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.
Another year draws to its close, but leaves its issues open. Paris, Moscow and the Middle East grieve for their dead andthe refugees from Syria and eleswhere continue to try to achieve a foothold in Europe as the weather turns cold and their plight becomes more desperate. And in Syria and Iraq we have the on-going battle against the so-called Islamic State, where brutality and a cult of death tries to present itself as the true representatives of the religion where Allah is always referred to as the merciful and compassionate. Here in the UK, the government struggles with how best to respond to the crisis - knowing that bombing will inevitably bring civilian casualties, that the political situation on the ground is unsustainable, and yet wanting to so something to oppose terrorism. There are no easy answers and no certainties as to the outcome.
The world lies bleak and open; the sun shines fitfully upon ocean and sand, while dark clouds threaten. And out there are people; no more than tiny dots in the broad landscape, each a living centre, each a unique perspective, each fragile and vulnerable. What does it take to remain optimistic in this world of ours? I'm working on my new book about religious responses to Verdun and the horrors of mechanised warfare in the mud and barbed wire of the front. How did the world carry on after that carnage? How did it regain any optimism? And how many times can such optimism survive the repeated assaults of human madness?
Dreams and fantasies wax and wane in their importance for us, but can suddenly be remembered and brought vividly to life. When I was a teenager, I often found myself at the end of a school day waiting on a street corner for my father to come out of work and give me a lift home. On that corner was a Mercedes dealer, and so I found myself loitering by the showroom window looking at the wonderfully impressive 1960s Mercs and wishing I could drive one. Of such dreams is the odd corner of the adolescent mind stocked (the rest being taken up with sex and schoolwork). More than half a century later, it's no surprise that I drive a Merc. But more than that, there are times when I spot an old Merc rotting in the corner of a field (as here by the Minoan remains of Knossos in Crete), and suddenly, the sight of the car reminds me of my youthful self.
The self is defined by elements of continuity within the ebb and flow of experiences, hopes and dreams. They are what shape us from year to year, and through memory we can re-visit and re-establish them, or perhaps recognise that they have died for us. Clearly, that old Merc has not moved far for years, and yet there is something in me that wants to claim it as my own; to rescue it from neglect. Defining oneself in terms of the car one drives is a very Essex thing for a man to do (and, yes, I am Essex born and bred), utterly superficial. And yet... Like Proust, our memory is triggered and we re-live our past, thereby re-establishing who we are.
We have just returned from holiday on Crete, where - along with the usual delights of being away in September Mediterranean warmth - we explored some of the Minoan sites. Knossos, of course, is impressive, both in terms of its size as a royal palance and for the number of tourists swarming all over it. But what delighted us equally were the smaller sites, as here on a hilltop near the little village of Myrtos. All that remains of this settlement are a paved area at the summit, with a commanding view of the coastline, and the usual heaps of stone blocks that the imagination needs to reconstruct in terms of buildings. But the most remarkable thing, for me, was seeing the artefacts that the Minoans produced in the early second millennium BCE and realising just how sophistical their society was - palaces and settlements that were not defensive in their construction, indicating relative peace, and in the palaces a remarkable range of fine ornament and utensils. And yet the Minoan society flouristed for only a few hundred years, and the history of Crete since 1450BCE has been one of change and invasion. Two things struck me. First, that 'progress' is incredibly difficult to define. We may have technical abilities, healthcare, the ability to fly off to distant parts on holiday, of which the Minoans knew nothing, but one cannot say - looking at the sweep of history on the island - that there has been unambiguous progress. How do you define the good life, for the Minoan and for the modern? The second was the vulnerability of society, both to external invasion and internal catastrophy. The Minoan ruins were not the only ones that caught our eye. Particularly along the north coast there were half constructed hotels and holiday villages deserted and left to return to nature; expensive roads funded by EU grants, that end in villages where unemployed men sit around and life seems to have changed little for centuries. Society is always temporary and vulnerable; it will change, for the better or the worse, the future never was and never will be guaranteed, whether or not one remains in the Eurozone. Crete changed due to population shifts and invasion, and - there in the middle of the Med - we were also aware of huge population shifts today with hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming out of Syria and making a hazardous journey northwards, over terrain that we - with the mere showing of a passport - could accomplish in a few hours. Ouch!
How's this for an image of existentialism? We are in the mud, soaking wet and the tide is rising. But we come across a ladder, which itself appears to be without any visible means of support, offering the prospect of escaping upwards out of life's sticky, downward-sucking mud. We mount, hoping that we can reach... But no, other than a general sense of authenticity, it is difficult to specify where the ladder will lead us. We may end up with little more than an elevated view of the surrounding mudflats. Having said that, I'd rather be climbing the ladder than stuck in the mud, for at least a ladder suggests that there is something we can do about our situation; somewhere to climb; some token of hope.
