Fermat’s Last Theorem

fermat coverI was a sucker for this book, having been fascinated by the history of mathematics from an early age. As Simon Singh’s book Fermat’s Last Theorem explains, the origins of this theorem came from the early days of mathematics, with Pythagoras in Ancient Greece. Everyone knows Pythagoras’ theorem that the sum of the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, e.g:

32 + 42 = 52

In fact, it was eventually demonstrated that there are an infinite number of triples of integers x,y,z for which

x2 + y2 = z2

Mathematicians puzzled for centuries as to whether a similar equation might be possible with higher powers of any integers, i.e. cubes, power of 4, 5, 6,…

xn + yn = zn

Pierre de Fermat was a supreme mathematician of the 17th century, who worked largely alone, rather than with colleagues. When his work was subsequently examined he was found to have made major advances to mathematics in a number of areas. In particular there was a famous note written in a margin that he had found ‘a truly marvellous proof’ that there could be no instance where such an equation was possible, yet there was insufficient space in the margin to explain it. This became a challenge to all the top mathematicians since then.

Simon Singh takes us through much of the history of mathematics in recounting the development of efforts to solve what had become known as Fermat’s Last Theorem. And a fascinating tale he tells, with potted histories of the involvement of many leading mathematicians over the centuries – including the story of the 21-year-old Frenchman Evariste Galois, who jotted down what proved to be key insights during the night before he was shot and killed in a duel early the next morning.

Finally there came the assault by Cambridge mathematician Andrew Wiles, working for some years in a solitary fashion similar to that adopted by Fermat himself. Finally, in June 1993 Wiles outlined to a packed meeting of leading mathematicians a proposed argument that demonstrated that Fermat’s Last Theorem was true. But this was only a prelude to drama, as a fault was discovered in the logic of his proof. It was not until October 1994 that Wiles and a colleague finally laid rest to centuries of speculation and completed their proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem.

Simon Singh makes the development of deep ideas in mathematics in some way accessible to us, even though we could never understand the detail. Few people do!

Featured image of Pierre de Fermat from Wikimedia Commons

The first duty of government

alternative warBe careful what you read! A quick reading of  J.J Patrick’s book ‘Alternative War’ gives much insight into what’s going on behind the scenes of global politics. The book is not well written, but the message gets through, and it is all rather disturbing. It leads me to some reflections on the current situation in the UK, which is apparently largely oblivious to these machinations.

One of the books main themes is the ongoing Russian project to destabilise and undermine the Western powers, clearly exemplified by, for example, events in Ukraine, cyber warfare, clear influence on the US presidential election and the Brexit campaign. It would seem that one of the Russians’ prime aims is to undermine and ultimately destroy the European Union, thus leaving Russia as the dominant power on the European continent.

That this sort of thing was happening would have been apparent to Prime Minister Cameron, briefed by the intelligence community, when he called a Brexit referendum which could clearly undermine the European Union, weakening both EU and UK, in line with Moscow’s aims.

The use of social media in campaigns, and the ability and willingness of the Russians to exploit them in pursuit of their aims, would also have been familiar to a well-briefed leader. As would the fact that such use of social media and the sources of funds used are easily hidden.

Heedless of the danger, Cameron embarked on that referendum. Cameron also knew, and weakly campaigned on, the fact that the UK would also be economically affected. As we know, the referendum was marginally won by the ‘leave’ side. This was arguably significantly helped by Russian financial and IT interference. There has never been any effective UK investigation into such interference initiated by the May government.

And our security situation became much more precarious with the election of Donald Trump, clearly assisted by Russian interference (Wikileaks), and who has many links with Russia, even if there was ‘no collusion’.

So here we are now, over three years on, still arguing with EU on the form that Brexit will take, probably about to be led by Johnson, whose effectiveness in the Brexit campaign (compared to Cameron/Osborne) and willingness to lie, was probably the other main reason for the Brexit decision.

Now we know in much more detail just how detrimental Brexit will be, both economically and security-wise. Yet, lemming-like, the Conservative Party continues to insist that the dubious Brexit result must stand. We must become poorer and less secure, the people have spoken.

Actually all it seems to be in fear of Nigel Farage, whose suggested links to Russia and sources of money (according to the book) are likely to be well known to the intelligence community.

Possible answers to the current conundrum are clear

  • a new general election,
  • getting the May deal through (or not, hence remaining) via a second referendum where the issues are made crystal clear
  • or revoking Article 50 in the national interest – which is arguably the most sensible thing to do.

