These are my principles, if you don't like them I have others.
Faith Hope and Clarity
I have as yet little idea as what direction this page will take, and so I'll start with a couple of items that have already seen the light of day. The first was written in 2016 for the Cross Street Rag, a lively news-sheet produced for the congregation of Cross Street Unitarian Chapel in Manchester.
The French philosopher Voltaire is said to have remarked that in England, there were sixty different religions and only one sauce, whereas in France it was of course the other way round.
My own family has illustrated this rather well. Way back on my father's side they were middle-of-the-road Scottish Presbyterians, but my three times great grandfather took his congregation from Glasgow to the coastal town of Girvan, and set up the Church of The Future, who were later joined by the Christian Universalists.
His son, also a clergyman, was strongly influenced by the remarkable scientific advances of that century, and promoted a variety of Natural Theology, the creation of the material universe being seen as direct evidence of a purposeful incorporeal creator. Perhaps not dissimilar to the ideas of today's Unitarians?
Two generations on, my grandfather though nominally Presbyterian, had lapsed into atheism, though his wife-to-be was very high-church Anglican, having at the age of 19 secretly eloped from Glasgow to London's East End to be baptised into the Church of England by an evangelical clergyman who practised a life of apostolic poverty.
My father was pretty much of his father's opinion, but in early adulthood became very interested in the then-popular mysticism of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, which invoked ideas of higher dimensionality, well in advance of cosmologists in this era. In his later years, my father became almost obsessively interested in Manichean history and theology, and the tragic fate of the Cathars, who in fact believed that this world was intrinsically evil, the work not of God but his antithesis.
He had two sisters, one of whom was happy to convert to Catholicism after marrying in middle age, and the other who married at the age of seventy, spent twelve years learning Gaelic and took to the Celtic tradition of St Columba rather than the Roman one of St Augustine (though I'm pretty hazy about the fine distinctions!). She loved the weekly Gaelic choral evening at her church in Victoria BC.
My mother's family had their roots in industrial Birmingham, and belonged to the Congregational church, though later moving south to the Middlesex area. Her parents actually first met at a church choir practice, and her father (who was a book-binder by trade) bound two copies of Handel's Messiah in leather, his and hers. In her middle years, however my grandmother took to Christian Science, with its emphasis on illness being a symptom of spiritual maladjustment, and I think this had a persistent negative effect on the family.
I think this is probably way too long already but, reverting to Voltaire, there was certainly no evidence in the very unimaginative meals I remember from childhood, whether at home or staying with relatives, of any intrusive flavour, whether or not the result of anything other than gravy!
And the second was scripted in 2012 for a ten-minute presentation at the Friends' Meeting House in Reading, during the national Quaker Outreach week that year. I've inserted a few square-bracket parentheses.
My name is Robin, and I've been an Attender at the Reading FMH [Friends' Meeting House] since 1982, though only intermittently until about 6 or 8 years ago.
I'm going to share with you some background stuff about the origins of Quakerism and its roots in the Christian tradition.
I'm not an expert on the subject, and the views I express are purely personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views or attitudes of any other Attenders or Friends, or the Quaker Faith and Practice manual.
I'll start by recounting just a bit about my own journey (as it's always called these days) towards a form of religious belief, and then I'll delve back into history for a while, to consider the Quaker Journey. Finally I'll briefly compare the outcomes of these journeys, and then I'll stop.
I'll have to refer to my notes pretty frequently, but at least that should keep me on track and up to schedule. It should take about 10 minutes.
Both my parents had been scarred by excessive indoctrination as children, and so I was brought up in a non-religious household.
But I liked the Christmas carols at school, and the Christmas story, and it is of course very beautiful. Nevertheless, it was really just an annual thing, and for the rest of the year it was on the back burner, so to speak.
However, as a teenager, I succumbed to the crude sort of materialism so popular back in the 1960's: Angels? Miracles? Don't make me laugh!
But I was still strangely drawn to the personality of Christ himself. Even if he "hadn't ever existed", he was still a powerful role model, and one that I did try to stay with over the next 30 years or more.
In 1997 I was persuaded to attend an Alpha course. It was very well-meaning but completely unconvincing. It still didn't explain the miracles (whether Old or New Testament). But it did get me thinking again.
Some years later, the penny dropped, and I realised that miracles were the rule rather than the exception. Rightly viewed, everything is a miracle. I also came to a personal interpretation of the New Testament that made sense to me. I can explain all that on another occasion, if anybody is interested [they weren't].
But could this be squared with continued attendance at MfW [Meeting for Worship] and, even more to the point, regular and meaningful attendance?
THE QUAKER JOURNEY
We have to briefly revisit the England of the 1640's and 50's, during and just after the Civil War.
The Church of England had emerged from its domination by the Pope, and it now conducted its services in English, and we now had the wonderful King James' bible to read.
But the Church still retained the traditional hierarchy and patriarchy inherited from the Roman Empire on the one hand and the teachings of St Paul on the other. And this status quo suited the authorities just fine.
However, Diggers (1649) and Levellers (1647), Quakers (1647) and (later on) Shakers (1747) now began to vocalise the widespread feeling amongst ordinary Englishmen – and women – that things needed continued change and further questioning, both socially and religiously.
They were anarchists in a way, refusing to pay tithes, or to accept the doctrinal leadership of clergy and bishops, or to fight the monarch's wars for him, or to accept the continued lock-out of women from religious responsibility.
And when George Fox, and other Quaker evangelists, started their open-air ministries they found a massive popular response to the new Quaker mode of worship, despite cruel repression by magistrates and militia.
WHAT WAS THEIR MESSAGE?
Crucially, they insisted that genuine religious experience could not be delivered at second hand by the clergy, but should spring from within the hearts of people gathered together in common cause – and certainly not in churches dedicated to the old way of doing things.
And that the Second Coming would now be in peoples' hearts, rather than a physical return of Christ and all those complicated apocalyptic expectations.
Also, Quakers turned their backs on the churches' traditional obsession with Sin, both Original and Casual. Genesis had something to say on the subject, of course, and Christ himself when healing people often said 'Thy sins be forgiven thee' – sin in the context of being out of alignment with God's purpose, covering bodily illness as well as actual misdemeanours.
And the church had compiled numerous lists of the so-called Seven Deadly Sins that could imperil your chances of going to Heaven, such as:
- Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Pride
Of course the avoidance of Greed, Envy and Pride are central to modern Quaker teachings about Fairness, Sustainability and Simplicity, whilst the others are just completely out of character anyway!
But in any case Quakers don't dwell on Sin or Redemption in the way that even modern Anglicanism or Catholicism do, which I find a great relief, as I personally don't accept that the Crucifixion had a redemptive purpose. Quaker teaching has a much greater focus on the positive than on the negative, on what we should do rather than on what we shouldn't do.
The early Quakers also abandoned ritual and ceremony, especially Eucharist, also called Holy Communion, and paid little attention to Christmas and Easter, feeling that the significance of these occasions should be kept in mind throughout the year. I couldn't agree more, especially as I find the body-and-blood idea of Holy Communion utterly repugnant, an echo of primitive pagan theophagic ritual.
HAVE WE REACHED THE SAME PLACE?
The early Quakers experienced Jesus in their hearts, and sometimes described this as the Light Within, but modern Quakers refer to this as the Inner Light, most frequently identified with God.
But which God? The rather scary angry Old Testament Jehovah, or the loving God to whom Jesus referred, or the tripartite Trinitarian God cooked up at the Council of Nicea centuries later? Or indeed the Holy Spirit, the messenger of God?
I know which I prefer, though I'm happy for other participants in a MfW to think differently. But for Enquirers it could be a considerable hurdle to begin with.
And who was Jesus? This must be the most-often-asked question in history. And there have been such varied answers, and so much blood spilt between the rival factions. Some would say it doesn't really matter, he was a good man who preached brotherly love and came to a sticky end. Others that he wasn't the Messiah, just a very naughty boy, as Jewish Friends might well privately agree. Others that he was the Son of God, whatever that may mean, and is now part of the Holy Trinity. Or always was, opinions differ.
C S Lewis asked rhetorically was Jesus mad, bad or God? Like the Unitarians, I don't think he was any of these things – perhaps he was simply the last and greatest of the Prophets, with a uniquely close relationship with God. And for many of us he will always remain the Light of The World, the defining figure through whom God, who laid the foundations of the Universe, reaches down to reassure us that we are part of his blueprint.
