The Pity and the Wonder

Character, Talent, Chance and Destiny - Part 1

by Patrick Lewin (other parts: 1 2 3 4 5 6)

from Signs of the Times, No. 23 - Oct 2006

The arrogance of youth does have its lighter side. Some fifty years ago now, a politically incorrect story was circulating in Oxford. An undergraduate, cycling not far from the city on a summer's day at lunchtime, noticed one of those colourful old inn signs leaning up against the wall of a pub prior to rehanging, and decided to snitch it from under the noses of those eating and drinking outside. The element of surprise in his favour, he returned to college as fast as his booty would allow, with half the village in hot pursuit. Racing up the stairs to his rooms overlooking the main quadrangle, he stood at the window looking down as they gathered below, waving their pitchforks and baying for his blood. The Dean emerged and called up, asking him who they were and what they wanted. 'Sir,' he declaimed piously, 'It is a wicked and adulterous generation that seeketh after a sign.'

Though Matthew 16.3 goes on, 'and there shall no sign be given them but the sign of the prophet Jonah', they did get 'The Old Bull and Bush' back.

'Signs of the Times', as its name suggests, is intended as an informal commentary on contemporary events, but it also has something of an apocalyptic ring to it. 'Can you not discern the signs of the times?' Millenarian beliefs were taken over from late pre-Christian Jewish speculation and at intervals down the centuries contemporary events have been perceived as apocalyptic. 'There will be terrible times in the last days,' wrote Paul to Timothy. They may simply be repetitious. The Middle East in flames, again. More atrocities of war and crimes against humanity. Remember God's instruction to Moses (Numbers 31) in the holy war against Midian? 'Kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man ... , keep alive for yourselves.' 'Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully,' wrote Pascal, 'as when they do it from religious conviction.'

'You know, I turn back to our ancient prophets in the Old Testament and the signs foretelling Armageddon, and I find myself considering if we're the generation that is going to see that come about. I don't know if you've noted any of those prophesies lately but, believe me, they certainly describe the times we're going through.' President Ronald Reagan in apocalyptic mode. Many among the Christian Wrong in America religiously back Israel, since God gave the Holy Land to the Jews and the sooner the battle the sooner the Rapture.

They think the Jews are all going to hell anyway, unless they repent and are converted. Finally, Death and Hades will be thrown into the lake of fire along with those whose names are not written in the book of life, and there'll be a new heaven and a new earth with the new Jerusalem descending out of heaven. Magnificent language, compelling imagery, but how can anyone sane believe that now?

It's very easy, as anyone who has undergone an Evangelical conversion will tell you. Few have put it better than H.G. Wells in his A Short History of the World (1922, reedited 2006), describing the impact of Jesus, 'like some terrible moral huntsman digging mankind out of the snug burrows in which they had lived hitherto. In the white blaze of this kingdom of his there was to be no property, no privilege, no pride and precedence; no motive indeed and no reward but love.... For to take him seriously was to enter upon a strange and alarming life, to abandon habits, to control instincts and impulses, to essay an incredible happiness.' He seemed literally to incarnate a joy from beyond their often hard and cruel world.

Religion's best taken with a pinch of salt

'I knew a man in Christ ... caught up to the third heaven.' Though Paul's may have been a personal mystical experience, conversion is also akin to falling in love, walking on air, but whereas two lovers may seem to each other the only girl and boy in the world, they don't forever think theirs is the one true marriage. Ernest Renan, in his Vie de Jésus , 1863, said: 'To write the history of a religion, it is necessary, firstly, to have believed it (otherwise we should not be able to understand how it has charmed and satisfied the human conscience); in the second place, to believe it no longer in an absolute manner, for absolute faith is incompatible with sincere history.' So transparently good and dedicated were his new friends, it took one youngster, saved at fifteen, another fifteen to become unsaved again and recognize that no credible Deity could care two hoots which religion, if any, we belong to, so long as we respond to beauty, truth, and goodness, especially the love that lifts us out of narrow selfishness. 'Take away love,' wrote Browning, 'and our earth is a tomb.' He never regretted the experience. (Others who broadened include Maurice Wiles, who went on to become regius professor of divinity at Oxford, and David Jenkins, the former bishop of Durham.)

Aretology is the study of virtue and how to attain it; it is also the study of the circumstances in which humans may turn their heroes into gods. Since history cannot possibly establish that any human possessed the qualities that would mark him or her out as uniquely divine, and it is not self-evident that anyone should have been, the essentially unitarian position that resulted meant abandoning even the notion that there are circles of faith in which God is known to believers in a deeper way not available within the wider circle of humanity. 'By their fruits ye shall know them' and his own experience negated the whole concept of special revelation. By the early 1990s King's College London had collected 540 of them. Some of these he continued to believe were valuable, though fallible, historical traditions.

