neither touching the other: partial information in one mode of perception cannot be completed by information from the other mode.

And similarly with music, a subject on which Scruton is particularly knowledgeable, and on which he writes with an evident passion. He describes the main theme of the first movement of Beethoven’s C minor piano concerto – a movement up from C to E flat to G, and a stepwise descent back to C again, followed by two emphatic two note phrases from G to C; then a pause; then an answering phrase, this time harmonised … and so on. This is how we hear it. But scientifically, what we are hearing is a sequence of frequencies, and nothing more. Where exactly is this movement occurring that we perceive so clearly? It cannot surely be a delusion, since we can all perceive this musical line, and we perceive it on repeated hearings. But where does it exist?

But could this be a delusion? Could it be the case that this Lebenswelt is merely a mode of perception that we cling to because it is useful to us, and that it has no correlate in the real world outside our minds? Scruton spends most of this book arguing against this contention. Twice he cites Leibniz’s concept of a “well-founded phenomenon” – i.e. “a way of seeing that is indispensable to us, and which we could not have conclusive evidence to reject”.

Scruton ranges across a wide gamut of topics, from architecture to inter-personal relations, from eroticism to our consciousness of our selves, and so on. Intriguingly, he interprets the myth of the Fall in terms of how we view and interact with each other. We do not normally regard our own selves as objects: we are aware of our own existence as thinking and perceiving subjects; and, when we interact with other humans, we grant them the same self-awareness that we claim for ourselves. The Fall, in Scruton’s version, is an allegory of our learning to see the other as objects. It does not necessarily follow that the two modes of perception followed each other in time, as the story of the Fall, set in time, may suggest; but the two co-exist.

In the discussion of inter-personal relationships, Scruton considers the contracts, the responsibilities and obligations, that bind us together. And, as part of this, he considers marriage: is marriage nothing but contractual obligations? Is love for our family, our children, no more than the fulfilment of contractual obligations, no matter how willingly undertaken? Here again, Scruton sees an instance of “Cognitive Duality”: yes, we have contracts that we are obliged to honour; but we also make vows, that present to us an entirely different mode of perceiving the nature of our relationships. Everywhere we look, we find this same Cognitive Duality – an explanation of what things are, and the meaning we attach to them. And this latter, Scruton insists, is not illusory.

This leaves room for – indeed, it perhaps necessitates – the concept of the “sacred”.  Here, I wish Scruton had essayed a comprehensive definition of the term. When he first uses that term, he cites Durkheim’s definition – the “sacred” is that which is “set aside and forbidden”; but that is not how he uses the term in the rest of the book. Neither does he use the term “sacred” exclusively as meaning “relating to the divine”: it is only in the last chapter of the book that he addresses the topic of God, whereas the word “sacred” is used throughout. Rather, he sees the “sacred”, it seems to me, as that the impairment or destruction of which strikes us as something that goes beyond mere impairment or destruction, just as our marriage vows go beyond our contractual obligations; he seems to see the sacred as that which, when damaged, is desecrated. Yet again, we return to the central concept of the book – Cognitive Dualism: the sacred is determined by the way we perceive it.

In the last chapter, Scruton addresses the subject of God. We are not at this stage in the world of philosophical argument: as atheists never tire of pointing out, the existence of divinity is not something that can be proved. Rather, Scruton declares the nature of his own faith, and argues that this faith is not something that conflicts with the philosophical framework he had presented up to this point. Indeed, it is entirely consonant with it.

This book is an account of personal values, a confession of personal faith, written with great passion and with great eloquence, and informed by a vast erudition. I personally found Scruton most companionable, and his arguments, insofar as I understood them (I do not claim to understand it all fully), fascinating.  But then again, given my own starting point, this is perhaps not too surprising.

I started off very much in sympathy with his outlook: I needed no convincing that if we lose the sense of the sacred, that sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, we diminish the our very lives: I do believe that very strongly. And, while I have the greatest respect for science, and have no patience with the fashionable “mystics” whose vapid aphorisms litter social media, I am really rather fed up with what philosopher Mary Midgeley calls “nothing buttery” – this tiresome insistence that, as Scruton puts it, “emergent realities are ‘nothing but’ the things in which we perceive them”. Scruton expands on the position of “nothing buttery”:

The human person is “nothing but” the human animal; law is “nothing but” relations of social power; sexual love is “nothing but” the urge to procreation; altruism is “nothing but” the dominant genetic strategy described by Maynard Smith; the Mona Lisa is “nothing but” a spread of pigments on a canvas, the Ninth Symphony is “nothing but” a sequence of pitched sounds of varying timbre.

