Sunday 29 March 2015

Kierkegaard and The Exorcist

Kierkegaard is like The Exorcist. He makes Christianity heroic. 

I first came across Kierkegaard and The Exorcist when I was an undergraduate. Fear and Trembling came out in Penguin Classics and a friend, for some reason bought a copy and then lent it to me. The Exorcist was still banned back then in the 70s/80s, but someone had come across a copy and we watched it in a room full of students, from a distance quite far away. The video cassette presented a quite atrocious copy of the film, but it didn’t matter.   Both of these events, reading Fear and Trembling and watching The Exorcist had a lasting importance for me.

I have to confess when I first read Fear and Trembling, I was a bit embarrassed by the Christianity. I thought Kierkegaard would be great if only he didn’t go on about God so much. At the time I was quite a militant atheist. But something made me want to read further. I realised that there was something here for me. Here was something different that I had never come across before.  I found most of the philosophers that we studied extraordinarily dull. They were concerned with problems that were at best abstract, at worst artificial. After I’d got over the initial thrill of Descartes’ scepticism, the whole debate turned out to be sterile and lacking in importance. Perhaps, this is looking at events from a future perspective. It’s always difficult to reflect back on the version of yourself who lived some years ago, without using the present perspective as the lens through which to interpret. Anyway, I resolved to do my undergraduate dissertation on Kierkegaard. We’d actually had a little course on his Philosophical Fragments, which must have been unusual at a British university at that time.  I took that as my point of departure and set out to read the Concluding Unscientific Postscript to those Fragments. These two works formed the basis of what I wrote. I read very little secondary literature apart from the bare minimum to play the game. As an alternative to reading dull books about my chosen author I tried to come up with some of my own ideas simply by reflecting on the texts that I was reading. It is necessary to choose not to respect great people too much if someone is ever going to write anything original. You have to choose to write your own ideas or else you will forever repeat those of others. I have never been much of a scholar as it is fundamentally uninteresting.

After graduating I decided to study Kierkegaard further and went to Cambridge for this purpose. Along the way I learned Danish. I started with an evening class, once a week and worked my way through a ‘teach yourself’ Danish book. I then set off to read one of Kierkegaard's books in Danish and chose Repetition, because it was short and because I liked it. It is not about repetition in the ordinary sense of the word, but in a sense that is quite extraordinary. Repetition is to be for the first time again.  I looked up nearly every word on the first page, but persevered and by the end could read Kierkegaard reasonably well. I first went to Denmark that summer before going to Cambridge. There I began to speak and to understand better, for Kierkegaard is really much better in Danish. Where most philosophers write ugly prose, he wrote as well in Danish as anyone ever has.

Over the next four years I read nearly all of Kierkegaard, much of it in Danish, or at least I checked the text when it seemed necessary. I frequently had to provide my own translations as at that time, not everything had been translated and some had been translated poorly.

I also found rather that I had come to believe. I can’t point to a moment when this happened, but occasionally I would go to Kings College chapel. I rather liked their style, performing every year a requiem mass for Henry VI who founded the college. They had a debt to pay and repaid it. I’ve never been much of a church goer, but somehow I found that I had a sort of faith. I find the only way to really understand someone is to put myself in their shoes, so that the problems that they describe become my problems. If the issue is not real to me, how can I really think about it in an interesting way? Not everyone uses such a method, just as not every actor using ‘the method’, but it was perhaps through treating the study of Kierkegaard existentially and personally that I found one day that I had leapt, without quite knowing when it had happened or how.

Kierkegaard had provided the answer to my doubts with perhaps the only answer possible. Accept them. His discussion of faith was perfect for a sceptic. If I thought that Christianity was absurd and ridiculous, he agreed. But he showed the possibility of believing anyway. I grasped that possibility through him. Moreover, he showed Christianity to be brave. Here was an abyss. Here was the need to leap over that abyss. Here was risk. Here was the need for courage. Here were heroes who were called ‘knights of faith’. It was all just impossibly romantic. Reader, I swooned.

I had always associated Christianity with wetness. An Archbishop spoke in a funny voice, all vacillation, and tremulous modulation. The Christianity I had heard before was just left-wing politics with a little bit of God added to the mix. If something was hard to believe, like the Virgin birth, it could easily be watered down. If a part of the Bible didn’t fit in with modern life, it could be dropped. It all seemed so weak and I had wanted nothing to do with it.

But always in the back of my mind was The Exorcist . Here once more was something a little more heroic.  And I began to rethink it in Kierkegaardian terms. Here was a priest, Father Karras, who was like a boxer. He trained as if he was going to go 15 rounds with some middleweight. He was intelligent. But this man was going to fight the Devil, literally the Devil. He, too, had to make a leap of faith, for in the beginning he did not even believe in exorcism. The idea of possession to his modern mind, trained in psychiatry, seemed preposterous, something from the Middle Ages. So he, too, had scepticism. 

With the arrival of the exorcist, Father Merrin, we meet another sort of Christian heroism. This man believes in possession and despite his physical weakness, his heart condition, despite the fact that he knows the exorcism may kill him, he takes on the Devil.

Each priest fights in his own way and each gives up his life, a martyr for his faith. Here, despite the film’s trappings of horror, I began to realise was an attractive form of Christianity. Here were heroes, not weaklings.  

I think, it was for the same reason that Kierkegaard emphasised going back to early Christianity. For at that time it was not easy to be a Christian. There was constantly the risk of martyrdom. Witnessing to the truth meant standing up to be counted. It meant proclaiming ideas that were treated by contemporaries as either offensive or folly. This was no easy life. It was the opposite of the comfortable, dull, bourgeois ‘Christian’ life that he found in 19th century Copenhagen, which preached one thing on Sunday and then ignored it for the rest of the week.