But a happy ending is seeming unlikely, which will leave UK adrift from Europe, and in a period of chaos, subject to the machinations of greater powers.

Now, the first duty of government is surely to ensure the ongoing sustenance and security of the people. Has the Conservative government really served us well, in creating this precarious situation?

Featured image of Pr Punch’s history of the Great War by John Bernard Partridge via Wikimedia Commons

Senatus PopulusQue Romanus

spqr coverI guess this will be my only blog title in Latin, a conceit from an early education that included this ancient language. It means ‘The Senate and People of Rome’, often abbreviated to SPQR, which is the title of classicist Mary Beard’s book.

Rigorous but readable, Mary tells the tale of 1000 years of ancient Rome. I enjoyed it, probably more so, and with greater insight, than I did reading the abbreviated version of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire many years ago.

She begins in the middle, around 63 BCE, with the story of Cicero putting down the conspiracy by Cataline and other members of the Roman Senate itself, a story that is well understood because Cicero himself was a writer, many of whose works have survived, and history is written by the winners. The true story we do not know!

Mary then takes us back to the beginnings of Rome and the legend of Romulus and Remus, the foundation story of Rome. As Rome began to expand and co-opt nearby communities there eventually emerged what is characterised as a time of absolute kings, which ended around 490 BCE when Tarquin was defeated, a Republic was declared, and kingship got a bad name. Pairs of consuls were elected and ruled on an annual basis, overseen by the Senate – or rather such a system eventually emerged. Rome expanded, co-opting subject peoples into the system, particularly the army.

While Cicero was still alive, ever expanding overseas adventures led to the emergence of two major figures, Pompey in the East and Julius Caesar in the West. After years of accomodation, in 49 BCE Caesar ‘crossed the Rubicon’ and engaged in civil war with Pompey. Pompey was eventually defeated and Caesar became dictator, or Emperor. Not for long, he was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 BCE. Amazingly this led to many years of stability as Augustus Caesar dominated the scene for many years, dying in old age (possibly).

Problems of succession then dominated for the next 14 Emperors. In 212 ACE Caracalla extended citizenship to all inhabitants of the Empire, and a different game began, with ever-increasing turnover of Emperors. This is where Mary Beard leaves the subject, to be taken up by someone else!

Mary cautions against trying to draw lessons for today from these historic events. But what is clear from Rome’s history is the danger of any state becoming identified with one man (it’s always a man!). Then there is the inevitable problem of succession, competitors, warring factions, and wars. This is what democratic systems avoid, by providing for the people to elect a new leader from time to time. So beware any leader or faction which seeks to extend his/its leadership beyond the specified time, who wants to rule for life or be a one-party state, in fact any dictator, populist or otherwise, and any party that seeks to rule forever. I won’t name names.

 

 

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Thrive

thriveWhat does it mean to thrive, or to flourish in life? Arianna Huffington’s book Thrive aims to answer this.

During heady days of spiritual exploration in the early 1980s, we attended a workshop by Tai Chi Master Chungliang Al Huang. At the workshop was a young and obviously intelligent lady, a bit pushy, Arianna Stassinopoulos, along with her mother. This was the lady who later became Arianna Huffington, co-founder and leading light of The Huffington Post. Arianna is also the author of a number of books. Thrive was published in 2014, so I’m a bit late catching up with it.

Thrive basically summarises all those good spiritual and personal growth ideas that were around in the early 1980s and which have been put into exemplary practice in Arianna’s hugely successful life – successful in terms of her influence on the world.

  • What is true well-being?
  • What does it mean to have wisdom?
  • Where is the sense of wonder in our lives?
  • How important is it to give, as well as to receive?

These are the subjects of the main chapters of this book. Much of it you will be familiar with, some of it may be new to you. What I can say is that it’s well written, makes much sense, and says things that are worth saying. Great stuff!

Interestingly, Arianna’s key inspiration was her mother – an almost obsessively ‘giving’ person, as was evident in that 1980s workshop!

Utopia for Realists

It’s surely obvious that the current economic system is not working, what with increasing inequality, increasingly low wages at the bottom, squeezed public finances,  financial crashes, resulting populism, ever-increasing automation, ineffectively-addressed global warming and so on. And it seems equally clear that the global elite haven’t a clue what to do about it and plan to just let it run while they continue their comfortable lives.

utopia for realistsRutger Bregman’s book Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There brings up the heretical suggestion that we can do something about it, all we need are the visionary ideas and the determination to follow them through.