Of course, my impatience with this “nothing buttery” is a reflection of my personal temperament; but I think it may be argued that those who hold to “nothing buttery” do so similarly on account of their personal temperaments. Scruton’s idea of Cognitive Duality is one that I find very attractive, but, given my temperament, it is only to be expected that I should do so; those of differing temperaments will, I suspect, remain unconvinced.

It is only in the last chapter, where he speaks of God, that I couldn’t quite go along with Scruton, although, of course, I respect his religious beliefs. I, personally, remain agnostic: there comes a point beyond which I find myself unwilling to speculate. This earns me the disapproval of believers, for refusing to take further steps beyond that point, and also of atheists, who deny that there can be any point beyond which speculation could possibly be required. But my agnosticism is not, I think, a token of pusillanimity on my part: I acknowledge a great mystery, I acknowledge the validity of great questions, but I am content to leave the mystery unsolved, and the questions unanswered.

Let me finish on what is, perhaps, an incidental point in this book. In the chapter on music, Scruton refers to Schubert’s G Major String Quartet. I was delighted to find that Scruton values this work highly – for I do too. Here is Scruton writing with characteristic eloquence on how he views this piece:

… Schubert can show us stark terror in the G Major Quartet gradually interrogating itself, coming to acceptance, finding beauty and serenity in the very recognition that everything must end.

I can’t help seeing this piece differently. It does indeed start, as Scruton says, with an “intense stare into the void”, but in the subsequent descent into the void, heroic though it is, and in the life-and-death struggle to find something in that void that may possibly redeem it, I can find no “acceptance”, no “serenity”: the only passage in the entire work I recognise as “serene” is the central section of the third movement, and, even there, because we know that the movement is in ternary form, we know that the serenity will not last, and that the nightmare will return. Throughout this entire piece, I find unease, anxiety, even terror, and, while it is certainly resolved as a musical structure, this unease and the anxiety and the terror, for me, remain till the end. None of this is to deny that Scruton sees the piece precisely in the terms he describes; but what we perceive in the mode of cognition Scruton refers to as Lebenswelt varies, it seems to me, from person to person, and is as unpredictable as individual human temperament itself.

[10th August: slight edit to the above to clarify that the quote expanding on Mary Midgeley’s objection to “nothing buttery” is Roger Scruton’s, and is taken from his book.]

Tolstoy’s “confession”


Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?


No, Cassius; for the eye sees not itself,
But by reflection, by some other things.


‘Tis just:
And it is very much lamented, Brutus,
That you have no such mirrors as will turn
Your hidden worthiness into your eye

– from Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2, by William Shakespeare


The general consensus of opinion appears to be that while Tolstoy’s greatness as a novelist is beyond dispute, his polemics are a bit loopy, and are, on the whole, best ignored.

I think I probably subscribed to this also: after all, from what I knew of Tolstoy’s life, the moral and religious convictions of his later years brought happiness neither to himself nor to the people around him. And what great wisdom can it be that makes people unhappy?

So I, too, was content to think of his polemical writings as merely “loopy”; and so, I ignored them. But this won’t really do: his fiction, right to the end of a life, is quite clearly the product of an extraordinary mind; and that he should switch this mind off when writing polemics, and allow some inferior mind to take over, seems unlikely to say the least.

So I turned to the first of his major polemical writings of his late period, “A Confession”, written in 1879 shortly after the completion of Anna Karenina, while he was in his early 50s. Here, the writer who is perhaps equalled only by Shakespeare in his understanding of humanity in all its extraordinary diversity, turns the spotlight upon himself, and tries to understand the promptings of his own soul. The result is enthralling, but, as with the last section of Anna Karenina (which finds frequent echoes here), it is also, it seems to me, open-ended.

As is well-known, the depiction of the spiritual crisis Levin undergoes in Anna Karenina is almost entirely autobiographical. The details of Levin’s crisis, and that of Tolstoy’s as recorded here, seem virtually identical. Here too, we get the startling details of how he had kept away from ropes and knives and guns for fear that he might be tempted into suicide; here too is the realisation that there exist powerful forces other than reason that shape his thoughts. But before we get to this stage, Tolstoy tells us how his spiritual crisis had come about.

