Is Veganism Compatible with being Pro-Choice?

Is Veganism Compatible with being Pro-Choice?

Last month I attended a protest in Dublin against slaughterhouses, where the impassioned cry rang out: ‘HUMANE MEAT IS A LIE. NO ANIMAL WANTS TO DIE’. I am guessing the vast majority of that crowd was pro-Choice, as I am myself. But I wonder is there a contradiction if we urge people to stop killing other animals, but remain silent on the plight of a foetus on which (or whom?) an abortion is informed? Like it or not we are dealing with a sentient being, albeit one that is dependent on its mother.

I am proceeding with care here, conscious that as a man I will never have to make a decision as to whether another human being is allowed to grow inside my body. Nonetheless, I feel bound to tease out this ethical question.

An obvious response might be that this is a matter of bodily integrity, and that anyone should have a choice as to what they do with their own body. But isn’t that the same argument the meat eaters uses when he says: ‘It’s fine you being Vegan but I don’t want to be told what I can or cannot eat.’

For the purpose of this argument let me set up an idealised scenario: a world where Vegan values are incorporated into the law, and where it becomes a crime, ultimately enforced by the violence of a state apparatus, for anyone knowingly to kill or otherwise harm another sentient being, apart from in cases of self-defence, or perhaps survival.

I reckon many, if not most, Vegans would be in favour of laws protecting other animals from human use, although I recognise there are Veg-anarchists out there too, who have a problem with the idea of any state using the violence necessary to uphold laws.

For those Vegans (including myself) broadly in favour of state laws, protecting other animals from human beings using them for meat and other purposes, I ask: what protection would you afford to a foetus growing inside a woman? After all, if you aren’t going to eat honey for the sake of the bee, wouldn’t you extend rights to an immature member of your own species?

But as I said, I remain pro-Choice. Ethical questions are never straightforward and any law we contemplate must operate in real life circumstances, not in
Utopian scenarios. I have found a caveat which keeps me pro-Choice.

Even some of those opposed to abortion on demand accept that where a woman is raped and becomes pregnant she should have a right to terminate the pregnancy.

It would seem intolerable for society to tell a woman that she is obliged to carry a foetus for nine months, and give birth, in those circumstances, as is the case in Ireland today. Thus, a woman’s right to bodily integrity would trump any countervailing right of a foetus.

But the problem for those who are conceding a right to abortion on those grounds is working out how a woman should go about proving rape in order to have a right to that abortion. Even for a woman, or girl, to acknowledge to herself, and her family, that she has been raped may, in some circumstances, be traumatic. How can you then ask her to sign blithely on a dotted line that she has been violated, or otherwise make a declaration to that effect?

Would a criminal investigation then proceed after a declaration of rape occurs? This could have the effect of leading women to make false allegation of rape in order to get an abortion, which might even cause men to be wrongfully prosecuted. It would be a complete legal minefield if this were to be the exception to the general rule that abortion should not be allowed on demand.

This is a violent world we live in. Rape is far from being an unusual crime. One in five Irish women have experienced sexual violence, and the #metoo phenomenon has exposed the extent to which women feel obliged to perform sexual acts in order to advance their careers, which is not far off being rape.

Put simply, in the world we live in today, abortion is a necessary evil and a form of self-defence for women against predatory men. The rape exception leads to an all-encompassing right.

A major problem with the abortion debate in Ireland is that the media set up binary positions that narrow the debate unsatisfactorily. This fails to acknowledge wider questions on sexuality, gender roles and reproduction.

Newspapers are commercial enterprises that dangle click bait that appeal to the narrow opinions on each side. The difficulties are compounded by an adversarial legal culture that sets protagonists against one another, and pollutes the body politic.

The debate should not descend into polarities. There are quite disturbing scenarios where abortion might be co-opted into the design of offspring, selected for good looks, athleticism or intelligence; an extension of how the cosmetic industry help us design our bodies, for a fee of course. The superficiality of debate is symptomatic of the Neoliberal zeitgeist of dissonance; neither side acknowledging the arguments of the opponents, thereby preventing a progressive synthesis from emerging.

Justice emerges through observation and experience of the world around us. Instead of tablets of stone containing commandments for all time, we should find the language of justice inscribed on organic materials that alter with circumstances. These insights may be illuminated in the same silence that is necessary for poetic inspiration.

I remain pro-Choice and favour repeal of the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution.

The Leaving Certificate Mind

The Leaving Certificate Mind

It is worth reflecting on why criticism is not easily absorbed in Ireland. Tempers seem to flare easily, often excluding meaningful dialogue.

I attribute a great deal of this to a secondary education system which avoids profound interrogation of ideas. We lack the detachment gained from the French philosophical training in a Baccalaureate or even the English (or really Scottish) tradition of dispassionate rational enquiry. This is an adolescent nation that seems to have drawn selectively from Plato’s 4th century BC idealisation of a city state in The Republic.

The formative educational experience in Ireland comes from the Leaving Certificate, whose results divide students into the relative substrates of gold, silver, bronze and iron; the origin myth that Plato propagated in The Republic to keep people in their place.

In common with The Republic, the Leaving Certificate exalts mathematics above other disciplines, with bonus points attaching at higher level; you can’t attain ‘the maximum’ without an A1. This, however, is not an enquiring mathematics, at least in the 1990s, it wasn’t.

The tedium of text books was legendary; sometimes there were practical questions grounded in ‘real world’ solutions, such as calculating compound interest; subliminal messages woven through the text, aligning students to dominant ‘managerial’ values.

Abstract fields were entered, but given no context. We were supposed to shut up and take the medicine. I only wish I had been acquainted with the relationship between mathematics and beauty or astronomy. Then perhaps I wouldn’t have spent so much time drawing faces on my copybooks, or flicking paper balls at my mates.

I recall a fascination at the end of my transition years when a physics teacher – who until then seemed to speak exclusively in the mysterious language of equations – extemporised on the origins of the universe, and time travel. Alas, by that point my grounding was so feeble that any attempt to ignite a mathematical career was beyond me.

The poet most of us identify with Leaving Certificate English is W.B. Yeats, who was fascinated by Plato, although – to my consternation – Yeats did not appear on the English paper my year, as had been his bi-annual habit.

Yeats is said to have measured out metre with a metronome (although he was also apparently tone deaf). His sharply delineated poetry was sculpted with great precision into iambs and rhyming patterns, exacting labour he bemoans in ‘Adam’s Curse’ (1904):

A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

This gives his work a musical ring evident throughout his corpus, making him perhaps the leading English language poet of the twentieth century.

It is symptomatic that in my time the transgressive language of James Joyce’s equally precious works found no place on the syllabus. Thus, Leaving Certificate English inclines towards Platonic order, rather than a questioning iconoclasm. Yeats’s Platonic idealism, notwithstanding exotic heresies, also fitted with a reigning Catholicism still inhabiting state institutions, right up to the Constitution itself.

In the humanities Leaving Certificate methodologies are a debased form of Catholic scholasticism; rather than addressing concepts with Aristotelian rigour, in most subjects rote learning is demanded: mindless, increasingly secular, catechisms.

What saved me from academic oblivion and middle class shame (that came later), was a capacity to recall that raw detail, allied with a genuine interest in history. I ascended to the level of non-mathematical silver in the Platonic scale, and became an Arts student in lumpen-UCD.

The Leaving Certificate brands and stamps you with its legacy. University results do not have the same kudos, because there, it is understood, you study subjects you have chosen rather than a wide range. Years afterwards, one is aware of someone’s Leaving Certificate results, bringing flawed assumptions of brilliance, or mediocrity.

There is much to be said in favour of a broad-based approach encompassing all facets of a Liberal education. But the narrow lens of Leaving Certificate methodologies ignores the function of education, including mathematical, that Plato identifies in his Republic, which is to develop philosopher-rulers. Philosophy is not even a Leaving Certificate subject.

Another insight we may draw from The Republic is that Plato banishes unruly poets from his putative state, and imposes his own mythology. Similarly, many Irish writers have been compelled to display the Joycean qualities of ‘silence, exile and cunning’, allowing the Catholic Church to propagate a singular
Biblical mythology. The former principal of Glenstal Abbey Mark Patrick Hederman acknowledged that Irish Catholicism was ‘bullying and insensitive’ at the time of Joyce. That demand for conformity was imported into the final state examination.

The Leaving Certificate Mind is apparent at many levels of Irish society, and seems to fit people to work, submissively, in large corporate bodies. This may be economically advantageous in the medium term, but creativity, and perhaps entrepreneurship, are given insufficient scope.

Moreover, the shadow of this submissiveness is an irrational anger where a slight is perceived. This reveals an inability to fall back on dispassionate philosophical enquiry, and often what we are left with unseemly shouting matches.

An Overflow of Violent Bacchanalia

An Overflow of Violent Bacchanalia

Accounts of the storming of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg on October 25th 1917 read more like those of a party being violently gate-crashed than the single most shocking event of the twentieth century: the emergence of the Bolsheviks as leaders of the first Communist regime in history, in the world’s largest country. The old European order would soon lie in tatters, but outrageous indulgence rather than single-minded austerity marked this turning point in history. The ultimate descent of the Revolution into oppressive totalitarianism may be explained by intellectual hubris among its followers, and the violent methods of its leader.

Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated in March 1917, ending a reign marked by ineptitude and intransigence. The Romanov dynasty to which he belonged had ruled Russia since 1613, and in that period conquered a vast multinational empire encompassing almost a sixth of the world’s landmass. Tsardom itself, which claimed a descet, and drew its name, from the Roman Caesars, had apparently passed into the dustbin of history. Historic failure to remodel Russian society along European lines – serfs were only emancipated in 1861 – ill-equipped the Empire for the challenge of modern, ‘total’ warfare. Nicholas, his wife and five children, were shot, bayonetted and clubbed to death by Bolsheviks the following year.

By October 1917 a socialist lawyer Alexander Kerensky was leader of a provisional government. Fatally for that regime, however, Russia remained embroiled in a war she could ill-afford. In the meantime the exiled Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin had been smuggled with German assistance into the country aboard a sealed train, intent on fomenting a violent uprising. ‘Russia’, wrote Ilya Ehrenberg, ‘lived as if on a railway platform, waiting for the guard’s whistle’. The American journalist John Reed attests to a rambunctious atmosphere in the then capital of St Petersburg: ‘Gambling clubs functioned hectically from dusk till dawn with champagne flowing and stakes of 20,000 roubles. In the centre of the city at night, prostitutes in jewels and expensive furs walked up and down and crowded the cafés … Hold-ups increased to such an extent that it was dangerous to walk the streets.’

Inside the Winter Palace members of Kerensky’s cabinet – though not Kerensky himself – held out against the Bolsheviks who controlled most of the city. Red Army gunners at the Peter and Paul Fortress managed a barrage of three dozen 6-inch shells, but only two hit their mark. They succeeded, nonetheless, in panicking the defenders and many slipped away. At last the dilettante besiegers discovered the main doors were unlocked and stormed the building. Without significant bloodshed the cabinet were arrested, although some of the women’s militia defending the palace were raped. According to Simon Sebag Montefiore, more people were hurt in the making of Eisentein’s film Ten Days that Shook the World ten years later, than in the ‘battle’ itself. What ensued was a wild party.

According to the leader of the assault Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko: ‘The matter of the wine-cellars became especially critical’. Nicholas’s cellars contained Hungarian Tokay from the age of Catherine the Great and stocks of Chateau d’Yquem 1847, the emperor’s favourite. But:

the Preobrazhensky Regiment… got totally drunk. The Pavlovsky, our revolutionary buttress, also couldn’t resist. We sent guards from other picked units – all got utterly drunk. We post guards from the Regimental Committees – they succumbed as well. We despatched armoured cars to drive away the crowd, but after a while they also began to weave suspiciously. When evening came, a violent bacchanalia overflowed.

What transpired after this farce was, however, no carnival. According to Montefiore Lenin was always ‘eager to start the bloodletting’. Like Padraig Pearse in Ireland, he believed any successful revolution demanded a heavy death toll, favouring the ruthlessness of Robespierre’s Jacobins in 1789 over the more placatory Paris Communards in 1870. As far back as 1908 Lenin wrote that the Paris Commune had failed because its leaders ‘should have exterminated its enemies’, rather than attempt to exert moral influence. In August 1918 he issued the following order:

1. Hang (and I mean hang so that the people can see) not less than 100 known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers.
2. Publish their names.
3. Take all their grain away from them.
4. Identify hostages as we described in our telegram yesterday. Do this so that for hundreds of miles around the people can see, tremble, know and cry: they are killing and will go on killing the bloodsucking kulaks. Cable that you have received this and carried out your instructions.
Yours, Lenin
P.S. Find tougher people.
Lenin’s approach to violence may have been pragmatic in the context of the life and death struggle of the Russian Civil War, but containing the “tougher people” he unleashed would prove highly problematic.

Up to ten million people died in that conflict, the vast majority civilians; far more than the approximately two million Russian deaths in the preceding war. But wartime militarisation left the country as combustible as a pine forest after a heatwave. The October Revolution was the hesitant match that brought the inferno. The White Guard (1925), Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel set during the Civil War in Kiev, recounts:

there were tens of thousands of men who had come back from the war, having been taught how to shoot by those same Russian officers they loathed so much. There were hundreds of thousands of rifles buried under-ground, hidden in hayricks and barns and not handed in, despite the summary justice dealt out by the German field courts-martial, despite flailing ramrods and shrapnel-fire; buried in that same soil were millions of cartridges, a three-inch gun hidden in ever fifth-village, machine guns in every other village, shells stored in every little town, secret warehouses full of army greatcoats and fur caps.

The events in St Petersburg reverberated around the enormous country, generating a dizzying array of factions that never managed to dislodge the Bolsheviks from the two largest Russian cities, despite the intervention of foreign powers.

Karl Marx did not believe that a Russian revolution would produce a Socialist government as the society was too undeveloped. Under Marxist theory Communism should emerge in the more advanced Capitalist societies such as the UK and Germany. After victory in the Civil War the Red Army pushed westwards towards Germany. The triumph, however, of Marshall Pilsudski’s Polish army before Warsaw in 1920 – the so-called ‘Miracle of the Vistula’ – scuppered the prospect of world revolution. Communism would be confined to one country for two decades. Nevertheless, a generation of European intellectuals were seduced by the idealism of the October Revolution.

According to the poet Stephen Spender, who briefly joined the Communist Party of Britain in the 1930s: ‘Socialism was a variety of modernist behaviour which went with red ties and Shaw’s beard.’ It was widely believed that Capitalism was both deeply unfair, and ultimately doomed. Sympathies were also based on an assumption of being on the right side of history. As Karl Marx put it: ‘Communism … is the riddle of history solved and knows itself as this solution.’ In this teleology Communism was the ultimate stage, humankind having passed through Slavery, Feudalism and Capitalism. It was linked to a belief in science and rationality, and opposed to the superstitions and inflexibility of Old Europe.

The appeal for others lay in ameliorating the disastrous economic conditions after the war. The novelist Arthur Koestler’s family never recovered financially from its effects. He joined the German Communist Party in 1931 after surveying the poverty and profiteering that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929. He later recalled: ‘I was ripe for it because I lived in a disintegrating society thirsting for faith.’ The road to hell was paved with good intentions.