There is no reason why we cannot end poverty, give free money to everyone (basic income), move towards a shorter working week, pay important workers like nurses and bin men a commensurate salary, and open borders once the imperative to move anywhere but home is removed.

That sounds like a Utopia, you say. Yes it is. But we need a stretching vision of where we want to get to and then maybe we’ll start moving there.

Bregman cites the fascinating story of how neoliberal free market ideas moved from being the interest of just a few economists in the years after WW2, when Keynes dominated economic thought, to becoming the dominant force behind world economics from the 1970s to the present. These ideas have now run their course and are actually the cause of the predicaments we increasingly find ourselves in.

We desperately need these new Utopian ideas to gain momentum. So go read Utopia for Realists.

What human energies could be freed up for a New Renaissance!

 

 

What to Believe?

bush-cheney-coverIn the second part of the book Bush and Cheney, whose first part I reviewed in my post Too Much Reality?, David Ray Griffin sets out the facts behind the events of 9/11. Essentially 15 miraculous events would need to have happened for the ‘official’ story of what happened on that day to be true.

Particularly notable:

  • The twin towers and WTC7 were the only steel framed high rise buildings ever to come down without explosives or incendiaries. And they came down in free fall and more symmetrically than engineers would expect.
  • Uniquely, the fires from the debris could not be extinguished for months.
  • The hijackers did not have the skills to fly the planes as they did. Incredibly, passports were found among the debris, phone calls were received from planes that had no contact with the ground, and intercept aircraft were not scrambled.
  • There was never a proper and thorough independent inquiry, and the evidence was removed from the site with indecent haste, before it could be analysed.

There’s lots more, certainly enough to suggest that there was some sort of cover-up. An organisation Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth is in accord with Griffin’s contentions. But then one wonders, how could such a massive project possibly be kept under wraps?

But what was/is being covered up? Griffin suggests that there is a remarkable concordance between what was enabled after 9/11 with the so-called War on Terror and the dreams of the neocon Project for the New American Century, whose 1997 signatories included Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. It gave just the excuse and the public support to implement these dreams. But is it really conceivable that (possibly rogue) individuals would commit such heinous acts? It appears to be of a scale far greater than the known rogue acts performed by such as Oliver North during the Reagan years (when George HW Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld were part of the leadership). But these people do have form.

Basically, we don’t know. I wonder if we ever will.

The Templars

the templarsThere’s a thing about the Knights Templar, something romantic lodged in the European brain. Maybe it’s the idea of monk-like knights dedicated to fighting for Christendom, or the tales of valour in the holy land and the Iberian peninsula, or their tragic ending at the hands of the king of France… Who knows why stories get lodged into the collective imagination, but this one did. Historian Dan Jones’s very readable book The Templars tells the story well.

The Templars arose in the aftermath of the first crusade, which culminated in the taking of Jerusalem in 1099. When the main Christian forces had returned home the occupied lands were always vulnerable to being recaptured by local or regional forces. The Knights Templar were established to help protect these Christian outposts and keep safe routes for pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

The Knights Templar were founded in 1119, and in 1129 rules were established for the lives of these knights, based on the rules that had been established for the recently established Cistercian order of monks. The hugely influential Bernard of Clairvaux was instrumental in this. They were effectively fighting monks, with a code that meant they would fight to the death for the cause.

How strange to the modern mind that the rules of monasticism should be applied to the battlefield.

In subsequent battles, particularly from the second crusade in 1147, preached by Bernard himself, the Templars proved to be the most effective European fighting force, often, with the similar Knights Hospitaller, formed the vanguard or rearguard of the advancing forces.

Through the many crusades and the Spanish reconquista, up to the mid-1250s, the Templars played a major role. They provided trans-national services such as banking and fighting forces to the various kings in Europe. They became very powerful, which was fine while they held the confidence of those kings.

But the various crusades were not well organised and the Templars took the brunt of failures of the leaders who came looking for glory. There were a number of massacres of Templars and eventually the crusader project seemed to be coming to nought, with all gains being cancelled out. It seems there was some blame pointed at the Templars for these failures.

Jones tells the story of the various crusades and battles in an engaging manner. The balance of power clearly changed when the Mongols arrived and sacked Baghdad in 1258, and the Mamluk state joining Egypt and Syria was established in 1260. The Christians were effectively squeezed out.

The Templars remained influential across Europe until the coming of the French king Philip IV. Philip was a new sort of French king, establishing a strong centralised state, and moving against other sources of power. His first target was to get rid of the Jews, next came the Templars. On Friday 13 October 1307 all Templars in France were seized, imprisoned and tortured.