During the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s many Kikuyu Christians were hacked to death for not rising to kill the Europeans. They searched the book of Revelation avidly and found it strangely comforting. Would any of us want to kick crutches away from those that still need them? And yet, if we are Christians, have we not a duty to promote a sober, scholarly approach to the Bible and Christianity which follows truth wherever it leads and acknowledges that much of what was believed in the past needs to be updated or rejected? Great frozen lumps of dogma sliding down the centuries and freezing the brains of anyone they touch are hardly consistent with a Church that boasts it is semper reformanda , always in process of reform. 'He who begins by loving Christianity better than truth,' said Coleridge, who did so much to promote the Enlightenment in England, 'will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself best of all.'

A man compared by his followers to Elijah and John the Baptist, the fiercest prophets of the Old and New Testaments, was clearly an immensely charismatic figure, not the haloed shepherd of Victorian nursery pictures, holding a lamb in his arms. Jesus has always been the peg on which Christians have hung their idea of the perfect man, and therefore of God, the projection of stern Calvinist, bucolic friar and admirable Quaker alike. For the first Christians, the apocalyptic expectations were uppermost: the second coming of Christ, this time in triumph, to overthrow Satan who had usurped God's authority in this world, and restore the kingdom of heaven on earth. To put down the mighty from their seats and exalt them of low degree. But with the passage of time those expectations were replaced for many by the hope of an afterlife in a higher world, and once Constantine had claimed to have seen, before the decisive battle of Milvian Bridge in AD 312, a flaming cross in the sky and heard the command, 'In this sign conquer', becoming the first Christian emperor in Rome, it was difficult to tell who had triumphed over the other, Christ or Caesar.

Why prefer the feel of the solid earth beneath one's feet to being caught up into Paradise? The question answers itself. Besides, William James gave sound advice: 'Philip drunk must appeal to Philip sober.' The meat of Religion (as distinct from the small-r religion of taking serious things seriously and enjoying them that is common to all humans) is indeed nutritious, properly seasoned and cooked to remove the aphrodisiac of over-belief. To return from the clouds is to appreciate all the more the spiritual richness of the natural world and determine to work for the sweeping away of all the imprisoning walls that divide us. The downside of conversion, or of taking too seriously any religion or quasi-religious ideology like communism and fascism, is considerable. It can lock us into the unthinking acceptance of pernicious notions that should long ago have been challenged and discarded, as they have been by others. Take for instance 'The poor you have with you always.' (Thoreau was closer to the mark: 'The stupid you have always with you.') Those weren't the words of God. They were Galilean peasant philosophy in an apocalyptic subculture that expected the end of the world as they knew it to come at any moment. Yet they've been used ever since to justify indifference to intolerable suffering while Christian prince-bishops have lived in palaces.

Our hospitals are full of sick people. That's a disgrace. Ever since scientific method became the most powerful tool ever discovered, we have continued to pour money down the drain (much of it down our own throats) on things we don't need or that are bad for us, including ever more costly and fearsome weaponry. (The B2 'stealth' bomber costs c.$2.1bn.) Had it been poured instead into medical research the only diseases remaining might have been old age, crime and certainty.

Admittedly an exaggeration. Science alone cannot stop HIV/AIDS and safeguard us against other existing and new pestilences: that requires universal cooperation. And there would still have been accidents, people going off the rails, and the consequences of genetic defects. One man's certainty in power can mean misery for millions; a generation's unjustified complacency invites catastrophe.

The shadow side of humankind

The brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God, to use the old language, is slow a-coming. The origins of international law lie in treaties between states in ancient times. Among the major thinkers who contributed to its development was the Spanish Dominican philosopher Francisco de Vitoria (c.1492-1546), who held that all the world's nations constituted an international community, each possessing the right to an independent existence and all equally entitled to justice. War was justified in self-defence, in support of a weaker nation attacked by a stronger, and to save a people unable to free themselves from a domestic tyrant.

