Food and water fuels our bodies, wisdom, belief and beauty replenish our spirit, support our faith and restore our hope, while above all, love and trust the most potent of all forces, feed our heart and nurture our soul.
Recently I have been pondering philosophy, which feeds into our thoughts on existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language and has a prickly or sometimes painful relationship with science, which used to be known as ‘natural philosophy’ until the two were parted.
This lasted for centuries until the twentieth, when philosophers decided science was not only seductive, but also productive as they regained an understanding of all the interesting things going on with science and humans, especially the human brain.
There were also many thinking about changing the subject and ‘how new ways of thinking about human behaviour might change politics, policy and practice’.*
Altruism (giving back to society) and self-reliance are defined qualities that indicate a society is fairer and happier and we are required to respond to the problems we collectively face.
However it is not enough that governments should issue edicts about how we become involved, but that citizens should be capable of changing their own behaviour – of acting for the common good and being personally responsible for their own actions.
Many people like to think or believe an ideal society is formulated by a wish-fulfilment dream, one that says when we stray from our path the ‘original state’ where we want to be now can be restored so that once again, it can become just what it was.
Realists believe at best this is short sighted. Life itself is not and should not ever be a solitary event. Only by going on a quest of understanding together to define the contemporary human’s role in the great scheme of nature and our environment, can we hope to build a better life and world for ourselves and everyone else.
Certainly this is idealistic, but everything we are and have achieved so far is because someone decided to dream that human society would continue to change and improve.
If they hadn’t we would all be still back there swinging in the trees.
Based on news headlines around the world and the stories being beamed daily into our homes from afar, there is no doubt we have entered a new ‘age of anxiety’ – when many people are indeed feeling ‘uncertain and afraid’.
This is the ‘age of feeling’ too, after all.
English born American poet W.H. Auden (1907-1973) wooed generations of literary lovers with his wonderful poem, My North My South, My East and West.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
Have you heard however of his Pulitzer Prize winning pastoral poem the Age of Anxiety.
He began writing it on 1st of September 1939; the day German armies invaded Poland, beginning World War 2.
He ended it at dawn after he had fully explored the spiritual emptiness, the loneliness, and the anxiety-ridden purposelessness of his characters’ lives.
He wrote that in war time displacement produced anxiety and demanded of himself an intellectually powerful response with his text for the Age of Anxiety., which continued even when the war was over.
By then he knew that anxieties exacerbated by wartime did not necessarily evaporate when war ended. Indeed often just the opposite happened.
In the form of an Eclogue, Auden’s Age of Anxiety. depicted rural life as being devoid of the complexity and corruption that seems to invade our so-called ‘civilised’ life in a city.
Eclogues were known in antiquity when the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BC) adopted the format, which was taken up again so readily during the Italian Renaissance, when writers such as Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) were laying down a nucleus of ideas about humanism, which were avidly taken up by others.
In his opus the Decameron of 1348 Boccaccio waxed lyrically that if there was a paradise on earth, it could be in ‘…no other form than a garden, nor was it possible to add anything to it’.
Auden sitting in that New York Bar on Third Avenue was obviously missing the great outdoors as well as experiencing a mood of doubt and fear as he explored his thoughts about human isolation.
This was a condition magnified by the lack of traditional beliefs, religious and otherwise, in his new and modern age, especially in light of Germany’s horrific actions.
Anxiety can become all encompassing for some, who struggle within and without, while yet others learn to face its many and diverse challenges and overcome them.
There are no rules for this, except to know that only by exercising our free will can we overcome our fears, and this is no easy task. While a little fear is necessary for a healthy life (you don’t want to fall off that cliff), too much leads down a very difficult path.
The Daoist philosophers of ancient China knew that it was humankind that integrally linked the past with the future, which was always in a constant and dynamic state of flux or transformation.
This meant that for humans to reveal their inner strength they needed to be and remain at one with the ebb and flow of their natural environment..
So came the idea that to go forward, you must step back too, because you have to gain what you have had and let it go in order to find the way forward and to win back what you must lose.
It is an introspective philosophy, one that had a ‘belief in, and reliance on, human intuition’.
It is also an expression of ‘Ying and Yang’ the two opposing forces at the heart of Chinese philosophy. This is where the rough and masculine yang is balanced by the softer and essentially feminine, ying.
Daoist followers believe that without these two opposites being in balance, and also offering respect to each other, there will be neither be pleasure or sadness in the essential human rhythms of growth and death.
For the Daoist gardener an aged and gnarled pine tree was one of the most desired of elements aesthetically. It reminded the viewer that painterly scenes were made to last a thousand years and that dependability always ensured the achievement of predictable results.
This analogy still serves up the lesson even today, that for humans embracing an idea of pervasive patience is always underlined by restraint.
For many this is something they can scarcely comprehend, but one that despite our best efforts to derail, constantly endures from generation to generation now, and long after we have gone.
A brave mind is always impregnable with persistence, the constant and determined effort that breaks down resistance, allowing the person who refuses to quit to gain a benefit. And in this I don’t mean money. It’s called contributing to the growth of society and feeling better within yourself because you have.
There is the idea that many people about to achieve success, stop or falter at the one-yard line, changing their chances. It has been said many times that ‘failure is success if only we learn from it’*.
During his lifetime German Professor and philosopher Martin Luther (1483-1546) offered his generation hope for a brighter future by saying ‘Even if I knew tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree’.
Hope does spring eternal, otherwise the popular French intellectuals or social philosophers of the eighteenth century would not have risked so much to help bring about the cultural rupture we now know as the French revolution.
Then there were the ‘golden boys’ the Lunar Men of Birmingham in England; toy-maker and ormolu maker extraordinaire Matthew Boulton, his partner James Watt of steam-engine fame, Potter Josiah Wedgwood, physician, poet, inventor Erasmus Darwin the larger than life father of the latterly famous Charles with the man who discovered oxygen Joseph Priestly. They were all busy firing up the modern age.
They all grew up in poor circumstances in the Midlands of England and yet came together in the 1760’s, becoming part of a group who together as a considerable force would help to change the future.
Their optimism was paramount when, by the light of the full moon they met each month with colleagues to form The Lunar Society of Birmingham. A shared love of knowledge and ideas of power drove them forward as they changed the face of England, wanting desperately to revolutionise its ‘soul’.
In our own age we need to reinvent that which we are for a new age ahead. To do that we have to develop the skills to more easily embrace change, which as each new generation emerges seems even harder to achieve and yet is inevitable if we are to survive on a planet in trouble.
The alternative is that those who don’t will just fall by the wayside as the world both shrinks and expands, clamouring to cope with so much more than she seems ready to do.
While climate change has very definitely always been with us down the centuries, our irresponsibility and lack of moral judgment in the past 100 years or more has irrevocably changed the face of nature, bringing about the demise of so much of our natural environment.
Winston Churchill, that great statesman who inspired the English to prevail in World War II said that the ‘empires of the future are the empires of the mind’.
It is imperative that we re-learn how to think if we really wish to achieve. Thinking before acting must become the new black for with unity, we are stronger.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016
*Changing The Subject- RSA London Download