Neither the French pope Clement V nor the other European leaders agreed with Philip’s move, but it seems that the pope was persuaded to spread the investigation of Templars throughout Europe. These were the days of inquisition to detect heresy, so it was not difficult to trump up charges. The net effect was that the order of the Temple was suppressed in 1312, and the last leader of the Templars, Jacques de Molay, was burnt to death after recanting his forced confession a couple of years later.

It had been less than 200 years. What a story!

Footnote. Since the fall of the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire Western forces have been engaged in the Middle East in many ways, including establishing the Israeli outpost safeguarding Jerusalem, several encounters in Iraq, Syria, catastrophe in Egypt (Suez),… Le plus ça change…

Featured image from the website Knight Templar International.

 

 

Prejudiced, moi?

how to be rightJust how gullible are we human beings, and how easily do we cling on to ideas that have no true justification? This question appears increasingly relevant to those of a liberal disposition, and is indirectly the subject of James O’Brien’s book How to Be Right… in a world gone wrong.

O’Brien runs a talk show on LBC radio and has callers on many controversial subjects: Islam, Brexit, LGBT, political correctness, feminism, the nanny state, Trump… The book basically gives his own ‘take’ on the subject from a ‘reality-based’ perspective, and demonstrates how various callers from different perspectives handle explaining their views, with many entertaining dialogues.

He essentially seeks to understand the caller’s viewpoint. The striking thing is often just how shallow those viewpoints are, and what little justification is given for them when questioned. It’s as if the person has unquestioningly swallowed a viewpoint and subsequently regurgitates it, without any understanding of why it might make sense. In other words, it is blind prejudice. They have effectively been brainwashed.

O’Brien’s technique is remarkable for its persistence, sticking to the point, and not allowing the caller to get away with simply restating their prejudice in another form. As well as giving us all ideas on how to handle the prejudice we inevitably encounter, it gives some insight into the minds that are most susceptible to populism.

It is also an entertaining read.

Featured pic of James O’Brien is from LBC website

The Web of Life Paradigm

My previous post on ecoliteracy brought to mind a review I did of two books, both published in 1996.

  • The Whispering Pond, Ervin Laszlo, Element
  • The Web of Life, Fritjof Capra, Harper Collins

The review appeared in Long Range Planning magazine in 1997, so is written from a business/ strategic planning perspective, but the messages are widely applicable. Any books by these two authors are well worth reading.

Some of the references to current trends now appear somewhat dated, a lot has happened in over 20 years! Sadly, a lot of the change since then has not been for the better.

Why should business people be interested in two recent books describing thinking from the forefront of popular science? The answer lies in the way all our thinking is dominated by the underlying paradigms that have crystallised in our consciousness since the scientific revolution. This structure is being shattered by the sort of developments described in these books. The world of the future is likely to be founded on this emerging underlying paradigm.

Read More »

Too Much Reality?

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

― T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Bush and Cheney: How They Ruined America and the World

I’ve had this book by Professor David Ray Griffin for some time, but hesitated to put it on top of the reading list. Having taken an interest in world affairs over the years, I sort of knew what it says. It’s still quite disturbing to see it all laid out in one place.

The neoconservative ideology, of which Dick Cheney was a major leader, had been around since the Reagan years, culminating in the articulation of the Project for the New American Century, aimed at maintaining American ‘full spectrum’ domination of world affairs. It seems that those ‘hanging chads’ in Florida in November 2000, and the resulting ‘stolen’ presidential election that brought George W Bush and Cheney to power allowed these ideas to have full effect. This had a profound impact on future decades, leading to the multiple crises we see today. Consider the contents of part I of this tome.

  • The failure to prevent 9/11
  • The nonsensical ‘war on terror’ and the Afghanistan war
  • The increase in military spending and policy of pre-emptive war and regime change (carried forward from the Reagan years)
  • The corruptly-justified Iraq war and incompetent dissolution of the Iraqi army that led to the formation of ISIS
  • The extreme Islamaphobia
  • The global chaos caused by America’s ‘war for the greater middle east’ – American supported insurrections in Libya, Syria, Yemen. (The policies were basically carried forward by Obama/Clinton/Kerry). The uncritical support of Israel’s unjust stasis. All this of course leading to Europe’s current refugee crisis.
  • The flouting of US and international law in drone killings and targeted assassinations, even of US citizens. A counter-productive policy that continues to this day.
  • Changing the US constitution that limited the ability of the Executive to make war, many violations of the first, fourth and fifth amendments, including warrantless searches, use of torture, capturing huge amounts of data as revealed by Edward Snowden.
  • Confrontation with Russia by moving Nato and weapons nearer to the Russian border, with the probable aim of regime change in Russia. Regime change in Ukraine that appears to have involved dirty tricks, as has the subsequent confrontation with Russia. Griffin suggests that similar confrontation with China led to the construction of the disputed islands in the China Sea. All this greatly increases the risk of nuclear holocaust.
  • Finally, the persistent denial and refusal to act on climate change and global warming has already closed the window on when the major problems could be averted. Continued refusal to act pushes us ever nearer climate breakdown (‘ecological holocaust’).