Classically, revolutions devour their children, and Josef Vissarionvich Djugashvilli-Stalin emerged as the angel of death. According to an early biographer Isaac Deutscher, Stalin ‘was the ultimate committee man’, who, ‘led because he followed the prevailing mood and expressed it in a grey patchwork of formulas.’ As to his role in the October Revolution Leon Trotsky – himself an early disciple of Lenin’s ruthless disregard for human life, who would eventually be murdered with an ice pick on Stalin’s orders – wrote: ‘the greater the sweep of events, the smaller was Stalin’s place in it.’

‘Trotsky’s testimony might be dismissed’, according to Deutscher, ‘were it possible to find among the welter of documents’, a few recording Stalin’s direction connection with the first days of the upheaval, but ‘none have been found.’ Afterwards as first Commissar for Nationalities Stalin operated in the background, building alliances and playing one faction off against another, as he awaited a chance to strike for power, which arrived after Lenin’s early death in 1924. The widespread acceptance of Lenin’s violent methodology when placed in the hands of this paranoid, and frankly wicked, personality brought untold suffering to Russia, and beyond.

Communism was a system of government committed to rational methods, but Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s anonymous anti-hero in Notes from the Underground (1864) anticipates how a wilful character, such as Stalin’s, would emerge to mock those principles. He describes a form of government where:

All human actions will then of course be calculated, mathematically, like logarithm tables up to 108,000, and recorded in a calendar; or even better, well-intentioned publications will then appear … in which everything will be so precisely calculated and recorded that there will no longer be deliberate acts or adventures in the world.

This he suggests would create a reaction, in the form of that avenging angel:

I, for example, wouldn’t be at all surprised if, in the midst of all this reasonableness that is to come, suddenly and quite unaccountably some gentleman with an ignoble, or rather a reactionary and mocking physiognomy were to appear and, arms akimbo, say to us all: “Now, gentlemen, what about giving all this reasonableness a good kick with the sole purpose of sending all those logarithms to hell for a while so we can live for a while in accordance with our own stupid will!

He adds, ominously, that, ‘the pity is that he will find people to follow him: people are made like that’.

During the purges Stalin openly revealed an admiration for Tsar Ivan IV (‘the terrible’), though he felt, ‘Ivan killed too few boyars. He should have killed them all, to create a strong state.’ Thus, Montefiore argues: ‘The magnates were not as oblivious to Stalin’s nature as they later claimed’. He found no difficultly enlisting loyal executioners, despite descending into the despotism and profound irrationality of a Red Tsar.

Thus, paradoxically, Communists and their fellow-travellers were bewitched by a dogma of extreme rationality, where the Utopian end justified the most shocking means. Koestler writes: ‘Reason may defend an act of faith – but only after the act has been committed, and the man committed to the act’. Koestler eventually become disillusioned with the cause, and his novel Darkness at Noon (1940) is a probing psychological portrait of an innocent Bolshevik who assents to his execution in a show trial, sacrificing himself for the sake of the historical dialectic. Adherence to Communism took on many of the features of a religion.

Other Communists – usually at a remove from the horrors of Leninism and Stalinism – such as the historian Eric Hobsbawm, were repelled by those who had abandoned their faith. In his autobiography he admits: ‘I was strongly repelled by the idea of being in the company of those ex-Communists who turned into fanatical anti-Communists, because they could free themselves from the service of ‘The God that failed’ only by turning him into Satan’. It was only in 1956 when Khrushchev admitted to the depravity of Stalin’s rule, and after the Hungarian Revolution had been brutally suppressed, that he admits: ‘for more than a year, British Communists lived on the edge of the political equivalent of a collective nervous breakdown.’

Communists reacted to these events like devout Catholics to revelations of a paedophilic clergy. However, like many Catholics, disgusted by particular priests but convinced by a Revealed truth, Hobsbawm remained true to his ‘church’: ‘emotionally, as one converted as a teenager in the Berlin of 1932, I belonged to the generation tied by an umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution, and of its original home, the October Revolution, however sceptical or critical of the USSR.’

The intellectual hubris of the Marxist idea of an end to history perhaps doomed the movement to a violent totalitarianism that brooked no dissent. Under Communism, according to the Polish writer Ryzsard Kapuscinski: ‘the art of formulating questions (for it is an art!) vanished, as did even the need to ask them. Increasingly everything presented itself as being what it was supposed to be’. He concludes ‘A civilisation that does not ask questions … is a civilisation standing in place, paralyzed, immobile’. Communism did not permit competing opinions. This led to intellectual stultification, formulaic art, and eventually declining scientific ingenuity that gave the West the edge in the Cold War.

Many European intellectuals saw the October Revolution as a spark of inspiration anticipating a better world, and in a period when politics was closely connected to military struggle, violent excess was tolerated. In response, abandoning ideology may seem salutary; as Solzhenitsyn put it: ‘Shakespeare’s villains stopped short at ten or so cadavers. Because they had no ideology.’ However, without conviction human progress is stalled, and the only ‘-ism’ that survives is the kind of cynicism of today that sees no alternative to an ascendant Neoliberalism. The noble objective of Communism was to bring homo sapiens to a higher plain of existence. Despite the horrendous hangover that followed the October Revolution, perhaps we should not abandon that hope lightly.

History indicates that any improving idea is unlikely to succeed over the long-term if brutal methods are used to carry it out. Lenin criticised the relative passivity of the Paris Communards, but modern France is more socialist than present-day Russia. Significant shifts in consciousness – such as those brought by the Christian New Testament to Europe – tend to occur at an individual level rather than when imposed from above. In fact, as was the case after the Roman Emperor Constantine’s adoption of Christianity, imposition may often lead to tyranny. An abstract idea, no matter how seemingly benevolent, in the hands of a ruthless politician, such as Stalin, may become a tool of oppression. Today few around the world still believe that the October Revolution was the catalyst for a better world

The Evil That Men Do

The Evil That Men Do

Published in the Dublin Review of Books: (http://www.drb.ie/essays/the-evil-that-men-do)

The unconscious of a whole continent and age has made of itself poetry in the nightmare of a single prophetic dreamer
Herman Hesse

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov casts a shadow over European literature. Sigmund Freud described it as ‘The most magnificent novel ever written’; while Friedrich Nietzsche acknowledged his Russian contemporary as: ‘the only psychologist from whom I have anything to learn’. In its intimate understanding of human depravity it anticipates a destructive phase of history, yet proffering a healing idealism with enduring appeal.

The novel anticipates the birth of the unconscious in psychology, and poses questions that seemed to drive Nietzsche mad. The best and the worst in the human character are laid bare: ‘A father has been killed and they pretend to be shocked … They’re just putting on a show in front of one another. Hypocrites. Everyone wants his father dead. Let dog eat dog.’ The sexually rampant and mendacious figure of that father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, merits comparison with President Donald Trump against whom we now hurl opprobrium, rather than profitably acknowledging shades of our own characters in the roundly-despised leader of the so-called ‘free world’.

As an ‘unacknowledged legislator’, to use Percy Shelley’s term, Dostoyevsky moulded values that entered the common stream of human ideas that merit revisiting. The Brothers Karamazov, his last and most realised work, articulates spiritual and intellectual principles, in a confused Post-Modern age that has lost sight of significance since the decline of organised religions and Utopian ideologies.

Yet, perhaps Dostoyevsky’s greatest achievement here is to avoid being overbearing or didactic. A moral code by which to live one’s life is faithfully rendered, but deviant characters are not drawn in black and white. We inhabit their outlooks and arguments, as the writer seems to, but have available to us the vision of a reformed and universal Christianity, redolent of St Francis of Assisi.

A potential reader should not be intimidated by the book’s length, just shy of a thousand pages – or long, frenzied paragraphs – as untangling its subterfuges becomes compulsive. Completed in 1880, it still brims with lessons for a disorientated humanity, not least in the wake of Brexit and Trump: warnings on the psychological consequence of admitting to the death of God; meditations on a universal responsibility for sin; reflections on the corruption of organised religion; and suggestions of an overarching harmony. The author subjects belief systems, including his own, to almost mocking interrogation. There is no refuge in this trial of modern man, personified by Dimitri, the eldest of the Karamazov brothers.

Dostoyevsky identifies a broad moral continuum in a single person between a capacity for the highest and basest deeds and actions, reflecting Carl Jung’s idea that there is a murderer in us all. If any character represents the views of Dostoyevsky himself it is perhaps the chief prosecutor Ippolit Krillovitch, who, uncannily, like the author, dies within a few months of the novel’s central events. These are the apparent patricide, and aftermath, of the debauched sensualist Fyodor Karamazov who competes with his son Dimitri for the affections of his paramour Grushenka. His sons exhibit facets of an enduring character, representing to Freud the id, ego and superego. In the ensuing trial Krillovitch draws attention to the inadequacies of each brother. So searing are his insights that Dimitri is inclined to thank his own prosecutor for telling: ‘me a lot about myself that I didn’t know’.

Krillovitch describes those of the Karmazov ilk as having: ‘natures with such a broad sweep… capable of encompassing all manner of opposites, of contemplating both extremes at one and the same time – that which is above us, the extremity of the loftiest ideals, and that which is below us, the extremity of the most iniquitous degradation.’ He says ‘others have their Hamlets; so far, we Russians have only our Karamazovs’, but that archetype extends beyond Russia, into the multiplicity of our selves.

First there is Alyosha, the youngest, who at the start of the tale we find considering a monastic life, but following the advice of his mentor, the mystic Elder Zosima, he returns to the disorder of the world. The narrator writes of Alyosha: ‘it seems that he lived his whole life with an absolute faith in people, though no one ever thought of him as simple or naïve. There was something in him that said, and made you believe, (and this was so throughout his life), that he did not wish to sit in judgment over others and would never take it upon himself to censure anyone.’ To Freud he represented the superego, the ethical part of a personality, setting the moral boundaries in which the ego operates.

Alyosha is possessed of magnetism, empathy and intuition. Other characters find a reflection of their failings in his benign nature, including the alluring Grushenka who exerts a fatal attraction over both Dimitri and his father. She sets out to seduce the youngest brother, but is instead so disarmed by his purity that she begins a redemptive journey of her own. She performs a Jocasta role in the archetypal oedipal tale: Dimitri, the son, mistakenly perceiving he is frustrated by his own father, Fyodor, in realising a sexual fantasy, plots to kill him.

The nature of Dimitri’s frenzied attempts to win over Grushenka also reflect the damage that has been inflicted on him by the early loss of his mother who abandons him, and the household, after tiring of Fyodor’s affairs. That his father should be a competitor compounds his anger and brings him to the brink of patricidal intent. He also maintains that he has been cheated of his inheritance, with which he hopes to restore his honour having stolen money from his spurned fiancé Katerina Ivanova to satisfy his sensual appetites. These resentments, set against the influence on him of Friedrich Schiller espousal of universal love, generate one of the most conflicted characters in modern literature.

Alyosha occupies the place of deepest compassion on the Karamazov scale. The prosecutor Krillovitch, ever-vigilant to human failings, warns of the pitfall of taking refuge in mysticism and failing to honour the rational, egotistical and male side of his nature:

he has come, it seems to me, to represent that timid despair with which so many people in our impoverished society, frightened of its cynicism and corruption and mistakenly attributing all evil to the European enlightenment, rush towards “the soil of their birth”, into the maternal embrace, as it were, of their native land, like children frightened of ghosts, their only desire being to slumber peacefully in the shrivelled bosom of their exhausted mother, or even perhaps to spend their whole life sleeping there, merely to escape the sight of the fearsome visions.

At least, Alyosha, encouraged by his mentor Zosima rejects the sanctuary of the monastery, as this is unnecessary for one of his benevolent nature. Contrary to displaying “timid despair” Alyosha actually exhibits bravery by confronting the imperfections of the external world. This is especially evident in his compassion for the child Ilyusha after he bites him on the hand.

Krillovitch also warns Alyosha against a ‘Dreary mysticism’, here represented by the outlook of another monk, the severe and ascetic Father Ferapont, who foments superstition, and stands in judgement over others.

Observing the rise of fundamentalism in the United States, the Middle East and elsewhere, we see the heirs of Ferapont turn religion into a reactionary force. Unfortunately this is how it most commonly appears in the world, explaining why so many of us wash our hands of it altogether. This widespread detachment may, however, have profoundly damaging psychological consequences: Carl Jung found he seldom succeeded in helping patients overcome mental disorders unless they recovered a capacity for religious experience.

Like many of his previous anti-heroes, including Stavrogin and Roskalnikov, the second-eldest brother Ivan is a quintessentially thrusting modern man representing Freud’s idea of the ego. This typology also bears resemblance to Turgenev’s character Bazarov from Fathers and Sons who suffers a similar hubristic demise. Like Nietzsche, Ivan descends into madness after proclaiming the death of God. He is not however a simplistic personification of a degraded European civilisation. Ivan’s analysis of human nature remains acutely troubling: ‘We often talk of man’s “bestial” cruelty, but this is terribly unjust and insulting to beasts: a wild animal can never be as cruel as man, as artistic, as refined in his cruelty.’

Surveying all too common and inexplicable atrocities, especially carried out against children, he rejects the idea of divine harmony: ‘It’s not worth one little tear from one single little tortured child, beating its breast with its little fists in its foul-smelling lock-up, and praying with its unexpiated tears to its “Dear Father God”. He tells Alyosha: ‘It’s not God that I don’t accept – understand that – it’s His creation’. Ivan cannot comprehend how any God could permit such depravity, pointing to atrocities committed by the Turks in Bulgaria, and also to stories of torture perpetrated against children in ‘Christian’ Russia. In response to the tirade Alyosha responds that: ‘He can forgive everyone for everything, because He Himself shed His innocent blood for everyone and everything.’ For Alyosha this act of love is oceanic in its reach and can steer us from the moral void, into which Ivan eventually descends. If we believe Alyosha, no crime is so great that redemption is not possible.

As a brief aside it is useful to explore Jung’s conception of evil in the world which Ivan and Alyosha’s debate considers. Jung’s approach diverges from the Catholic doctrine of Privatio Boni which identifies evil simply with the absence of good, and not an independent and eternal phenomenon. In contrast, ‘Evil’ Jung says ‘does not decrease by being hushed up as a non-reality or as mere negligence of man. It was there before him, when he could not possibly have had a hand in it.’ Jung argued that: ‘The future of mankind very much depends upon the recognition of the shadow’. Dostoyevsky also confronts evil in an attempt to control it.

Later Ivan is visited by a supernatural visitor, a devil, who claims to have ‘turned my hand to vaudeville and that sort of thing’; a creative invitation taken up decades later by Mikhail Bulgakov in his novel The Master and Margarita. This devil imagines an earth recycled a billion times: ‘endlessly perhaps, and always the exact same, down to the last detail.’ Intriguingly, this cosmology corresponds with ideas current in physics. Neil Turok writes: ‘If the universe can pass through a singularity once then it can do so again and again. We have developed the picture into a cyclic universe scenario, consisting of an infinite sequence of big bangs each followed by expansion and collapse’.
A form of what Nietszche referred to as ‘eternal recurrence’ is similar to Carl Jung’s description of the hell of the mad, which is not only that time has: ‘ceased to exist for them but some memory of what it and its seasons once meant to them remains to remind them of the fact that it is no longer there’. The devil reminds Ivan of time’s lapse.