In a word? Bureaucracy? Religion?
It is hard emotionally to live in a world of uniform space and time. We seek out special places and celebrate special times. 'Home' means more than a description of a place. So, in the heat of summer sunshine (we hope!) we may seek cool shade, with the sound of water in a fountain, symbolising and making real a sense of refreshment - as here in the Cathedral square in Frejus, southern France. To me, life is all about finding such places, points on the map where we can suddenly feel comforted or 'at home' and develop a sense of ourselves. Our life is spread over the surface of the globe, like an overlay on a map - places of special significance for us.
We are told that politicians should appeal to our 'aspirational' side, our desire to be better, do more, own more, get ahead of the crowd, and that fits the impetus to evolve that lies behind natural selection. It has logic and appeals to our natural inclination to succeed. However, in a complex society, where people depend upon one another in order to achieve overall success, the 'aspirational' needs to be balanced by a desire to seek a more communal goal - otherwise it is likely to be self-destructive. But it is always going to be easier to 'sell' personal aspiration than communal solidarity. How do we achieve a balance here? I ponder it as I watch the flamingo flap wings and tread water and speed ahead of the others.
This month, in the village of Little Baddow, we will be celebrating the centenary of the arrival of Jesse Berridge as rector. He was a remarkable man - a novelist, poet, artist and priest, with a gentle nature and skilled in pastoral care. One feature of his novels is that they are all set in the village in the 14th, 16th and 17th centuries. With one of them in your hand, you can walk where his characters walked, see much the same scenes that they know, and experience the changing of the seasons as they did. Historical fiction can give depth and a sense of place to the lived environment. It is though a human and narrative map is laid over the ground, providing a whole new depth to familiar landmarks, showing them to be in a state of constant change.
Whatever we cling to, we lose; that is the wisdom of the Buddha. Letting go, admiring without grasping, and allowing things to change naturally over time - that is an attitude that requires careful cultivation if it is to become habitual. Berridge loved the village, researched its history, and wove imaginative stories around historical characters. In doing so, he celebrated the sense of place and gave it depth. A house becomes a home once it has a story; and that requires time and the appreciation of narrative.
Abandoned to nature, this old car is becoming chaotic and vibrant. Neat lines and designed elements are colonised by weeds, all seeking an opportunity to grow and flourish in a competitive environment. To me, this is a suitable image for the political situation in the UK at the moment. With the calling of a General Election, there is a riot of political energy and activity, the savage competitiveness of the organic is revealed beneath the supposedly rational principles of good government. This is what happens when nature, fear, aspiration and competition take over. READ MORE
Walking round the palace at Versailles, I came across this image of musical instruments tied together with a thin length of cloth. The room in question was described in the guide as presenting images of peace, and this one seemed entirely appropriate. Music represents a balance of harmony - where peace is far more than an absense of warfare or strife, but a naturally occuring state of inner well-being. In fact, music not only represents peace, but may well contribute to it. It was, I believe, Aristotle who argued that music should play a key role in education because it could influence the emotions and attitdues. That's absolutely right, but more than that, it creates a sense of being one with something larger than the self, of immersing oneself in the rhythm of things.
For me, the one redeeming feature of the dreary month of February is Valentines Day - that annual celebration of the triumph of emotional insanity over rational calculation. Love triumphs because it makes a commitment that goes beyond hormonal drives, that thrives on hope and fantasy, and strives to incarnate both. My wife and I visited Paris just a few days after the Charlie Hebdo shootings - a city with heightened security, mourning those who died, affirming liberty - and, walking along right bank of the Seine, came across the bridge of love-locks. Here lovers write their names on padlocks, fix them to the bridge and throw away the key. Each lock has a story attached, one reads them and speculates on the many lovers for whom this place is special. Who knows how it worked out for them, but it stands as a symbol of the enduring quest for love, in a world where hatred, resentment, and cold calculation tend to get the headlines.
Midwinter here in the UK, and the final days of December bring snow and disruption on the roads, to say nothing of railway chaos wrought by the usual midwinter engineering works. Wildlife struggles to survive, and - once we emerge from the warmth of family and retail festivities - the world looks ramarkably bleak, as every news bulletin evidences. Warfare, Ebola, the sectarian brutality and chaos of the Middle East, welfare cuts and austerity... It's easy to be depressed in January. Yet amidst the economic and political gloom there are moment of hope. I was particularly encouraged by the efforts of Pope Francis to inject morality into our vision of the future - both in terms of the need to take our responsibility for our planet seriously, and also his attack on the thoughtless acceptance of the dictatorship of the markets, which evacuates our political life of the moral and human dimension that are its very essence. When 'growth' trumps justice or love or equality as the unchallenged, pivotal value, there is little hope for a sustainable future. But if January is depressing, take heart and get it into perspective - February is often worse!