Most philosophy concerns words and meanings, arguments and debates. But wisdom is also a matter of perception and intuition. Images can sometimes convey what words cannot. We see in order to understand; intuit before the rational explanation becomes clear. And sometimes - best of all - we just stop and look, perceiving without any need for words.
Here are my reflections each month on a particular image. I hope you enjoy them and use them as a basis for your own reflections. I'd welcome any brief comments you'd like to send, and will hope to include them alongside my own.
Christmas? No, this is the festival of St Nicholas. Coming at the beginning of December, it provides a healthy version of some of the traditions that have found their way into the more bloated festival on the 25th. Saint Nicholas, of course, has morphed into 'Santa Claus', who with his little helpers delivers gifts to children. But the original tradition is that St Nicholas secretly came at night and threw a bag of gold through the window of a man who could not affort a dowry for his three daughters. It landed, so the story goes, in a stocking that had been left in front of the fire to dry. So the festival is marked by the sharing of simple gifts, generally stuffed into shoes left in front of the fireplace overnight. Following Dutch tradition - and the Dutch take St Nicholas very seriously, his arrival in the country each year being shown on national television - peppernuts and chocolate coins are scattered round, and each member of the family has his or her initial in the form of a chocolate letter. The whose essence is not in the value of the gifts, but in the element of surprise and the delight in giving.
St Nicholas is not without its problems, of course. Coming from Spain, the original St Nick had Moorish helpers, so all his aids in the gift-bringing business (known as 'Black Peters') are dark-skinned. Young people, waving charity boxes outside supermarkets are suitably blacked up, which has raised all sorts of issues in a multi-racial society. Multi-coloured Peters are one answer.
But, coming just a week or so after the television news brings scenes of Black Friday shopping madness, and as retail outlets everywhere are gearing up for the annual binge, St Nicks - with its emphasis on the joy of giving, the simplicity of gifts, and the anonymity of the giver (on opening each of your little gifts, you thank St Nick, not the giver) - it provides a healthy antidote to the gift-exchanging aspect of Christmas.
A Jackson Pollock? No; this drip painting is the product of 100 years of minerals deposited by water seeping down the walls of a First World War fort near Verdun. Even in the most horrific of places - and Fort Douaumont saw some terrible events in 1916 - nature gradually reclaims even concrete walls and makes them into little worlds of colour. I don't know whether to celebrate this image, or shudder at it. Very slowly, nature reclaims even the most unnatural of places.
Life can become remarkably complex, as I was reminded when confronted with this tangle of nets and ropes heaped on a dockside. It all kind-of works, and it all fits together, but disentangling reasons, motives, background, with old themes and loves entwined with new, is a daunting task. And some old cords you think are holding everything together are, in reality, just hanging loose - they could be plucked out without any significant change to life. Others, tucked away in the heap, hold the future together. And, if you are of my age, it is remarkable to reflect on the sheer volume of experiences, hopes, ambitions, relationships, that have filled the years. Here is it; this is life. So nice if it could be well-ordered, with a single goal and straightforward career and personal path. But life's not like that. It's as though this image of the heap of nets were to be superimposed upon your chest as you go in to see a therapist. "Here it is, just sort this lot out," you say. And the remarkable thing is that with nets, as with life, it's likely that this lot will continue to function and catch fish tomorrow. Pull it out, a bit at a time, and it will work; just sit contemplating the tangles, and it all seems quite impossible. Sometimes action, rather than reflection, is the only way ot get through philosophical or personal tangles.
The statue of Judge Tindal (1687-1774) stands in the centre of Chelmsford, Essex, a familiar sight as I grew up. In the Dictionary of National Biography John Hamilton says of him 'His sagacity, impartiality, and plain sense, his industry and clear-sightedness, made him the admiration of non-professional spectators...' It seems to me that we are so frequently crammed with information, with targets to be met and with the expectation of instant choice and gratification, that 'wisdom, impartiality and plain sense' are too easity crowded out in favour of immediate and visible deliverables. Whether it's the reactive choices of politicians trying to feed the insatiable appetite of 24 hour media coverage, or teachers trying to keep pace with changes, targets and paperwork, the gentler, humane, steady virtues that make a good judge are too easily neglected in the very spheres of life where they are most needed. Philosophy, at its best, should get beyond logical analysis and cultivate the practical application of qualities such as clear-sightedness and good judgement.