The vision of heroic Christianity portrayed by Kierkegaard and The Exorcist is not the whole story. It is certainly not the whole story in Kierkegaard. For his emphasis in the end is on practical Christianity and living a Christian life. But the idea that Christianity might require bravery of me, which is an important strand in Kierkegaard’s thought, at least made the whole thing more attractive than the Christianity that had always been presented to me up until that point. Here were people I could admire.  By emphasising the difficulties involved in Christianity, Kierkegaard makes it something that is worth having. Moreover, by presenting a vision of Christianity which is not watered down, which follows the traditional view of Christianity literally, which takes the Bible seriously, he doesn’t tame it and make it domesticated for the present age. His idea is that if we find something in Christianity difficult, it is up to us to change. I should not expect that Christianity should accommodate itself to my difficulty.  Rather I must change to fit in with Christianity. The same goes for The Exorcist. The present age is sceptical about demonic possession, but it is Father Karras who must change. The traditional view of Christianity prevails. Demonic possession is another absurdity. How could anyone believe such stupid superstitions? But Father Karras quite literally leaps and in the end is a true knight of faith. 

If you like my writing, you can find my books Scarlet on the Horizon (book, Kindle), An Indyref Romance (book, Kindle) and Complete Works (book, Kindle) on Amazon. I appreciate your support.

Saturday 28 March 2015

Always do what your opponent least wants

At some point in early September last year I realised that my country was more threatened than at any point in its more than 300 year existence. I am sometimes accused of hyperbole, but this statement in point of fact is self-evidently true. If the Yes camp had won the vote with the most trivial of majorities, we would now be in the process of breaking up the United Kingdom. That country in its present form would cease to exist. We are very fortunate that the people who wish to break up our county are peaceful and wish to accomplish their goal by means of the ballot box. But the method they use does not diminish the threat. In fact, it increases it. When faced with previous military threats to our existence, this country has come together and fought as one. But when faced with an attack from within, we are left divided and floundering for a way to counter the threat.

We must start from the fact, which is also self-evidently true that the United Kingdom is a single country. It has parts that are called countries or nations, but they are so in a different sense. We are not a collection of a nation states like the EU, because the EU is made up of separate, independent, sovereign nation states. If the UK were like that, there would have been no need for its parts to seek independence for they would already be independent. I have explained the logic of this on numerous occasions but the nationalists cannot concede the point as if they did, they would have no argument left. Almost no other democratic country in the world would allow itself to be voted out of existence. What is clear today is that it was a mistake made by David Cameron to grant a referendum on independence. He did so on the assumption that he was dealing with honourable opponents. Moreover, he thought having the referendum would settle the question. The mistake was not to realise that our opponents while willing to use democracy are not democrats. This has been clear since September.  If No had lost by a tiny majority and No voters had campaigned for the UK parliament to ignore the result, we would have been accused correctly of not being democrats. But the reverse does not apply. The nationalists will keep asking the question until they win once. Once will be enough.  The problem is that the pro-UK side is weak and unwilling to follow through on the logic of our position. Too many of us are unwilling to fight for our country. Too many of us are happy to cooperate with those who wish to destroy our country.

The point can be illustrated with the following example. Some time ago a writer I admire wrote this:  

The Nationalists have a plan for what comes next and it is quite evidently the case that Unionists do not. Which is one more reason why, far from settling the Scottish Question, the referendum looks like becoming the Neverendum. Until, that is, the Nationalists win. That result will be permanent. Because the rules for one side are not the same as the rules applying to the other. This may be unfair but it’s just the way it is.

The reason that Unionists don’t have a plan is that people like Mr Massie are unwilling to change the way we play the game. We must always follow the rules that the nationalists want and we must passively accept that they have the right even after losing the referendum to campaign without interruption to break up the UK. We are faced with a Neverendum which the nationalists only have to win once, only because opinion formers like Mr Massie are unwilling to challenge the assumption that allows this state of affairs to continue. No doubt, if there were no threat to our county's existence he would have to find something else to write about as would I. But I would welcome this. When there is unfairness, we have no duty to maintain it. There is no obligation to cooperate with those who would try to break up our country, rather there is a duty to oppose them by all peaceful and legal means.

I keep coming across examples of defeatism from writers who are apparently pro-UK, but in fact would cooperate in the destruction of the UK. Corporal Massie keeps writing articles about how Scotland’s position in the UK is doomedOther journalists in English papers are either hostile to Scotland’s position in the UK or reflect that nothing can be done, and we must watch passively as the UK falls apart.

In almost no other country in the world would leading opinion formers behave in this fashion. Which other nation state would treat the prospect of losing a third of its territory with such equanimity? The Japanese and the Chinese squabble over which of them owns some uninhabited islands. Spain and Argentina fight for pieces of territory belonging to the UK tenaciously and for decades if not centuries. France under no circumstances whatsoever would allow any French territory, be it Corsica or Brittany, to leave France.  The same goes for the United States and virtually every other democracy in the world. There is no legal right for a part of a country to secede. It makes no difference if that part once was independent. Virtually, all nation states are made up of places that used to be independent. There is nothing exceptional about Scotland. These other democracies must shake their heads and wonder at the folly of the UK cooperating in our own destruction. They must think us gutless and decadent. We are.

In fact, it is very easy to come up with a Unionist strategy to defend our country. The first step is for the UK parliament to make it clear that there will never be another referendum on independence. This would be perfectly legal, of course, and would require a simple majority of UK MPs. There has for many years been a parliamentary convention allowing the parts of the UK a referendum on independence if they wished it. But there is no obligation that this question should be asked more than once. If one referendum does not decide the matter, there is clearly no point having another. For what is the purpose of referendums if it is not to decide such questions. The fact that we were granted a referendum (rightly) on independence means that the question in fact has been settled.  No country should have to face a continual threat to its existence. Of course, the SNP might try to break up the UK illegally. Let them try. They would soon find that this route didn’t get them very far.

The Spanish have shown us the way with regard to how to deal with separatists. They made it clear that there would be no legal referendum in Catalonia and when the Catalans organised a pseudo-referendum they simply ignored the result. Catalonia is an integral part of a single unitary state called Spain. It doesn’t matter how many separatists are elected in Catalonia, it won’t help them achieve independence. Even the attempt to do so will immediately be declared illegal. If the Catalonian parliament tries insurrection, it will be suspended or abolished. This is perfectly legal, of course, as the majority of MPs in Madrid have power and sovereignty over the whole of Spain.  Of course, the Catalonian separatists can try insurrection and illegal forms of declaring themselves independent, but one only needs to think of this for a few minutes to realise that no sane person would take such a course. It just leads to jail. 