Dazzled by his intellectual brilliance, Ivan’s spiral into madness is a form of hubris representing a failure to nurture the divine in his nature. Ivan’s devil taunts him: ‘Although I’m a hallucination, nevertheless, as in a nightmare, I say things which are original, things that have never occurred to you before, which means I am not merely repeating your thoughts and yet at the same time I’m simply your nightmare and nothing else.’ His elevated rationality is assailed by the unknowable mysteries of the unconscious that intrude on his calculations.
At the start of the novel Ivan, who is described as a poet, treats us to one of the great characters of modern fiction: the Grand Inquisitor that Laurens van der Post calls ‘the visionary anticipation of Stalin and his kind’. The tale is set in post-Reformation Spain where the eponymous, aged despot is visited by a resurrected Christ. This fearsome creation, however, dismisses the putative saviour admitting that the Catholic Church has embraced the devil: ‘we have accepted from him what You had rejected with indignation, that last gift that he offered You, showing You all the kingdoms of the earth: we accepted Rome and the sword of Caesar from him, and we proclaimed ourselves the only kings on earth, the only true kings’. The Grand Inquisitor is convinced that he is serving the interest of the common people who will despair if freedom of conscience is permitted. Instead he promises to continue serving him: ‘we shall withhold the secret and, to keep them happy, we shall opiate them with promises of eternal reward in heaven.’ Marx himself could not have performed a more thorough hatchet job on the Catholic Church, though, ironically, Grand Inquisitors prospered in Communist Russia.

Through Ivan, Dostoyevsky is voicing his deep animosity to Catholicism, the Jesuit order in particular, and the conflation of religious with temporal power generally; a charge of devilry in this enterprise previously levelled by Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. Ivan, however, throws the baby out with the bathwater, failing to grasp the benefits of the compassion his brother Alyosha discovers through his mentor Zosima. This philosophy does not require miracles to bind awestruck followers. Symbolically, after his death Zosima’s body is left unburied for some days and begins to give off an ‘odour of putrefaction’, rather than the miraculous fragrance that some of his superficial followers seek as confirmation of his holiness. This reflects a passage from the Gospel of St Mathew when during his trial in the desert Jesus responds to the demand of the devil that he should perform a miracle by saying: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’. The importance of Zosima lies in ideas of compassion that he embodies, in opposition to the diabolic scheming of the Grand Inquisitor.
The extended writings of the Elder Zosima that appear in the book are a moral touchstone for the characters: deviation from his precepts resulting in torments such as Ivan’s. This section was inspired by Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk, and at its core is the idea that we share a collective guilt for the sins of one another and should refrain from judgmental responses. This is a concept developed in another novel of Dostoyevsky’s, The Devils, where the fictional elder Tikhon (confusing he bears the same name as the historical figure) responds to the confession of Stavrogin to a heinous crime against a child by bursting into tears and asserting his own culpability. In The Brothers Karamazov the approach is laid out in full. The essence is that we have a common responsibility for the world we live in.

Some critics have argued that Tikhon’s philosophy did not coincide with Dostoyevsky’s admittedly complex views, but the presence of this teaching in The Devils and full elucidation in The Brothers Karamazov suggests the author subscribed to this code. Dostoyevsky went to the length of transcribing by hand the mystic’s autobiography when he encountered it in a monastery, and presents almost a facsimile in the novel. It seems inconceivable that he would give it such faithful treatment if he did not consider this a profound insight. Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy displayed a similar moral candour, which also allowed for sympathetic treatment of ‘sinful’ characters such as Odysseus that he meets in hell. It is perhaps the tragedy of Post-Modernism that most contemporary writers have abandoned a firm moral foundation. In its place we have the narcissism of autobiography and the cult of authenticity. As Laurens van der Post put it: ‘characters no longer bubble up, fountain like, in the art of fiction but have been replaced by men and women who have been “researched” as novelists proudly assert, and so are not individual conceptions any more but statistical abstracts of humanity that live only as a form of dead accountancy.’

In Discourses and teachings of Starets Zosima it is proclaimed:
There is but one salvation available to you. Take yourself in hand, and be answerable for all the sins of all men. My friend this is actually true: you need only make yourself sincerely answerable for everything and everyone, and you will see immediately that it really is so, and that it is you who are actually guilty of the sins committed by each and every man. Whereas, if you blame one another for your own sloth and weakness, you will end up becoming imbued with satanic pride and will turn against God.’

This is a radical Christianity that overthrows an assumption of moral authority, and where sin is approached as collective error. Instead of passing judgement we embrace the failings of each other as our own. It corresponds with the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti’s more recent assertion that ‘nobody is responsible except you, because you are the world and the world is you’, although evil should not simply be dismissed as a projection but confronted as an active force in ourselves and the world.

Zosima’s doctrine of compassion is relevant nonetheless to the despair felt by many at the failings of political and religious leaders. We might usefully explore the origin of the bile directed at US President Donald Trump whose lies and raging sexuality deserves comparison with Fyodor Karamazov. Before inveighing against his excesses, it is useful to acknowledge that he is an extension of the world that we are all responsible for. For example, we castigate his denial of the reality of climate change but that denial is implicit in how many of us lead our lives. Scapegoating Trump and his acolytes is hypocritical unless we alter our own behaviour. Moreover, it was our collective fascination with his abusive rhetoric that gave him the exposure necessary for a political revolution. Besides, can any of us who listen to Trump say we have never had a racist, sexist or thuggish thought? Or, that we have always been entirely honest and not asserted ourselves aggressively? ‘Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone’.

Those characteristics are dormant in most of us but hatred of Trump is conditioned by a struggle to contain our shadow which amounts to the repression of these tendencies in ourselves. To admit to such infamy is challenging, but only by understanding this can we truly confront Trump. Similarly, Jung claimed that the Russia problem in the external world would never be resolved without more disaster unless we first dealt with the ‘Russia in ourselves’. Dismissing as Hillary Clinton did Trump’s supporters as a: ‘basket of deplorables’ was probably the gravest error of her campaign. That term is associated with ‘basket cases’ and ‘white trash’, suggesting that his supporters were garbage that ought to be destroyed.

Trump preyed on this but also a rampant rationality that makes expertise remote, specialised and inaccessible. Trump’s jocular policy shifts and tendency to speak the language of the uneducated classes was the shadow of a growing dissonance in the West that is the shadow of a high pitched rationality inaccessible to most ears, which creates divisions in society and engenders a Post-Truth dismissal of expertise.

That is not to say we should not confront the evil of Trump’s vindictiveness and obtuse denial. In fact we have a moral obligation to do so, but it is important to voice opposition in such a way that does not speak down to his supporters, and acknowledges that there is a serious problem with the way we communicate ideas. A challenge for any politician opposed to Trump is to summon the oceanic compassion and skilled communication required for global leadership.
Zosima’s vision of harmony extends beyond the human species:

If you love every kind of thing, then everywhere God’s mystery will reveal itself to you. Once this has been revealed to you, you will begin to understand it even more deeply with each passing day. And finally you will be able to love the whole world with an all-encompassing universal love.

We are urged to ‘Love animals’, and not set ourselves above them as is emerged in Western thought. An apparently Oriental view on the relationship between humans and other species is a striking aspect of his teachings, an idea increasingly relevant to curbing the appalling treatment of animals by human beings in the world.

It is perhaps Russia’s situation on a geopolitical fault-line between Europe and Asia that explains its extraordinary cultural achievements – especially in the nineteenth century – straddling the continents, and drawing lessons from both. A more obviously Buddhist approach was later adopted by Dostoyevsky’s contemporary Tolstoy – including embarking on a fruitful correspondence with a young Mahatma Gandhi – he opined that: ‘as long as there are slaughterhouses there will be battlefields’.

Zosima concludes his tract with an answer to the question: ‘What is hell? I argue thus: it is the suffering caused by not being able to love anymore.’ Here he avoids simplistic recourse to supernatural explanation, instead preferring a profound psychological insight into the origin of human unhappiness.

The eldest brother Dimitri represents in Freud’s schema the id of uncoordinated instinctual passions. He is also an idealist in the mould of his youngest brother Alyosha, but vulnerable to the sensual indulgences of his father. These competing forces battle for his soul with his benign nature ultimately prevailing:

I am a Karamzov … I fall into the abyss, I go head first and even take pleasure in the extent of my own degradation, even find beauty in it. And from those depths of degradation, I begin to sing a hymn. I may be damned, I may be base and despicable, but I kiss the hem of the robe that envelops my God; I may be serving the devil at that same moment, but I’m still your son, O Lord, and I love you and feel that joy without which the world could not exist.

Although in one episode he beats his father, and also later metes out terrible violence to his father’s servant Grigory, who acted in loco parentis when as a child he was abandoned and allowed to roam barefoot like a wild animal by his real father. He draws back, however, from the ultimate violence of patricide. In his own words he is saved by a guardian angel. In contrast to Ivan’s nihilism, belief in a divine harmony allows him to resist a violent passion at the critical moment.

Dimitri’s salvation arrives through a willingness to accept the consequences of a sin that we learn he did not commit. After being found guilty of the crime he says: ‘I accept my punishment, not because I killed him, but because I wanted to kill him and, perhaps, really would have killed him.’ He takes possession of an act for which he has no direct responsibility as the philosophy of Tikhon ordains we should.

There is, it seems, a fourth son that completes the Karamazov circle of virtue and vice: Pavel Fyodorovich Smerdyakov, although whether he is indeed Fyodor’s son is never confirmed. He is the child of the mentally-ill, so-called Stinking Lizavetta, who had been raped by the arch-sensualist Fyodor Karamazov. The pitiful half-wit dies in childbirth and the infant’s upbringing is left to Grigory, and his childless wife Marfa. They obligingly take care of the surly, epileptic boy who eventually goes to Moscow to study cookery, returning as Fyodor’s scheming chef, and trusted confidante. Smerdyakov offends against the natural order: torturing dogs by putting pins in scraps of food, and denigrates poetry: ‘it’s a lot of rubbish. Just think about: who in the world speaks in rhyme?’ Ultimately he murders his own likely father when the opportunity presents itself after Dimitri baulks at the prospect. Then he leaves the crime scene so it appears, beyond reasonable doubt, that Dimitry is responsible.
Smerdyakov had developed a close relationship with Ivan who is simultaneously repelled and drawn to his illegitimate brother. It is to Ivan that Smerdyakov nonchalantly confesses the murder. In a sense, he is an elemental force that arises to avenge the misdeeds of the father, but on another level he represents a corrupted youth familiar to readers of The Devils that has abandoned a moral code. Explaining the murder, he quotes Ivan’s own ideas back at him: ‘“everything is permitted” … if there is no eternal God, then there is no virtue, and, what’s more, absolutely no need for it. You really meant it. That’s what I reckoned.’ Ivan’s ideas may have been more refined, but his student Smerdyakov draws his own lessons just as the followers of Marx drew their’s. Ivan denies responsibility but his descent into madness is symptomatic of a failure to take responsibility for the deed, unlike his redeemed brother Dimitry.

Here we encounter Dostoyevsky’s prophetic capacity. If another great novelist of his era Tolstoy offered great insights into the heart of the Russia of his day, Dostoyevsky had his eyes on a turbulent future. Legions of Smerdyakovs drawn from an impoverished and downtrodden proletariat would carry out the appalling atrocities of Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union.

The Marxism that rejected the idea of God did not develop a moral code to replace that founded on metaphysical ideas. Instead society was viewed in dialectical and oppositional terms, with human rights subservient to advancing the historical process. The Communist leader Nikolai Bukharin acknowledged in 1914: ‘there is nothing more ridiculous …than to make Marx’s theory an “ethical” theory. Marx’s theory knows no other natural law than of cause and effect, and can admit no other such law.’

All too many have been killed in the name of God throughout history, and still today, but the denial of individual human rights opens an appalling vista where “everything is permitted”. The measured humanism that Ivan displays can easily mutate into contempt for any human life that stands in the way of a mechanistic ideal. By denying an over-arching truth, beauty and justice man may be trampled into the mud. As for Smerdyakov, in the end he hangs himself, reflecting Zosima’s view that hell “is the suffering caused by not being able to love anymore.” No redemption arrives for this ill-starred character.

Readers may find Dostoyevsky relative avoidance of strong female characters unappealing. This may be seen throughout his writings, wherein they typically act as foils to male protagonists as temptresses or saints. Some of Dostoyevsky’s women, like Darya in Devils and Sonya in Crime and Punishment, set an example of compassion which the male characters learn from, but again it is proffered in a supporting role. On the other hand, Tolstoy did present strong, wilful female protagonists in Anna Karenina (both Kitty and Anna) and War and Peace (Princess Mary and Natasha). Dostoyevsky was less inclined to do so, for whatever reason.

One can read great works of philosophy and history in an attempt to understand human nature, but the power of literature such as The Karamazov Brothers is that it invents a recognisable world in which human passions play. Dostoyevsky’s idea of collective responsibility for human error is as important now in the era of Trump as ever, and his message of compassion for all life on Earth is a challenge to the dominant ideologies of the West that have permitted us to lay waste to the world. He was clearly a visionary, not without limitations, who intuited the terrible cruelties that would soon reign ascendant in his country and beyond. The work will be a source of pleasure and wisdom for angry, but hopeful, young men, and hopefully women too, for generations to come.

Can Justice be Poetic?

The Irish nation is rightly proud of its poetic inheritance. At first glance this sacred tradition has nothing to do with the law, but I argue that by engagement with our great poets we may arrive at a deeper understanding of the broader idea of justice.

The lawyers and politicians who hand down our laws have studied poetry in school of course, some perhaps in university. They may even have excelled in that study, but presumably their interest should cease when they become responsible adults.

The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) makes the remarkable claim in his A Defence of Poetry (1812) that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. He says that his kind engendered the social sympathies that are the inspiration for laws.

And poets actually seem to have literally sung some of the first laws into being. The legal scholar Edward J. Erbile writes: ‘Ancient law often took the form of poetry. Laws were expressed in incantatory rhythms. The oldest Greek and Latin words were also the eldest words for law. For example carmen or carminis in Latin means ‘song’ or ‘statute’.’

For the Ancients justice and poetry intermingled, the use of meter and rhyme helping people recall civic duties as a Catholic does his faith in reciting the Creed.

But apart from a mnemonic role is there a broader connection? Shelley contends that poetry is the highest form of imaginative expression which precedes philosophical enquiry. Nor does he restrict poetry to verse but points to the poetic imagination in other art forms. The great historians are poetic in their appreciation of human nature he says.

Shelley writes that for a man to be ‘greatly good’ he ‘must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must be his own.’ Through his deep sensitivity the poet is therefore powerfully empathic; perhaps our lawmakers should also focus on these faculties.