Quaker ministries at Reading MfW frequently mention the G word, but seldom the J word, and in a way that's no bad thing as it enhances our appeal to enquirers from other religious backgrounds. And I've never heard any mention of the Holy Trinity at MfW, and to that extent I have a great deal of sympathy with those who say that Quakerism (at least in the unprogrammed format such as at Reading MfW) is moving away from its traditional Christian roots and is reaching towards a simpler, clearer form of faith that can be reconciled with the other great Abrahamic religions.
And that's got to be go(o)d.
Thank you for listening to me. I've now finished.
To Be Continued
... but meanwhile you might well like to ask yourselves
Who Mowed The Lawns of Eden?
Who mowed the lawns of Eden? Who kept the garden trim?
Adam never volunteered, I'm sure it wasn't him.
Who pruned all the fruit trees to which Genesis refers?
Did the angel Gabriel [possess] some secateurs?
Who mowed the lawns of Eden? Who kept the garden green?
Eve was not a gardener, and the Cherubs were not keen.
The angels and archangels, they were pretty much the same,
They refused to [do the weeding] as well as magnify His name.
The Seraphim, they could have helped in several different ways,
But they had all their time used up with singing hymns of praise.
The Heavenly Host was small then, because nobody had died,
But none of them liked digging, even though they'd never tried.
I bet the saints and martyrs would have loved to dig and hoe,
For martyrs up in heaven are the same as here below.
Who mowed the lawns of Eden? Who helped the garden grow?
Who made of it a Paradise? I'll tell you, 'cos I know.
God. He fixed the garden, the first one that he made,
He pruned all the roses, and was handy with his spade.
On Sunday, nice and early He went out to smell the dew.
(There wasn't any Church then, so He'd nothing much to do).
He wandered to the potting-shed, behind the Tree of Life,
And got his spade and trowel out, His fork and pruning knife.
He looked after Eden, and He watched the lilies grow,
And Eden's still a Paradise where gardeners can go.
Who mowed the lawns of Eden? God mowed the lawns and more,
Adam couldn't help Him, for his rib was still quite sore.
The beasts that God created never helped in any way,
The lion lay down with the lamb, bone idle all the day
God built all the trellises for clematis to climb,
Cut back the wisteria and trained the columbine.
He pruned all the fruit trees: apple, peach and pear,
He had so many jobs to do, you'd always find Him there.
So if I get to Heaven, I'll just ask Peter if I can
Potter about in Eden, just to help out the Old Man.
(transcribed from a typescript found amongst Uncle Sandy's papers after he died; I've applied a couple of tweaks to help the scansion.)
Old maids bicycling to Evensong
On checking the quotation, it turns out to be "...old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings", a rare example of Orwellian over-elaboration, IMHO. But either way, it summons up the essence of Anglicanism, for me at least – its appeal to the older rather than the younger generation, its reverence for traditional and often complicated and nowadays incomprehensible theology, but withal a warming and familiar effect, akin to a mug of Marmite and hot water, and a reassuringly pre-ordained order of service as prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer.
And still it has an emotional hold that is almost impossible to shake off.
Sir John Betjeman (28 Aug 1906 – 19 May 1984) was Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death. Not merely Poet Laureate but also by far the nation's favourite versifier, his was the only anthology that I purchased in my early teens, or indeed ever. Sadly (though surely temporarily) eclipsed by today's cultural pantheon of bizarre celebrities and inane nonentities, he deserves to be remembered for one immortal observation, when shortly before he died, he was asked if he had any regrets about his life. "Yes I have," he said. "Not enough sex."
Married men the world over would echo that.
His poetry is redolent of time and place, continually seeking out intimations of the eternal in the manifestly ordinary [and quintessentially home-counties English middle class.]
His views on Christianity were expressed in his poem "The Conversion of St. Paul", which ends with the lines
God grant before we die we all
May see the light as did St. Paul.
Betjeman was a practising Anglican [but] his religious beliefs come through in some of his poems. He combined piety with a nagging uncertainty about the truth of Christianity. Unlike Thomas Hardy, who disbelieved in the truth of the Christmas story while hoping it might be so, Betjeman affirms his belief even while fearing it might be false. In the poem "Christmas", one of his most openly religious pieces, the last three stanzas that proclaim the wonder of Christ's birth do so in the form of a question "And is it true...?"
by John Betjeman
The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.
The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
'The church looks nice' on Christmas Day.
Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says 'Merry Christmas to you all'.
And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.
And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children's hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say 'Come!'
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.
And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?
And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
Diary of a Church Mouse
by John Betjeman
Here among long-discarded cassocks,
Damp stools, and half-split open hassocks,
Here where the Vicar never looks
I nibble through old service books.
Lean and alone I spend my days
Behind this Church of England baize.
I share my dark forgotten room
With two oil-lamps and half a broom.
The cleaner never bothers me,
So here I eat my frugal tea.
My bread is sawdust mixed with straw;
My jam is polish for the floor.
Christmas and Easter may be feasts
For congregations and for priests,
And so may Whitsun. All the same,
They do not fill my meagre frame.
For me the only feast at all
Is Autumn's Harvest Festival,
When I can satisfy my want
With ears of corn around the font.
I climb the eagle's brazen head
To burrow through a loaf of bread.
I scramble up the pulpit stair
And gnaw the marrows hanging there.
It is enjoyable to taste
These items ere they go to waste,
But how annoying when one finds
That other mice with pagan minds
Come into church my food to share
Who have no proper business there.
Two field mice who have no desire
To be baptized, invade the choir.
A large and most unfriendly rat
Comes in to see what we are at.
He says he thinks there is no God
And yet he comes...it's rather odd.
This year he stole a sheaf of wheat
(It screened our special preacher's seat),
And prosperous mice from fields away
Come in to hear the organ play,
And under cover of its notes
Eat through the altar's sheaf of oats.
A Low Church mouse, who thinks that I
Am too papistical, and High,
Yet somehow doesn't think it wrong
To munch through Harvest Evensong,
While I, who starve the whole year through,
Must share my food with rodents who
Except at this time of the year
Not once inside the church appear.
Within the human world I know
Such goings-on could not be so,
For human beings only do
What their religion tells them to.
They read the Bible every day
And always, night and morning, pray,
And just like me, the good church mouse,
Worship each week in God's own house,
But all the same it's strange to me
How very full the church can be
With people I don't see at all
Except at Harvest Festival.
Dr Laura Schlessinger is a US radio personality, who dispenses advice to people who call in to her radio show. In 2000, she said that, as an observant Orthodox Jew, homosexuality is an abomination, according to Leviticus 18:22, and cannot be condoned in any circumstances. The following ironic response is an open letter to Dr Schlessinger which was posted on the internet.
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination:... End of debate.
I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God's Laws and how to follow them.
- Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?
- I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
- I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Leviticus 15:19-24). The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
- When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord (Leviticus1:9). The problem is, my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
- I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?
- A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Leviticus 11:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this? Are there 'degrees' of abomination?
- Leviticus 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle-room here?
- Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Leviticus 19:27. How should they die?
- I know from Leviticus 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
- My uncle has a farm. He violates Leviticus 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? (Leviticus 24:10-16).
Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Leviticus 20:14).
I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.
Your adoring fan,
Travelling overland back to England from Abu Dhabi in early April 1964, I entrusted most of my personal effects to the warden of the youth hostel in Thessalonika (I had already entrusted much of the money I'd earned in Abu Dhabi to a currency swindler in Constantinople) and hitch-hiked southwards to spend a few days in Athens, planning to collect the belongings at a later date.
I never did reclaim them, but stumbled instead into the most kaleidoscopic mix of technicolour personalities and events ever before or afterwards to be experienced, compared with which much else of my life has been a pale shadow on the wall of a Platonic cave...
I was just 19, already entranced by the philosophy and culture of classical Greece, from my own reading and from vigorous late-evening discussions with Chris Kendall, by the light of a fitful paraffin lamp in a tent pitched in various lonely corners of the Trucial States.
But amongst all the emotional turbulence was a deep and lasting impression made by an allegorical poem I came across, by an obscure, rather seedy-looking Greek civil servant by the anglicised name of Cavafy, based on Odysseus' lengthy journey home to the island of Ithaca after the siege of Troy, as recounted in Homer's epic poem the Odyssey.
Cavafy, properly known as Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis (1863 – 1933), and more accurately described as Alexandrian, was once characterised as "a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe." And the poem should properly be written as Ithaka, to reflect the un-anglicised name of the island.
A fascinating book I acquired a good few years ago, and which I will hopefully one day find time to read in full, is Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey: A Biography, by Alberto Manguel, publ by Atlantic Books, London 2007.