The second part of the Unionist plan is the following. Don’t cooperate with those who wish to destroy your country. We must simply refuse to cooperate with Mr Salmond’s band of separatists, no matter how many are elected to be in Westminster. There are 650 seats. Let’s imagine that the SNP wins 60 of them. Well, 650 minus 60 = 590.  UK supporting MPs should simply ignore the existence of those who wish to destroy our country. Far from these SNP MPs being allowed to hold the balance of power, we should simply treat parliament as if it had only 590 members. This means that a majority of 296 would be enough to rule the UK. It might take a degree of cooperation from UK supporting MPs, but, and this is the crucial point, when our country is threatened, it is the norm for patriotic members of parliament from all parties to work together. We are threatened. This is why I use the metaphor of war. It is not hyperbole. It is a simple fact. If we allow Mr Salmond and friends to in affect rule Britain, they will use this power to break us.

There is no obligation to cooperate with those who seek your destruction. Quite the reverse, there is a duty to oppose them. We must use all legal, democratic and constitutional means to rule illegitimate any attempts to break up our country. This is how nearly every other democratic country would react to such a threat. Why should Britain alone be faced with this constant threat to its existence? If Scotland had become independent, we can be quite sure that the Scottish government would not allow parts of Scotland to secede even if a majority wished to do so. So there must be no more referendums and no more concessions made to the nationalists.

I will always be very grateful to Gordon Brown for doing so much to defend Scotland’s position as an integral part of the UK, but he is mistaken in thinking that making concessions to the nationalists will help us in the long run. They view these concessions as appeasement and it simply encourages them to want more and more until one day they succeed in breaking up Britain. So don’t appease those who want to destroy our country, rather fight them.

Last September when I realised that our country was in such great danger, I thought of all the other times when we had together fought those who wanted to destroy us. I took inspiration from that history as did hundreds of  thousands of others who turned out in droves to defend our country in its greatest hour of need for centuries.  The nationalists want us to quietly, passively cooperate in our destruction. It is for this reason they do not like people like me to use the language of a fight. It is for this reason that I do use it. Always do what your opponent least wants. This is the first rule of warfare. We have a battle on our hands for the future of our country. It is only when we absolutely understand that this is so, that we act accordingly. Our weapons are not physical. We must be polite and friendly to our opponents, but we must oppose them with everything we have. In the coming election we need every pro-UK supporter in Scotland to turn out to vote in such a way that we limit as far as possible the number of SNP MPs. We must vote tactically against the SNP as that is what our opponent least wants.

So long as the UK government rules out future independence referendums and refuses to cooperate with MPs who want to break up our country, the UK is safe and impregnable. My only fear is that people in the rest of the UK do not really care about keeping our country intact. The SNP want people in the rest of the UK to become hostile to Scotland. Always do what your opponent least wants.  Would either Ed Miliband or David Cameron do a deal with separatists for the sake of short term political gain? I hope and pray not. There are always those like Lord Halifax who are defeatist and who want to make a deal with those who would destroy our country, but history tends not to judge them favourably. Pro-UK MPs are always going to outnumber anti-UK MPs. Let us use our majority to make the nationalists impotent and powerless. Far from holding any balance of power, let us make the SNP irrelevant.

If you like my writing, you can find my books Scarlet on the Horizon (book, Kindle), An Indyref Romance (book, Kindle) and Complete Works (book, Kindle) on Amazon. I appreciate your support.

Sunday 22 March 2015

A lady of little faith

Katerina Khokhlakova is a fairly minor character in Dostoevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’. She is the mother of Lise, the little girl who begins the novel as an invalid, but who later develops a close loving relationship with Alyosha. Madame Khokhlakova in the end is not an especially sympathetic character. She is vain and foolish, and is used at times as a sort of comic relief. But the chapter in which she first appears in conversation with Father Zosima has a very deep discussion of faith. In this chapter, “A lady of little faith” (p. 53-59), she is not referred to by name. The reader only later finds out who she is. Perhaps, this is intentional. Her surname sounds slightly ridiculous, like a parody of Ukrainian. It goes well with her later ridiculousness, but she does not at all appear ridiculous in this initial conversation. Rather, she puts forward concerns that must touch many readers.

Madame Khokhlakova says to Father Zosima that she suffers from lack of faith. She does not quite dare say that she lacks faith in God, but she lacks faith in the idea of life after death. Really, this is just a matter of politeness, for the one issue goes with the other. From a Christian perspective, to cease to believe in life after death is to cease to believe in God. If a person believes in a Christian God, a belief in life after death follows as a matter of course. Although she believed, mechanically as a child, she wonders now if faith came about because of the fear of death, thus that it is a product of man’s fear and unwillingness to accept that after death there is nothing. She wonders if when she dies there will simply be a grave and nothing more. She comes to Father Zosima looking for proof. She wants him to convince her.

Zosima immediately says that there is no question of proof, but that it is possible to be convinced. He says “Try to love your neighbors actively and tirelessly. The more you succeed in loving, the more you’ll be convinced of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. And if you reach complete selflessness in the love of your neighbor, then undoubtedly you will believe, and no doubt will even be able to enter your soul” (p. 56)

How can it be that by loving others a person will be convinced about the existence of God and immortality? One way to understand this is through an appreciation of the work of Søren Kierkegaard and the Epistle of James. In the Epistle of James the emphasis is on actions. The author of James writes, for instance, “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith and have not works? … faith if it hath not works is dead” (James 2: 14-16). Kierkegaard throughout his authorship shows a great deal of respect for the Epistle of James, which in itself is somewhat surprising as he was brought up a Lutheran and Luther notoriously called James an ‘epistle of straw’.

In the first discourse of For Self-Examination (p. 13-51) Kierkegaard looks closely at a text in the first chapter of James which includes the following:

“But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.” (James 1: 22-25)

Kierkegaard asks himself “What is required in order to look at oneself with true blessing in the mirror of the Word?” He answers “The first requirement is that you must not look at the mirror, observe the mirror, but must see yourself in the mirror” (p. 25). How though can a person see himself in a mirror without observing the mirror? If however, we reflect that the mirror is God’s word, there may be an answer? Kierkegaard is saying that a person must not look at God’s word and only see the words; rather he must see himself in the words, or see that the words apply to him. What this means is that the words require something of him, and that thing is action.