This first part of the book is profoundly depressing, and recalled the many occasions when I have personally recoiled at the grossness and lack of intelligence in the US’s policies.

You could just see this all as a grand conspiracy theory, but it seems that the cap fits. US exceptionalism and the thinking of Empire really is perhaps the greatest danger to today’s world.

But we do need to sometimes face the reality of the world as it is, in order to move towards a better world tomorrow. It should be clear to most thinking people that the US has been for two decades travelling up a long blind and self-defeating alley. Donald Trump just makes it all a bit more unpredictable.

Do they really want to be the Emperors of a dead world?

I thought this second Eliot quote might be appropriate, but I’m not so sure about the good intentions.

“Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.”

― T.S. Eliot

Maybe I’ll get to read part 2 of the book, on 9/11, when I’ve recovered.

Featured image of Bush and Cheney at 2003 State of the Union, from Wikimedia Commons

Travellers in the Third Reich

The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People

As one of a generation haunted by discovering the then-recent calamity of WW2, now disturbed by the rise in populism across the world, I found this a timely book by Julia Boyd.

It tells the story of the Third Reich through the eyes of people who visited or lived in Germany through the days of Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power, its consolidation, the increasing drumbeats towards war, and the war itself.

What is remarkable is how many people gave the Nazi regime the benefit of the doubt, despite the clear signs, such as the centralisation of all power, rescinding of civil liberties and press freedom, the early concentration camps, the persecution of Jews, the burning of books (all in 1933) through to Kristallnacht (1938) and the subsequent descent into war.

Of course, the desire to avoid another war was a major part of this, and there is the interesting story of Neville Chamberlain’s vain attempt to make peace in Munich in 1938, and Hitler’s dismissive attitude to the whole affair.

The book presents an interesting story, perhaps a bit long-winded at times. It certainly opened my eyes to some things, such as the fact that Germany welcomed English and American tourists throughout the 1930s, and many found the country very efficient and friendly, except where they came face to face with the persecution of Jews and supposed non-aryans.

The stories from the 1920s and early 1930s show that, after making a fair recovery from WW1, Germany was not in a good place after the shock of the great depression. The arduous reparation terms imposed by the Allies at the end of WW1 were a major cause of German suffering and dissatisfaction. It seems that these were major factors in the rise to power of Hitler.

The evident parallel today is the rise of populism following the 2008 financial crash, and the subsequent failure to make due reckoning with its causes. The missing factor today is there is no sense of national persecution similar to that caused in Germany by the WW1 armistice terms.  

In the case of Donald Trump and the US, it is maybe too early to say how far the parallels go – but he clearly came to the presidency by exploiting white male dissatisfaction with the status quo that had come about – economic, racial and misogynistic. On the positive side, the US constitution appears to be much more robust in resisting over-centralization of power than was Germany in the 1930s.


The Business Plan for Peace – Building a World without War

For many years Scilla Elworthy has been putting forward her ideas for a plan for peace. Here Bruce Nixon’s excellent post reviews her recent book. It’s about time the media took more notice of the need to invest in peace, rather than in war.

Bruce Nixon

Scilla

As I begin to write, it is Armistice Day when we honour the dead on both sides of the conflict. The best way to honour all those who lost their lives in the Great War and subsequent wars would be to commit to end war for good. In her book Scilla Elworthy shows us how this can be done. Her key message is: War is past its sell-by date.

 

This is a marvellous book both visionary and, as the title implies, hard-headed and pragmatic. It’s based on years of practical experience of peace-making and the prevention of violent conflict.

Key Themes

 

At the heart of this book is the belief that humans have the capacity to evolve and become more humane. There is a growing change of consciousness centred in Europe and much of North America. Thus peace and a future without mass violence is possible. Journalists on…

View original post 1,329 more words

The Meaning of Persons

meaning of persons
A modern version

After writing my last post on Person, I was inspired to look back at a book that has graced my shelves for nearly fifty years – a rather battered copy of Paul Tournier’s The Meaning of Persons – which shows how long I have been interested in these ideas! The subtitle Reflections on a Psychiatrist’s Casebook accurately describes the content as his own reflections on his experience as a doctor, psychiatrist and Christian.