But meanwhile here are two rather differently worded versions, both with great merit. The first version is the one I was so impressed by in Athens all those years ago, and here I am now, rapidly closing in on Ithaca myself.
Version translated by George Valassopoulo 1924:
When you start on the way to Ithaca,
wish that the way be long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Laestrygones and the Cyclopes
and angry Poseidon, do not fear:
such, on your way, you shall never meet
if your thoughts are lofty, if a noble
emotion touch your mind, your body.
The Laestrygones and the Cyclopes
and angry Poseidon you shall not meet
if you carry them not in your soul,
if your soul sets them not up before you.
Wish that the way be long,
that on many summer mornings,
with great pleasure, great delight,
you enter harbours for the first time seen;
that you stop at Phoenician marts,
and procure the goodly merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and corals, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
plenty of sensual perfumes especially;
to wend your way to many Egyptian cities,
to learn and yet to learn from the wise.
Ever keep Ithaca in your mind,
your return thither is your goal.
But do not hasten at all your voyage,
better that it last for many years;
And full of years at length you anchor at your isle
rich with all that you gained on the way;
do not expect Ithaca to give you riches.
Ithaca gave you your fair voyage.
Without her you would not have ventured on the way.
But she has no more to give you.
And if you find Ithaca a poor place,
she has not mocked you.
You have become so wise, so full of experience
that you should understand already what
these Ithacas mean.
Authorised version translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard 1992:
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – don't be afraid of them:
you'll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon – you won't encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbours seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind –
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
At some now unidentifiable moment and location in the early or mid 1960's, in a retrospectively eerie re-run of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's experience a century earlier, my attention was somehow guided to a small, almost insignificant, red mock-leather pocket-edition of verse from a box of oddments outside a second-hand bookshop, whether in Chichester or Bloomsbury.
It was a reprint of the 1859 first edition of Edward FitzGerald's masterpiece, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The seductive rhythms of its quatrains, the vivid imagery of an exotic Middle Eastern culture (that even then was fast disappearing and now is either tearing itself apart or threatening to do so to the rest of us), the exquisite precision and economy of its text, and above all the pinpoint correspondence with my own outlook on life at that time – of a world devoid of meaning or purpose, that was progressing with a remorseless inevitability from the first morning of creation until the last dawn of reckoning, the last syllable of unrecorded time – there being of course no great Record Keeper...
My own pessimism as to Life, the Universe and Everything has evolved to a cautious optimism since that time, but my admiration, and indeed ardour, for the Rubaiyat has continued undiminished. The metaphysics it expresses are ascribed to Khayyam, a historical figure, a mathematician and astronomer of some repute, and can be consulted in the original Persian, but literal translations into English reveal them to be rather pedestrian. It was FitzGerald, especially in his first translation, who gave them wings that take them into the eternal empyrean of English literature.
Khayyam would have received short shrift from most quarters of Islam today – his atheism, or at least agnosticism, his fondness for wine and meat, and his partiality to nubile females unaccompanied by their fathers or brothers. FitzGerald himself was seriously agnostic, an abstainer from wine and indeed anything stronger than water, a vegetarian or even fructarian, and a closet homosexual (as were so many in those intolerant times).
But great works of art, music and literature can transcend the shortcomings or idiosyncrasies of their creators – who are merely conduits for something transmitted from Elsewhere – and we the appreciators of their creations don't have to agree or sympathise in the slightest degree with their politics, religion or sexuality (Mozart's (alleged) Leck mich im Arsch comes readily to mind – even if he didn't write it, he could have readily done so).
Turning now to the creative nitty gritty, how did eleventh/twelfth century Omar Khayyam, a Persian polymath, make contact with the nineteenth century poet Edward FitzGerald, an Anglo-Irishman?
It all seems to have started with the visit of a 15-year-old boy's visit to an East Anglian public library and his discovery there of a moth-eaten primer of Persian grammar, from which he became self-taught in classical Persian, and ultimately the first University of Cambridge Professor of Sanskrit. In 1844, at the still tender age of 18, however, Edward Byles Cowell (23 Jan 1826 – 9 Feb 1903) was introduced to the 35-year-old Oxford graduate and poetical recluse Edward Fitzgerald (31 Mar 1809 – 14 Jun 1883). Though their relationship was impeccably respectable, there now seems little doubt that Fitzgerald was emotionally attracted to the young prodigy, who tutored him successively in Spanish, Persian (from 1852 onwards) and Classical Greek. FitzGerald would subsequently publish in all three languages, but it is of course his inspired remoulding of a disparate set of quatrains attributed to the eleventh century Omar Khayyam (1048–1131) that would bring him fame.
Yes, you may say, but how had these quatrains (and there were a lot of them, hundreds in fact, many of dubious provenance), come to his attention in the first place?
To quote from Encyclopedia Iranica
"... In 1852 he published Polonius: A Collection of Wise Saws and Modern Instances, an anthology of aphorisms, some original but most culled from his very wide reading. This interest in aphorism, in concisely epigrammatic and memorable language that felicitously illustrates a general maxim, was one of the major reasons for FitzGerald's later receptiveness to Khayyam's poetry"
"... In 1856 Cowell left to take up an academic post in India; his parting present to FitzGerald was a copy he had made of a manuscript, in the Bodleian Library Oxford, of quatrains by Omar Khayyam. From Calcutta he sent FitzGerald a copy of a second manuscript. FitzGerald began to read and translate from the poems, reporting to Cowell on his progress in frequent letters, and asking many questions concerning scansion, possible errors in the texts, syntactical difficulties and so forth. The translation was clearly his way of being close to his absent friend and mentor (see for example the opening of his letter of Feb 1857)."
"... FitzGerald fundamentally changes the formal status of Khayyam's poems; these are discrete entities in Persian, but FitzGerald strings them into a continuous narrative. As he wrote to Cowell, "I see how a very pretty Eclogue might be tesselated out of his scattered Quatrains"; FitzGerald's quatrains take the reader through the day of a quietist skeptic whose solace for the sorrows of the world is the carpe diem pleasures of drinking and like-minded companionship. Inserted into this narrative is the Episode of the Pots in which pots brood on the inscrutability and apparent injustices of fate. FitzGerald emphasizes the religious skepticism he found in Khayyam and rejects all notions of a sufi interpretation of the poems."
"... The success of FitzGerald's translation, as English poetry, comes partly from his adoption of the Persian rhyme scheme (aaba), and from his relatively rigid metrical habits. Metrical regularity is used to convey a sense of ineluctable law, while the returning final rhyme functions as a last emphatic underlining of the insight offered. The sense of inescapable certainty this gives the verse is used to convey a content of great metaphysical uncertainty, and this, together with the work's surface exoticism for a Victorian audience, largely accounts for the very distinctive and paradoxical atmosphere of the poem; FitzGerald is saying with absolute conviction that no convictions can be absolute."
As regards the fourth of these passages, I see a sort of generic Victorian kinship with the five-line limericks of Edward Lear's Book of Nonsense (though his were pretty poor specimens, the last line simply echoing the first, his imitators soon sharpened up the genre):
There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, 'It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!
and the Gardener's six-line ditties (which can be sung to the tune of "I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat") from Lewis Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno:
He thought he saw a Rattlesnake
That questioned him in Greek:
He looked again, and found it was
The Middle of Next Week.
'The one thing I regret,' he said,
'Is that it cannot speak!'
but that's just off the record. Click here to seen the the 75 stanzas of the first edition in 1859 (coincidentally the year in which Darwin published The Origin of Species, another catalyst of religious scepticism in even the devoutest breast).
And click here if you'd like to see the full-on version of that edition, the meat and potatoes, which includes a great deal of inessential preliminary stuff contributed by the 'Reviewer', aka Edward Byles Cowell.
There seems to have been, and continue to be, a vast outpouring of publications relating to FitzGerald, his life and his versions of the Rubaiyat. Itemised below are the ones I've looked at and (mostly) found useful in connection with his first (1859) translation that seized my imagination as a teenager and has not in any way relaxed its grip since then.
- Edward Byles Cowell $
- Dick Davis – Iranica $
- William Aldis Wright $
- Dick Sullivan
- William Edward Armytage Axon $
Click here to access an excellent digitisation of The Calcutta Review, Vol XXX (January – June 1858), No. LIX (March 1858). Under the index heading of (ART.V) Omar Khayyam, The Astronomer-Poet of Persia, pp149-162 appears the misleading item "L'Algébre d'Omar al Khayyaimi et accompagnée d'extrait de MSS inédits (en Arabe)"
Fortunately those pages do indeed contain the article by Edward Byles Cowell...