Although raised in the Orthodox Russian faith, he had not, he tells us, taken it very seriously. At first, he had accepted the outward shows without thinking too hard; but after a while, he couldn’t help but note the various absurdities of human life itself, and what struck him as its pointlessness. And set against this pointlessness, the rituals of the church seemed meaningless. All this may come as something of a surprise to those who know and love War and Peace and Anna Karenina, as those books could only have been written by someone who loved life, who loved the constant flux that constituted living, who was dazzled by the sheer plenitude of it all. And yet, this same man, having already scaled some of the greatest peaks of artistic achievements, says this:

Before occupying myself with my Samara estate, with the education of my son, or with the writing of books, I had to know why I was doing these things. While I did not know why, I could not do anything. Amidst my thoughts concerning the farm, which at the time kept me very busy, a question would suddenly come into my head: “Well, fine, you will have 6,000 desyatins in the Samara province and 300 horses, and then what?” And feeling completely taken back, I would not know what to think next. Or, beginning to reflect on the education of my children, I would ask myself, “Why?” Or deliberating how the peasants may achieve prosperity I would suddenly ask myself, “What concern is it of mine?” Or thinking about the fame my own writing had brought me, I would say to myself, “Well, fine, so you can be more famous than Gogol, Pushkin, Shakespeare, Molière, more famous than all the writers in the world, and so what?”

And I had absolutely no answer.

On reflection, perhaps it was precisely because Tolstoy loved so much that these questions were for him so terrible: only someone who loves life could be so horrified by the possibility of its futility. These questions, for Tolstoy, demanded answers: there had to be, for him, some meaning to his life, to his activities, that would not be obliterated by his physical death. In the absence of answers, his life became for him, he tells us, “hateful”; and this is why he had to keep himself away, like his creation Levin, from temptations of self-slaughter.

At this point, he introduces what he claims is a traditional fable. A man falls down the well, but manages to hold on to a branch projecting from the wall of the well. At the bottom of the well is a dragon. While he is holding on to this branch, he knows he is safe from the dragon, but two mice – a black and a white, night and day – are gnawing away at the branch, and he knows that eventually he will fall prey to the dragon. And the thought of this gives him no peace. Near where he hangs is honey which he can lick, but the thought of that dragon, and of the fate that awaits him, prevents him from enjoying this honey.

The meaning of the fable is obvious enough, but there is a contrivance about it that seems most unTolstoyan, and very far from the seemingly effortless simplicity of the fables he was later to go on to write (“How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, “What Men Live By”, etc.) How could other people enjoy the honey while being aware of the dragon? he asks himself. He describes some mechanisms whereby the question of the dragon may be avoided, but such mechanisms, he decides, are not for him: at the end of it all there’s that dragon, and that sucks out of life all possibility of meaning.

And yet, Tolstoy is not prepared to turn his back on life. He speaks of Socrates, of Buddha, and of Schopenhauer, all in their different ways turning away from this world, renouncing desire, abjuring the earthly. But the man who had written War and Peace and Anna Karenina couldn’t do that: even when he had renounced these works, he couldn’t do that: he loved life too much. And in any case, he reflected, even Socrates, Buddha and Schopenhauer, for all their renunciation, went on living. Tolstoy could not force himself into renunciation: to renounce life was unthinkable, and to go on living a life which one had renounced seemed to him yet another form of meaninglessness.

As ever with Tolstoy, the writing is extraordinarily simple and direct. Whether or not the reader shares Tolstoy’s outlook, the intensity and directness with which his crisis is described is startling:

My position was terrible. I knew that I could find nothing along the path of knowledge, other than negation of life. While in faith I found nothing other than a negation of reason, which was even more impossible than denial of life. According to rational knowledge life is an evil and people know it. They have the choice of ending their lives and yet they have always carried on living, just as I myself have done, despite having known for a long time that life is meaningless and evil. According to faith it follows that in order to comprehend the meaning of life I must renounce my reason, the very thing for which meaning was necessary.

Like Levin, Tolstoy saw the possibility of an answer – a possibility only – from the simple life of peasantry. Now, Tolstoy is frequently accused of idealising peasant life, and peasant wisdom; however, Tolstoy was close to the peasantry, while his accusers are almost invariably far removed from the lives of the illiterate and the impoverished. So perhaps we ought to give Tolstoy at least some benefit of the doubt when he says that in the lives of many peasants, poor, illiterate and uneducated, he had found a serenity and an equanimity that were so conspicuously lacking in his own life. And the possibility struck him that they may be in possession of something that had eluded him.

And there came to him a realisation also that there were powerful forces in his mind other than the rational:

Thus in addition to rational knowledge, which I had hitherto thought to be the only knowledge, I was inevitably led to acknowledge that there does exist another kind of knowledge – an irrational one – possessed by humanity as a whole: faith, which affords the possibility of living.