A hundred years on, I’ve been reflecting on aspects of the First World War recently. It was a time of almost naive idealism, of patriotism, of a sense of honour and duty, a time when young men volunteered for suicide missions, or simply obeyed orders and marched forward into certain death, when they wrote that they hoped to die bravely but so often died slowly, unattended on the battlefield. In particular, I’ve been reading about the battle of Verdun, in preparation for a book I’m writing about two religious thinkers who arrived there on opposite sides of the mud and barbed wire and whose ideas were framed – or warped – by the horrific experience of being there, as men were slaughtered in their thousands, being buried, disinterred and buried again as the muddy slopes were shaped and re-shaped under the relentless artillery barrages.
Fifty years on from that battle, both thinkers inspired me to study theology and philosophy in the heady days of 1966 when we were all living under the threat of nuclear holocaust, and now, after a further fifty years, I search their wartime thoughts for clues to interpret the ghastly and often suicidal conflicts with which the world is still plagued – Gaza, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine.
Looking at the slaughter of millions a century ago, we recognize that, yes, it can indeed get that bad, step by step, decision by decision, in defense of country or honour, in thousands of individual acts of courage and in the context of international folly.
Bali - the romance and the reality. With the gentle pace of work in its rice fields, the ducks paddling about, the simplicity of life and genuine friendliness of the people, its easy to get an over-romantic view of Bali. it is indeed a tropical paradise. But look more closely and you see that the simple life of the farmers out there on the hillsides is far from romantic. The first time I came across an outdoor kitchen (they tend to have them in a separate hut at the back of the house) I really couldn't believe that the friendly, cleanly-dressed people working in the fields actually had this as their permanent place to cook. Simplicity comes at a price, and is not always beautiful. Bali is changing fast, developing for tourists, and children of duck-farmers aspire to study 'Travel and Tourism' and work in one of the resorts. Perhaps something will be lost when the beauty and simplicity of the rural farmers on Bali gives way to development, but it is not for those of us who go there as tourists to criticise the desire of children of farming families to aspire to a small flat in Denpasser, with a scooter to get around on (and scooters can still buzz around with both parents and a couple of children clinging on, all elegantly dressed) and a modern kitchen. There are many aspects of Asia that I really love - the people, the landscapes, the warmth, the food; but I always come away with a sense of discomfort. When a small extra tip means so much to a worker, I cannot help but feel embarrassed that the same amount means so little to me. And I know all about the argument that a certain amount of exploitation can be justified, on the grounds that anything is better than nothing - but I can't feel comfortable with being face to face with the reality of such inequality. Or is it that I have a romantic, unrealistic sense of guilt?
Totally over-the-top pink! What am I doing contemplating flowers? Well, the best philosophy has always started with a sense of wonder, with an awareness of the sheer amazing quality and intricacy of life, compared with which our intellectual constructions pale into insignificance. So I've been known to peer into the odd flower, not attempting to understand, but just to stand in awe. Yes, it's all to be explained in terms of sex, of the need to reproduce, to get oneself noticed, to attract insects - we know all that, and yet... Sometimes, when reading philosophy, I am frustrated by the narrow focus and arrogance of some intellectuals. No argument or theory can even start to match the complexity of construction of a flower. Reasons and purposes, more or less adequate, dominate our human existence, but values and dreams require something more - the simple ability to look and appreciate. That sounds terribly corny, sickly smug, emotionally inappropriate, and yet... I cannot but acknowledge that it's the way I see things.
When lost, we seek the familiar in order to get our bearings; when uncertain of ourselves, we may seek the comfort of home, or perhaps even escape our regular environment to seek a 'home' elsewhere; we sometimes feel the need to 'find' ourselves and our place in the world. We are constantly shaping envonments to express who we are, or who we wish to be. Our homes and gardens express personality (or lack of it), and spring - at least here in the UK - sees a rush to the garden centres and do-it-yourself stores, with new paths laid, bushes planted and rooms repainted. We settle into our improved environments. The image this month is of the the central stairwell of a cruise ship, everything moulded to please the eye and give a sense of a charmed life and ideal environment. Luxuriate in it for a couple of weeks. A cruise also brings you other environments at which you can peer in sanitised comfort as ports and foreign countries come and go. You briefly visit in air conditioned coach and then return to your luxurious environment. Nonsense, perhaps; certainly not serious travel. And yet it touches some of the deepest human needs; to be at home, to 'belong' to know your way around and be accepted.