Tournier uses the word ‘person’ in its modern sense of the whole living individual, and uses the contrasting term ‘personage’ to represent the mask we present to the world, the outer human being, as opposed to the inner lived human being. Jung called this personage the persona (per-sona), so I will stick with Jung’s term henceforth.

Tournier ponders the question How can we Discover the True Person, in the context of his psychoanalytic work. He contrasts the process of objective and scientific inquiry, where information is exchanged, with the process of subjective and intuitive personal encounter where a bond of sympathy and affection is established between two people. In the former learning takes place; in the latter understanding takes place. He suggests that in the latter case there is true communion which touches the other person deeply. Tournier regards this communion as spiritual, and relates it to Martin Buber’s I and Thou. This is also the key to understanding oneself as a person – relationship with others.

Further reflection suggests that the person is the original living creation, and the persona is the automatic, habitual routine presented to the world. Industrial society and technology are increasingly impersonal and encourage the repetition of the persona and not the creativity of the true person. Much of social media and the celebrity culture focus precisely on personas.

There is an ongoing tension between person and persona, because we do not fully ‘know’ ourselves. This tension is often greatly magnified in those who need the support of a psychoanalyst.

There are interesting reflections on the distinction between psychology and spirituality. Tournier suggests that psychology is the science or method by which the mind is ‘laid bare’, but as soon as we approach questions of attitude to self/life/God/morality, then we are in the spiritual business of soul-healing.

In the latter part of the book, Tournier reflects on the bible, the living God and Jesus Christ as important aspects of his own perspective on the world – and entirely consistent with his psychoanalysis and the rest of this book. Indeed the bible has many hidden messages about discovering the inner living person. St Francis was a great exemplar:

“St Francis had become so fully a person, found such personal fellowship with God, that in every thing he saw a person, a reflection of the person of God.”

We could do worse than follow that…

With thanks to my friend Geoff at university for introducing me to Tournier’s book.
The photo of Paul Tournier is from Wikipedia.

 

If Only They Didn’t Speak English

of onlyMy post on Competition and Co-operation touched on cultural differences between The UK and the US, so I was attracted to read Jon Sopel’s recent book ‘If Only They Didn’t Speak English’, which explores the differences Jon has found during his long stint as the BBC’s North America correspondent.

Jon’s book confirms that the US is a very different country, quite alien in many ways to a European perspective – resulting of course from a very different history and geography. A list of the subjects covered by chapter gives an idea of its scope:

  • the anger felt by many Americans, the ‘losers’ in the globalising project
  • the pervasive influence of race and discrimination
  • the evident patriotism
  • the system of government, and the current neglect of public infrastructure
  • the continued major influence of religion and God
  • the issue of guns and the right to bear arms
  • the easily aroused anxiety felt by many Americans
  • the ‘special’ role that Americans feel they have with the world, and the supposed ‘special’ relationship with UK
  • the increasing loss of contact with truth in the political arena
  • the descent into chaos with the Trump administration.

There is much insight here, although interestingly he does not focus on issues of competition vs co-operation. The book provides a stimulating read. And Jon warns that we should not expect major change or realignment; these are real differences. We really are confused by a common language, to suppose that the differences are not as great as they appear – they are.

At the end of the day, although Britain aspires to provide a bridge between Europe and America, our culture is much more European than American. Attempts to move us in an American direction must be seen in this light. Americans think we’re socialists, and most Brits don’t really want to change the current settlement and, for example, lose our NHS. Brexit puts this all in jeopardy, engineered as it was on a misleading and false prospectus of supporting the NHS.

 

Cistercian Simplicity

I’ve long found inspiration and sustenance from the beauty and simplicity of the Cistercian abbeys, still found in various states of repair across Europe. For me their simplicity of form is unfailingly beautiful.

In this context I’ve also been aware of the towering spiritual figure of St Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the main instigators of the Cistercian movement, and wondered what sort of person he might have been.

spirit of simplicitySo I couldn’t resist the book ‘The Spirit of Simplicity’, being translations of classical French texts by that modern spiritual seeker Thomas Merton. The book is in two parts. The first part is a text with the book’s title, attributed to Jean-Baptiste Chautard in the mid 1920s. The second part contains selected texts by St Bernard himself on Inner Simplicity. Could this explain what lay behind the beauty of those old Abbeys?