Not that much attention was paid to the last. When the United Nations was established to replace the ill-fated League of Nations, the Charter included an infamous clause reiterated in a unanimous 'Friendly Declaration' in 1970, the latter stating: 'No States or group of States has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatsoever, in the internal or external affairs of any other State.' The consequences of this 'tyrant's charter' has finally led to a 'responsibility to protect' doctrine gaining ground at the UN, though, given Russia's and China's trade links with the Sudanese government, genocide seems set to continue in Darfur, ceasing when Sudanese troops and the jajaweed militia have run out of people to kill. In Rwanda in April and May 1994 'probably around 800,000 people were slaughtered ... the daily killing rate was at least five times that of the Nazi death camps.' (Citations in Geoffrey Robertson, Crimes Against Humanity , 1999, 2000.)

Long before 9/11, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have indirectly been threatening the affluent West and the rich minority in the rest of the world that still hold or profit from power. A third of the world was reported to be going to bed hungry every night, 15,000 a day dying of hunger, 10,000 of them children. In The Development Apocalypse , 1967, Albert van den Heuvel, head of the World Council of Churches' Youth Department, said, 'If the rich keep considering their wealth as a right, the poor will consider their vengeance as justice,' and cited J.F. Kennedy: 'For the first time in human history we have the means to feed all: we lack only the willingness to share.' Those figures have increased to over 25,000 a day dying of starvation, a child every five seconds, with a trillion dollars spent last year on 'defence', nearly $160,000 for every second a starving child dies.

Since World War II there have been hundreds of smaller conflicts. 'Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are nor clothed.... This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.' Eisenhower, however, was no pacifist. America and the USSR, fearful of each other, were locked in an arms race. In April 1953, following Stalin's death in March, he was appealing to the other superpower, and that July the peace treaty ending the Korean war was signed.

Now that Jesus is the projection of Christian fundamentalists with a political agenda, on whose backing the president of the most powerful nation in history is dependent, and he has chosen by invading Iraq to shift the focus of his 'war on terror' to involve the whole Muslim world and alienate substantial numbers of Muslims living in the West, the situation is considerably more dangerous. The military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned about has never been more powerful. When Saddam seized power, instead of the Security Council authorizing regime change under the auspices of the UN, on Vitoria's principle highly desirable, he was cynically supported when he invaded Iran - a war that lasted ten years (1980-88), at an estimated cost of a million casualties and over a trillion dollars, America supplying the chemical weapons with which he gassed the Iranians and the Kurds - as she supplied Bin Laden with the weapons he used against the USSR in Afghanistan.

Whether the invasion of Iraq was a preemptive strike permissible under international law is still debated. That the evidence it was based on was false, and the neocon belief that peace and democracy in the Middle East could be established by invading Iraq on the cheap with no serious provision for peacekeeping afterwards an expensive illusion, are almost beyond dispute. The American MIPT (National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism) estimates some 73,000 have been killed in the five years between September 11, 2001 and 2006, the majority Iraqi civilians. With the daily death toll in Iraq around 120 and rising fast, that number could double in a year. A worst-case scenario has Pakistan's military dictatorship imploding and Osama being handed the Bomb while Iran catches up Israel by going nuclear.

Shakespeare's plays are full of portents: 'These signs forerun the death or fall of kings.' And the falling of wave upon wave of aeroplanes, were it to happen, the finger pointing at an alienated minority won over by religious fanaticism? 9/11 was an appalling atrocity condemned by Muslim and non-Muslim alike, but to claim, as Bush has done, that we are now 'at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom' is absurd or mendacious, deserving Bin Laden's riposte: 'If Bush says we hate freedom, let him tell us why we didn't attack Sweden, for example.' (For Dr Mai Yamani's Muslim critique, see and type in Whose War on Terror?) As if America hadn't long been propping up many undemocratic regimes in the Muslim world, and cannot now withdraw without risking a general collapse including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and access to all the Middle East's oil as Iran becomes the dominant force in the region. As if a survey of religious discrimination for the Home Office hadn't stated: 'A consistently higher level of unfair treatment was reported by Muslim groups and this was experienced in every aspect of education, employment, housing, law and order and local government services.' To some extent that was true of all minority groups, scarcely an excuse for complacency among the Haves. We are our brother's keeper. That's common decency and common sense. 'We must love one another or die.' W.H. Auden, 'September 1, 1939'. Does the inhuman race, calling itself homo sapiens sapiens, deserve to survive?

That survey was made in 1999 and the first Al Qaeda plot was uncovered in Birmingham in 2000, pre-dating New York's 9/11. It's no good blaming the politicians. In a democracy, we are collectively responsible for the actions of those we elect, or for our failure to vote. Do we also share responsibility for whether others vote? Or for any society in which we live that is class-ridden, racist, uncaring, materialist, self-absorbed? The individualist Right would say that's typically wimpish Leftist talk. ('There is no such thing as Society.' Margaret Thatcher) Of course communities and individuals influence each other.