So join the birds and enjoy your nestbuilding - after all, it's that time of year!
The wonder of the Spring and of new life! There are so many images that could be used here, of buds unfolding, of newly uncurled leaves, of hedgerows, but I can't resist this most amazing sign of new life - an unborn baby, snanned at 3 months. Only a few centimetres long, but already with human features, limbs that move, tiny fingers! Okay, I know that sounds disgustingly corny and sentimental! We know about the genetic code that determines all this; we have a good understanding of how life evolves. But such knowledge - clear, objective, detached - does not start to do justice to the experience and engagement with such new life. The experience is 'miraculous'; but not therefore relegated to some supernatural realm. This is nature experienced to the full, with a sense of wonder. Such experience is, in my view, essential for both the aesthetic and the religious modes of awareness - not of a different world, but of our one world, seen without getting trapped into the analytical mode of thought. Analysis is fine for understanding, essential for science, but cannot start to address what is revealed by art and religious ritual.
The political changes in the Ukraine may have knocked the floods off the centre of media focus, but for thousands of people the damage to their homes and businesses continues to bring unimaginable grief. I was reflecting on that the other day, as, walking near our local river, I noticed some chunks of concrete of personal archaeological interest. In the 1950s, the watermeadows regularly flooded, and the council provided a raised walkway, only a foot or so above the ground, to enable access to the buildings by the river. As a child, there was nothing more thrilling than walking along it, holding tight to the rail, surrounded by the surging water. Now recent flooding, by pulling aside the vegetation, has revealed its remains. I guess we all have our bits of personal archaeology, physical traces of past experiences, which - like ourselves - weather, change and fall apart over time. I reach down and touch the concrete slabs, and I am a child again. Of such is the complex tapestry of our experienced lives.
Waves both inspire and threaten. Recent storms emphasise again the lethal, destructive power of the sea, and yet it is often to the sea that we go for relaxation. We sit on beaches casually observing the alien, watery element, yet few would feel safe in its depths - as I pointed out in the introduction to The Philosopher's Beach Book. It frustrated me to read recently of a Christian fundamentalist claiming that the storms were God's punishment for the UK's position on Gay marriage - not just because of his views on homosexuality, but because he saw nature as controlled (via a rather strange, literal idea of God) by a narrow view of human morality. If ever there was a case of the tail wagging the dog! (We may be adding to climate change through our carbon emissions, and thus be indirectly responsible for shifts in weather patterns, but that's another rmatter.) Ever since Canute paid the price for foolishly claiming authority over nature, we should have learned to stand in awe of the natural elements, that are our unsettling, ultimately lethal home. Sadly, I'm not a surfer, but I love to watch them ride the waves. Now there's a lesson for us all: wait, watch, respect the power of the sea, and then go for it, using every bit of agility and skill to be a tiny bit of exhilarated human flotsam.
We slip imperceptibly from 2013 to 2014. Although, conventionally, it is a time for new starts, resolutions, reviewing and anticipating, in reality nothing changes any more at this particular midnight hour than at any other. The 13th century Zen philosopher Dogen argued that time is a passageless passage as one state of being flows into the next. Time is not something that happens - for, if it were, we would only perceive it in the gaps between events. Nor can it be a fixed, structural feature of the objective world (thank you, Einstein) but only a way in which our senses order experience (thank you, Kant). Dogen sees 'time' as the name we give to that continuous flow of being.
Hence the candle. Like wax, we soften, shift, mould round events and people, move on. At certain times, as now, we - unpausing in our flow - try to take stock, re-evaluate, re-formulate our dreams, learn to live with, or rectify, the things we most regret. Yet, like it or not, we take it all with us as we move on. Happy New Year!