There are all sorts of ways of putting off action. One of these is to interpret. He writes “God’s Word is indeed the mirror … but how enormously complicated.” (p. 25). He reflects on the fact that the Bible is frequently difficult, hard to understand and that there are many interpretations. We don’t know which books are authentic and who wrote them. But if a person looks at the mirror in this way, it will always remain confusing.  The task is to see yourself in the mirror, but what prevents this is if the person continues endlessly to interpret. The problem with scholarship is that it is a way to avoid acting. The scholar can always reflect that he will just come up with a slightly better interpretation of this or that passage before acting on it. The crucial thing however, is not to interpret, but to realise that the text applies to me. Kierkegaard writes that “when you are reading God’s Word, it is not the obscure passages that bind you but what you understand, and with that you are to comply at once” (p. 29). The amount of scholarship required to act according to God’s word is so minimal that all that is required has already been done. We have had for hundreds of years a reasonably accurate translation of the Bible and this contains enough clear statements of required actions to last a lifetime.

The task for Kierkegaard is to take the Bible personally. Thus he writes “If you are to read God’s Word in order to see yourself in the mirror, then during the reading you must incessantly say to yourself. It is I to whom it is speaking” (p. 40). The reason why this is crucial is that it is instrumental in creating the Christian self. He writes:

“If God’s Word is for you merely a doctrine something impersonal then it is no mirror - an objective doctrine cannot be called a mirror, it is just as impossible to look at yourself in an objective doctrine as to look at yourself in a wall. And if you want to relate impersonally to God’s Word, there can be no question of looking at yourself in mirror, because it takes a personality, an I, to look at yourself in a mirror; a wall can be seen in a mirror, but a wall cannot see itself or look at itself in a mirror” (p. 43-44)

If a person reads objectively, he cannot see himself in God’s word for there is no self to see. Reading personally creates the “I” and thus creates the Christian self. Recognising that the Bible applies to the self is instrumental in creating the self which recognises that the Bible applies to it. When the self is objective, like a wall, it can be seen, but it is not self-conscious because it is not conscious of itself as a spirit or a soul and thus it cannot see itself. The self is created when it relates itself to God through relating itself to God’s word. To do this however the self must be personal and it achieves this through relating itself to itself. The self-relation is achieved through the recognition that God’s word applies to it. The self relates to the self that it sees in the mirror of God’s word and thus at the same time relates to itself and to God. The whole passage about correct reading as opposed to scholarship is about how the Kierkegaardian self is created. It is by following God’s word by loving one’s neighbours that the sense of self, the sense of spirit is created. By relating myself to God’s word, I relate myself to God. I see myself in the mirror, relate myself to myself, but also relate myself to another.

Kierkegaard writes that the “The demonstration of Christianity really lies in imitation” (p. 68). From a perspective that sees belief as a matter of reason this is absurd. Kierkegaard is saying that through imitation a doubter will lose his doubts. But if a person doubted due to lack of reasons, why would he imitate? Kierkegaard though is looking at the matter in a different way. By imitating Christ a person demonstrates that he is a Christian. Moreover, if Christian belief (faith) is action, which is what has been learned from James, then if a person does not act, he does not really believe it. If he does not believe, then he doubts. The only solution to doubt is action. To act is to cease to doubt, and to cease doubting is to cease looking for reasons.

We can now see an interpretation of how Father Zosima’s advice to Madame Khokhlakova can help her to have faith. If we see faith as a matter of action, then by acting, by loving others, the person automatically has faith. Faith that just contemplates, that fails to act, is a lifeless thing. No wonder then that she does not feel it.

Moreover, if Kierkegaard is right, it is through action, through loving others, that the spiritual self, (the self that relates itself to itself and relates itself to others and indeed God) is created. If a person fails to act, if he fails to follow God’s word, he will lack any sense of the spiritual. Only when a person relates to God’s word does he relate to God and in doing so create the soul.

In this sense it may even be that the atheist is right. He does not believe in the soul, he does not believe in immortality. He is right as for him these things are not. Only by acting in a loving manner does a person develop faith and with it the sense of himself as a soul, as a spiritual being. Perhaps, only in this way does he enable God to create this immortal soul. If this is so, then how we live our lives really is decisive. Not because God will punish us, but because if we have not related to him at all, there is nothing for him to save.

We see as the conversation between Madame Khokhlakova and Father Zosima continues that she is attempting to avoid action. She dreams of great, kind deeds. She dreams of being a nun of giving up everything, of not being frightened by sores and dirt. Father Zosima brings her back down to earth by saying maybe one day you will actually do a fine deed. She realises that her dreams of acting kindly would fail as soon as someone showed ingratitude. Father Zosima comes up with a similar anecdote of a doctor who hates people individually but loves humanity. Again we see someone who loves in theory but not in practice. What is to do be done? Zosima is very kind and gentle. He thinks that it is a lot if the person is already aware of his fault, aware of his lack of action. The key is to begin acting. He says “Do what you can and it will be reckoned unto you. You have already done much if you can understand yourself so deeply and so sincerely” (p. 57). This however only works if the person is sincere and genuinely repentant about his lack of action.

Zosima compares active love with acting in dreams. This is similar to the idea in Kierkegaard which compares someone who follows Christianity in theory with someone who follows it in practice. But whereas Kierkegaard can be strict, Zosima is very gentle. He accepts that we are weak. Active love is difficult. It is a matter of action, and day to day action, not just one glorious act. It needs perseverance and endurance and patience. But even if someone is as weak as Madame Khokhlakova, there is hope for her. Even if she finds in the end that all her efforts at active love have failed, that she is as far as ever from her goal, then she will find that the miraculous and mysterious power of God is enough to save her and that He always has been guiding her.

In Zosima’s view it is enough to strive to love actively. He expects so very little of us. No more than the mere act of striving. This striving is like Grushenka’s story (later in the novel) of the gift of an onion. The solitary good act in a life of wickedness can be enough to pull us out of the pit. God, perhaps, then does not need more than our striving to be doers of the word. Perhaps, this is enough to create the self for him to save. Perhaps, in the striving alone there is enough self-relation and enough relation to another for the Christian self to come into existence.