... which gives an account of Omar Khayyam's relatively uneventful life as mathematician and poet, and remarks that his mathematical side preserved him from the empty versification of the poetasters, while his poetic side humanised the arid certainties of arithmetic and algebra (a reminder of the 'poet and mathematician' whose mutually buttressed abilities make him such a formidable adversary in Poe's The Purloined Letter). Cowell also asserts that the mechanistic view of Nature's workings, as per Omar's study of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, had created a spiritual void within his soul, a nihilism, that only Christianity could have assuaged. That of course is a highly contentious, and indeed dangerous, point of view to adopt.
It is exceedingly inadvisable these days – as it was in the time of Henry VIII in England, but now on a global scale – to adopt any political or religious position that irrationally angers a ferocious opposition. I'm not particularly anxious to upset anybody whose murderous susceptibilities are on a hair trigger, so I'm happy to be seen as a neutral observer.
(But, like Terry Pratchett, I think that humans have totally messed-up their belief-systems and that the God of Rats should be given a chance to effect a synthesis, although the White Mice might have to be consulted first, as per Douglas Adams.)
The essay by Dick Davis, himself a poet of renown, is by far the most perceptive, informative, complete and authoritative account of Edward FitzGerald as poet and translator that I've come across on the internet. Read this even if you don't read the others.
The remaining three references together provide a well-rounded account of the details of FitzGerald's family background and his bizarre upbringing, and the rather odd but lovable character that he became. Axon's narrative does bang on about his subject's vegetarian issues, but this becomes understandable when we read Wikipedia's article about Axon himself!
Earlier this month (Sep 2019), I was deputed to read, one Sunday morning, a short but punchy passage relating to a particular issue, and my wife suggested that a text from Kahlil Gibran's masterwork The Prophet would be ideal. And so...
I won't say that it had them jiving in the aisles, but at least they didn't throw anything, though one of the Elders did say afterwards that yes, The Prophet had been quite popular "back in the 1960's".
Well, spookily, that was precisely the time when I'd first encountered Kahlil Gibran myself. In early April 1964, as previously mentioned, I had started to travel overland back to England from Abu Dhabi. I was cheating slightly by first flying to Beirut (at a cost of £20, a substantial fraction of my earnings) but had absolutely no game-plan for thereafter, and was ambling past the airport taxi-ranks when there was a cry "Hey meester, where you going?" from a short, plump and not too excessively sinister cabbie. "England", I replied snootily, to which he responded "You like to see Lebanon first, three days, special price, only five pounds?"
I jumped at the offer, and he was as good as his word, not once trying to rob me, murder me, or molest me. He said it was a holiday for him too, and he drove me everywhere to see everything, and arranged free accommodation every night. He showed me the fleshpots of Beirut, the Roman ruins at Baalbek, the iconic Cedars, and the grave of Kahlil Gibran. At every stop he took Polaroid instant photographs, of which I still have quite a few – in one of which I contemplated a metal plaque to KG's memory beside a seriously craggy mountain road (following a cry of "Hey Robeen, you want to see place of great Lebanon poet?") and that's all there was at that time, though of course as the 60's progressed the whole thing would have mushroomed.
And just over three years later (Dec 1967), at Kensington Old Church, Sonia Kaulback and I listened intently as J Leighton Thompson, the presiding clergyman at our wedding, read aloud at her special request the famous passage "On Marriage" from The Prophet.
On MarriageThen Almitra spoke again and said,
And he answered saying:
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.
Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.
Good stuff. Even I, though adamantly averse to any sort of high-flown religiosity, could not have objected to it, and of course I wouldn't have dared anyway!
But, as you may clamour, who on earth was this foreign poet cum philosopher, of whom over 50 years later we (ie you, and indeed me) know so little? Refreshingly, he was a Maronite Christian by birth, although like William Blake (an Anglican by baptism) he took an apocalyptic vision of religious truth in his writings and images.
For a very detailed account of his life and writings, please click on the link below.
But for a quicker snapshot, read on.
Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet:
Why is it so loved?
By Shoku Amirani & Stephanie Hegarty,
BBC World Service, 12 May 2012
Kahlil Gibran in his youth
Kahlil Gibran is said to be one of the world's bestselling poets, and his life has inspired a play touring the UK and the Middle East. But many critics have been lukewarm about his merits. Why, then, has his seminal work, The Prophet, struck such a chord with generations of readers?
Since it was published in 1923, The Prophet has never been out of print. The perennial classic has been translated into more than 50 languages and is a staple on international best-seller lists. It is thought to have sold tens of millions of copies.
Although practically ignored by the literary establishment in the West, lines from the book have inspired song lyrics, political speeches and have been read out at weddings and funerals all around the world.
"It serves various occasions or big moments in one's life so it tends to be a book that is often gifted to a lover, or for a birth, or death. That is why it has spread so widely, and by word of mouth," says Dr Mohamed Salah Omri, lecturer in Modern Arabic literature at Oxford University.
The Beatles, John F Kennedy and Indira Gandhi are among those who have been influenced by its words.
"This book has a way of speaking to people at different stages in their lives. It has this magical quality, the more you read it the more you come to understand the words," says Reverend Laurie Sue, an interfaith minister in New York who has conducted hundreds of weddings with readings from The Prophet.
"But it is not filled with any kind of dogma, it is available to anyone whether they are Jewish or Christian or Muslim."
The book is made up of 26 prose poems, delivered as sermons by a wise man called Al Mustapha. He is about to set sail for his homeland after 12 years in exile on a fictional island when the people of the island ask him to share his wisdom on the big questions of life: love, family, work and death.
Its popularity peaked in the 1930s and again in the 1960s when it became the bible of the counter culture.
On marriage: "Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup."
On children: "Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself."
On beauty: "Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror. But you are eternity and you are the mirror."
"Many people turned away from the establishment of the Church to Gibran," says Professor Juan Cole, historian of the Middle East at the University of Michigan who has translated several of Gibran's works from Arabic.
"He offered a dogma-free universal spiritualism as opposed to orthodox religion, and his vision of the spiritual was not moralistic. In fact, he urged people to be non-judgmental."
Despite the immense popularity of his writing, or perhaps because of it, The Prophet was panned by many critics in the West who thought it simplistic, naive and lacking in substance.
"In the West, he was not added to the canon of English literature," says Cole. "Even though his major works were in English after 1918, and though he is one of bestselling poets in American history, he was disdained by English professors."
Gibran sketched the Prophet after a dream
"He was looked down upon as, frankly, a 'bubblehead' by Western academics, because he appealed to the masses. I think he has been misunderstood in the West. He is certainly not a bubblehead, in fact his writings in Arabic are in a very sophisticated style.
"There is no doubt he deserves a place in the Western canon. It is strange to teach English literature and ignore a literary phenomenon."
Gibran was a painter as well as a writer by training and was schooled in the symbolist tradition in Paris in 1908. He mixed with the intellectual elite of his time, including figures such as W B Yeats, Carl Jung and August Rodin, all of whom he met and painted.
Symbolists such as Rodin and the English poet and artist William Blake, who was a big influence on Gibran, favoured romance over realism and it was a movement that was already passé in the 1920s as modernists such as T S Eliot and Ezra Pound were gaining popularity.
He painted more than 700 pictures, watercolours and drawings but because most of his paintings were shipped back to Lebanon after his death, they have been overlooked in the West.
Professor Suheil Bushrui, who holds the Kahlil Gibran chair for Values and Peace at the University of Maryland, compares Gibran to the English Romantics such as Shelley and Blake, and he says that like Gibran, Blake was dismissed in his own time.
"He was called 'mad Blake'. He is now a major figure in English literature. So the fact that a writer is not taken seriously by the critics is no indication of the value of the work".
In Lebanon, where he was born, he is still celebrated as a literary hero.
His style, which broke away from the classical school, pioneered a new Romantic movement in Arabic literature of poetic prose.