As a true Romantic Shelley perhaps overstates the benign nature of poets. After all Hitler mesmerised audiences with mellifluous speeches and the Tory and Unionist politician Enoch Powell, a published poet, warned against multiculturalism using the colourful metaphor of ‘rivers of blood’.

Nonetheless poets are often visionaries. Shelley refers to a powerful intuition: ‘he not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present thing ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present (not that they can foresee the future).’

That ability to “behold the future in the present” is apparent in Ireland’s greatest poet W.B. Yeats the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923. Writing in the aftermath of World War I he memorably predicted in The Second Coming how events would enfold in Europe culminating in the atrocities of World War II just twenty years later: ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.’ Here he’ll always be remembered for his immortal phrase: ‘A terrible beauty is born’.

Neither Shelley nor Yeats always embodied the lofty qualities that Shelley alludes to. Yeats’s fascist fellow-travelling and aristocratic hauteur is now rather embarrassing to his devotees, but interestingly as a Senator in the 1920s ‘that smiling public man’ was a trenchant critic of an increasingly Catholic State.

During a debate on the introduction of a law prohibiting divorce in the Seanad he presciently argued that: ‘If it ever comes that North and South unite, the North will not give up any liberty which she already possesses under her constitution. You will then have to grant to another people what you refuse to grant to those within your borders. If you show that this country, Southern Ireland, is going to be governed by Catholic ideas and by Catholic ideas alone, you will never get the North. You will create an impassable barrier between South and North … You will put a wedge into the midst of the nation.’

Yeats argued that the absence of divorce eroded the integrity of the institution of marriage itself: ‘This is a demand for happiness, which increases with education, and men and women who are held together against their will and reason soon cease to recognise any duty to one another.’

I suggest that perhaps the finest example of poetic imagination in Irish law was the discovery by Kenny J. of “Unenumerated Rights” under the Irish constitution in Ryan v Attorney General (1965).The right to bodily integrity was soon followed by the ‘discovery’ of other unexpressed rights by other judges. Kenny was, like the first poet-lawyers singing a new species of law into existence.

Unenumerated Rights have been vital to the development of Human Rights law in Ireland but unfortunately the idealism of the 1960s has given way to a more mechanistic and less imaginative approach to justice.

Poets may not live up to their own ideals but there seems no group better equipped at understanding the human condition and distilling moral principles from that essence.
(Unpublished, 2016)

Wild Law Lecture

Delivered in Anglo-American University, Prague 19/11/15

It is sometimes observed in jurisprudence how Hitler came to power by legal means and continued to govern in accordance with the German constitution. Of course an American might argue that this could never happen there because of the separation of powers between the judiciary, executive and legislature in their constitution. But slavery was allowed to cohabit with the original constitution until the civil war and some describe what happened to native-Americans in the nineteenth century as genocide.
But few would argue that what Hitler did was justified or even, in a sense, legal. That’s because most of us subscribe to a view that human beings have certain rights that are inalienable (cannot be given away) and imprescriptible (do not lapse with time) antecedent and superior to positive law. These include inter alia the right to life, property and one’s good name. Of course most of these rights are limited (although I would argue that a person’s right not to be tortured is absolute). Courts therefore often have to weigh up competing rights. Thus we are allowed to defend ourselves proportionality if someone attacks us and the police are allowed to enter a property if they believe someone inside has committed a crime.
We might conveniently and perhaps confusingly consider such rights to be a part of natural law. But the scope of natural law is limited to human actors and I will argue that we must broaden it to encompass all of Earth and the beings that exist here. I say this not merely because I think that fairness demands that we extend compassion to all life on the planet but also because without radically re-appraisal of our relationship with nature we are endangering our continued existence on the planet.
I believe that what has come to be known as Wild Law or Earth Jurisprudence is not just an intellectual curiosity, a neat concept that gives us a warm glow of satisfaction, but really I predict that this is could be a huge area of work for the lawyers in the future as we consider the competing needs and interests of all the living world and attempt to bring a harmony that will be to the advantage of all including the human species.
Moreover, I argue that the propositions I am making this evening are nothing new and would be recognised by most faith systems especially those closest to nature in the small number of hunter-gatherer communities still existing. But what I am saying is also firmly rooted in science and in former NASA scientist James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. This is the idea is that the earth’s organism interact with inorganic surroundings to form a self-regulating, complex system that maintains life.
Thus for example: ‘around 21 per cent of the atmosphere is made up of oxygen, which is highly reactive, while methane is found at a fairly constant level of 1.7 parts per million. In sunlight, oxygen and methane react to produce carbon dioxide and water. Maintaining methane at this level requires living organisms to produce about 500 million tons of methane a year. If life on Earth were to cease, all its elements would continue to react with one another until no more reactions were possible and the planet would become a hot, inhospitable place without oxygen and water.[Cullinan, p.80]’.
What’s encouraging about the Gaia hypothesis is the assumption that as the Earth is a self-regulating system it will redress any imbalance: this suggests that humans as a part of the earth community will mend their ways and find a more symbiotic relationship with the rest of the life on planet Earth. But this requires a change of heart on the part of many of us leading to radical changes to our behaviour. One author points out: ‘Many of our so-called “material comforts” are not only in excess of, but are probably in opposition to, basic biological need.’ Most of us could easily consume less than we do now, and be healthier for it. Indeed, the global obesity pandemic shows we are consuming too many calories or are relying insufficiently on our own energy for transport and in the manufacture of products that have built in obsolescence.
The laws that govern most of our societies are really a product of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century and the so-called Enlightenment. In particular the ideas of Rene Descartes have had a powerful effect. ‘Descartes set out to entirely reconstruct philosophy on the basis of mathematical reasoning’. He distinguished between a rational mind and an animal, wild body and understood the physical world as a complex machine ‘that could be understood by reductionist analysis (i.e. by dissecting it and looking at each of the parts to understand how it works)’. In Descartes schema, which was formulated at a time when Europeans were subduing and colonising the rest of the world, only man had the power of reason and as such this placed him above all other animals an idea that was inherited from earlier Christian philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas. The colonisation of the world beyond Europe also brought about the subjugation of nature, as European technologies have allowed ever wider encroachment on regions which often displayed an approximate balance between human beings and the rest of their ecology.
The superiority of men over nature is affirmed in the American Declaration of Independence: ‘ When in the course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind require that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation. We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Prior to European subjugation many human groups saw themselves as being on the same level as other animals. Shamans would communicate with animal spirits requesting that they offer themselves as prey for hunters. This gratitude towards nature is also evident in other religions including Islam where under halal rules thanks is given to the animal for the food they offer to the human community. Even in Christianity until recently meat was off the menu for much of the year. It has been argued that prohibitions during the period of Lent reflect the need to restrain consumption during the months of the year when little meat was available. Today where religions have fallen into decline we have few limitations on our consumption.
Until very recently (and only in Europe and South America) do we find that rights are conferred on anything other than human beings. There is simply no recognition of the limits of natural profusion or the extent to which human actions could be destabilising Earth systems and could have terrible repercussions for ourselves and other creatures.
There is no doubt that human beings have displayed extraordinary resourcefulness and have made up for a lack of physical prowess since they left Africa less than 100,000 years ago. This has allowed them to survive in all parts of the planet, discovering every manner of food source and even overwhelming far larger animals. We may call this intelligence a capacity for reason but if it leads us to consume so much that we endanger most other species and our very survival then that capacity for reason is in fact stupid and self-destructive. In the place of reason what we really need is wisdom.
Since the departure of human beings from Africa where we evolved various megafauna including the woolly mammoth have been hunted to extinction which may have had an effect on the earth’s climate. But the real troubles began when certain high-performing seeds and docile animals were domesticated. This allowed settled humans to create food surpluses for cities that reached over one million people more than two thousand years ago.
This expansion of humanity was amplified by the discovery of fossil fuels starting primarily with coal which rapidly accelerated urbanisation, made travel far easier and led to the industrial revolution and the emergence of consumer societies. All of this was underpinned by the rapid expansion of agriculture which entailed the deforestation of huge swathes of the world (including much of Europe) mainly to make way for our animals to graze. This process was accelerated by the crucial invention of artificial fertilizer (the Haber-Bosch process) in the 1910 which led to the Green Revolution after World War II and an extraordinary expansion in food supply.
It is amazing to consider that in 1901 the world’s population stood at about 1.5 billion with less than 20% living in cities while today we have 7 billion with over 50% living in cities. And it is not just the number of humans that have increased: our lifestyle expectations have altered considerably. Many in the West (and the East increasingly), expect to drive a car. We aspire to travel by aeroplane to far flung places and most people want to eat meat every day whereas before it was a rare luxury and often restrained by religious obligations that have gone out of fashion.
The loss of other species due to this expansion has been staggering. Will Tuttle informs us that 10,000 years ago at the dawn of agriculture, free living animals made up 99% of the biomass and human beings made up only 1%. Today humans and the animals that we own make up 98% of the biomass. He says: We’ve basically stolen the world, the earth, from free-living animals to use for ourselves. It is a staggering statistic that over 50 billion animals are killed to feed humans each year. Moreover, since 1970 half of all mammal species have been made extinct mostly because of human actions.
But all our travel, deforestation, domesticated animals (particularly ruminant cattle and sheep) are adding up to one terrifying outcome which is runaway climate change which could create billions of refugees from many parts of the developing world and is already causing great turbulence in our weather patterns. We have seen droughts giving rise to crop failures on a more regular basis this century and this is set to increase as the century goes by. 97% of climate scientists believe that climate change is man-made so denial of it is increasingly absurd.
Scientific questions are rarely addressed in legal settings because as I have noted we are still enduring the intellectual legacy of Descartes where most of us reside comfortably in our respective specialities. But the challenges to the world we are living in requires holistic thinking so that sciences draw on humanities and the humanities draw on science. We need to start thinking of the big picture and connectedness and that is what Wild Law and Earth Jurisprudence are all about.
Moreover, physics the most important branch of science is teaching us to look at the world in a very different way from Descartes’s. Werner Heisenberg’s ‘uncertainty principle’ states that the mass and velocity of an electron could not be determined simultaneously.’ Physics is essentially accepting mystery as implicit and that nature does not act in the mechanistic way that Descartes proposed. Quantum physics exploded the view that the universe is a vast mechanism constructed of many tiny ‘building blocks’. This gives further credence to Lovelock’s Gaia theory. As ‘the nature and behaviour of part is determined by the whole rather than the other way round. This point of view is fundamental to what today is often referred to as ‘systems thinking’. If we accept mystery is implicit then simply because we don’t fully understand how observed processes occur should not deter us from drawing lessons from them. The earth is not a machine which we can dismantle into parts but a highly complex system that may always defy human understanding.
So what is this Wild Law that I have been skirting around the edges of? In my view it is an extension of natural law, involving a more rounded picture of the world that encompasses the whole planet. As Cormac Cullinan observes: ‘Probably all human communities once regulated themselves with the purpose of ensuring that their members lived in accordance with the requirements of the wider ecological community.
We have become so powerful that geologists now refer to the Anthropocene the era of human geological time that began around 1945. With this unprecedented power comes great duties and to simply ignore the plight of the rest of the planet is unconscionable. We cannot insulate ourselves from other inhabitants of the planet. We need the diversity of nature for clean water, air and healthy food. A good example is wild bees whose populations across Europe are under pressure, apparently due to the use of certain pesticides. These bees are vital for the pollination of many our food crops. Under our current laws nobody can make a claim on behalf of the bees, though they are crucial to our agriculture. We have to realise that we are part of nature not opposed to it or in competition with it.
According to Thomas Berry, ‘The Universe is not a collection of objects but a communion of subjects’ and every member of the Earth Community has three inherent rights: the right to be, to habitat, and to fulfil its role in the ever-renewing processes of the Earth community.’ That is not to say that human beings should go around policing nature or stopping foxes from hunting rabbits. There is a balance to be struck and most natural processes will continue to go on without us. We are talking about light touch regulation and laissez faire as far as possible but when our own actions start to seriously interfere with the natural world we need to be able to enforce the rights of nature.
The important thing is for us to modify our own behaviour so that we desist from encroaching further on the natural world. One has only to look to look to see the forest fires in Indonesia to realise that there is a crisis of our own making that looms as a threat far greater than terrorism. The destruction of mangrove forests in that area to make way for agriculture is causing an ecological catastrophe, but our media sources prefer to concentrate our minds on far lesser dangers. It has been estimated that each year 2 million people die due to air pollution. Just this week I met a Chinese girl who showed me pictures of Beijing which is now enclosed in a smog that requires people to wear air masks to filter the air.
Of course you might wonder how a change in our ideas about the ambit of the law will make the slightest difference to the world. But there is no doubt that laws influence our behaviour and generate moral outlooks. Just look at the attitude of younger generations to drink-driving compared to their parents, or the positive attitude many people now have to recycling. And although I have been critical of the US constitution there is no doubt that it contained advanced ideas on human rights that are firmly installed in the global consciousness. Other instruments like the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights have had a similar effect. These legal instruments are still very important they just need renewal.
In the Descent of Man Charles Darwin argues that the history of man’s moral development has been a continual extension of the objects of his “social instincts” and “sympathies”: Originally each man had regard only for himself and those of a very narrow circle about him; later he came to regard more and more “not only, the welfare, but the happiness of all his fellow men”; then “his sympathies” became more tender and widely diffused, extending to men of all races, to the imbecile, maimed and other useless members of society, and finally to the lower animals”. It is argued that the history of the law suggests a parallel development. Thus for example a Roman father held power of life or death over his family. But we may question Darwin’s description of “lower animals”; I would argue that there is nothing inherently superior about human beings. We have remarkable capabilities but this certainly does not make us superior to other creatures, especially when you consider some of the things that human beings have done to each through history, and even today we observe terrible things around the world. All creatures have remarkable features or they would not have found their ecological niche.
Let us pause for a moment and consider how we go about creating the new world order that has been proposed. How do we re-frame the legal instruments in order to protect nature? No doubt this will be a difficult process and unfortunately it is impossible for us to understand the earth’s great complexity. We will of course look to science for guidance. Conservationists for example can tell us what will happen if a certain river is polluted and climate scientists can tell us what the effect of a car or a cow is but really what we need is a change of heart and for us to start dignifying other creatures with equality of consideration.
All creatures have different needs and we should acknowledge that humans have needs too and can continue to consume in line with them but in such a way where harm is minimised. This change of heart that our legal system can inculcate must influence those at the top in corporations and governments but it can begin at the bottom and it is worth living by Gandhi’s idea ‘to be the change you want to see in the world’. Any change begins at the level of the individual level. We should try to avoid despondency and never give up hope. Humanity has the capacity to change and can do so very quickly if we pull together. In our technological age we have unique ways of sharing information so that processes that would have taken decades in the past can now happen almost overnight.
One moral question that Wild Law poses is whether human beings have the right to kill other animals for food. I was particularly struck by a description in Laurens van der Post’s autobiography Yet Being Someone Other on this question. As a young journalist van der Post observed a number of expeditions on a whaling vessel in the south Atlantic. He records:
‘I could not deny the excitement and acceleration into a consummation of archaic joy which the process of stalking and hunting, even at sea, had invoked in me, although I was at present now only as an observer. On the other hand, hard on these emotions came an equal and opposite revulsion which nearly overwhelmed me when the hunt, as now, was successful and one was faced with the acceptance of the fact that one had aided and abetted in an act of murder of such a unique manifestation of creation. The only dispensation of the paradox ever granted to me in the past, unaware as I had been of the immensity of it until revealed to me in this moment at sea, was that in hunting out of necessity, all revulsions were redeemed by the satisfaction one felt in bringing food home to the hungry. That such satisfaction was not an illusion, nor a form of special pleading in the court of natural conscience, was proved to me by the profound feeling of gratitude one invariably felt for the animal that had died in order for others to live … [but] what could this possibly have to do with the necessities which were essential for the redemption of the act of killing … in this increasingly technological moment of my youth, when control of life was passing more and more from nature to man, and when there were already available all sorts of artificial substitutes for the essential oils which animals like the whale had once been the only source of supply, what, I asked myself bitterly, could justify such killing except the greed of man for money … Worse still, I was certain that our imperviousness to the consternation caused by such killing in the heart of the nature could be the beginning of an enmity between man and the life which had brought him forth that could imperil his future on earth itself.’ He concludes: every one of us – not excluding the disabled, maimed, blind, deaf, dumb and the bearers of unbearable suffering – matters to a Creation that has barely begun
There are situations where human cannot survive without exploiting other animals for food making them in a sense obligate carnivores but living in developed cities where there are ample alternatives it seems that this argument is less compelling. Some argue that eating a small amount of meat does little damage to the environment but can we tolerate the way most animals that we eat are treated in factory farms and feeding lots? It seems to me that any natural law should not exclude such excesses or prohibit such suffering. Moreover, as the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy wrote ‘as long as there are slaughterhouses there will be battlefields.’ It may be that the violence we exert against other animals leads in ways that we cannot grasp to violence in human societies. Moreover extension of compassion to other sentient creatures will extend our compassion to the wider planet as those animals are part of a wider nature. We should appreciate the beauty of a tree, even if there are times when we must chop it down in order to survive.
But of course any lawyer will ask how can all these high-sounding ideas be turned into something tangible in terms of legislation or constitutional expression? In his seminal article on the subject Can Trees Have Standing (written in 1972) Christopher D. Stone explores how wild law might apply. He argues that natural objects could have legal standing by analogy with companies, states, infants, incompetents, municipalities or even universities. Thus a court appoints a trustee when a corporation has become incompetent. He says: ‘On a parity of reasoning, we should have a system in which, when a friend of natural object perceives it to be endangered, he can apply to a court for the creation of a guardianship … The guardian would urge before the court injuries not presently cognizable – the death of eagles and inedible crabs, the suffering of sea lions, the loss from the face of the earth of species of commercially valueless birds, the disappearance of wilderness areas.
He also draws an analogy with the law of patents and copyright: ‘I am proposing that we do the same with eagles and wilderness areas as we do with copyrighted works, patented inventions and privacy: make the violation of rights in them to be a cost by declaring the piracy of them to be the invasion of a property interest.
He even suggests that this could involve modifications to our democratic systems: ‘I am suggesting that there is nothing unthinkable about, and there might on balance even be a prevailing case to be made for an electoral appointment that made some systematic effort to allow for the representative “rights” of non-human life.’ Considering most of our laws are framed in national and regional assemblies this argument could have some merit, although it is hard to imagine how it could actually happen. If it does, it seems very unlikely that the representative for turkeys will be voting for Christmas…
He envisages that a change in our legal culture would have an effect on the wider social norms: ‘such a manner of speaking by courts would contribute to popular notions, and a society that spoke of the “legal rights of the environment” would be inclined to legislate more environment-protecting rules by formal enactment.
He speculates that ‘What is needed is a myth that can fit our growing body of knowledge of geophysics, biology and the cosmos’ and considers ‘that we may come to regard the Earth, as some have suggested, as one organism of which mankind is a functional part’. Another leading author on the subject Cormac Cullinan developed an earth connection when he was on a Buddhist retreat. He records: I suddenly knew with great clarity that I was part of a single whole.’ But it is doubtful whether existing religions offer the guidance required. Even the spiritual beliefs of the Chinese and Indians ‘in the unity between man and nature had no greater effect than the contrary beliefs in Europe in producing a balance between man and his environment.’ Perhaps James Lovelock’s Gaia theory can offer that idea for our time as it is clear that most human beings have a need for some form of spiritual connection but that scientific rigour is also required for us to understand all of the earth systems. Perhaps in the future American money will have written on it: In Gaia we Trust.
Happily there are signs that human beings are coming around to the idea that the natural world has inalienable and inherent rights. Thus in September 2008 Ecuador constitution commits the state and citizens to seeking well-being in a manner that is harmonious with nature and that recognises the rights of nature. It is stated that ‘Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, and maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its evolutionary processes.’ A duty is also imposed on all Ecuadorian men and women “to respect the rights of nature, preserve a healthy environment and use natural resources in a rational, viable and sustainable manner.”
This was followed by the declaration on 17 October 2009 by nine countries of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America supporting the call for the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Mother Earth Rights. It reads
1. In the 21st Century it is impossible to achieve full human rights protection if at the same time we do not recognize and defend the rights of the planet earth and nature. Only by guaranteeing the rights of Mother Earth can we guarantee the protection of human rights. The planet earth can exist without human life, but humans cannot exist without planet earth.
2. Just as World War II caused a serious humanity crisis that in 1948 led to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human rights, today we are suffering the enormous consequences of Climate Change making it essential to have a Universal Declaration of Mother Earth Rights.
3. The ecological crisis which global warming is part of, is showing so palpably an essential principle that has been argued for centuries by the native and indigenous peoples all over the world: that human beings are part of an interdependent system of plants, animals, hills, forests, oceans and air that require our respect and care. The system is what we call Mother Earth “Earth does not belong to man, but man to earth.” The Earth is not a group of things that we can appropriate of, but it is a group of natural beings with whom we must learn to live together in harmony and balance respecting their rights.
It is revealing that this statement was framed in one of the poorest parts of the planet where resources are scarcest. It seems that many of those enduring poverty more easily recognise the limitations of nature and it is simply untrue to suggest that environmentalism is not concerned with human welfare. The opposite is actually the case, it’s just that environmentalists takes a longer term view and see humans and nature as one.
We already have enough resources for the whole planet and the technologies required to change the way we consume. Krishnamurti observed: “If all of us said, ‘Look let’s all get together and solve this problem’ they could do it. Science has the means of feeding people. But they won’t because they are conditioned to function so as to destroy the security which we are seeking.” We need to alter that destructive way of thinking and get people to focus on the outcome of their actions. Significant re-distribution of global income among humans is I believe implicit in our acceptance of Wild Law. Lawyers have tended to shy away from pursuing socio-economic rights but what use is one’s good name or property if one is dying of poverty.
The Declaration also states there is no contradiction between human rights and the rights of nature. In fact they are one and the same as one flows from the other. The challenge of global warming in this the Anthropocene should be the moment for humans to act individually and collectively.
At least it would appear that the Catholic Church is moving in the right direction with Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si. The pope draws on the legacy of his namesake St. Francis saying: “Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason.””
The recollection of these sentiments is encouraging, but the relationship that the encyclical envisions between humans and nature at large remains essentially hierarchical with humans atop the food chain due to their capacity for reason. But perhaps we simply do not understand the capacity of other species for reason. At least there is acknowledgement that: “If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.”
It is clear that the notion of Wild Law brings lawyers out of their comfort zone and exposes the limits of our language to define the reciprocal relationships that the complexity of the natural world involves but this should not deter us from the task since as Wittgenstein wrote: ‘Ethics cannot be put into words’ but ‘make themselves manifest’. Cormac Cullinan observed: ‘The language of the universe is primarily experiential. It speaks to us in the language of hot and cold, beauty and fear, patterns of events, symbols and associations. However, we must engage with it to ‘hear’ this language. Book learning and scientific rationality can only take us so far. We also need direct experience of nature, intuition and emotions. Therefore in order to become ecologically literate once more and to regain an awareness of the principles which govern life on Earth, we must strive to reconnect and engage empathically with wildness and nature, and if possible, with wilderness.’
Cullinan also warns that ‘we must beware of succumbing to the temptation of devising the ‘Great Solution’ that will enable all of human theories of jurisprudence to be transformed instantly into a reflection of the Great Jurisprudence’. Too often we have seen utopian ideas being appropriated by dictatorships that justified their actions on the utilitarian grounds that it was for the greater good. Instead he says: ‘doing very small Earth-caring things on an ongoing basis is probably more important than the odd grand gesture (or World Summit), though both can have their place.’ In a revolution such as this it seems to me that change is more likely to come from the periphery than the centre.
Perhaps it is in poetry an art form whose ambiguity puts fear into lawyers that offers the best expression of Wild Law. In writing this lecture the closing lines of a poem by W.B. Yeats were in my mind:
Oh chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you leaf, the blossom or the bole?
Oh body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from dance?
The dance is more than the dancer, the tree is beyond its constituent parts. We are greater than ourselves, connected to an earth that brought us into being and through engagement with the earth, a deep listening, we may start to understand in all our limitations its shifting laws.