Zosima’s account is very gentle as compared to Kierkegaard’s strictness. But that is not to say that Kierkegaard would not have sympathised with Zosima’s view. After all, Kierkegaard continually recognised our inability in the face of Christianity’s demands, our powerlessness in the face of Christ’s example. Madame Khokhlakova is powerless. She thinks that she can do nothing. But so long as she tries just a little and so long as she does not use this sense of powerlessness as an excuse, she, like all of us, can gain faith. Dostoevsky’s account of faith is very gentle. In the end, we only need to give the tiniest thing. One good dead is enough to save us. But this gentleness only works if we do not deceive ourselves. It is for this reason that Zosima warns above all against lies. How can a self look in Kierkegaard’s mirror if it is not honest with itself? A lie destroys the self’s relation to itself and if a person cannot even find himself in the mirror, how can he expect to find God?

The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, Vintage, 1992.

For Self-Examination, translated by Hong and Hong, Princeton University Press, 1990.

If you like my writing, you can find my books Scarlet on the Horizon (book, Kindle), An Indyref Romance (book, Kindle) and Complete Works (book, Kindle) on Amazon. I appreciate your support.

Saturday 21 March 2015

One nation, indivisible

In the last few years the United Kingdom has more and more come to resemble the United States as a nation of immigrants. In the 19th century the US was seen by millions as a place of hope. People went there from all over the world looking for a better life. The United States as we know it today is to a large part the result of these people who chose to come and live there. So, too, more and more people from the EU and elsewhere are coming to the UK first to work and then to live. It is a huge complement to our country that so many people do want to come and live here. Why do people come here rather than seek to go elsewhere? The answer is obvious. We have a language the whole world speaks. We are successful economically and have a relatively open labour force. We have a good record of people getting along together. There’s a reason for this that many of us take for granted.

When I lived in Russia, I was struck by something.  Russian identity was a more complex matter than I was used to in the UK. If you read Russian literature, you find people referred to as Germans who had emigrated to Russia centuries earlier. They spoke Russian, but because they had a German surname they were not considered to be Russian. Likewise, today someone born in Kazakhstan who is white and speaks Russian, will be considered a Russian, not a Kazakh. What I soon realised was that identity to an extent depended on ancestry. There are exceptions and complexities. Russia is a multicultural, multilingual country  with as good a record of integration as anywhere else. But I found that ordinary people did think of the idea of being Russian differently to the way I thought of the idea of being British.

For me being British is simply a matter of citizenship. It matters not one jot whether someone can trace their ancestry back to the Norman conquest or whether they arrived more recently. Anyone with a British passport is British. We in Britain have a more open idea about Britishness than most European countries, precisely because we are similar to the United States. Anyone with US citizenship is equally an American. It doesn’t matter if you came over on the Mayflower or arrived last week.

The United States because it went through a very bloody civil war was changed in terms of identity. Prior to the Civil War, people thought of their state almost as if it were an independent country. Thus even though he initially opposed secession, Robert E. Lee thought that his first duty was to his state Virginia. Few Americans today, I suspect, feel the same way about their state. The reason is that the Civil War decided the question of secession by force of arms. Now, no-one in the United States thinks that there is a serious possibility of a state being allowed to leave the Union. If there were such an attempt today, it would once more be prevented by the United States Army.

Some years after the end of the Civil War a sentence was written which with variations has been repeated by millions of Americans.

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

It was only because the Civil War had taken place that such a sentence could have been written and could have been considered necessary. Later it was adapted so that it became clear that the flag referred to was the United States flag, just in case people from elsewhere retained the idea that their allegiance was to where they had come from.  The important point, however, is that everyone who was a citizen of the United States was expected to accept that they lived in one nation that was indivisible.

This idea of living in one nation that is indivisible is common throughout the world. The primary goal of every government is to keep intact the territorial integrity of the nation state. More Americans died fighting to keep intact the territorial integrity of the United States between 1861 and 1865 than in all the other wars America has been involved in before and since. Moreover, the territorial integrity of the United States was never more threatened than in those years.  Given ordinary luck and competence the Army of Northern Virginia ought to have destroyed the main Union Army in 1862.

Imagine if people arriving in the United States from elsewhere in the years after the Civil War had set about trying to break up the United States once more. Imagine if they refused to accept that they owed allegiance to the flag of the United States and if they considered that it was not one indivisible nation. How would people today in the United States view such attitudes? How would people in any country anywhere view people coming to live in their country only to campaign to break it up? The answer is obvious. Such behaviour may or may not be legal, but it’s clearly ungrateful and rude. If I have chosen to live in the United States and have been given the right to do so, I should feel some duty not to attack it from within.

When I lived in the USSR, I knew that there were faults in the society in which I lived. But I had been granted an extraordinary favour by the Government. I was given permission to live where foreigners were normally not allowed. I would no more have dreamt of campaigning to break up the Soviet Union than I would dream of campaigning to break up Russia today. I would have considered it a betrayal of the country that had granted me the right to live there. I didn’t want the country I came from, the UK, to break up, so what right would I have had to campaign to break up the USSR? It would have been grotesquely hypocritical for me to do this. I don’t deny the right of people from the former republics of the USSR the right to campaign to leave it. If Lithuanians or Georgians felt this desire strongly enough, that was their business. But I did not have this right. Moreover, the USSR was just as much as the United States, one nation, indivisible. They would have likewise had the right to prevent secession even by force of arms if they had so chosen. It’s only because Ukraine became an independent sovereign nation state that there is international outcry because of the conflict there. If the Red Army had prevented the Ukrainian SSR from seceding in 1991, it would have been perfectly legal for them to do so.

Scottish politics has become something of interest to people from all over the world. I’m naturally grateful when I come across people online who support the preservation of the UK as one nation, indivisible. But I am frankly annoyed by people from elsewhere who want to break up my country while keeping their own intact. If I went to live in Poland and campaigned for parts of Poland to be returned to Germany or for Poland to be partitioned once more, I imagine I would not exactly be welcomed by ordinary Poles. If you have been granted leave to remain in the UK, or if your right to live and work in the UK depends on the UK being a member of the EU, it is grotesquely ungrateful to attempt to break up the UK. The UK has been extraordinarily welcoming to citizens from the EU. We rightly granted people from Eastern Europe the right to live and work here long before most other EU countries. To repay that by attacking us from within is at best very rude, at worst treacherous.