A poet's life
- Born to Maronite Catholic family in Lebanon, 1883
- Moves to US aged 12 with mother and siblings after father imprisoned for embezzlement
- Settles in South Boston's Lebanese community
- Clerical error at school registers his name as Kahlil, not Khalil
- He was a talented pupil and came to the attention of local artist and photographer Fred Holland Day
- Returns to Lebanon at 15 to study Arabic
- Soon after, he lost his mother, sister and brother to TB and cancer within months of each other
- Back in the US in 1904, he meets Mary Haskell
- In 1908, goes to Paris for two years to study art in the symbolist school
- First book of poetry published in 1918, then The Prophet five years later
- Dies in 1931 from cirrhosis of the liver and TB
- Inspires a play Rest Upon the Wind, which tours UK and Middle East in 2012
"We are talking about a renaissance in modern Arabic literature and this renaissance had at its foundation Gibran's writings," says Professor Suheil Bushrui, who holds the Kahlil Gibran Chair for Values and Peace at the University of Maryland.
In the Arab world, Gibran is regarded as a rebel, both in a literary and political sense. He emigrated to the US at 12 but returned to study in Lebanon three years later where he witnessed injustices suffered by peasants at the hands of their Ottoman rulers.
"He was a Christian but he saw things being done in the name of Christianity which he could not accept," says Bushrui.
In his writing, he raged against the oppression of women and the tyranny of the Church and called for freedom from Ottoman rule.
"What he was doing was revolutionary and there were protests against it in the Arab world," says Juan Cole. "So he is viewed in Arabic literature as an innovator, not dissimilar to someone like W B Yeats in the West."
Gibran the painter created more than 700 works, including this one of his family
Political leaders considered his thoughts poisonous to young people and one of his books, Spirit Rebellious, was burnt in the market place in Beirut soon after it was published.
By the 1930s, Gibran had become a prominent and charismatic figure within the Lebanese community and New York literary circles.
But the success of his writing in English owes much to a woman called Mary Haskell, a progressive Boston school headmistress who became his patron and confidante as well as his editor.
Haskell supported him financially throughout his career until the publication of The Prophet in 1923.
Their relationship developed into a love affair and although Gibran proposed to her twice, they never married.
Haskell's conservative family at that time would never have accepted her marrying an immigrant, says Jean Gibran, who married Kahlil Gibran's godson and his namesake and dedicated five years to writing a biography of the writer.
In their book, Jean Gibran and her late husband didn't shy away from the less favourable aspects of the Gibran's character. He was, they admit, known to cultivate his own celebrity.
He even went so far as to create a mythology around himself and made pretensions to a noble lineage.
But Jean Gibran says that he never claimed to be a saint or prophet. "As a poor but proud immigrant amongst Boston's elite, he didn't want people to look down on him. He was a fragile human being and aware of his own weaknesses."
But arguably for Gibran's English readers, none of this mattered much.
"I don't know how many people who picked up The Prophet, read it or gifted it, would actually know about Gibran the man or even want to know," says Dr Mohamed Salah Omri.
"Part of the appeal is perhaps that this book could have been written by anybody and that is what we do with scripture. It just is."
I'd like to read more of Gibran, not so much about him personally but of what he had to say – especially in The Prophet. Was he simply a soothing phrase-maker with an exceptional gift for vivid poetic metaphor, or was there more to him? Could he stand comparison with the King James Bible in profundity and passion?
A Vision of Judgment
At the age of about 12 or 13, I cautiously approached my mother Katie for 13/6d, which I carefully explained would only be a loan, and I would pay it back. I'd seen an anthology of H G Wells short stories in the Sloane Street bookshop, and was desperate to acquire it. She demurred, saying it was a lot of money, and we could get it more cheaply via G Blunt & Sons (which was probably true, but involved a lengthy and embarrassing kerfuffle). Then she suddenly brightened and exclaimed "But we've already got it!" And it was true! Though I can't imagine how it got there, or how she knew, as she didn't read much, and my father only read books of political history, it was on an upper shelf of the bookcase in what was at that time referred to as the drawing room.
And so it effectively passed into my possession. H G Wells, who died the year after I was born, was already eclipsed by later events as a prophet of scientific and social progress – which is of course the hallmark of a successful prophet. He had even predicted the advent of nuclear power and nuclear bombs way back in 1914, in his novel The World Set Free.
Like Isaac Asimov, in many ways his intellectual heir, Wells focussed on ideas rather than literary style. His longer works tended to be long-winded (with the notable exceptions of Kipps and the History of Mr Polly), but in the short stories he was without equal, whether then or now. They have provided me with a lifetime of mental stimulus – indeed not long afterwards, following Katie's rather ill-judged deviation from the strait and narrow, I took the short stories with me when dumped on relatives who took me with them on a tour of Switzerland, and to their great chagrin I much preferred the stories to the endless vistas of immaculate scenery!
As in the story reproduced below, Wells often introduced a chirpy Londoner, a Little Man, to provide a benchmark of the effects of cataclysmic events on the man in the street. And what could be more cataclysmic for all concerned than the end of the world and the Last Judgment?
Some five or six years earlier I had myself experienced a vision, an extraordinarily vivid dream, of Heaven. I can still see it with the inner eye, and it's remarkably like the Albert Hall as seen from the topmost tier of ‘the gods'. Whether it was just an ordinary day in Heaven, or a special event, I don't know. Nothing to do with the Day of Judgment, perhaps. In fact I'm still pretty confused about the precise sequence of events – Armageddon (probably an Iranian attempt at a show-down with Israel), then a Day of Judgment (sheep to the right, goats to the left, Nazis and Bolsheviks straight down the chute into the bubbling sulphur), then maybe Heaven. But whose?
Wells opts for a fresh start for humanity, rather like 19th century transported English convicts getting a second chance in Australia. And of all the other possibilities of reincarnation, transmigration, or fannying around with harps on a cloud, I'd go with Wells. God willing, of course.
STORY THE THIRD
A Vision of Judgment
I listened, not understanding.
"Good Lord!" said I, still only half awake. "What an infernal shindy!"
"It's enough," said I, "to wake –" and stopped short. Where was I?
Ta-rra-rara – louder and louder.
"It's either some new invention –"
"No," said I, speaking loud in order to hear myself. "That's the Last Trump."
The last note jerked me out of my grave like a hooked minnow.
I saw my monument (rather a mean little affair, and I wished I knew who'd done it), and the old elm tree and the sea view vanished like a puff of steam, and then all about me – a multitude no man could number, nations, tongues, kingdoms, peoples – children of all the ages, in an amphitheatral space as vast as the sky. And over against us, seated on a throne of dazzling white cloud, the Lord God and all the host of his angels. I recognised Azrael by his darkness and Michael by his sword, and the great angel who had blown the trumpet stood with the trumpet still half raised.
"Prompt," said the little man beside me. "Very prompt. Do you see the angel with the book?"
He was ducking and craning his head about to see over and under and between the souls that crowded round us. "Everybody's here," he said. "Everybody. And now we shall know –
"There's Darwin," he said, going off at a tangent. "He'll catch it!
And there – you see? – that tall, important-looking man trying to catch the eye of the Lord God, that's the Duke. But there's a lot of people one doesn't know.
"Oh! there's Priggles, the publisher. I have always wondered about printers' overs. Priggles was a clever man:... But we shall know now – even about him.
"I shall hear all that. I shall get most of the fun before:... My letter's S."
He drew the air in between his teeth.
"Historical characters, too. See? That's Henry the Eighth. There'll be a good bit of evidence. Oh, damn! He's Tudor."
He lowered his voice. "Notice this chap, just in front of us, all covered with hair. Paleolithic, you know. And there again –"
But I did not heed him, because I was looking at the Lord God.
"Is this all?" asked the Lord God.
The angel at the book – it was one of countless volumes, like the British Museum Reading-room Catalogue, glanced at us and seemed to count us in the instant.
"That's all," he said, and added: "It was, O God, a very little planet." The eyes of God surveyed us.
"Let us begin," said the Lord God.
The angel opened the book and read a name. It was a name full of A's, and the echoes of it came back out of the uttermost parts of space. I did not catch it clearly, because the little man beside me said, in a sharp jerk, "What's that?" It sounded like "Ahab" to me; but it could not have been the Ahab of Scripture.
Instantly a small black figure was lifted up to a puffy cloud at the very feet of God. It was a stiff little figure, dressed in rich outlandish robes and crowned, and it folded its arms and scowled.
"Well?" said God, looking down at him.
We were privileged to hear the reply, and indeed the acoustic properties of the place were marvellous.
"I plead guilty," said the little figure.
"Tell them what you have done," said the Lord God.
"I was a king," said the little figure, "a great king, and I was lustful and proud and cruel. I made wars, I devastated countries, I built palaces, and the mortar was the blood of men. Hear, O God, the witnesses against me, calling to you for vengeance. Hundreds and thousands of witnesses." He waved his hands towards us. "And worse! I took a prophet – one of your prophets –"
"One of my prophets," said the Lord God.