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Democracy threatened by the torrent of the Internet

(Published in Village Magazine, July, 2016)

We live in an age of digital ephemera that befuddles our wits and has thrown up the possibility of a Trump Presidency. Britain departs the European stage left after a campaign marred by misinformation. The siren sounds of advertising impel us to consume beyond what we need and Enlightened Despots in corporations exercise unaccountable power over vast, and growing, fortunes. In an effort to understand this cultural drift I turn to philosophy, evolution and the effect of changes in technology for answers.

In philosophy I attempt to harmonise two seemingly contradictory notions that inform my understanding. The first is a notion expressed by the early Greek philosopher Heraclitus (d. 475 BCE) that ‘no man ever steps into the same river twice, for he’s not the same man and the river is not the same.’ This phenomenological view rests on observation of a constantly evolving reality. It is a process similar to the gathering of scientific data.

The second approach is ideological but might be seen as analogous to over-arching scientific laws. This is the idea of prior knowledge, an objective belief in identifiable forms of justice or beauty. In Western philosophy this is identified with Plato (d.347 BCE) and his successors who trained their ears to the strains of an elusive harmony.

Inferring truth solely from observation of phenomena is problematic, especially where life is reduced to competition between individual genes for expression as expounded by Richard Dawkins in his formative The Selfish Gene (1976) which, intriguingly, was the favourite book of Jeffrey Skilling, when CEO of Enron. He interpreted Neo-Darwinism to mean that selfishness was ultimately good, even for its victims, because it weeded out ‘losers’ and forced ‘survivors’ to become strong.

These competing ideas may be resolved by allowing for an evolving objectivity: a fleeting truth. That is to say that answers to questions posed in Ancient Greece are quite distinct from those we confront today. It is dangerous talk, no doubt, to assume that humans have a capacity to discern principles arising from observation of a shifting reality, but without that assurance there is little hope for us.

We can reject that idea and see homo sapiens as no more than a primate with a powerful brain that has successfully stored knowledge over millennia, beginning with farming proceeding through literacy into the Internet. But then there is a temptation to retreat into relativist angst and dismiss our idle thoughts.

Most political ideologies, Marxism not least, eschews nihilism and posit a Utopia that we should drive towards, the best acknowledging the word’s origins in Greek as ‘no place’, but an aspiration. For example Village Magazine promotes equality and sustainability as substantial ideals necessarily shifting with the flow of events.

Agreeing on principles is a treacherous business, not least in crooked Ireland. It requires serious engagement over time with a great range of information and disciplines, we might also leave a space for mystery as most Ancient Greek philosophers assuredly did.

It was in that Greece of Antiquity where it seems that ideal and reality – form and content – came into closest balance. Fifth century Athens was not human perfection incarnate, slavery was commonplace and women were not seen as equal to men, but still their achievements are unparalleled in a host of domains, including architecture where an accommodation with Nature appears to have been reached.

In his History of Western Philosophy (1945) Bertrand Russell wrote that: “nothing is so surprising or so difficult to account for as the sudden rise of civilization in Greece … What they achieved in art and literature is familiar to everybody, but what they achieved in the purely intellectual realm is even more exceptional.” How to comprehend the virtually simultaneous arrival of science, history and mathematics, the very fundaments of a dominant Western civilisation?

The psychiatrist and literary scholar Iain McGilchrist in his The Master and his Emissary (2009) proposes that a steep evolution occurred in Ancient Greece when an abrupt collective separation in function between the two hemispheres of the brain – broadly a creative right and rational left – occurred.

To begin with these achieved a beatific balance. But he argues that since our Hellenic heights left-brained rationality has emerged dominant over a creative right hemisphere. Thus we have developed extraordinary technologies but failed to use them wisely, bringing us to the brink of auto-destruction, a process that continues apace in the age of the Internet.

McGilchrist writes that: “The Greeks began the process of standing back; and the beginnings of analytical philosophy, of theorising about the political state, of the development of maps, of the observation of the stars and the ‘objective’ natural world, all may be mediated by the left hemisphere; though the urge to do it at all comes from the right.” He also sees the origins of the individual “as distinct from, as well as bonded to, the community”.
He wrote of this evolution in our minds: “My thesis is that the separation of the hemispheres brought with it both advantages and disadvantages. It made possible a standing outside of the ‘natural’ frame of reference, the common-sense everyday way in which we see the world. In doing so it enabled us to build up that ‘necessary distance’ from the world and from ourselves, achieved originally by the frontal lobes, and gave us insight into things that otherwise we could not have seen, even making it possible for us to form deeper empathic connections with one another and with the world at large. The best example of this is the fascinating rise of drama in the Greek world, in which the thoughts and feelings of ourselves and of others are apparently objectified, and yet returned as our own. A special sort of seeing arises, in which both distance and empathy are crucial.”

However: “separation also sowed the seeds of left-hemisphere isolationism … At this stage in cultural history, the two hemispheres were still working largely together, and so the benefits outweighed by a long way the disadvantages, but the disadvantages became more apparent over time.”

A technological development that McGilchrist relates to the shift was the emergence of money currencies, reigning ascendant by the fourth century BCE. This replaced the reciprocal exchange of gifts which are “not precise, not calculated, not instantaneously enacted or automatically received, not required; the gifts are not themselves substitutable, but unique; and the emphasis is on the value of creating or maintaining a relationship, which is also unique.” Money creates a distance between people that has been growing ever since, especially with the sophistication of modern usury.

McGilchrist argues that metaphor, imagination and reason rather than a remote rationality, which he identifies with Rene Descartes (d. 1650) in particular, should inform our understanding of the world in a powerful thesis that combines scientific insight with acute analysis of the history of Western thought. In my view it only comes a cropper when he advocates preserving vestiges of monarchy over republican government. Assuming the descendants of a warrior cast are suited to being heads of states, symbolically or otherwise, seems abhorrent to reason. However, as I will explore, the democratic alternative is threatened by declining concentration in the era of the Internet; linked to a decline in the reading of serious books.