The original Cistercian movement was one of renewal, aiming to return to the Rule of the monastic life originally established by St Benedict (c. 480-550 AD). Inner simplicity was a founding principle, and from this flowed the external simplicity of the forms created. The fathers of the first Abbey at Citeaux in the early 1100s were dedicated to this.

Chautard suggests that there was a golden age of 150 years for the Cistercian movement, when this simplicity was effectively maintained. This was followed by a silver age of another 100 years when it was not so effectively maintained and embellishments crept in. After the middle of the 14th century decline set in – with several causes: the Black Death, religious wars, and then the Reformation. (Paradoxically, Protestantism saw a return to simplicity in the form of religious buildings. Many of the older decorated Gothic buildings now show an almost Cistercian simplicity.) Another renewal movement at the end of the 19th century ensured that there are still some Cistercian Abbeys operating today.

St Bernard himself is regarded as the finest exemplar of the movement. The second part of the book contains his reflections on that simplicity, the need for humility, and obedience in the context of the monk’s life, the importance of the monk knowing himself – so actually quite modern psychologically – the overcoming of pride and dedication to the love of God.

I was quite struck by one particular quote:

And what greater pride is there than that one man should try to impose his own opinion upon the whole community, as if he alone had the spirit of God?

Modern dictators and populists please note. Pride always comes before a fall.

So the outer simplicity of the Cistercian abbey is a reflection of the inner simplicity of the monks. The evident beauty is a reflection of the inner beauty of their souls.

I would not suggest that the life of a monk is right for everyone, but it is clear that this dedication to inner simplicity produces this wonderful contribution to the beauty in the world. Go see some of these superb buildings for yourself – Fountains Abbey in UK, Fontenay, Senanques, Silvacane, Fontfroide, Pontigny and many others in France, Orval in Belgium. There are far too many to list them all. Here are just a few random selected photos.

For most, you must travel to less frequented parts of the country. The communities were built to be self sufficient, away from centres of population. These journeys provide a scenic mini pilgrimage in themselves. Even the less well preserved abbeys, such as Abbeycwmhir in an isolated valley in mid-Wales, once one of the largest abbeys in the UK, have a special atmosphere about them.

abbeycwmhir
Abbeycwmhir

And the book is certainly very readable if it aligns with your interest. Merton knew his stuff.

 

Saving Capitalism

Readers of liberal media know the story. Inequality is getting worse, banks, corporations and rich individuals distort ‘the system’ to their own advantage. Communities are being gradually destroyed, as is the ability of the mass of people to support public services. In short, modern capitalism has become unfair and unsustainable. And then on top of that, increasing automation is destroying ever more jobs, just as education is creating ever more people capable of doing them.

saving capitalismRobert Reich is a professor on public policy at Berkeley and well known author. His book ‘Saving Capitalism’ explains it all, particularly in the context of the US. His subtitle ‘For the Many, Not the Few’ expresses well where he is coming from.

Reich points out that typical public debate between right and left between ‘free markets’ and ‘more government’ actually obscures the real issue. Governments are responsible for designing, organising and enforcing markets, and this is where the focus should be. Particularly in the US, moneyed interests have successfully subverted the process in their own favour. The resulting increased inequality is there for all to see.

As Reich explains, this direction has been supported by both Republican and Democratic establishments from the era of Reagan, through Clinton, Bush, Obama. The countervailing powers to the extremes of capitalism have been gradually eroded, organised labour largely destroyed, ever-reduced and ineffective regulation, lack of control on monopolies, lax bankruptcy laws for big companies, shareholders given preference over other stakeholders, legislation influenced ever more by big money, revolving doors between corporations and government, obscene rewards to chief executives… All of course came to a head with the financial crash of 2008, after which banks were deemed ‘too big to fail’, were bailed out and the American people paid the price.

As Reich points out, this sort of thing has all happened in the US before, and the system has eventually righted itself, notably when ‘big oil’ was dismantled, when Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘new deal’ came along, when AT&T was dismantled and so on.

The challenge today is to restore suitable countervailing power to the political-economic system, so that the system can again flourish, and democracy itself be renewed. And this in a climate where technology increasingly means that the old ways of mass employment will no longer work.

The ‘rules of the market’ need to be designed anew, and the corporation ‘reinvented’. Reich is confident that this can be done. But to do it people need to begin to care and maybe re-establish some of the grassroots movements that provide necessary countervailing power. The Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn movements begin to show that the impetus is there among younger people, in both UK and US. Indeed on the other side of the spectrum the Tea Party showed similar characteristics.