"And because he would not bow to me, I tortured him for four days and nights, and in the end he died. I did more, O God, I blasphemed. I robbed you of your honours –"
"Robbed me of my honours," said the Lord God.
"I caused myself to be worshipped in your stead. No evil was there but I practised it; no cruelty wherewith I did not stain my soul. And at last you smote me, O God!"
God raised his eyebrows slightly.
"And I was slain in battle. And so I stand before you, meet for your nethermost Hell! Out of your greatness daring no lies, daring no pleas, but telling the truth of my iniquities before all mankind."
He ceased. His face I saw distinctly, and it seemed to me white and terrible and proud and strangely noble. I thought of Milton's Satan.
"Most of that is from the Obelisk," said the Recording Angel, finger on page.
"It is," said the Tyrannous Man, with a faint touch of surprise. Then suddenly God bent forward and took this man in his hand, and held him up on his palm as if to see him better. He was just a little dark stroke in the middle of God's palm.
"Did he do all this?" said the Lord God.
The Recording Angel flattened his book with his hand.
"In a way," said the Recording Angel, carelessly. Now when I looked again at the little man his face had changed in a very curious manner. He was looking at the Recording Angel with a strange apprehension in his eyes, and one hand fluttered to his mouth. Just the movement of a muscle or so, and all that dignity of defiance was gone.
"Read," said the Lord God.
And the angel read, explaining very carefully and fully all the wickedness of the Wicked Man. It was quite an intellectual treat.– A little "daring" in places, I thought, but of course Heaven has its privileges...
Everybody was laughing. Even the prophet of the Lord whom the Wicked Man had tortured had a smile on his face. The Wicked Man was really such a preposterous little fellow.
"And then," read the Recording Angel, with a smile that set us all agog, "one day, when he was a little irascible from over-eating, he –"
"Oh, not that," cried the Wicked Man, "nobody knew of that.
"It didn't happen," screamed the Wicked Man. "I was bad – I was really bad. Frequently bad, but there was nothing so silly – so absolutely silly –"
The angel went on reading.
"O God!" cried the Wicked Man. "Don't let them know that! I'll repent! I'll apologise..."
The Wicked Man on God's hand began to dance and weep. Suddenly shame overcame him. He made a wild rush to jump off the ball of God's little finger, but God stopped him by a dexterous turn of the wrist. Then he made a rush for the gap between hand and thumb, but the thumb closed. And all the while the angel went on reading – reading. The Wicked Man rushed to and fro across God's palm, and then suddenly turned about and fled up the sleeve of God.
I expected God would turn him out, but the mercy of God is infinite. The Recording Angel paused.
"Eh?" said the Recording Angel.
"Next," said God, and before the Recording Angel could call the name a hairy creature in filthy rags stood upon God's palm.
"Has God got Hell up his sleeve then?" said the little man beside me. "Is there a Hell?" I asked.
"If you notice," he said – he peered between the feet of the great angels –
"there's no particular indication of a Celestial City."
"'Ssh!" said a little woman near us, scowling. "Hear this blessed Saint!"
"He was Lord of the Earth, but I was the prophet of the God of Heaven," cried the Saint, "and all the people marvelled at the sign. For I, O God, knew of the glories of thy Paradise. No pain, no hardship, gashing with knives, splinters thrust under my nails, strips of flesh flayed off, all for the glory and honour of God."
"And at last I went, I in my rags and sores, smelling of my holy discomforts –"
Gabriel laughed abruptly.
"And lay outside his gates, as a sign, as a wonder –"
"As a perfect nuisance," said the Recording Angel, and began to read, heedless of the fact that the saint was still speaking of the gloriously unpleasant things he had done that Paradise might be his.
And behold, in that book the record of the Saint also was a revelation, a marvel.
It seemed not ten seconds before the Saint also was rushing to and fro over the great palm of God. Not ten seconds! And at last he also shrieked beneath that pitiless and cynical exposition, and fled also, even as the Wicked Man had fled, into the shadow of the sleeve. And it was permitted us to see into the shadow of the sleeve. And the two sat side by side, stark of all delusions, in the shadow of the robe of God's charity, like brothers.
And thither also I fled in my turn.
"And now," said God, as he shook us out of his sleeve upon the planet he had given us to live upon, the planet that whirled about green Sirius for a sun, "now that you understand me and each other a little better,...try again."
Then he and his great angels turned themselves about and suddenly had vanished...
The Throne had vanished.
All about me was a beautiful land, more beautiful than any I had ever seen before – waste, austere, and wonderful; and all about me were the enlightened souls of men in new clean bodies:...
No, not a typ% (or mirpsint) relating to the most famous maths theorem ever (though in fact it was also an alternative to Euclid's famous geometric Fifth Postulate, in which role it was more of a statement of mensurational faith).
I'm referring in fact to the central creed of the Pythagorean Brotherhood, that "All is Number" – though it's surprising infeasible to find how that was said in the original Greek, or much else about it. They were a wacky lot (for example, they refused to eat beans, as the shape of beans reminded them of testicles). A huge mythology has grown up around Pythagoras (and his followers) and much may be incorrectly attributed to them collectively.
But that doesn't matter – this assertion expresses perfectly my own conviction that not only does number express how the world (ie universe) works, it actually constitutes the very bodily essence of us and the substance of everything around us. We are number, the very cosmos itself is number.
Number, no added vitamins, just honest-to-goodness Number. I'll elaborate on that further down.
In another challenging statement, just as obscure if not more so, the first sentence of St John's Gospel famously proclaims "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
And since first hearing it read in church as a boy, I've always thought it was entirely implausible – how could words, let alone just one Word, be enabled to create the world?
Space and Time shuffled his feet, muttering apologies, and asked if he could try a triffic new release of GenRel? Matter, not to be outdone, expressed contrition for his part in the previous debacle, and asked if the very latest version of QuantMech would meet with His approval?
"OK, OK," said Michael wearily, "but make By-Our-Lady sure they're fully compatible this time. Or else," he added, "you wouldn't Adam and Eve wot a narsty wicked temper He's got if things go wrong again."
λόγος vs λέξις
The implication of "Word" as examined above is of course seriously unfair, and in digging a little deeper via respectable internet sources I've at last realised the real meaning of it – or at least an interpretation which makes sense.
John the Evangelist wrote his Gospel in Aramaic, the language of Christ himself, and it was later translated into Greek – and embellished with additional material – for the purpose of spreading his message further afield. But for present purposes let's focus on the translation from Greek to English.
From what word in Greek would the word "Word" in English be translated? In my role as T C Mits, I'd say "Logos". And that's indeed what seems to have been the case when the King James version was in progress.
But the word "logos" had a good many other meanings and usages in the highly sophisticated cultural life of the Graeco-Judaic world of Biblical times. One such meaning, but a very minor way, was indeed "word" – in the sense of a conventional sign, verbal or written, for something or another.
And the word used specifically for "word" in that sense was "lexis". But it was "logos" not "lexis" that the translators were faced with.
One of the most important sentences in the whole canon of Christian theology has been bungled, so it would seem to TCM. Its meaning has been lost in translation, into English at least. Of course theologians are fully aware of the intended meaning, but how many of the rest of us are? And all too many of us, natural ultracrepidarians, having found fault with the Sandal of Ambiguity proceed to rubbish the Toga of Truth. A large claim to make, but all too true in my own case.
So what are, in fact, these alternative meanings of "logos"?
- Originally, in everyday Ancient Greek usage, it could mean "ground", "plea", "opinion", "expectation", "word", "speech", "account", "reason", "proportion", and "discourse".
- But in their prolific schools of philosophy, the most compelling usages were those of Heraclitus, who used the term for a principle of order and knowledge, and Aristotle, who used it to refer to reasoned discourse.
- Aristotle's usage has of course come down to us as Logic, the rules of systematic thought and discourse (verbal or symbolic).
- Though Heraclitus' usage is just what we're looking for here - a template and process by which a concept could be defined and developed.
- But then John (or his proxy translator into Greek) came along and b*ggered it all up by identifying Christ as being the personification of Logos, and indeed identified with it. Had he forgotten that rather resonant divine rebuke to Job back in the Old Testament, "Where wast thou when I was laying the foundations of the earth?"
I go with Heraclitus, and with his interpretation I can indeed accept that "In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with Creator Mundi, and the Logos was Creator Mundi", and leave the nature of the Creator in the realm of perpetual mystery.