While acknowledging Plato’s ideas as more poetic than is often assumed, McGilchrist sets him in opposition to the phenomenological view identified with Heraclitus. But I propose that we need to continue to strive for eternal truths, however fleeting that encounter may be. Otherwise we drown.
Can Plato’s Republic that divides mankind into casts of Gold, Silver, Bronze and Copper be recovered from racism and totalitarianism? The literary critic Northrop Frye (d.1991) argued that the state he imagines should be treated allegorically and that the real location of the Republic is in the mind: “the wise man’s mind is a ruthless dictatorship of reason over appetite achieved by the control of will … the real Utopia is an individual goal, of which the disciplined society is an allegory.”

WB Yeats argued “that much of the confusion of modern philosophy … comes from our renouncing the ancient hierarchy of beings from man up to the One.” In part this is based on Yeats’s idea of the revolt of soul against intellect, accessing the creativity of our unconscious thoughts which McGilchrist would identify with right hemisphere function. Out of this duality we might confront the challenges of our time.

It is those who ascend a chain of both intellect and imagination rather than the pure technocrat that should chart our society’s course. Yeats and other poets, beginning with William Blake, have emphasised is the vital force of imagination as a guarantee of freedom in the scientific age.

Paradoxically we live in an age of increasing ignorance when digital ephemera clouds deep awareness. Most human beings blithely ignore warnings of impending doom and the horrendous loss of the natural world and even threats to human survival. We’re in a muddle that may originate in defective thinking. So much of what we consume is unnecessary and vacuous. Advertising charms us into mindless consumption. Appetite dominates will.

Technology was supposed to free us from the constraints of work but the opposite has occurred as new fetters crystallize. The sector concentrates vast financial resources in a few hands. It is left to chance whether the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are suited to shaping the future of humanity. Our liberties in this plutocracy move towards a scenarios which obtained under the Enlightened Despots of the eighteenth century in Europe; with preferences and tastes guided as never before by cunning algorithms.

Before the Internet the last great breakthrough in communication was Johannes Gutenberg’s development of movable type in about 1450 (for the first time in Europe) which was a necessary precursor to the Renaissance and perhaps democracy. The Canadian critic Northrop Frye identified the book, mass-produced through printing presses, as the “by-product of the art of writing, and the technological instrument that makes democracy a working possibility – avoiding all rhetorical tricks designed to induce hypnosis in an audience, relying on nothing but the inner force and continuity of the argument … Behind the book is the larger social context of a body of written documents to which there is public access, the guarantee of the fairness of that internal debate on which democracy rests.”

The book he says “is not linear: we follow a line while we are reading but the book itself is a stationary visual focus of a community.” This he distinguishes from “the electronic media that increase the amount off linear experience, of things seen and heard that are quickly forgotten. One sees the effects on students: a superficial alertness combined with increased difficulty preserving the intellectual continuity that is the chief characteristic of education.”

Frye wrote this in the 1970s at a time when electronic media meant the television. He would surely despair at our attention spans today which sees most media reduced to pornographic click-bait and dull chatter about sport and celebrities that are “quickly forgotten about”. The crucial distinction between the e-book and the real book is that the former does not provide a “stationary visual focus”. The tangible book offers an ease of access and permits non-linear reading. The Heraclitan torrent of the Internet makes it difficult for us to fix on the kinds of principles that books adumbrate.

Frye also identifies a rejection of history and tradition, an iconoclastic tendency to dismiss the past rather than learn from it, especially in America: “A society with a revolutionary basis, like American society, is often inclined to be impatient of history and tradition. ‘History is bunk’ said Henry Ford, at one end of the social scale: I don’t take no stock in dead people,’ said Huckleberry Finn, at the other. The future, in such a view, cannot be the outcome of the past: it is a brand new future, which may be implicit in the present but is to be built out of the materials of the present by an act of will, which cannot operate until it has been released from the past. The strongly negative mood in today’s radicalism, the tendency to be against rather than for, is consistent with this: whatever is defined is hampering, and only the undefined is free.” Liberation from the grip of dominant, and often illogical, orthodoxies is important but dismissing all that came before leaves us bereft and drowning.

The revolutionary trend that dismisses history and even ideas of objective justice has its origin in the Renaissance which James Joyce wrote: “placed the journalist in the monk’s chair: in other words, it has deposed a sharp, limited and formal mind in order to hand the sceptre to a mentality that is facile and wide-ranging … a mentality that is restless and somewhat amorphous … Untiring creative power, heated, strong passion, the intense desire to see and feel, unfettered and prolix curiosity have, after three centuries, degenerated into frenetic sensationalism. Indeed one might say of modern man that he has an epidermis rather than a soul. The sensory power of his organism has developed enormously, but it has developed to the detriment of his spiritual faculty. We lack moral sense and perhaps also strength of imagination … we are avid for details. For this reason our literary jargon speaks of nothing else than local colour, atmosphere, atavism: whence the restless search for what is new and strange, the accumulation of details that have been observed and read, the parading of the common culture.”

But Joyce did identify one important redeeming feature: “If the Renaissance did nothing else, it did much in creating within ourselves and our art a sense of pity for every being that lives and hopes and dies and deludes itself. In this at least we excel the ancients: in this the popular journalist is greater than the theologian.”

Here again we encounter a conflict between the respective legacies of Plato and Heraclitus. The Platonic ideal, dear to the medieval mind, does not have the flexibility to observe the stream, instead staring towards an a priori and unchanging heavenly sphere. This was washed away in the current of the Renaissance. But the purely Heraclitan mind that has reached its apotheosis with the Internet just goes with the flow and shrugs its shoulders at the absurdity of it all; emoticons substituting for words and selfies for bildungsroman.

Analysing the origins of the mob that support Trump is a precarious and prolix exercise but loss of attention span is surely a significant factor. The modern human is a bewildered creature educated in the use of tools – an infant can work a tablet – but increasingly removed from sustained intellectual engagement or poetic imagination: the province of serious books and enquiring spirituality. Befuddled minds identify with shrill invective and cheap humour, the sweeter harmonies of justice, beauty and truth go unheard, just as the high pitch of the dog whistle is inaccessible to our ears.

Moreover, can we counter the complexity of a financial system serving the interests of those who rule over it? Can we ever enter an equilibrium with Nature?

Individual monetary wealth must be contained within proscribed limits but an innovative society can be served by incentives reliant on a form of objective currency. We need those incentives to develop alternatives to fossil fuels and livestock, and because small businesses harness creativity and the conviviality of trade. The money market is however clearly unsuited to satisfaction of basic needs like homelessness and food poverty. The challenge is to reorder our priorities as educated individuals, and reassert democratically-accountable states over corporations. But as Frye indicates this requires an electorate capable of the intellectual engagement dependent on reading serious books: more philosophers in other words.

The Renaissance extended compassion and empathy which increasingly sees into the natural world, as one can observe in the rise of Veganism in many countries. Joyce’s Leopold Bloom in Ulysses even opined that unless you eat “weggiebobbles and fruit … the eyes of the cow will pursue you through all eternity.” Yet species loss continues apace, just as we struggle to contain our carbon emissions despite warnings of dire consequences. We need to sustain our engagement with the real injustices we perceive, and avoid the distraction of mindless devotion to sports and celebrity.

A wise society can be realised by reorientation of educational priorities towards the humanities, and its books, and away from an unmediated approach to science, as the former should guide the latter. The human should guide the machine and not become victim to it, as Dr Frankenstein succumbed to his monster. Frye observed perceptively: “The civilisation produced by the automobile, with its network of highways, the blasted deserts of its parking lots, the grid plan of cities, and the human sacrifices offered to it on every holiday, clearly raises the question of who is enslaving whom.”
We need to reassert the creativity and originality of the right hemisphere to guide the rationality of the left hemisphere as McGilchrist proposes. The evolution he observed is not irreversible.

In Greek mythology Prometheus is the fire-bringer who has provided human beings with the power to control Nature and rise above it contrary to the wishes of Zeus who punishes him for eternity. Human have been slashing and burning their way through primordial forests since. It could eventually end in tragedy for us as it has for many species, especially in this the Anthropocene the era of human geological time.

But another light shines too, that is the light of human ideas. We are capable – not necessarily uniquely – of employing reason, this a leap of imagination arising out of a belief in a divine intelligence. We must hope that the generation growing up with the Internet are better placed to remedy its ill-effects than their parents.

The Body and Shame

The Body and Shame

Review of The Body and Shame: Phenomenology, Feminism and the Socially Shaped body by Luna Dolezal. Lexington Book, Lenham, 2015 (Village Magazine, July 2015)

In Ireland philosophy rarely features in mainstream discourses. We seem more comfortable in either the narrow empiricism inherited from our former colonial overlords or the lyrical engagement found in poetry. The unflinching analysis of concepts found in philosophical enquiry is not part of secondary educations: it still does not figure as a Leaving Certificate subject.

It remains a specialist course in university, but only featuring in the study of law as jurisprudence rather than being seen as the foundation for all positive law as it ought. Philosophy of education is a mandatory course in teacher-training but again is treated in a rather desultory fashion by institutions and students alike. Those who pursue scientific study at third level are given no philosophical grounding which might explain a lack of nuance among cheerleaders of science. Arguably this general lacuna tilts us towards a conservatism born of failure to interrogate widely held assumptions.

In a cogently argued and accessible work TCD philosopher Luna Dolezal discusses the concept of body shame through a number of lenses. She arrives from a phenomenological perspective especially identified with Maurice Merleau-Ponty who emphasised that we encounter the world through the lived experience of our bodies and not simply our conscious minds. He rejected the dualist view which has dominated European thought since Plato right through to Descartes and beyond.

Dolezal engages with the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre who conceived of an “Other” that generates a self-reflection intimately connected to a feeling of shame. According to Sartre: “By the mere appearance of the Other, I am put in the position of passing judgment on myself as an object, for it is as an object that I appear to the Other.” This can lead to alienation or estrangement from what Dolezal refers to as “the possibilities of the self.” This recurring evaluation of how we are perceived has become a more pressing concern in a world of intrusive social media.

Dolezal argues that other thinkers have advanced on Sartre’s ideas to show that objectification is experienced to a greater extent among marginalised groups. In The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir argued that in our patriarchal societies women experience this feeling far more than men. Another layer is added by Frantz Fanon who observed the alienation caused by perceived racial hierarchies. Fanon argued: “This is because the white man is not only the Other but also the master, whether real or imaginary.” It is probably a fair generalisation that women, racial minorities, as well as gays and disabled, are more subject to shame than straight white men with full physical capabilities.

Dolezal also explores the socio-cultural and political framework in which power relations are embedded drawing on the insights of Michele Foucault and Norbert Elias. Perhaps Foucault’s most useful idea was his revival of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon as a metaphor for the constant surveillance seen in modern life. The Panopticon was conceived as prison made of glass allowing every action to be observed, in theory leading to the observance of all rules. The inmate is shamed into conformity, just as today there lurks a latent perception that our every move is subject to the unrelenting gaze of cameras leading to a sense, especially among women, that her physical appearance is constantly being assessed.

In his seminal work The Civilising Process Elias traces the evolution of manners and other forms of personal comportment. The story of the fork is particularly informative. It arrived in Europe with the Byzantine bride to a Doge of Venice and its use was initially dismissed as a prissy affectation. But soon courtiers succumbed to its utility and it became such a fixture across Europe that by the nineteenth century one writer could describe those that ate with their hands as cannibalistic. Elias shows that such quotidian habits are socially constructed.

Since time immemorial shame has been used to enforce conformity. But Dolezal is emphatic that shame plays a critical role in how we learn and socialize among our peers. She argues that it plays a key role: “in skill acquisition, self-presentation, bodily management and the formation of the body schema.”

Put simply, without the experience of shame there would be little inducement for self-improvement in a range of spheres. This feeling may however lapse into a chronic condition where we feel ourselves, especially our physical bodies, to be the source of that shame. Chronic body shame: “can lead to a diminished bodily experience where a constant preoccupation with the body affects one’s self esteem and self-worth.” This seems to be the plight of many women today: one only has to look at the weight of column inches and advertising devoted to beauty “treatments”, an interesting choice of words ascribing pathology to deviations from conventional notions of beauty.

Thus, according to Dolezal: “Women, compared with men, spend more time, energy and material resources in trying to achieve a socially pleasing body that conforms to prevailing normative standards.” Further “Women far outnumber men in incidents of eating disorders, chronic dieting and cases of cosmetic surgery.” Dolezal’s draws on sociological observations from the cosmetic surgery industry which preys on these securities inducing women to alter their bodies to conform to societal expectations. Yet, as she points out, this is increasingly impossible as the body ideal found in the innumerable forms that flash before us are often digitally-enhanced or surgically-altered.

Unfortunately according to Dolezal: “Beauty regimes are becoming more punishing, more painful, more expensive, more intrusive, more extreme and, as a result, more disempowering.” In the United States alone, over eleven million cosmetic procedures included injectable such as Botox, laser skin resurfacing and chemical peels. Americans spent almost $12 billion on cosmetic procedures in 2013 alone. Our own Celtic Tiger spawned a cosmetic surgery boom.

The next generation faces ever more sophisticated marketing techniques that position these illusory forms in increasingly intrusive ways. The Internet is increasingly used for this marketing and beleaguered parents cannot possibly keep track of their childrens’ engagements.

The changes that are made to bodies through cosmetic surgery have profound
philosophical implications, for as Dolezal points out it “presupposes some sort of Cartesian self, where the body is merely a container for and commodity of the true inner self.” Here the phenomenological view of the body could have a redemptive quality as it comes to be seen as “much more than something we ‘have,’ but fundamentally as something that we are.” By acknowledging the body as the location of our true selves we accept perceived deficiencies or limitations in our bodies.

One challenge to this potentially redemptive realisation is posed by the perception of being born with the “wrong body”: a feeling common among transgender individuals. Here Dolezal points out “there seems a clear distinction between one’s authentic ‘inner’ self and one’s physical body, seemingly confirming the dualistic paradigm.” It would appear there are exceptional scenarios where cosmetic surgery or even biological alteration may prove liberating, but an overall context of bodily obsession that may cause this dissatisfaction should be acknowledged.

Thus according to Dolezal “cosmetic surgeons play out the common formula of neoliberal consumer culture: they cultivate profound anxieties about the body and then present themselves and services as the only means to eliminate or alleviate the very shame and guilt they have themselves helped to produce.” The message to women is that their bodies are “wrong” but that a solution is at hand, for a price of course.

Dolezal identifies redemptive qualities offered by the practice of yoga which is open to all age groups and body types. She claims it provides “an alternative and compassionate vocabulary with which one can regard the body and the self.” And that “The body’s uniqueness is not compared to some ideal and through these practices new ways to understand and relate to one’s self and the body can be established, and transformation and healing can take place.”

If this is so, it is heartening that the practice of yoga has witnessed extraordinary growth in Ireland in recent times. To some extent it fills a spiritual void left by the decline of the Catholic Church. This perceived threat may account for a Donegal priest’s claim in 2014 that it was “putting souls in jeopardy”.

