It is said that we measure ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions but as usual this trite binary hides a much more complex truth. In fact the closer we are to others either emotionally or politically (and often our emotions and politics are tightly interwoven) then the more we are likely to judge them on their intentions and play down their actions . This can be seen in politics quite clearly and leads us to give those we like and approve of the benefit of the doubt. Jeremy Corbyn is a clear example of this trait, with people polarised around his past actions (Trident, Sinn Fein/IRA and others) on the right and his good intentions on the left. To win an election it is necessary to shift people’s attention away from past actions and onto future intentions. Labour will lose this election because it is hindered by a double whammy of actions. On the one hand its leader has some serious left baggage while the party itself still carries the blame (completely unfairly) of economic incompetence and profligacy because of the 2008 crash. On the other hand Theresa May, despite all evidence to the contrary, gives the impression that she has good intentions around Brexit.
Livingstone is being a complete historical idiot on this issue of the relationship between Nazism and Zionism. The best way to describe it is to paraphrase Lenin and say that Nazism supported Zionism like the rope supports the hanging man.
In his “Spirit of Utopia” Ernst Bloch makes the observation (I paraphrase slightly) that animals live within their bodies but cannot get out while human beings live outside their bodies and cannot get in. What he means by this is that one of the most important and distinctive elements of human evolution is self-consciousness. As far as we know we are the only species that is conscious of the fact that we are the only species that has consciousness.
He quotes GK Chesterton on this difference. Chesterton said that human beings may well look like ants from a distance but if you open an ant hill you will never find statues of famous ants. Human beings labour and cooperate in order to produce and reproduce their means of subsistence, but our existence goes beyond this in that we are able to understand and direct this process in an active way. Part of the instinct that drives us on is the anticipatory hope that what we do will create better conditions for the future. Of course it could be argued that all species do this and that all activity is simply about creating the conditions for the transfer of genetic material down through the generations. Richard Dawkins would maintain that this process of the Selfish Gene is the thing that is central to species evolution.
Of course, this is indubitably true. There is no purpose to evolution other than the transmission of genes from one generation to another. Since Nietzsche at the very latest we have been aware that existence on this planet is purely contingent and carries with it no particular point. As he pointed out, one day In a few billion years the sun will expand before it collapses and, if they are still around, the “clever animals will have to die”.
However, the important point here is that we are “clever” animals. We have invented the whole system of living in the world that we call knowledge. This knowledge emerges out of the process of evolution and sets us apart from evolution in some important ways. Consciousness of this process is central to our existence. What consciousness also gives us is the ability to see that our existence, contingent upon evolutionary logic though it is, has a dimension that takes us beyond mere dasein. We are not simply in the world and of the world but are able to reach beyond the world in both physical and metaphysical senses.
The evolution of consciousness and the recognition that we live outside of our bodies and – in a metaphysical sense — the world, leads us to posit that there is something separate from our bodies and the world that gives rise to this recognition. We call it a soul or give it some other dis-embodied name and we give credit for the creation of this disembodied entity to an extrapolated second level disembodied entity we call God. We then believe that we are created in his image and that our separate status means that we have both responsibility for and dominion over all of those other species who still live within their bodies.
This means that religion, faith, certainty in the resurrection, elpis, are fundamental integral parts of human consciousness because they serve to give sense to the evolution of human consciousness. The trick that evolution has played on us is to have given us the ability to think about our own existence in disembodied form. We are aware of ourselves because we are outside of ourselves, looking back in. In the first world at least a lot of time, energy and money is expended in the effort to put ourselves back inside ourselves. We call it “flow” and everything from yoga to excessive alcohol and drug consumption is about trying to achieve the oblivion and obliviousness that nonhuman animals live with all the time.
There is no escape from this reality though and the metaphysical system of thought that has been built up around our contingent existence (this is what I mean by the metaphysics of contingency that I have been working on for several years now) has as a fundamental part of it the logical extension of our own externality of individual consciousness into a cosmic consciousness in whatever form.
Religion cannot therefore be abolished by simply saying that it is illogical, as Richard Dawkins does, because it is a central byproduct of the evolutionary process. Of course, as individuals, we can escape a belief in this externality and disembodiedness but as a species we are probably condemned to some sort of anticipatory belief or hope in the future. One can be an atheist – and I certainly am – but one has to decide whether one is a secular or a religious atheist.
It is my view that we should start to take the inescapable nature of this conclusion seriously and say that paradoxically, religious belief should be understood as a positive sign of the ability of human beings to escape the limitations of merely animalistic existence.
Religion is a byproduct of evolution but it is one that shows that, as a species, we are not limited by evolution in the same way that other animals are.
I am doing a talk at the Royal Festival Hall in London on Sunday on apocalyptic religion and the concept of death. Not really a laugh a minute but if you are around at 1 o’clock on Sunday then please drop in. The link is here:
I am only one of four panellists and so will not get to talk for very long but I thought I would post the notes I have just written here to see what sort of response I get. there are still a few days to go so if you wish to make any comments on these initial thoughts then please do and they may well be incorporated into the final product. Thanks.