Chance, determinism and free will

It is eminently desirable to choose one's parents before conception: the world is not a level playing field. Gibbon wrote of 'Vicissitudes of fortune, which spares neither man nor the proudest of his works, which buries empires and cities in a common grave.' Yet 'Chance fights ever on the side of the prudent' (Euripides), 'Fortune favours the brave' (Terence), and 'Every man is the architect of his own fortune' (Caius Claudius Cæcus). In science, fortune favours the trained mind. Increasingly, through learning how Nature works, we are making our own luck.

Talent is unequally distributed, but we are born with propensities; hence the importance of character and temperament in the development of a talent, and in handling both fame and misfortune.

Can we, however, properly be said to be responsible for anything? It's no more than common sense to say that each of us is the product of heredity, environment, and of our response to these two , but there have long been those who disagree. While Heraclitus said 'Character is destiny', other Greeks held we were the playthings of the gods. '"Justice" was done and the President of the Immortals (in Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess.'

Suzi Quatro in a Radio Times' interview in June said that in 1974 she had turned down an invitation by Elvis Presley to visit Graceland. 'How many women can say that? ... And then of course he died.' Does she regret it? 'I do believe in destiny, heavily. I attest to the thing that the movie is written already.' So too Ozzy Osbourne in 'You Can't Fire Me, I'm Famous'. Was his being dumped by Black Sabbath in 1979 the best thing that ever happened to him? 'I believe that my whole life was planned out before I was born.' All those up and down years with alcohol and drugs, his wife Sharon standing by him? 'I was fulfilling my destiny.'

That popular superstition bears about as much relation to reality as astrology to astronomy. The modern problem for philosophers is a scientific theory that even the motion of atoms in our brains is determined rather than random, subject to chance (which would be worse), and this, if correct, needs reconciling with our still having sufficient freedom to incur moral obligations: we are not robots or puppets, nor are we fated, nor is the future fixed, as if everything that has ever happened has been part of an extraordinary film. Most philosophers who are determinists are also 'compatibilists', not 'necessitarians'.

Einstein, however, Time magazine's 'Person of the Century', thought otherwise. Being also a deep-thinking humanitarian philosopher, he devoted much of his life to finding a political solution to the scourge of war, yet in a 1930 'Credo' reprinted in Ideas and Opinions , 1954, wrote: 'I do not believe we can have any freedom at all in the philosophical sense, for we act not only under external compulsion but also by inner necessity. Schopenhauer's saying - "A man can surely do what he wills to do, but he cannot determine what he wills" - impressed itself upon me in youth and has always consoled me when I have witnessed or suffered life's hardships.' Alice Calaprice, his most knowledgeable female commentator, remarked (in conversation) on how convenient an excuse that was for his treatment of his wives.

To nail a canard, her standard reference work, now in its third edition as The New Quotable Einstein , 2005, and Max Jammer's Einstein on Religion , 1999, show that Einstein denied time and again that he was an atheist - neither were Spinoza and Kant; Hume is a borderline case - but then the 'God' whose existence most atheists deny is still the pre-Enlightenment supernatural miracle-worker most theists still believe in. 'The progress of religion is defined by the denunciation of gods. The keynote of idolatry is contentment with the prevalent gods.' A.N. Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas , 1933.

Besides, if that pre-Enlightenment God knows the future before it becomes the present, aren't we predestined before we're born to follow whatever path the omniscient Almighty has ordained? Philosophical and theological problems, the subject of perennial debate, can have solutions in practice. If a convicted murderer stands up in court and says to the judge before sentencing, 'Your Honour, I'm not to blame. It was my destiny!' the judge may well respond: 'And it's my destiny to sentence you to life imprisonment. Draw what comfort you may from that.'

As Robin Blackburn, professor of philosophy at Cambridge, puts it in Being Good , 2001, 'whatever our genetic make-up programs us to do, it leaves room for what we can call "input-responsiveness". It leaves room for us to vary our behaviour in response to what we hear or feel or touch or see ... [to] what we learn ... [and] to be influenced by information gathered from others. Finally, it leaves room for us to be affected by the attitudes of others. In other words, it makes us responsive to the moral climate.' Adding a cautionary warning, that 'once we have been weaned into an atmosphere of violence, aggression, insensitivity, sentimentality, manipulation, and furtiveness - the everyday world of television, for example - we can never or almost never climb out.' That's at present. As scientific understanding increases, so does the power to overcome such handicaps.

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Patrick Lewin was convenor and chair of a philosophical society.