We need to move on in the UK from our civil war and realise that the victory at last year’s referendum was just as much a defeat for secession as that which defeated the Confederacy in 1865. We are now one nation, indivisible and it's time politicians made this clear. We cannot continue forever to refight old battles.  There is no right to secession in international law.

It was made clear prior to the referendum that this was a one off. Knowing what we do now about the failure of nationalists to accept the result, it would have been far better if David Cameron had simply said to Alex Salmond back in 2012 that there would be no referendum for the reason that the United Kingdom was one nation, indivisible. It should be made clear that this would be the answer from now on. There are not four nations in the UK. There is one. The others are nations in the sense that Fife is a “kingdom”. They are called “countries”, but they are not countries until and unless they become independent.

I am not in favour of pledging allegiance to a flag, but it should be made clear to everyone who comes to live in Britain that we are welcoming and grateful that you have chosen to live here, but that if you become a British citizen, you have an allegiance to the UK as one nation, indivisible. No doubt, after the Civil War had been lost, there were many in the southern states who resented the fact that they had lost and that the United States was one nation rather than two. These people wasted their lives refighting old battles rather than getting on with making their shared country better. No doubt, for a time 'lost cause' Confederates made up a significant portion of the population south of the Mason Dixon line, perhaps they even numbered more than 45%. But it didn’t matter. There wasn’t a rerun. There never will be a rerun. And now their battles seem as remote as Solway Moss and Pinkie Cleugh.

If you like my writing, you can find my books Scarlet on the Horizon (book, Kindle), An Indyref Romance (book, Kindle) and Complete Works (book, Kindle) on Amazon. I appreciate your support.

Sunday 15 March 2015

The teleological suspension of the ethical and the great man theory of murder: Raskolnikov and Abraham as knights of faith or murderers

In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov gets into a discussion with Porfiry, the police investigator, about an article Raskolnikov wrote for a periodical. Porfiry notices an interesting point in the article whereby “the extraordinary have the right to commit all sorts of crimes and in various ways to transgress the law, because in point of fact they are extraordinary” (p. 259) Raskolnikov qualifies this statement. He does not think, for instance, that the extraordinary have a duty to transgress, but that they do have the right to.  One way, for instance, that this transgression might be allowed is “in the event that the fulfilment of his idea - sometimes perhaps salutary for the whole of mankind - calls for it” (p. 259) He says, for instance, that if the discoveries of Newton could only come about because of the deaths of one or even one hundred people, it would be justified and Newton would have the right to remove those people. It does not follow that Newton has the right to kill whomsoever he pleases or to steal. Only if these deaths are for the sake of something great, is it justified. He goes on to list certain great men like Napoleon who shed innocent blood along the way and, moreover, in creating new laws transgressed the old ones. From this he develops the idea that “not only great , but even those who are a tiny bit off the beaten track - that is, who are a tiny bit capable of saying something new  - by their very nature cannot  fail to be criminals - more or less to be sure” (p. 260).

Before looking at this in greater detail it might be worth pointing out how this is similar to another story concerning murder. In Fear and Trembling, written by Kierkegaard's pseudonym Johannes de Silentio, there is a long discussion of Abraham setting out to murder Isaac. The section, however, that most directly corresponds with Crime and Punishment is the one with the heading “Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical?” (p. 54). Kierkegaard describes the ethical as the universal which applies to everyone at all times. The single individual has his telos or goal in the universal and has the task to annul his singularity in order to become the universal. To assert his individuality is to sin and he must surrender this individuality in order to rest once more in the universal. Kierkegaard admits the consistency of this view, but recognises that if it is maintained, then Hegel is right and, moreover, Abraham by being willing to kill his son Isaac is a murderer. On the other hand, “Faith is namely the paradox that the single individual is higher than the universal” (p. 55). This means he can go against the universal morality and Abraham on the basis of being higher than the universal morality can kill his son. This alternative is literally against logic. He writes therefore:  “This position cannot be mediated, for all mediation takes place only by virtue of the universal; it is and remains for all eternity a paradox, impervious to thought” (p. 56). It is for this reason that he asserts that “The story of Abraham contains just such a teleological suspension of the ethical” (p.56). The telos for Abraham, the reason he sets out to murder is “because God demands proof of his faith; he does it for his own sake so that he can prove it” (p. 59-60). Abraham because of this telos or goal can teleologically suspend the commands of universal morality, e.g. the Ten Commandments, and commit murder with impunity.

Let’s look a little more closely at the comparison between these texts. For Raskolnikov there does not seem to be anything particularly paradoxical about Newton committing murder in order to develop his theories. He would appear to be using some sort of utilitarian idea that if a greater good emerges from an evil action, then it is justified. Thus a discovery that will benefit millions is justified by the deaths of a few. We think this way quite commonly with regard to war. Killing these innocent Germans is justified by the need to defeat Hitler. However, the idea of the universal ethical applying to everyone, but that under certain circumstances an individual may transgress it is clearly similar to the idea presented in Fear and Trembling. Raskolnikov is suggesting that anyone with individuality, with the ability to say something new, is something of a criminal. Kierkegaard is saying something similar with the suggestion that anyone who wants to be a single individual, who wants to have faith likewise transgresses against the universal.

Let’s look at these individuals practically. Raskolnikov is a murderer of a pawnbroker. Is the justification for this murder the theory that he developed in his article? It’s not clear that it is, though perhaps the theory contributed to the state of mind, which led him to murder. He is poor, but thinks that he has the potential to do great things, if only he had some money to get started. Let’s imagine that he gets away with the murder and goes on in life to create these great things, a cure for cancer, a solution to poverty etc., etc. Would the murder that got him started be justified? Obviously, this depends on whether we are willing to follow the utilitarian theory of ethics, by which the murder could under certain circumstances be justified, given that it led to a greater happiness. But what of the poor pawnbroker? It did not help her happiness. The more deontological side of ethics cries out that this murder was wrong, that we cannot use people, that they are not a means to an end. However, and this is the crucial point, all of this depends on Raskolnikov getting away with it. But this getting away with it likewise applies to all of the other great men. If Newton needs to kill a hundred people to develop his theories, but gets caught immediately, upon killing the first of them, he will straight away be tried, convicted and imprisoned or executed. The same goes for Napoleon. If he starts a coup and kills hundreds, all will be well if he wins and becomes the Emperor. But if he loses, he will be tried as a traitor. It may well be possible for these people to justify themselves with hindsight. History may judge them kindly. But the risk for the individual who acts outside the bounds of the law and the ethical is that history will not be there to judge. These people are not great yet. And so the law will see no mitigation.