Death and other matters
Well, my brief is to talk about apocalyptic religion and about how we live with death from a philosophical position that derives from the continental tradition in general and from Ernst Bloch in particular. I set up the centre for Ernst Bloch studies at the University of Sheffield about seven or eight years ago now but it has transferred to the University of London the School of advanced studies as I was forced to resign from being a lecturer in Sheffield due to the development of my Multiple Sclerosis. I wrote a couple of articles for the Guardian on Multiple Sclerosis and also on my wife, who was diagnosed with breast cancer just a year after I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. So, as you can imagine, we have been living pretty close to the idea of death for about seven years now. My qualifications for this panel are therefore that I have looked at death as both an abstracted philosophical viewpoint but also from a very concrete position.
And it is this collision between the abstract and the concrete that I want to predicate my remarks on, because to me death and the way it has been considered over the years, and especially the apocalyptic nature of death, means that the best way to understand it is through the dialectic.
Now, there are lots of misunderstandings and simplifications of Hegel’s dialectic which mean that is quite difficult to pin down without reading the whole of Žižek’s output on the matter, and I wouldn’t want to inflict that on anyone… Don’t get me wrong, I like to check, we edited a book on bloch together and, although he did sweet FA, it was a pleasure working with him. At least if you work with Žižek you can be sure that he won’t be constantly intervening in what you have to say.
But essentially the dialectic means that one has to study the contradictions and what Adorno called the identity of identity and non-identity within your own human life, but also within human history. Things can be both one thing and its opposite at the same time and it is this contradiction, this identity of identity and non-identity, so that the two opposite things exist within one identity, that creates the overall picture and the overall reality. Everything is always in flux therefore, as Heraclitus put it Panta Rhei, everything is in flux and the flux is caused by the interaction of these contradictions. All too often the problem is that when trying to deal with our own individual lives as well as the greater picture of what is going on in the world (especially these days) it is important to realise that something can be both true and untrue at one and the same time. One can be in favour of something and against it at the same time.
But what does this have to do with death? Well, if we look at the various different approaches to death we can see that there is an identity of identity and non-identity at work all the time. The title of my talk should really have been the Dialectics of Death.
Let us take Heidegger on the one side who described human beings as Sum Moribundus. In other words we are being towards death. Our whole existence is merely a prelude to our demise and we are born with death cast into our very genetic make up. The reason that religion seeks to posit the idea that there is a life beyond death, or that there are an infinite number of lives beyond death, that we can carry on living after death in some form or another, is of course a central part of our psychological evolution beyond the merely animal.
Animals live within their bodies and can never get out. There is a lot of research into how much consciousness animals have and of course the borders are slipping and sliding all the time (remainder Heraclitus’s Panta Rhei) but in general we are pretty sure that animal consciousness is not the same as human self-consciousness. Humans have evolved the self-consciousness to the point where they live outside of their bodies – intellectually – and can never get in. We spend, especially in the pampered West, an inordinate amount of time trying to find ways to get flow, to immerse ourselves in our being et cetera et cetera. We go to yoga, meditation or pornography on the web, or whatever it is we do, to try and just escape for a minute from our own self-consciousness. None of these are successful — apart perhaps from the oblivion of drugs – because it is an essential part of being human that we do not live within our bodies. We live outside of our bodies, are obsessed with our bodies as objects which sort of belong to us but which we are unable to get rid of other than through death and suicide.
So the very fact that we live outside of our bodies is the thing that means that we are constantly aware of our impending demise. This of course is the root of all religion. I like to do this whenever I can, but I’m going to use the example again: I was at Evensong a few years ago with Richard Dawkins and Philip Pullman, two of the best-known atheists around, and I was struck by the way that their cultural Anglicanism meant that they both knew the prayers that were being said and the hymns that were being sung off by heart. I, as a good atheist boy from an atheist family, would have had to have read from the sheets to have sung along. But what I was primarily struck by is the way in which even the mild-mannered Anglicanism of new College chapel is obsessed with death. Lighting a candle in the dark against the forces of death that surround us et cetera ad nauseam. And it occurred to me therefore, while writing this introduction that it is actually impossible to separate apocalyptic religion out from its more mild-mannered cousins. Isis has, of course, a much more proactive approach to death in that they seek it out and cannot wait to be martyred. But really the churches on the Isis have the same obsession and yet do what they can to stave it off.
All religion is apocalyptic because all religion deals with the reality of human death.
On the one hand, as I say, we have Heidegger and his Sum Moribundus, but on the other hand we have Alain Badiou maintains that death is always an “event” that happens to us. So, on the one hand something we carry with us from the moment of our conception even and on the other hand something that happens to us from outside. Of course the dialectical answer to this is that it is both things at the same time. On the one hand, of course death is with us from the very moment we are conceived, but it is also something that comes upon us at some point. It is that double-decker bus waiting around the corner just to run us over when we least expect it, but is also the terminal disease we call life.