If however it has the potential to liberate women, and men, from demoralising relationships with their bodies then it should be viewed as a way for society to restore a lost balance. But we might question whether it has not already been co-opted by the dominant neoliberal culture as one more means of self-improvement that is purchased in the yoga studio or through going on an exotic yoga holiday. It may be however that Buddhist ideas that guide the practice of yoga do indeed contain the redemptive qualities that will help individuals overcome the ambient noise that points a finger at perceived deficiencies.

Imagining Ireland

(Published in Village Magazine, June 2016)

The spark of any human venture is imagination. The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1795-1827) in his ‘In Defence of Poetry’ distinguishes this from reason, the ‘enumeration of qualities already known’; whereas ‘imagination is the perception of the values of those qualities, both separately and as a whole … Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.’

Too often governments, corporations and individuals lack that ignition. Reason in abundance is evident yes, but imagination is rarely nurtured and sometimes frowned on. We strive to proceed from point A to B failing to recognise the possibilities in the remainder of the alphabet. Ireland stands accused.

Scientific reasoning for all its astounding capacity is founded on imagining a possibility beyond contemporary restraints. Thus Portuguese navigators of the fifteenth century first envisioned a route to India and then produced a vessel, the caravel, allowing them to sail windward. It is said that necessity is the mother of invention but really imagination charts the course.

The Portuguese voyages represented the triumph of the Renaissance mind over the medieval. In his autobiography Laurens van der Post relates a story told to him by C. G. Jung ‘that if one wanted to fix a precise moment at which the Renaissance began, it would be the day when the Italian poet Petrarch decided to defy superstition and climb a mountain in the Alps, just for the sake of reaching its summit.’

A poetic imagination can guide Irish people to the heights of their capabilities, removing what is left of the Catholic-industrial-complex. To do so we must move beyond the wisdom of Ireland’s leading public intellectual Fintan O’Toole. His insights can only take us so far: like Virgil in Dante’s Divine Comedy who guides Dante the pilgrim through Hell and Purgatory as far as the border of Paradise.

The utility of imagination is not restricted to mechanical invention or improvements to organisations but also underpins the empathy that makes us identify with others and extend compassion. Shelley writes that for a man to be ‘greatly good’ he ‘must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must be his own;’

Throughout the twentieth century we saw a failure of what the philosopher Jonathan Glover calls ‘moral imagination’; we still see individuals sheltering in the comfort of command centres from which they unleash death and destruction. From this vantage war became like a computer game that obscures the real horror, and yet bewilderment greets the ferocity and depravity in response.

Through their faculty of imagination Shelley identifies poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world who forge social sympathies. In agreement the legal scholar Edward J. Erbile writes: ‘Ancient law often took the form of poetry. Laws were expressed in incantatory rhythms. The oldest Greek and Latin words were also the eldest words for law. For example carmen or carminis in Latin means ‘song’ or ‘statute’.’

Shelley also hails the intuitive capacity of the poet who: ‘not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present thing ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present (not that they can foresee the future).’

Further, he distinguishes between poetry which ‘in the restricted sense expresses those arrangements of language, and especially metrical language, which are created by the imperial faculty whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man’; and poetry located in other forms such as the story or novel: ‘The parts of the a composition may be poetical without the composition as a whole being poetical’. He adds that ‘all the great historians were poets’ and that ‘poetry is ever to be found to co-exist with whatever other arts contribute to the happiness and perfection of man’.
Seen in this light poetry is a vital commodity in any culture, foregrounding and guiding other artistic endeavours, channelling empathy, and forging justice. Poetry is not restricted to composition of metrical verse: any writer or artist should aspire to it.

Shelley embodied a revolutionary altruism, visiting Ireland in 1812 where he wrote a pamphlet An Address to the Irish People urging non-violent resistance: ‘In no case employ violence, the way to liberty and happiness is never to transgress the rules of virtue and justice. Liberty and happiness are founded upon virtue and justice. If you destroy the one you destroy the other.’ He would have deplored the Easter Rising and anticipated the loss of liberty that emerged after the independent state’s violent birth pangs.

But Shelley was perhaps too idealistic in assuming that poetry conflates with justice in the objective sense handed down in the Western tradition. Poetry has its dark arts. Audiences were mesmerized by the flow of Hitler’s speeches. Stalin and Radovan Karadzic both composed verse. Another published poet Enoch Powell summoned the vivid metaphor of ‘rivers of blood’ in his opposition to multicultural Britain. Nonetheless the best poetry articulates the highest human ideals.

This is quite urgent considering Nietzsche’s erosion of Enlightenment values and the huge challenges in this the Anthropocene. We must learn how to live in the natural world and avert runaway Climate Change, as well as addressing hideous human inequalities. We demand new poetic legislators.

It is assumed that we in Ireland are of little relevance to the wider world. But that is a failure of imagination. Since the arrival of literacy (alongside Christianity) this small, remote island has nourished visionary poets in a wide variety of fields from artists of the Book of Kells, to Swift’s satire and Joyce’s iconoclasm that have, as Shelley suggested in his Address to the Irish People, been a beacon to the world. Even the Easter Rising for all its flaws was the realisation of the poetry of Pearse, Plunkett and McDonagh.

James Joyce playfully mused: ‘is this country destined some day to resume its ancient position as the Hellas of the north? Is the Celtic spirit, like the Slavic one (which it resembles in many respects), destined in the future to enrich the consciousness of civilization with new discoveries and institutions?’

Joyce’s Irishness was as a state of mind beyond purity of race or linguistic conformity, for ‘no race has less right to make such a boast [of purity] than the one presently inhabiting Ireland.’ Instead: ‘Nationality must find its basic reason for being in something that surpasses, that transcends and that informs changeable entities such as blood or human speech.’

Joyce brought poetic expression of this idea to Ulysses in the personage of the Jewish Leopold Bloom who responds to the question of the Cyclops (modelled on the founder of the GAA Michael Cusack) as to what nation he is from by saying: ‘Ireland … I was born here, Ireland.’

That ‘Ireland of the imagination’ awoke during the Celtic Twilight or Irish Renaissance. Alas after independence its animating spirit W.B. Yeat retreated to his Tower of aristocratic seclusion.

But before then Joyce anticipated that: ‘The economic and intellectual conditions of his homeland do not permit the individual to develop.’ And was sure that: ‘No self-respecting person wants to stay in Ireland.’
Eireann’s sons and daughters continued to depart in droves after independence. Leaving in Joyce’s words: ‘The old, the corrupt, the children, and the poor to stay at home where the double yoke etches another groove upon their docile necks. Standing around the death-bed where the poor bloodless and almost lifeless body lies are agitating patriots, proscribing governments, and priests administering their last rites.’

The “double yoke” for Joyce was the Empire and Catholicism. He saw liberation from the Church as a prerequisite for a sustained awakening: ‘I confess that I do not see what good it does to fulminate against English tyranny while the tyranny of Rome still holds the dwelling place of the soul.’

The full extent of this necessary purgation is incomplete. At primary and even secondary level most state-funded educational institutions are still controlled by the Church. The Archbishop of Dublin recently slid into Easter Rising commemorations draping unctuous imprimatur on that sordid affair in spite of its obvious contradiction of Jesus’s pacifism.

The present Pope Francis may display more compassion than some of his predecessors but the continued institutional fusion of state with spiritual power remains suspect. This was appreciated by Dante in the fourteenth century who bemoaned the apocryphal ‘gift of Constantine’ which purportedly created the Papal States after the end of the Western Roman Empire: ‘Ah Constantine, what wickedness was born – / and not from your conversion – but from the dower / that you bestowed upon the first rich father!’

Moreover, as John Moriarty points out it in his Dreamtime: ‘In our behaviour now, we are aids virus to the earth. We are doing to the earth what the aids virus does to the human body: we are breaking down its immune system. Assumptions and axioms of our classical Christian inheritance enable us to do this. Our classical inheritance is therefore suspect.’ A stateless Christianity, rejecting the papacy with clear water between itself and state institutions, that identifies human beings as living among a wider natural constellation needs poets such as John Moriarty to sing into being.

Since independence most poets have shrunk from Ireland’s shores, preferring to allow the Irish muses of Ériu, Bamba and Fodla to breathe creative fire in exile. But the well spring of the Irish Renaissance is running dry.
Only in music which at times rivals, but really compliments the animating effect of poetry, has great expression been preserved. But even here, with notable exceptions, the originality of the lyric has declined: the absence of poetry is felt. Just as words without music do not create the greatest poetry, similarly music without words fall short of the highest artistic expression. Recall that Beethoven’s glorious ninth symphony, widely regarded as the greatest composition in history culminates in a choral rendition of Schiller’s Ode to Joy.

We have seen a grubby culture grow up in Ireland, leaving its mark on a landscape of one-off incongruous bungalows and groves of clear-felled Sitka spruce; in lurid sports apparel that serves as fashion and the sordid drunkenness that haunts every city and town. Worse: gangland murders fuelled by middle class recreational drug habits and nonsensical laws; approaching the highest rate of obesity in Europe; and a cruel and self-centred agricultural industry. All this alongside a bewildering level of homelessness.

The wounds of the “double yoke” run deep, and are compounded by a collision with the zombie-culture of our smart-phone post-modernity. Ever extreme in virtue as in vice: the Irish are the biggest phone-internet users in the world.

We seem to be lurching from the Celtic Twilight towards Flann O’Brien’s Celtic Toilet. And each of us bears responsibility in the sense understood by Dostoyevsky in his novel Devils. In this Stavrogin reveals his appalling crime to the elder Tikhon, who responds by asking the forgiveness of Stavrogin: ‘Having sinned, each man has sinned against all men, and each man is responsible in some way for the sins of others. There is no isolated sin. I’m a great sinner, perhaps greater than you.’

But in the 1980s a path to liberation was laid by the brilliant journalism of Fintan O’Toole. As Tom Hennigan wrote recently in the Dublin Review: ‘For many of us whose first ever vote was cast for Mary Robinson, O’Toole was a formative influence. In a society politically dominated by two populist conservative parties and an arrogant, authoritarian Catholic church, he appeared not just as a pathfinder towards a more liberal, liberalistic society but also a scourge of those forces that fought against its emergence, most thrillingly dissecting the real state of Irish republicanism by detailing the corruption clustered around Fianna Fail.’

But Hennigan offers a damning assessment of O’Toole’s capacity to understand Ireland’s economy. O’Toole failed to anticipate that the close union with Europe he advocated led us precisely to the likelihood of some form of economic maladjustment. His book Ship of Fools: ‘skips past the crucial fact that shaped the Irish crisis, not the country’s supposed land hunger, or the moral vacuum left by the disintegration of the Catholic church, but rather its membership of the euro.’

He also failed utterly to anticipate the recovery that took place predicting
‘a vicious downward spiral of depression and debt’; that ‘reduces the EU to the status of a banker’s bailiff’.

Hennigan exposes O’Toole’s limitations: ‘In this binary framing of choices, usually between good and bad, O’Toole and those like him who draw clear moral lines downplay the difficulty of navigating a path out of crisis for a supranational organisation built on top of multiple democracies, all to one extent or another wedded for better or worse to a model of turbo-charged global capitalism whose unruly energy is rapidly transforming our global society in ways that are contradictory and fiendishly difficult to predict.’
The point of this excursion is certainly not to depart from O’Toole’s aspiration for Ireland to become a fair society modelled on Scandinavia, or to discourage his esteem for European fellowship, but to identify the limitation of his vision in terms of guiding the Irish people to their highest capacities.

It is apparent that O’Toole’s lifelong noble ambition to rid Ireland of populist Republicanism has failed: Fianna Fail methodologies have been co-opted by Fine Gael, while Sinn Fein waits in the wings alongside a raft of parish-pump Independents. His own flirtation with seeking political office as a tribune of the people in the middle of the bailout came to nought. He realised that his ideological children were too skittish, unengaged and ultimately materialistic to press his claim.

It is revealing that O’Toole’s strident left-wing voice is used to sell a paper such as the Irish Times which nurtures a consumer society through the contagion of a Saturday magazine that has spilled into the rest of the paper. Increasingly scant space is devoted to writing unconnected to selling one thing or another be it property, food, sport or increasingly the arts.
Rather than entering politics as a latter-day Arthur Griffith, a more noble gesture might be for O’Toole to depart from the Irish Times. As a critic with an international profile he could surely ignite another publication consistent with his values. Then we might start to see a media diversity lacking since the Irish Renaissance.

The marriage equality referendum might be considered the triumph of his Liberal Ireland but sustained political engagement did not materialise: the youth vote that brought that landslide did not come out to vote for ‘boring’ parties in the ensuing election, and does not display the self-sacrifice required to enter politics and engage in the slow work of reform. Mirroring O’Toole, many of them have given up on politics altogether.

It is also apparent that there is a serious gap in O’Toole’s coverage of the environment: he has never had a raised ecological awareness. Of course no columnist can cover every issue but occupying such an influential position as an almost weekly op-ed contributor it is surely incumbent on him to pay more attention to the most pressing concern for a wider humanity.

But this enquiry is concerned, above all, with the connection between poetry and the exercise of the imagination, and the idea that it beholds “the future in the present.” Fintan O’Toole writes extensively on literature for the Irish Times and other publications including the New York Review of Books, and it is to an example of this coverage that we turn.

O’Toole offered exegesis on the work of Ireland’s formative poet W.B. Yeats in a BBC Radio 3 series last year celebrating Yeats at 150. His essay was called ‘Not Liking Yeats’, although the title is misleading as he argues that not liking Yeats is a prerequisite to loving him.

As expected O’Toole’s command of the cannon is exemplary and his delivery faultless. He helpfully identifies the tension in Yeats between a benign poetic vision and his often chauvinistic views. But distilling O’Toole’s criticism to its essence we are left with him honouring the poet as ‘magical, strange and transcendent’; ‘with vestiges of the marvellous’. Without elucidation these encomiums are however superfluous.

O’Toole has Dante’s Paradise in sight but we do not taste oblivion from the waters of Lethe, or the river of Eunoe where the memories of good deeds in life are strengthened. These we find in Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium as ‘the artifice of eternity’ and as the golden bird who sings to ‘lords and ladies of Byzantium’ of ‘what is past or passing or to come’.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is as Robert Durling puts it: ‘a system of metaphors for the process by which a living man, on earth, comes to understand the nature of the cosmos and the state of souls after death’. Yeats developed a similar symbolic system and unless we absorb this we only skim the surface of his vision.

O’Toole reveals no understanding of the Neoplatonism that has informed all the great poets from Dante, Shakespeare, Militon through Shelley and down to Yeats. Ira Zinman suggests this is a two way process: ‘Spiritual truths are often not readily apparent in scriptures or verse. Uncovering the deeper meaning requires a heightened awareness, which is itself a sign of spiritual growth.’

The ‘timeless’, ‘transcendent’ and the ‘remarkable’ that O’Toole attests to in Yeats’s poetry are glimpse at the shoreline of a Paradise to which his own insights have not, so far, ascended. For the moment O’Toole does not envision “the future in the present”.