On a more human scale, Heraclitus' usage is nicely illustrated by the topic of logarithms, which struck terror into the hearts of most of us back in the mid 1950's. Progressive thinking has abolished them, as "calculators can do all that arithmetical drudgery", but of course they reassert themselves in the hard sciences. "Logarithm" is a portmanteau word, combining "Logos" = process, and "Arithmos" = number, signifying the power of a process to multiply and divide numbers of all magnitudes.
In everyday usage, however, the ambiguity remains – we would all understand "a logophile frequently consults his lexicon" as meaning "a word-lover often uses his dictionary" or that a lexicographer is a compiler of dictionaries.
As mentioned in the section Faith, Hope and Clarity above, it is now over 20 years since I was persuaded to attend an Alpha course being presented at an evangelical church in Reading. And curiously coincidental that Nicky Gumbel, the progenitor of the course, was based at Holy Trinity Brompton, the church in Kensington that I attended as an earnest seeker after truth in my early teens. Indeed he's now the vicar there.
The course was very well-meaning, but entirely unpersuasive – it begged all the questions that it purported to answer, and therefore failed to resolve them. But it did awake me from my dogmatic slumber, and I started to think once again about, in particular,
1] How can an immaterial Creator be capable of thought?
2] How is he able to create a material cosmos?
Though of course there are lots of other niggles, secondary stuff (Origin of Life, Sin, Virgin Birth, Pain and Suffering, Miracles, Atonement, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Trinitarianism, Life after Death, the usual things that have bothered us all over the last couple of millennia, and over which such quantities of ink and blood have been spilt to no effect).
It could be debated as to whether theology is a subset of physics, or physics is a subset of theology. Werner Heisenberg is (controversially) said to have remarked "The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you." But I firmly believe that Questions  and  are strictly a matter of physics – and that the God to whom Heisenberg referred could equally well have been Einstein's "Der Alte", totally impersonal and utterly indifferent to the existence of Homo SapiensA.
Creating the universe is definitely a Boy Job, and so I'll refer to Creator Mundi, whereas creating life on at least this planet, and quite possibly elsewhere, is undeniably Skirt Work, and so I'll refer to Creatrix Vitae. Should it turn out that they're one and the same, I'll refer to the Creatron, in compliance with current standards of political correctness.
These amateurish lucubrations have no claim to originality or profundity, and simply represent the best efforts of an elderly recluse, neurones in free fall, trying for a rationale of the seismic shifts in religious and cosmological opinion over the last three generations. Professionals can curl their lip, though they're not likely to be reading this in the first place, it's "Sauve qui peut" for beliefs these days and this is my private philosophical lifeboat!
Question  How can an immaterial Creator be capable of thought?
The human power of thought (or merely rearrangement of our prejudices, as it was once described) is inextricably dependent on our brain, a biochemical by-product of organic life. So it's beyond our powers of imagination for us to conceive of how else it could be possible (apart from its limited simulation by electronic artificial intelligence software) whether on earth or anywhere else.
In his novel The Black Cloud, the cosmologist Fred Hoyle did go part-way in this direction, but an intelligent cloud of interstellar hydrogen is still a long way from a being outside space and time altogether.
But just because we can't imagine something doesn't mean it can't exist. On the other hand, we mustn't fall into the trap of supposing that if we can imagine it then it must exist, as was the basis of an attempted proof of God's existence popularised by mediaeval Roman Catholic scholastics such as Thomas Aquinas. After all, where are the unicorns?
But without some agency (a deus ex machina as the ancient Greek dramatists liked to invoke), capable of devising the most extraordinarily intricate and fruitful laws of physics, how can our universe be explained? As "Paul Dirac remarked, "God is a mathematician of a very high order and He used very advanced mathematics in constructing the universe." And presumably very advanced mathematics can only originate from an entity capable of thought.
Like Stephen Fry in the QI programme, who would sepulchrally intone "Nobody knows" when an insoluble issue was under discussion, that's really all anyone can say.
Question  How is he able to create a material cosmos?
Richard Feynman once remarked
"If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms – little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied."
In 1990, the IBM logo and corporate motto were spelled out in individual xenon atoms on a single-crystal nickel substrate, using an STM (Scanning Tunnelling Microscope)
The notion of atoms was first conceived by Leucippus, popularised by Democritus, propounded by Newton, elaborated by Boscovich, extended by (Daniel) Bernoulli, Waterston, Maxwell et al to explain the nature of heat, and by Dalton to explain the laws of chemical combination. Complete respectability was finally conferred by Einstein in his explanation of Brownian motion.
The word "atom", implying indivisible, is actually a misnomer of course. More appropriate labels would have been "particle" (meaning a small part), or "corpuscle" (meaning a small body) or "molecule" (meaning a small mass), which feature the Latin suffix "culus" as diminutive. However, they have been put to work as particles meaning subatomic entities, corpuscles meaning Newtonian precursors of photons, and molecules meaning chemical combinations of atoms. Nothing has been wasted!
In the late 19th and early 20th century it was realised that, far from being indivisible, atoms actually comprised a number of different kinds of even smaller particles. And some of these smaller particles actually comprised even smaller particles!
Becquerel: alpha particle (helium nucleus), beta particle (electron), gamma particle (or ray)
J J Thompson: electron
Rutherford: nucleus (diminutive of nux = nut)
In particular, of course, nuclei consist of protons and neutrons in a bewildering number of combinations, and atoms primarily consist of nuclei and electrons.
Furthermore, subatomic particles obey laws of motion (quantum mechanics) remarkably different from the Newtonian laws established centuries earlier for macroscopic objects. But these new laws applied to the interactions between atomic nuclei and their retinue of electrons dramatically revealed the inner logic of the Periodic Table, and the reasons for chemical combination.
From the 1930's onwards, however, it became experimentally evident from the study of cosmic rays on the one hand and the development of increasingly powerful ground-level (or even underground) technology on the other, that the particles thus far discovered were only the first fruit of a bewildering proliferation of new and entirely unsuspected varieties (mostly of very short lifespans). It was all getting very, very complicated.
And from Dirac onwards, the relativistic theory of particle interactions with one another, and with radiation, known as QED (quantum electrodynamics), was becoming unimaginably complicated – Rutherford's criterion of a good theory being that you could explain it to an intelligent barmaid was by now long abandoned.
New categories of intranuclear force – the "weak force" (responsible for radioactivity) and the "strong force" (responsible for holding the nucleus together) – it does sound as though their job descriptions are somewhat at odds with each other – have been identified.
Electricity and magnetism, unified by Maxwell a century and a half ago, have been merged with the weak force and rebranded as the "electroweak" force. The strong force has yet to be merged, retaining its own job title as QCD (quantum chromodynamics).
There seems to be a new mantra, that not only does every particle have a field, but in addition, every field has a particle, and so on down the spiral staircase. Click here to see the currently-accepted roster of relatively stable fundamental particles (fermions) and their force-carriers (bosons)
In the first month or three of my 3 years in the Department of Theoretical Chemistry at the School of Chemical Sciences, University of East Anglia during the late 1960's, I mastered the rudiments of the semiclassical theory of electronic spectroscopy and optical activity, from the scanty selection of sources then available – I couldn't afford Eyring Walter& Kimball, and there was no helpful internet then. Absolutely no guidance from ones supervisor, of course.
The algebra was quite intricate, but didn't need anything tougher than A-level maths, and the exercise gave me confidence (which was sorely tried in the years that followed). The point is, however, that any higher level of rigour would have defeated me at that stage. How could any new graduate student possibly get off the ground with modern QED?
And the other point is that I'm deeply suspicious of all the fancy maths modern QED involves. As when a computer program gets too complicated, it's a sign that the enterprise is wrongly structured and should be abandoned in favour of something less elaborate. There's a very neat anecdote about von Neumann, though, which suggests that sufficient brainpower can win the day even if the going gets tough.
I wouldn't be at surprised, were I still around, if current approaches to QED were eventually to be seen as analogues of Ptolemaic deferents and epicycles upon epicycles, to be discarded and replaced by some visionary new Copernicus.
But getting to the point at last, what are all the fundamental entities in the Standard Model, fermions and bosons, actually made of? A naïve question, but somebody's got to ask.
If an infinite regression is to be avoided, the answer at some point has to be that they're not actually made of anything. I very strongly suspect that the leptons and the quarks are entities devoid of all size and substance, mathematical points in fact, but imbued with the properties appropriate to their category. Some properties are permanent (such as electric charge and spin) while others (such as mass and momentum) vary from instant to instant and from particle to particle, of course, depending on particular circumstances.