If you have had a serious illness or you are living with a degenerative neurological disease like I am then you are intensely aware of the fact that death was born with you. We are not really certain what the causes of Multiple Sclerosis are but it seems to be a lack of vitamin D in utero. It doesn’t manifest itself until much later but there it is, waiting to start tripping us up – literally – when it has reached a particular threshold within our neurological system. On the other hand, cancer is something that seems to come from outside. We are constantly looking for the causes of it and we cut down on our smoking and eating and drinking in order to stave this off. We all know of the grandfather who smoked 40 cigarettes a day for 80 years and is still going strong (Ernst Bloch for example – although it was a pipe in his case) as opposed to the young child who develops leukaemia the age of five.
There is no rhyme or reason to this. Modern science helps us to understand more and more what the causes of these deadly diseases are and, indeed, we are living longer than we have because science has enabled us to track down the causes, to fight the causes and thereby to eradicate the diseases but there is still some way to go – especially in my case, if I might be allowed to say so.
This is the identity of identity and non-identity. Life and death exist in the same space. Religion has recognised this for ever. In the midst of life we are in death et cetera. But it is not just that these two things exist alongside each other. The dialectic is about how these two things interpenetrate each other. Religion has its root in the development of human self-consciousness to the point where we became an animal that lives outside its own body and therefore thinks for the first time about the mortality of that body and the mortality of the bodies of those around us. We then develop a way of looking beyond the mortal body and finding the reality that exists one step further outside of our own bodies. Religion is therefore the natural consequence of the human ability to be aware of itself and therefore to need to transcend itself. This is the materialist basis for religion. It is not that materialism and idealism or materialism and religion exist in opposition to each other. It is that the one develops out the other, and this is a logical development. The only way to understand death is therefore to understand it as the synthesis of the dialectic of life. We are at one and the same time both animals who carry within us our own death and animals who can be killed without warning from outside, and at the same time animals who, aware of this very fragile and tenuous link with the world, have used their developed self-consciousness to step away from the world and to posit a world beyond that which exists.
Religion is therefore very essence of a materialist understanding of the world.
Apocalyptic religions — it is no coincidence — arise in those areas of the world where death is a daily reality. If you live in a society in which death can both reveal itself and strike at any moment then the need to imagine something beyond this world becomes an absolute necessity. This is why we talk of the actions of extreme Islamic terrorism as being the actions of mediaeval thugs. This is because the last time we faced death in the same way, through plague or civil war or whatever, was the Middle Ages. In fact, we don’t even have to go that far back. We get very upset by what Isis does and yet we conveniently overlook the things that we have done. Even our great heroes have gallons of blood on their hands. I live in Oxford, the city on the Isis, and in the middle of Broad Street is the point where Thomas Cranmer was burnt alive. If you go a mile also downriver from here you will come to the Tower of London and Traitors Gate and there quite a lot of beheading went on. I was particularly tickled by the president of the French Republic talking about the barbarous nature of Isis and of radical Islam in beheading people. The president of the French Republic complaining about beheading people. Has he never heard of the guillotine and the French Revolution?
Franz Kafka’s Very Hungry Beetle
By Peter Thompson (with apologies to Eric Carle)
For my sister Greta
In the light of the moon a little man lay in his bed
On Monday morning the warm sun came up and – pop!- instead of a man there was a very hungry beetle.
He wondered what was wrong with him and started to look for some food.
On Tuesday his little sister was very upset and she brought him some milk with little pieces of bread, but he was still hungry
On Wednesday his sister brought him a selection of things: half-rotten vegetables and bones from the evening meal, but he was still hungry.
On Thursday, after her work, his sister brought him some mouldy old cheese that he had rejected before but that he now liked very much. He ate through it happily, but he was still hungry.
On Friday his sister brought him some old bread with butter and salt on it, but he was still hungry.
On Saturday his sister brought him some raisins, some almonds, some more cheese, another piece of dry bread, a bowl of water, some old white sauce, but he was still hungry.
The next day was Sunday again and he tried to eat through a nice, fresh, green leaf but it made him feel sick.
Now he wasn’t hungry any more and rather than being a very hungry beetle he felt as though he was wasting away. His sister didn’t come with any more food.
He withdrew into himself, into a small house or a cocoon and there he died. The cleaning lady threw him in the bin.
But now at last his sister was free and before anyone noticed she pushed her way out of the flat into the sunshine and fresh air where she became a beautiful butterfly!
Labour could solve its problems over Article 50 by saying that they will only vote it through the Houses of Parliament if the government comes up with the £350 million a week for the NHS that were promised during the referendum campaign. One good turn deserves another.
If Trump does come on a state visit I hope he is given a very, very, warm welcome….