Let’s take Abraham. He acts because God commands him and to show his faith. He acts for the sake of this telos or goal, which he takes as being higher than his duty to the ethical, his duty to Isaac. But just as when Raskolnikov murders for the sake of a higher goal, we still have to take into account the interests of the pawnbroker, so there is a danger that in Kierkegaard’s account he forgets to take into account the interests of Isaac. Abraham wants to fulfil God’s command. He wants to show his faith. But what of what Isaac wants? Perhaps, Isaac, too, wants to fulfil God’s command and show his faith.

But again let’s look at Abraham’s situation practically. What would have happened to Abraham if he had actually killed Isaac? Let’s imagine that a person today felt that he was commanded by God to kill his son. What would happen if I took my son to a mountain and killed him with a knife? When caught by the police, what would happen if I said God commanded me to do it as a test of faith? I would immediately be tried for murder and would most certainly be detained in a prison or in a mental hospital. Abraham, too, would have faced whatever laws existed when he lived. No doubt, these would have been rather harsh, an eye for an eye, etc. Abraham is only really justified in two circumstances. Either he gets away with the murder, no one finds out, or he doesn’t have to commit the murder, the sheep is provided.

But how does this affect individuality? Of course, there are genuine moral dilemmas, where individuals must make up their minds in difficult circumstances. As Sartre asks somewhere, should I look after my aging grandmother or join the resistance? There are instances like Napoleon where someone must dare in order to succeed, where the risk is great and failure may mean death. But these situations are relatively rare.
What strikes me as odd in both Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky is the idea that it is not possible to express individuality, to be a single individual with something new to say, without being a criminal in some way. There are laws that apply to everyone. But these laws only apply to certain things and to aspects of life that affect everyone else. There are massive areas of private life which are unconstrained by law, especially if laws are written such that I have the liberty of a liberal morality that says so long as I harm no one else I may do as I please. In such circumstances I can think what I please, write what I please. What need have I for criminality?

Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling is deliberately putting forward an extreme example of faith. Abraham’s example does transgress the universal. But most faith even if it is likewise a belief in a paradox and an acceptance of the absurd, need not transgress universal morality. As a Christian I must believe the paradox, and logical contradiction of God made man (God and not God) who died but rose again (dead and not dead), but who left me with an example to imitate and the task to follow him and live how he lived. Here my faith does not require me to transgress the universal. Quite the reverse.
There may be a teleological suspension of the ethical, but as Kierkegaard will develop in works such as “For Self -Examination” our task is to be doers of the Word, followers of the Book of James, and that requires no such heroics. And yet the task is far more difficult than that faced by either Abraham or Raskolnikov. So difficult indeed that almost no one, except perhaps a saint, is able to do what is required.

Fyodor Dostoevsky Crime and Punishment translated by by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, London, Vintage, c1992

Søren Kierkegaard Fear and Trembling ; Repetition edited and translated by Howard Hong and Edna Hong, Princeton, Princeton University Press, c1983.

If you like my writing, you can find my books Scarlet on the Horizon (book, Kindle), An Indyref Romance (book, Kindle) and Complete Works (book, Kindle) on Amazon. I appreciate your support.

Saturday 14 March 2015

An enemy of the people


I learned many things about human nature in my obligatory Marxism-Leninism classes, for which reason although they were worthless academically, part of me is still very glad I was made to endure them. I learned that Lenin was the most perfect human being who ever lived. That he didn’t really die. Look, he was everywhere in a thousand poses in every town I could go to. Look, how he was preserved, lifelike on Red Square. To find any fault with him, or in any way to mock him was just the same as if I mocked the Soviet Union and the Soviet people. Marxism, too was a flawless system of political thought. Discussion was welcome in class, but only insofar as it was in the end supportive of Marx. It was far better to keep silent than to come up with genuine counter-examples or evidence of the failures of Marxist philosophy. For this reason I kept silent and whispered only to those I most trusted.

One of the great critics of Marxism, who I never mentioned in our classes, was Karl Popper. Popper’s great idea is that theories should be falsifiable. The purpose of science is to conjecture theories and then strive to refute them. Theories are only to be held conditionally until they are falsified.  In the Middle Ages it was a truism that all swans are white. This was refuted by the discovery of black swans in Australia. But imagine if instead of allowing the discovery to refute the theory, it was kept on the grounds that those birds in Australia were clearly not swans. In that case really nothing could refute the theory. This was Popper’s point about Marxism and other pseudosciences like psychoanalysis. It didn’t matter what objection was made, what counterevidence was pointed out. It didn’t matter that the theory was falsified by events. These counter examples were always reinterpreted in order to support the theory. This was my experience, too. My Marxism classes looked at apparent objections to Marx, but only and immediately in order to refute the objections. Any counter-examples were always reinterpreted in Marxist terms to confirm, rather than refute the theory. Nothing, not even the collapse of the Soviet Union, could convince the true Marxist. You meet some of them even today. The break-up of the Soviet Union didn’t refute Marx and Lenin. It just proved that the Soviet Union was not Marxist and Leninist enough.

Unfortunately, there is always the tendency in science to collective thinking and dogma. Rather than scientists conjecturing a theory, for example, that man is responsible for devastating climate change, and then setting out to refute it, the tendency is for scientists to seek confirmation of their theory and to guard it from all attacks. For this reason a matter that is crucial for all our lives, which should be debated dispassionately is politicised. Some people take the existence of man-made climate change as an article of faith, others take the opposite view and defend it equally dogmatically. It is no doubt a part of human nature to act in this way. But it means that sometimes it looks as if science has not really progressed any further than Galileo. Truth is not democratic. The true theory is correct even if everyone thinks it’s wrong.