It is easy for the modern reader to dismiss this merely as sentimental religiosity, but perhaps, once again, we should not be so cavalier in rejecting this. For it is true that there is much we – even secularists, even atheists – hold on to that we have not arrived at through exercising our reason. For instance, I am convinced that slavery is a great evil; but did I reach this moral position through exercising my reason? Did I set out to myself what the objectives of human activities should be, and why, and then reason to myself why slavery hinders rather than helps us achieve our objectives? Of course I didn’t. I don’t know where my conviction comes from that slavery is evil, but it’s not through reason. Of course, we all know slavery is very cruel, but the conviction that cruelty is an evil is not, once again, one that I have arrived at through ratiocination. How I have arrived at it, I don’t know. But Tolstoy’s realisation that there are powerful forces at work in shaping our thoughts and our moral values that are not in themselves rational is one I find myself sympathetic with.

But I do find myself somewhat nervous, to say the least, in Tolstoy’s placing so much faith in the power on unreason – in his identifying our inner moral voice as divine. For inner moral voices have led people to commit all sorts of horrors. And I cannot believe that Tolstoy could have been unaware of this. Perhaps it is not surprising that Tolstoy’s religious conversion never brought him the serenity he so craved.

But, provisionally, his religious conversion gives him some semblance at least of answers to those questions which, for him, had to be answered:

…to the question: what meaning is there that is not destroyed by death? The answer is: unity with the infinite, God, heaven.

But Tolstoy was at least as complex a character as any that he had depicted in his work, and reading this, it’s hard to escape the feeling that perhaps he didn’t see himself to quite as much depth as he saw his own creations: as Brutus knew, the eye sees not itself. Tolstoy, by temperament, was a rational creature: accepting the irrational, though attractive, though seemingly the answer to the questions that so tormented him, was not easy. There was nothing of the mystical in Tolstoy: the heaven he yearned for was not the heaven in some promised life to come, but heaven in the here-and-now. And to this end, he went on to make moral demands of his fellow human beings that he must have known his fellow human beings could not live up to. He made these same moral demands of himself, and it seems he couldn’t live up to them either. Tolstoy was as fascinating a character as any he created.


I am not capable of providing a critique of “A Confession” from a philosophical or a theological point of view: I am not sufficiently knowledgeable in either area. With hindsight, we can see that Tolstoy’s religious conversion had not brought him the peace and serenity he had so craved. That his questions remained unanswered, or, at best, only partially answered, was perhaps inevitable: the most profound questions about our lives will always elude us. But what I find particularly enthralling about “A Confession” is Tolstoy’s attempt, after having peered so deeply into the minds of others, to understand himself: The eye may not see itself, and Tolstoy’s vision of himself may have been incomplete; but it is, nonetheless, an extraordinary eye.

[All excerpts taken from the translation by Jean Kentish, published by Penguin Classics]

Tasting the Pierian spring

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

– from “An Essay on Man” by Alexander Pope

That’s all very well, Mr Pope, but have you any idea just how much there is to learn?

There’s nothing like walking into a well-stocked bookshop to make one feel inadequate. Everything from Byzantine architecture to microbiology, from macro-economic theory to Icelandic sagas, from theories of linguistics to statistical analysis … well, statistical analysis I do happen to know a bit about: that’s my job after all. But on just about everything else, I am so ignorant that it really is quite embarrassing. It isn’t just a single Pierian spring, it’s many – and there just aren’t enough years in a lifetime to drink deeply out of all these Pierian springs. Dammit, there isn’t even enough time to take a sip from each.

So, against Mr Pope’s excellent advice, I am trying to learn a bit, just a bit, about philosophy. Nothing particularly deep as such: I don’t have that lifetime to spend on it that is required for a deep understanding. But a smattering, at least, so I don’t feel a complete idiot. So next time I come across a mention of Kant’s categorical imperative or whatever, I’ll have at least something of an idea what it means.


So I started recently Sir Anthony Kenny’s A New History of Western Philosophy. Although an introduction to the subject for a layman like myself, it runs to over 1000 pages, but it’s in four self-contained parts – which had previously been published separately – making it quite easy to split the reading into four less intimidating chunks.