Kathleen Raine might appear dogmatic in her assessment that ‘a revival of the learning of the works of Plato and the neo-Platonists, has been the inspiration not only of the Florentine renaissance and all that followed (in England as elsewhere) but of every subsequent renaissance,’ but the historical accuracy of that statement in a European context is difficult to counter. In Defending Ancient Sacred Springs she refers specifically to the overwhelming Neoplatonic influence on the Irish Renaissance especially Yeats. Irish poets, consciously or otherwise, drinks from these waters.
Neoplatonism offers an initiation to what Shelley calls the “imperial” faculty of poetry, and all its imaginative possibilities. Of course non-European cultures have found their own eternal forms climbing the same mountain on different tracks; just as Indian music has a different system of scales but offers a coherent and logical aesthetic.

Poetry has a wide variety of devices. According to Theodore Zeldin the Japanese poet Sogi (1421-1502) ‘has a place in humanity’s common memory because he was unrivalled in creating sensitive links between different collaborators … he held poetry parties that revealed how, in a country plagued by violent political conflict, art could create bonds between strangers. The philosophy of the artistic way, gei-do-ron, was the art of socialising with strangers allowing individuals to grasp at higher truths.’ We may also draw inspiration from this less individualistic approach.

Ireland also has a distinctive, crooked genius that has informed the imaginations of poets. Perhaps it really is the faeries that have been held down by Church dogma and middling intellect which nourish “the Irish soul” that Joyce refers to. Revealingly some of the brightest Irish musicians casually concede inspiration to an Otherworld.

We can call the imaginative impulse for poetry what we please, a muse to the Greeks, faeries for the Irish, but clearly in its finest form it encourages empathy, justice and beauty.

The poet-philosopher John Moriarty was one such visionary. He imagined ‘another Patrick, A Patrick in our time for our time. A Patrick who not only seeks to bring a richer Christianity to Ireland, he seeks also to bring what is best in its Celtic and pre-Celtic inheritance to Ireland.’

That surely female Patricia would be a poet capable of imagining a Hellas of the North like Beatrice guiding Dante through Paradise, with the potential to make Ireland a beacon for an increasingly intolerant world. She would undoubtedly practice yoga and be attuned to the vitality of scientific reason, and its limitations. Certainly this lady will carefully distinguish the good faeries from those slippery ones in the Irish character, and accept the poet Wallace Stevens’s insight that ‘God and the imagination are one’.

(http://villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2016/06/imagine-2/)

Confronting the great men of history

(Published in Village Magazine, June 2016)

That there was something altogether more disturbing about Hitler’s Germany than Stalin’s Russia is often assumed. Perhaps it comes from the idea of Germany, the most intellectually and industrially-advanced country of its time, being led by an individual whose core belief was the annihilation of a substantial ethno-religious minority. By comparison the aspirational ends of Stalinism are, superficially at least, universal and even Utopian.
The case of Germany suggests that intellectual progress does not dovetail with moral development. But at least the defeat of Nazism has consigned Far Right ideology in Germany and the rest of Europe to the political periphery since World War II. The Cold War ended when Mikhail Gorbachev unilaterally stopped projecting Soviet power and the populations of its empire rose up to gain independence. But the descent into anarchy of some of these territories has engendered a conviction, prevalent in Russia, that aspects of the ruthless means employed by Stalin are always required for stability and prosperity. The conduct of the West, both in its approach to Russia and a wider flouting of international law, has doused oil on the flames.
This is not to suggest that anything approximating the scale of state-sponsored terror is being unleased in Russia today but there is nonetheless evidence of an attitude to human rights that departs from values ascendant in most of the rest of Europe.
A case can be made for Stalinism being more terrifying than Hitler’s Nazism, precisely because the former emerged as victor in the apocalyptic struggle between the two monsters. It was a victory of a system that embraced industrial development and rationality, over one that advocated a primitive way of life for a chosen people fusing cultish spirituality with juvenile biology.
There were of course unforgivable excesses on the Allied side too, in particular the fire-bombing of Dresden and the unnecessary use of the Atomic bomb against Japan which was on the brink of surrender as laid out by Gar Alperowitz in his book The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (1995). The political elites of America and Britain have not confronted their wicked pasts – America still refuses to apologise for Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and their foreign policies in recent decades are connected to an historical amnesia that foreshadowed the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 which Noam Chomsky recently described as ‘the crime of the century’. Instructively George W. Bush installed a bust of Winston Churchill inside his White House office as he embarked on his ‘crusade’ against terror, reaching into history for vindication. Churchill himself had ordered the use of poison gas against Iraqis in the 1920s.
Of course the schemes of Hitler and his Nazi party were more diabolically hair-brained than his opponents. Leading Nazis sought Lebensraum in order to restore the Germanic people to the soil in what was a rejection of urban modernity. In Hitler’s Mein Kampf George Orwell found: ‘a horrible brainless Empire in which, essentially, nothing ever happens except the training of young men for war and the endless breeding of fresh cannon-fodder.’
Hitler’s primary lieutenant and SS leader Heinrich Himmler’s notions were particularly eccentric believing that Aryans were not evolved from monkeys or apes like other races, but had come down to earth from the heavens, where they had been preserved in ice from the beginning of time. He established a meteorology division which was given the task of proving this cosmic ice theory. It would be funny if he wasn’t a mass murderer.
The Nazis came very close to winning the war. Britain could easily have been brought to heel if Churchill had not stood firm against a vacillating Tory party. Hitler’s decision not to complete his victory – after the defeat of the British Expeditionary Force in France in May 1940 – before turning his attention to the Eastern Front was a flabbergasting blunder, as was declaring war on the isolationist United States after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in December 1941.
If Hitler had been victorious the plight of all of Europeans would have been insufferable for a time at least. In all likelihood the Holocaust would surely have been completed and many more enslaved. But perhaps before that contradictions would emerged among the Nazis especially as Hitler had allowed competing agencies including the SS, the army and the Party to develop. Blind loyalty to the Fuehrer might have dissipated as the spoils were devoured.
The triumph of a profoundly irrational ideology could have brought chaos in the absence of wartime exigencies especially if a policy of compulsory re-ruralisation was rolled out. Hitler certainly harnessed Germany’s industrial might, especially through Alfred Speer planning agency, but only when defeat loomed. With victory theories about ‘cosmic ice’ might have become ascendant and the Nazis empire could have been beset by slave revolts. The dormant humanity of the German people might have awoken. A more dynamic society and economy such as the United States’ would surely have surpassed the Nazi Empire and there was no sign that Germany was close to developing Atomic technology which required the employment of over a million men at enormous expense in the United States.
We know that Stalin and his no less unsavoury predecessor Lenin d.1924 (not to mention Trotsky who was equally ruthless) also liquidated vast numbers to advance their cause, more than the Nazis even. One estimate is that in the seventy years after 1917, the Soviet regime killed 61, 911, 000 people.
State terror was evident from the start. In August 1918 Lenin issued the following order:

1.) Hang (and I mean hang so that the people can see) not less than 100 known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers.
2.) Publish their names.
3.) Take all their grain away from them.
4.) Identify hostages as we described in our telegram yesterday.
Do this so that for hundreds of miles around the people can see, tremble, know and cry: they are killing and will go on killing the bloodsucking kulaks. Cable that you have received this and carried out [your instructions]. Yours, Lenin
P.S. Find tougher people.
This was not simply a reaction to the life and death struggle of the Russian Civil War, but policy. As far back as 1908 he wrote that the Paris Commune had failed because of the ‘excessive generosity’ of the proletariat who ‘should have exterminated its enemies’ instead of trying to exert moral influence on them.
Yet if we compare France and Russia only the former absorbed socialist ideas into its shared set of national values. Over the long term an ideology is accepted not by physical force (as George W. Bush should have realised in Iraq) but by persuasion. As soon as the constraints of the Communist regime in Russia were lifted the society became ultra-capitalist. In the end the ideas of the Communards endured much longer in France than the Bolshevik’s in Russia.
A revolution may not succeed but it is often how participants (or victors) conduct themselves that defines the acceptance of noble ideas. In the case of Germany after World War II the occupiers were able to draw on a long history of liberal democracy that the Nazis did not succeed in wiping out and had learnt from the mistakes of Versailles after World War I.
The Communist ideology as implemented by Lenin and Stalin was based on perfection of man by the revolutionary triumph of the proletariat. Lives, millions if necessary, could be sacrificed for the sake of final victory.
In his book The Economics of the Transition Period (1920), Nikolai Bukharin used the phrase: ‘the manufacturing of Communist man out of the human material of the capitalist age.’ In his copy Lenin underlined that phrase and wrote ‘exactly’ in the margin. There was no choice in the matter no respect for individuality, just blind adherence to the ideal with the great leader, soon to be Stalin, at the helm.
For many intelligent young Europeans of the period their Communist conviction was akin to religious devotion. Eric Hobsbawm in his Autobiography wrote: ‘For young revolutionaries of my generation mass demonstrations were the equivalent of papal masses for devout Catholics.’ This devotion allowed Stalin to build his power.
Individual Communists were even willingly to sacrifice their own lives for the cause, not least Bukharin who agreed to the necessity of his own death in a show trial, a psychological drama brilliantly conveyed in Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon.
It was the conviction of Communists, no less than of Nazis, that allowed many of them to carry out some of the worst crimes of the twentieth century. As the dissident writer Aleksander Solzhenitsyn puts it: ‘Shakespeare’s villains stopped short at ten or so cadavers. Because they had no ideology.’
There also emerged a cult of the leader that is captured vividly by Solzhenitsyn once again. He describes how at a Party conference in one Moscow province a tribute to Stalin was called for. The audience stood up and began to applaud but nobody wanted to be seen as the first to stop. After eleven minutes the director of a paper factory had had enough and sat down allowing the remainder of the audience to desist. Not long afterwards he was arrested and given a ten year prison sentence.
Stalin hardened a society in a way vividly described by Nadezha Mandelstam who was herself in perpetual fear of arrest: ‘For our generation, kindness was an old-fashioned quality, and its exponents were as extinct as the mammoth. Everything we have seen in our time – the dispossession of the kulaks, class warfare, the constant ‘unmasking’ of people the search for an ulterior motive behind every action – all this has taught you to be everything you like except kind.’ Empathy became a failing as a base and sullen survival instinct took hold.
This survival instinct is also evident in Mikhail Bulgakov’s dark satire on Stalinism The Master and Margarita. The poet Ivan Nikolayevich and his friend Berlioz encounter the devil Woland in a Moscow park where the latter predicts that Berlioz will lose his head in a matter of minutes. True to his word Berlioz is decapitated after slipping under a tram. The encounter drives Ivan mad as he attempts to track down and bring Woland to justice. Eventually he winds up in a mental institution.
But at last he comes to terms with Berlioz’s loss: ‘I wonder why I go so excited about Berlioz falling under a tram? The poet reasoned, ‘After all he’s dead and we all die some time. It’s not as if I were a relation or a really close friend either, when you think about it I didn’t even know the man very well.’ Only by hardening himself to Berlioz’s plight can Ivan avoid insanity, the same could probably be said for many Russians who under Stalin had become as tough as Lenin had wished.
The revolutionary murderousness of the early Communist period gave way to slow-drip cruelty during the post-War years especially after the death of Stalin in 1953 and Nikita Khrushchev’s denouncement some years later. But victory in the Second World ensured that Stalinism spread beyond the Soviet Union into Eastern and Central Europe, and the recent indifference of much of the population there to the plight of refugees might be attributed in part to the absence of kindness that Mandelstam observed.
Under Vladimir Putin in Russia today the reputation of Stalin is enjoying a measured rehabilitation. The grandson of Stalin’s cook and former KGB operative opines that ruthless methods were crucial to Soviet victory and argues that Stalin never attempted to kill entire ethnic groups. The latter claim is quite groundless not least considering the Holodmor or terror-famine that may have killed as many as the Holocaust was carried out to suppress Ukrainian nationalism.
The narrative is not monolithic. Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has been outspoken in his criticism of Stalin, but Putin’s line has become official policy reflected in school history textbooks where scant attention is devoted to the one and a half million Chechens forcibly removed to Central Asia by Stalin in 1941. In 2007 the Putin government directed an initiative to restructure the national curriculum, teaching schoolchildren that Stalin’s actions were ‘entirely rational’.
In 2009 a Moscow subway station was refurbished with large inscriptions reading ‘Stalin reared us on loyalty to the people. He inspired us to labour and heroism’, a direction quotation from the pre-1977 Soviet anthem. Meanwhile this year a statue was unveiled in Yalta, formerly in Ukrainian Crimea, of Stalin alongside Roosevelt and Churchill.
Putin has said that ‘we can criticize the commanders and Stalin all we like, but can we say with certainty that a different approach would have enabled us to win the war?’ The sacrifices of present-day Russia are situated within a deeper historical narrative. Democracy, a free press and human rights are subservient to the reassertion of order and Russia’s territorial claims and ‘sphere of influence’.
According to Reporters Without Borders between 2012 and 2014 Russia was placed 148th on a list which ranks countries’ performances in the areas of media pluralism and independence, respect for journalists’ safety and freedom, and media-related legislation, among other criteria. Putin is now de facto dictator of Russia and a free press will not be allowed to interfere with that. Defenders of Putin point to the chaos in Russia under Yeltsin but how will Russia ever become a democratic and tolerant society if this Hobbesian narrative is endlessly trotted out?
Thankfully Putin’s Russia is not resurrecting a murderous ideology, and it is also important to point out that Putin’s reassertion of Russia’s Great Power status has been to some extent a reaction to the eastward expansion of NATO. But failure to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine’s borders, directly in Crimea and indirectly in Donbass, is inexcusable as has been the steadfast support for Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.
We confront an international order where international law is increasingly an instrument of foreign policy rather than a set of collective human values. The US President, a constitutional lawyer, sends drones on weekly missions to commit extra-judicial murder. Guantanamo Bay remains an affront to US values.
All of the victors of the Second World War exhibit a self-righteousness that permits excesses. The invasion of Iraq was the twenty-first equivalent of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But in Russia the stain of Stalinism runs deeper as people endured far more than simply the Propaganda model identified by Chomsky as ‘manufacturing consent’, but had their very humanity ‘manufactured’ as Lenin underlined and Stalin carried out.
All countries must expose the limitations of their ‘great men’, even Gandhi needs to be subjected to greater scrutiny in India. Where a country has had a particularly unfortunate experience with one, as Russia certainly has, this process is all the more necessary and salutary. One need only look at the achievements of Germany in this regard which has emerged as an unsteady ‘conscience of Europe’.
Unfortunately, it would appear that Putin’s regime in Russia is doing little to encourage this process, in fact the opposite appears to be occurring with abuses of human rights domestically and reckless foreign adventures justified by Stalinist pragmatism.
The development of atomic weapons during the Second World War made warfare between Great Powers unthinkable but not impossible. That should be remembered. Since Mutually Assured Destruction became possible it became vital to establish shared values for humanity that will foster kindness among people and nations. Instead of esteeming toughness like Lenin we should prize sensitivity. The world needs more political leaders like Gorbachev whose show of weakness revealed an optimistic belief in human nature.

http://villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2016/06/stalinout/