The danger of this tendency in human nature to go with the group rather than to think individually is that it leads us into making false conclusions. In science frequently false ideas are maintained for longer than they ought, because there is a scientific consensus backing them. Washing your hands before treating patients was ridiculed by the scientific establishment until the middle of the 19th century. Doctors literally killed patients because of their cosy consensus.

In politics the inability to accept that a viewpoint may be falsified can lead to decades of suffering like in the Soviet Union.  But as Popper also pointed out it is fundamentally authoritarian. If nothing can refute my political philosophy, then it must be true. Not to believe what I believe is clear evidence of false consciousness and bad faith. It was the fact that nothing could refute Marx and Lenin that meant I had to listen silently in class. This was also the case with religion until relatively recently in the West and still to this day in some other parts of the world. It was the fact that nothing could refute the beliefs of the monarch that meant I could be burned for being a Protestant during the reign of Mary Tudor while I could similarly be burned for being a Catholic during the reign of her sister. Under these circumstances, my only way of avoiding being burned was either to simply believe what my queen believed or to keep silent.

Scotland today is a land full of dogma, just as much as it was during the time of John Knox. We are reverting to a time of reformation and there is a party that holds the truth in just the same way as the party that commanded me to sit silently during my Marxism-Leninism lectures. We are not there yet. It’s a process, but once a country begins to go down a path like this, it can be quite hard to get off it. We need to find another path.

Supporters of the Scottish National Party routinely see their party as equivalent to the Scottish people. This was implicit even when they were a tiny band in tweeds. The key is in the word 'national'. They thought they represented the Scottish people even all those years ago when they began. They were the vanguard, even when the Scottish people didn’t know of their existence. In just the same way the Russian people knew nothing much of Lenin and his friends even a few months before the revolution. They may have been called Bolsheviks, from the Russian word большой [bolʹshoĭ], meaning 'big', but actually they were a small band of conspirators who engineered a coup. But a small band, that remains a minority, can readily enough identify itself with the people and when it does so, it immediately shuts down all dissent. The Party in the Soviet Union represented for all time the Soviet people. To question this and to criticise it meant that you were an enemy of the people. Members of my Russian family were sent to the Gulags because they were deemed enemies of the people. It is for this reason, above all, that I find it deeply offensive that Scottish nationalists equate their party with the people of Scotland. This in no way is to imply that Scotland is the same as the Soviet Union. It is simply to point out, before it is too late, that this is not a railroad Scotland should travel on much further because it is implicitly authoritarian and has no branch lines.

The SNP is treated by its supporters as being above criticism. Any criticism is taken to be an attack on Scotland rather than a political party supported by a minority of Scots and an ideology, (the nationalist goal of independence), that was rejected by a decisive majority last September. If I cannot criticise the SNP without criticising Scotland, then I am unpatriotic. I am really, in fact, attacking the Scottish people or at least it’s vanguard which is attempting to rid Scotland of the false consciousness that made it vote No. This likewise makes me an enemy of the people.

My local SNP shop, which last summer was a Yes shop, sells Scottish flags and other items of tartanry in the window. They obviously think that this flag represents their party. The implication is that to be a Scot is to vote for the SNP. It is for this reason that the appropriation of all the symbols of Scotland by one political party is so dangerous. Who are we who voted No? What flag represents us? Quite frequently online we’re referred to as the Brits. We’re not part of Alex Salmond’s “Team Scotland”. The narrative from the SNP is that true Scots voted Yes and support the SNP. This is the same narrative that I got in my Marxism-Leninism lectures. True Soviet citizens support the party, everyone else is a counter-revolutionary enemy of the people. The red flag with the hammer and sickle represented the same thing as the Party. Party shops would sell it and we would all wave it on May day.

Is there anything that could refute SNP supporters' belief in the party and the ideology of the party? If I had supported Scottish independence, I would have done so only if I believed that the majority of the population wanted this. What might refute this theory? Well, if the majority of the population voted No, that would suggest something similar to refutation. But the fact that the Scottish people rejected independence is always reinterpreted so that far from repudiating the theory, it confirms it. The Scottish people were tricked into voting No by 'the Vow'. According to the nationalists the majority of people born in Scotland in fact did vote for independence. Therefore it was because of people who were not Scottish that Scotland voted No. These people were clearly not voting according to the interest of the Scottish people, how could they, because they were not born in Scotland? They were in fact enemies of the people.  No doubt, this is why some nationalists I've come across use the slogan “Brits out”.

The SNP provided all sorts of reasons why we should vote for independence. How could I set about refuting any of these reasons? They made claims about the Scottish economy and how wealthy we would be if we voted for independence. Ordinarily, one would think that the refutation of these claims would lead people to reject the theory on which independence was based. Well, in the last few months we have seen a fall in the oil price and we have found out recently that far from being better off with independence, we would all be much worse off. Has any of this led SNP supporters to reject the theory on which they vote? Quite the reverse, support for the SNP appears to have increased.

It has to be asked therefore is there anything that would refute SNP supporters' belief in the party? The past few months have been just as large a refutation of the ideology of Scottish nationalism as the collapse of the Soviet Union was a refutation of Marxism-Leninism. But at least I no longer had to go to my Komsomol meetings when that happened, at least I no longer had to sit silently while the idiocies of Marx and Lenin were explained to me.  If nothing could refute Scottish Nationalism in the eyes of supporters, then really it is a pseudoscience. Either you have faith in this new Scottish religion or you don’t. There’s not much point people like me trying to reason with someone whose ideology is founded not on argument but on faith. Nothing I could possibly write would persuade a nationalist, no refutation would dent his certainty about Alex or Nicola or the Party.

You weren’t allowed to crack jokes about the Party in the Soviet Union. People like Solzhenitsyn found that making derogatory comments or cracking jokes about Lenin, or Stalin made you an enemy of the people. Humour is always disliked by authoritarians. That’s not funny, they say. That’s the leader of the Scottish people. How dare you mock? You’re in fact mocking the Scottish people when you do that. How long before laughing at anti-SNP jokes makes me an enemy of the people? That would indeed be to swing on a wrecking ball crashing through Scottish democracy.   

If you like my writing, you can find my books Scarlet on the Horizon (book, Kindle), An Indyref Romance (book, Kindle) and Complete Works (book, Kindle) on Amazon. I appreciate your support.