I’ll not attempt a review of this: how can I review a book written by an acknowledged expert on a matter on which I am so very ignorant? I mean, I’m hardly in a position to offer a critique Sir Anthony’s interpretation of Aristotelian epistemology, am I? I’m lucky if I know what “epistemology” means, if it comes to that! But I can, at least, report that the very clear, precise and elegant prose is a delight to read. It does, admittedly, exercise the old intellect a bit, but that’s only to be expected given the subject; and given, further, that the author refuses to patronise the reader.

The four parts of the book are: “Ancient Philosophy”, “Medieval Philosophy”, “The Rise of Modern Philosophy”, and “Philosophy in the Modern World”. In each, we are presented with sketches of some of the major philosophers of that era, and of their contributions; and then, chapters dealing with specific themes – e.g. “logic and language”, “physics”, “metaphysics”, and so on. The last chapter of each of the four parts is called “God”, and deals – presumably – with ideas about the divine. I am nearly at the end of the first of these four parts, and the journey so far, though challenging to a novice such as myself, has proved fascinating and enlightening. Rarely have I come across so lucid and so elegantly expressed an exposition of ideas of such complexity.

Of course, it is a question of what one is used to: I am not used to reading on this topic. When I came to the chapter on logic, I found it initially difficult to follow the necessarily precise wording of the various arguments; but after a while, I hit upon the expedient of translating what I was reading into mathematical terminology, and then, everything fell naturally into place. This shouldn’t perhaps be too surprising given my own academic background, but I hadn’t realised till now how much better I understand certain things in the language of mathematics than in even the clearest of English. But where the argument cannot be translated into mathematical terms, I do, I confess, find myself struggling to absorb the arguments, or even the concepts. I can’t remember when was the last time I read a book quite so slowly as this. I should stress, though that the difficulties I am encountering are the difficulties inherent in the subject, and in no way a reflection on the quality of the writing.

I’ll give this book a rest after finishing the first part, and move on to a few other things before returning to the next part – “Medieval Philosophy”. But return to this I certainly shall. Although I am in no position to offer a review of it, I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who, like me, needs an introduction to the subject, but who does not like the idea of being patronised. Anthony Kenny’s writing is a model of lucidity, and an object lesson in how even the most abstruse of ideas can be expressed clearly, with charm and with elegance.

Turtles all the way down

Bertrand Russell, according to philosophical lore, was once in the course of giving a public lecture on cosmology when he was interrupted by an old lady in the audience. “Everything you have been telling us is rubbish,” the lady vociferously objected. “The world is actually flat, and it is supported by a giant elephant that is standing on the back of a turtle.” Russell, humouring her, asked what might support the turtle. The lady replied, “It’s turtles all the way down!”

– from Why Does the World Exist? By Jim Holt

There are some questions we cannot help asking ourselves, even if we are convinced that there can never be a fully satisfactory answer. “Why does something exist rather than nothing?” is perhaps the most basic question of all. Of course, not everyone thinks the question is unanswerable; and not everyone even thinks the question is valid to begin with. Philosopher Adolf Grünbaum, is particular, is adamant that this question is not even to be asked, as it is meaningless. But, undaunted by this early setback, author Jim Holt sets out to find, if not the answer, at least the various thoughts and ideas that mankind has come up with in relation to this eternal puzzle. He describes his quest, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as an “existential detective story”; and, during the course of his detective work, he interviews some of the foremost intellects of our time – scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, theologians; and even novelist John Updike shortly before his death, to consider the views of a creative artist. And the range of thoughts and ideas they all come out with is as bewildering as it is fascinating. His first interviewee, philosopher Adolf Grünbaum insists with some vehemence that the question itself is meaningless; another eminent philosopher, Richard Swinburne, opines that although the existence of God cannot be confirmed, it is the most probable given the laws of Bayes’ Theorem; a mathematician (Sir Roger Penrose, no less) thinks that the laws of pure mathematics preceded the universe itself, have an objective reality, and are immutable; and that the universe had to come into being to satisfy these laws. And so on.

In between these interviews, Holt explains very clearly and with considerable wit some of the subtlest ideas and concepts from the fields of philosophy, physics and mathematics. I do have something of a background in physics and mathematics, but I was still grateful to have explained the philosophical implications of some of the ideas from these areas; and, not having any background in philosophy at all, I was extremely grateful for Holt’s very lucid and elegantly expressed expositions of various philosophical ideas. The result of all this is both entertaining and fascinating, although if Holt’s quest is indeed a detective story, then it is one of those post-modernist open-ended ones: here, at the end, Poirot does gather all the suspects together in one room to reveal the killer; but, instead of doing so, he merely goes through all his hypotheses, before finally conceding that he does not really know whodunit.

