Sunday, 25 October 2009

Enlightenment and Tyranny

It's hardly an original idea, that the 18th century "Enlightenment" degenerated into 20th century fascism, because any movement which basically relies on using social pressure to make all society's intellectuals appear to agree about everything, is waiting only for the name of fascism to be invented and bestowed upon it. The question which this begs is this: where did the legacy of Enlightenment take us, after it had taken us to Belsen and camp 731?

Although it's often presented as an age when reason replaced superstition and tradition in the affairs of man, that would better describe the flood of new ideas, creeds and innovations, that followed the English Civil War a century earlier. Some of these ideas were lunatic, and nobody except Tony Benn and Billy Bragg still believes in them, others, particularly the concepts of religious and therefore, inevitably, political, freedom, have become so basic to our way of life and our values that we struggle to understand that we didn't always enjoy them. The right of the Humanists to relentlessly insult and abuse Baptists and other Christians, was the work of non-conformist preachers, such as John Bunyan. Before Bunyan's followers gathered at night in Wain Wood, just South of Hitchin, to hear him preach, anyone writing regular letters to the broadsheets declaiming Christianity as an absurdity or a re-hash of a pagan superstition, would have been bunged in the madhouse if lucky, and publicly executed in a particularly brutal fashion if not.

As well as a great deal of death and misery, the Civil War gave England a tremendous breakthrough, much more important than the switch to Parliamentary government, which, in absence of anything resembling straight and democratic election until the reign of William the Fourth in the early nineteenth century, changed the world a lot less than Parliamentary tub-thumpers would like us to think. The breakthrough wasn't any constitutional change, it was the simple realisation that the winning side had won, not through the uniformity and purity of its followers' commitment to any winning ideology, but because the winning side actually encompassed every view possible except those of King Charles the First -and the Pope.

England's new parliamentary rulers didn't entirely get this message at the time, and they made several attempts, some exceptionally brutal, to suppress free thinking and diversity. However, after the Monarchy had been restored and with it a certain amount of political balance, requiring Parliament to have a measure of public support in order to challenge the Sovereign, foreign wars, mainly against the Dutch, reinforced the message until it did get through: England was stronger if everyone was allowed to speak, because then Parliament and the Sovereign represented everyone -and almost everyone would then be willing to push in the same direction.

To comprehend this, one has to be able to accept that there isn't always, or even often, a single "right" idea about anything. John Bunyan and George Fox did not entirely share the same religious views: they fought on the same side in the Civil War, however, and would thereafter have been perfectly willing to fight for the other's right to believe what they themselves did not.

Some people find this baffling, others find it frightening, both these camps eventually end up insisting that "any two honest men, carefully considering the same matter, must reach the same conclusion". The Enlightenment, far from being the source of reason and new thinking, was actually a frightened reaction to the concept that no amount of learned debate could always reveal what was best, and sometimes they had to live with two different views, or two different ways of doing things. (Like Troy pounds and pounds Avoirdupois. A Troy pound isn't wrong because it's not Avoirdupois, let alone metric, it's a Troy pound.)

First of all, debate had to be limited to the right sort of person -and this started to happen even in Bunyan's time. When William Kiffin refused to even discuss certain matters with him, using these words:

"I had not meddled with the controversy at all, had I found any of parts that would divert themselves to take notice of YOU"

Bunyan replied:

What need you, before you have showed me one syllable of a reasonable argument in opposition to what I assert, thus trample my person, my gifts and graces, have I any, so disdainfully under your feet? What kind of a YOU am I? And why is MY rank so mean, that the most gracious and godly among you may not duly and soberly consider of what I have said?

It isn't necessary to know what the matter actually was: only certain people were supposed to engage in debates and form opinions. But in all the centuries since then, has anyone ever made a better argument for both freedom of speech and ordinary gentle courtesy? Has anyone ever needed to?

By the time the composer, Hadyn, was spending his holidays in Vienna, a couple of centuries later, the Enlightenment was in full swing, even in Austria. Hadyn was obliged to write a fairly grovelling letter asking to join a particular masonic lodge, where intellectual debates were held. In practice, unless one was admitted to that lodge, Viennese society wouldn't allow one to talk about any sort of radical or new idea. Hadyn, one of the most creative minds there has ever been, was forced to write some tosh about how having ideas by oneself would lead to discord, whereas if one had ideas in the right company (the lodge or social gatherings staged by its members) new ideas would all be harmonious, like a well-orchestrated piece of music. Medawar suspects that Hadyn didn't actually believe this, as he only ever actually attended the one meeting which inducted him to the lodge, but because he'd done that, he was allowed to have ideas!

Interestingly, for those interested in how far back organized stalking might go, Hadyn's private diaries tend to reflect what he was officially supposed to believe, so it appears he wrote even his personal journal with a view to it being read by officers of either his lodge master, or even the Austro-Hungarian Emperor! Keeping a diary in a code that these interlopers could not read, would have been a suicide note.

The Enlightenment didn't promote new ideas, it controlled them and only allowed out, those which intellectuals agreed upon. (This is not necessarily a mechanism for being right all the time.) This did not die with Hitler, because during the post-war career of Professor Richard Feynman, he found himself being asked to join very high-powered, intellectual debating societies, whose main preoccupation was deciding who else should be allowed to join. Ie: the restriction which Hadyn had encountered in Vienna during the Enlightenment, was heavily present in late twentieth century physics in the United States of America. Feynman was a genius, knew it, didn't really care what anyone thought of him -and was perfectly willing to discuss almost anything with anyone prepared to listen or with something intelligent or genuine to say. He willingly gave ordinary people the courtesy that Bunyan had demanded of his "betters".

The Enlightenment was not a masonic plot, the masons just happened to be a useful way of organising it in some places. In England, a number of Royal Societies were established with pretty much the same aim as Viennese Masonry, you just didn't have to roll your trousers up and swear loyalty to Jaballon to get in.

So, after all that diversion, if that's what it is, through the past, how to answer the original question: where's the Enlightenment taking us after Belsen and Camp 731? After Fascism, Thascism and Blairism, what next?

Here is where we actually have a choice:

If we allow the progression to continue, we will find ourselves in a state where ideas no longer need to be repressed or controlled, because they are no longer being had. In this, Tony Blair and Abu Hanza are brothers. Already, we have a situation where only ideas had in "think tanks" stand even the slightest chance of being commended to policy-makers, indeed, it's probable that there's not a government minister in England who's read an unfiltered idea from an ordinary member of the public since he took office. If it isn't quite true, yet, that's clearly the next intended destination. Once you have confined the having of ideas to the think-tanks, you can tell the think tanks not to bother anymore until they are asked. At which moment, the whole human race, including its rulers, becomes useless.

If we chose, instead, to respect differences of opinion, even when two sane and reasonable men honestly consider the same matter, and we duly and soberly consider of what others say, which is simple courtesy and all that John Bunyan asked, then different ideas can co-exist and new ideas can grow, not always from one "right" idea beating another idea and proving it "wrong" but from two different ideas side by side allowing us to see a third -and a fourth and more thereafter.

(The photograph is from a point near to Wain Wood, looking towards where Bunyan would actually have come from, when travelling to the spot from Bedford Jail. Ie: not straight to the Charlton/Preston area from Bedford, via Shefford and Hitchin, but actually via Ampthill and Shillington. This may be why he was never actually caught. He often returned home (to the jail!) via Potton and Sandy Heath, then a genuine wilderness. Medawar's photograph album produces yet another obscure triumph!)

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