And of course the fundamental equations governing the interactions and motions of these mathematical points would be precisely as experimentally established over the last century or two by physicists who regarded these entities as very, very small, of course, but certainly not infinitesimal.
And if indeed the universe did erupt from a singularity, as is widely believed, there is absolutely no need to fret about its having been of infinite density (with all the contradictions that would involve), as any number of aboriginal mathematical points can be packed into a singularity.
Composite particles such as protons, neutrons and mesons are certainly not mathematical points, and do have a certain size of course, as they possess an inner structure arising from the interactions between their constituent quarks. But I suggest that they are nevertheless still just as insubstantial, or immaterialB, whichever adjective one might prefer.
And atomic nuclei, atoms, molecules – and stars, planets, tables and chairs, you and I, entities of whatever size, structure and complexity – are all ultimately constituted from pure Number.
So the age-old philosophical stand-off between an immaterial Creator and a material Creation, simply dissolves – the Creation is just as immaterialB as the Creator. At the moment of Creation, a torrent of Number erupted and took control of everything that has happened subsequently, precisely as Pythagoras and his bean-dodgers proclaimed 2½ millennia ago.
Rivalling the claims of Number and Word, however, is Harmony (as expressed by Dryden, for example, in his ode below), though Pythagoras himself was also fascinated by the close relationship between number and the harmonic ratios of pitch to tone. St Cecilia is of course the patron saint of music, and endured the usual painful death traditionally required for ultimate sanctification.
A SONG FOR ST. CECILIA'S DAY
John Dryden (1631-1700)
From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
When nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
'Arise, ye more than dead!'
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,
In order to their stations leap,
And Music's power obey.
From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in Man.
|A||One of the most influential books in my early teens was Idiot Man (translated from the original French, l'Homme Stupide), by Charles Richet, 1913 Nobel laureate in Medicine or Physiology, and well to the right of Attila the Hun as regards racial and ethical issues. He proposed, mostly persuasively, that Homo Sapiens be rebranded as Homo Stultus, in regard to mankind's indefatigable cruelty, stupidity and folly.
Somehow it eventually got mislaid, but here is his Introduction, which gives a flavour of his punchy assertive style.
Linné, essayant de classer en bon ordre les diverses formes vivantes qui peuplent notre planète, a appelé l'homme, lequel constitue évidemment une espèce animale distincte de toutes les autres: Homo sapiens, l'homme sage.
Mais un tel éloge est manifestement injustifié. Car l'homme accumule de si abondants exemples d'extraordinaire bêtise, qu'il faudrait, pour se conformer à la réalité des choses, le dénommer tout autrement, et dire Homo stultus, l'homme stupide.
Quand nous consentirons à employer une classification zoologique sérieuse, il faudra adopter ce terme.
Dans ce bref écrit, nous établirons, ou du moins nous tâcherons d'établir, que l'homme est inférieur à la plupart des espèces animales pour le bon sens et la sagesse. Il me paraît même que nous aurions le droit de le qualifier de homo stultissimus, l'homme stupidissime.
Cependant, pour être modéré, nous nous contenterons de lui donner, sans superlatif, l'épithète qui lui convient: Homo stultus, l'homme stupide, et nous donnerons les preuves de son immense et incurable stupidité.
L'auteur ne se fait aucune illusion sur le sort réservé à cet examen de conscience qui froissera, qui offensera les intellectuels aussi bien que le populaire et qui laissera à tous une impression douloureuse.
Oui! Nous le savons.
Donc, ô lecteur, qui que tu sois, intellectuel ou artisan, ce livre va troubler, fût-ce pour un instant, la bonne opinion que tu as de toi-même. Il ébranlera cette conviction intime, que tu es sage, prudent, raisonnable. C'est peu agréable de s'entendre dire qu'on est stupide, et e'est plus désagréable encore d'en recevoir la démonstration.
Mais il ne s'agit pas de présenter, à la manière de Watteau et de Florian, des bergers d'opéra. Les paysans de La Bruyère n'ont pas de houlettes enrubannées, et j'estime, avec le vieux maître, que toute vérité est bonne à dire, si amère et décourageante qu'elle soit.
The immaterialism in which I believe (and which many others may do too, I don't know), shouldn't be confused with that advocated by the renowned clergyman and philosopher George Berkeley. It's many a long decade since I used to read about such matters, but I think his standpoint to have been that our conscious mind is our only route to an apprehension of the world around us, and that our concepts of this world are merely a mental synthesis of the percepts that our senses transmit to us of it. Ergo, for us the world is no more than a notion, of no independent reality.
This immateriality must logically extend to our body, and most importantly our brain – the seat of reason and all our mental processes. Does this not saw off the philosophical branch on which we are sitting? I don't know, and am not going to let it bother me. Berkeley must have thought this through to his own satisfaction and that of posterity.
Of course, the Berkelian immateriality of the world around us doesn't insulate us from coming to harm. An immaterial person might tumble over the edge of an immaterial cliff and suffer immaterial, but terminal, injuries in consequence!
And an immaterial boot aimed at an immaterial stone would of course rebound. Samuel Johnson's famous attempt at a refutation of Berkeley's idea was of course a rare instance of nonsense from the formidable sage.
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- "I refute it thus."
Boswell: Life of Johnson
The name of this fallacy is derived from a famous incident in which Dr. Samuel Johnson claimed to disprove Bishop Berkeley's immaterialist philosophy (that there are no material objects, only minds and ideas in those minds) by kicking a large stone and asserting, "I refute it thus."
As a by-product of his immaterialism, Berkeley coined the famous phrase (more or less), 'Esse Percipi Est' – 'To be is to be perceived' (the battlecry of the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics). If you're not being observed you don't actually exist (Einstein plaintively enquired as to whether this principle applied to the moon: "Do you really believe that the moon isn't there when nobody looks?").
The Catholic priest and theologian Ronald Knox used the Esse Percipi principle as a humorous proof of the existence of God. The young man in the first limerick is clearly an Oxford undergraduate.
There was a young man who said "God
I myself am proud to be what professional philosophers sneeringly refer to as a Naïve Realist, it saves time and brain-power. And it does respond vigorously to the oft-quoted query, "If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"
We NRs point out that, on all occasions of falling timber, a shock-wave (an objective phenomenon) is produced, that is detected by the audiferous sense-organs of any passing squirrel, fox or human. And these each, separately and individually, experience the subjective epiphenomenon of sound, a purely personal mental effect, that is entirely superfluous to the reality of the shockwave, or the tree for that matter.
Whatever side one takes in this debate, the elephant in the room is that of precisely what is the nature of consciousness, whether vegetable, animal or human, and I'd also like to contribute my own three-ha'penceworth to this thorny issue.
Most of us, if pressed, would admit to conceptualising our conscious 'me-ness' as a little man (woman) sitting at our mental reception desk, scrutinising all our incoming perceptions and integrating them into our ongoing 'personal' awareness of the outside world.
This little man, better known as a gender-free homunculus, is effectively an epi-epiphenomenon, a construct to represent ourselves to ourselves, just as an epiphenomenon represents our perceptions incoming from the outside world. And it's a comfortable illusion, protecting ourselves from the rather repellent reality that basically we're just a bag of organic jelly in a bony cranium.
But, alas, it won't wash.
The homunculus argument is a fallacy arising most commonly in the theory of vision. One may explain human vision by noting that light from the outside world forms an image on the retinas in the eyes and something (or someone) in the brain looks at these images as if they are images on a movie screen (this theory of vision is sometimes termed the theory of the Cartesian theater: it is most associated, nowadays, with the psychologist David Marr). The question arises as to the nature of this internal viewer. The assumption here is that there is a "little man" or "homunculus" inside the brain "looking at" the movie.
The reason why this is a fallacy may be understood by asking how the homunculus "sees" the internal movie. The obvious answer is that there is another homunculus inside the first homunculus's "head" or "brain" looking at this "movie". But that raises the question of how this homunculus sees the "outside world". To answer that seems to require positing another homunculus inside this second homunculus's head, and so forth. In other words, a situation of infinite regress is created. The problem with the homunculus argument is that it tries to account for a phenomenon in terms of the very phenomenon that it is supposed to explain.
So is there an alternative explanation, or model, of what we think of as ourselves? For me, an insight gained from the six BBC Reith Lectures, entitled "The Mechanics of the Mind", given by Colin Blakemore in the autumn of 1976, gave me a satisfying notion of what is involved (though basically we are that bag of jelly, no escape from that).
To Be Continued.