As far as my own limited intellectual abilities go, the question asked in the title is insoluble. If every effect has a cause, as Leibnitz maintained, then we can, in theory at least, trace back the causes of all effects either until we get to the First Cause. We may call this First Cause God, as those do who are religious; or we may call the First Cause the laws of mathematics, as mathematician Roger Penrose does; or we may call it the principle of goodness – as one philosopher, John Leslie, does. There are other possibilities also. Or we may move away entirely from this idea of a First Cause, and say, as certain branches of Hindu cosmology do, that the chain of causality is infinite, and that everything, ourselves included, has always existed. If the former applies – i.e. if there is indeed a First Cause – then this First Cause has to provide an explanation for itself, and that is circular; but if the latter applies – i.e. if there are indeed turtles all the way down – we find ourselves lacking an explanation of the existence of this infinite chain of turtles.

Of course, science has peered deeply into this issue. We now know that the universe started with the Big Bang; but, just as any child in scripture classes when told that God created the world asks “Then who created God?”, the question “Why did the Big Bang occur?” seems to me – pace Grünbaum – a legitimate one. What happened before the Big Bang to make it occur? At this point, we are firmly admonished: there was no time before the Big Bang, we are told, and, hence, to ask what preceded it is as meaningless as it is to ask what lies further north than the North Pole. But this answer does not satisfy. Whether there was time before Big Bang or not, why did it occur? Why is there not nothing?

No doubt, scientists will be able to tell us some day why the Big Bang occurred: we know, for instance, that there is never such a thing as a complete vacuum, as even in nothingness there are quantum fluctuations – random spontaneous creations and annihilations of particles and anti-particles. And even out of this the universe may have emerged. But this seems to me to leave open the question: “If the laws of physics are such that the universe could come into being, then why are the laws such?” If our existence is contingent upon the laws that allow us to exist, then is it not legitimate to ask how these laws had come about? Did someone – God, say – decree them? Or did they appear spontaneously out of nowhere for no apparent reason?

And is it in any case reasonable to view it in this manner? After all, that the laws that describe the universe must necessarily be the laws that caused the universe to come into being is but an unargued assertion. And even if we were to accept this assertion, unargued though it is, and accept that a universe capable of supporting life and consciousness came into being because certain laws allowed it to do so, then we are assuming that the laws came first; and this is surely disputable. Is it not, at least, legitimate to see the laws merely as descriptive of the universe, and, hence, only of consequence when the existence of the universe is already an established fact? Roger Penrose, for one, doesn’t think so. For him, the laws of mathematics have an objective reality, and are eternal. But he doesn’t explain why that should be so. The laws of mathematics are for him what God is to the religious – a brute fact, a point where we must stop and not look for further turtles underneath. But this seems to me merely to shift the mystery back a few links in the chain: the mystery itself is not solved.

Even Steven Weinberg, among the most extraordinary scientific intellects of his or of any other age, feels there can be no answer. Or, at least, that human beings are not capable of comprehending them. But, Weinberg insists, science, although it cannot finally and irrevocably provide a solution, can indeed probe much further, and answer many of the questions that so puzzle us now. However, rather intriguingly, he goes on to say that the more explainable the universe becomes, the more pointless it seems. Not everyone feels this way: Richard Dawkins had famously declared that the more we understand of the universe, the more fascinating it becomes; and, in his characteristically imperious manner, he had insisted that we all should see it in his terms on the pain of being damned as obscurantist. That someone so very distinguished as Steven Weinberg can not see it in such terms indicates the importance of differing individual temperaments in these matters.

And this is what particularly fascinated me – even more perhaps than the ideas expressed. If reason is objective, I wondered, then how is it that so many brilliant minds reason themselves into such diverse positions? And it strikes me that it isn’t really reason that has led these luminaries to their very different conclusions: it’s their temperaments. If these same people had been born with the same powerful intellects but with different temperaments, then their reasons would have led them to very different conclusions.

Inevitably, this leaves me wondering where my own temperament leads me. I do not of course possess anything like the level of intellect of the various people Holt interviews, but nonetheless, like Steven Weinberg, I too cannot help feeling that the more we understand the mechanism of the universe, the more pointless it seems. I do not see the point of offering a defence of such a perspective: it is my own temperament, and no more. Speaking for myself (and, I emphasise, only for myself), if we are to live our lives as fully as we can, we must not see our lives as pointless, as lacking significance. And I find myself actually grateful that the full answer to the question will always elude our human understanding.

In short, for me, it’s turtles all the way down!