The populism currently sweeping the world is not the answer, rule by over-blown egos is ultimately non-democratic. Reich highlights the problem and the needed direction with a clarity that is commendable. We all need to be listening and using what influence we might have.

Reality Is Not What It Seems

reality coverI recently discovered Carlo Rovelli’s book Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity. This was among the big sellers at Waterstones, and I soon discovered why. Rovelli is very good at communicating ‘difficult’ scientific ideas. His subject matter is physics, that most basic of sciences, and this book gives a good overview of the implications of the current thinking of some physicists.

His story begins with the Ancient Greeks and particularly Democritus and his atomism, the essential granular quality of the universe. Although no work of Democritus survived, the essential ideas were rediscovered at the time of the Renaissance, ultimately inspiring Isaac Newton and his model of the existence of particles in space and time, and of forces between them, action at a distance, what became known as gravity.

The next great step was the ‘discovery’ of electric and magnetic fields between particles by Faraday and Maxwell.

With his special theory of relativity in 1905, Einstein brought together space and time, into space-time, and in 1915 his general relativity further integrated spacetime with fields, as covariant fields.

The amazing story of quantum mechanics, developed by many collaborators including Planck, Heisenberg and Dirac, then simplified the physicists’ model of the universe to two things: Spacetime and Quantum fields. And then the ultimate aim of Quantum gravity is to reduce this to just one building block of the whole universe – Covariant quantum fields.

Yes it’s a great story and well worth reading for insight into where the physicists are at, but without the incomprehensible (to most people) maths that lies behind it.

But always remember this. It’s only a model; it’s not reality. And the model doesn’t really understand the interiority of things, life, consciousness, the mystery of existence… i.e. most of what’s important.

 

In Touch

51cz8w0hvrl-_sy346_In Touch: How to Tune In to the Inner Guidance of Your Body and Trust Yourself
by John J. Prendergast

One of my recurrent themes on this blog is that we have lost contact with our connection with others, and with the natural world. But worse, have we lost contact with our own body and inner self? This is precisely the subject of In Touch, by psychotherapist John Prendergast.

The premise is in the book’s publicity material:

“Your body has a natural sense of truth. We can feel authenticity in ourselves and in others. However, this innate wisdom is obscured by our conditioning—the core limiting beliefs, reactive feelings, and somatic contractions that fuel our sense of struggle and veil who we really are.

In Touch is a groundbreaking, experiential guide to the felt-sense of our inner knowing—the deep intelligence available through our bodies. Each chapter presents moving stories, helpful insights from spirituality, psychology, and science, and simple yet potent experiments for integrating the gifts of inner knowing into every aspect of daily life.”

So the book takes this forward and explores this inner felt sense, which is found through connection with our own body. It aims to ‘help you recognize your own natural sense of inner knowing by showing you how to listen to your body for guidance.’ We are not just a mind that happens to sit in a relatively independent body; we are one integrated organism, and forget that at our peril. It very much reminded me of the book Bodymind, written by Ken Dychtwald in the 1970s and still gracing my shelves.

I read this book on Kindle, for convenience when travelling. I don’t recommend this, but it did give me easy access to quotes from the book highlighted in the following. Far better to read the real book.Read More »

Character

9780375501203-it-300The Force of Character, James Hillman, Ballantine 1999

Reviews of James Comey’s recent book A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership brought to mind this article I wrote, that first appeared in Conjunction Issue 40, July 2006.

The later years of life have a bad press in the modern world. Whereas in the past the aged were revered and respected, in today’s youth-oriented culture they tend to be seen as simply past it and somewhat irrelevant. Yet we live longer and longer. Why is this, and what is the purpose of such long life?

Psychologist James Hillman addresses such questions in The Force of Character. He takes us through many of the apparently negative aspects of aging and tries to draw lessons on why we go through these experiences. The body gradually declines, memory becomes unreliable, sometimes is largely lost, mental faculties may be impaired. But this is all part of a life process that does not have to be seen as negative. There is wisdom and learning to be gained from these challenges, just as with the different challenges of earlier life. And Hillman characterises three stages of this later life process – lasting, leaving and left.

This is not the place to explain these stages, but the key insight Hillman puts forward is that this is all about the development of character – as we get older the inessentials are gradually stripped away and what remains is the essence of the person, the character. Character is what makes us different from others, the essence of our uniqueness and “what gives sense and purpose to the changes of aging”.

This is a different concept to ‘personality’ or ‘ego’; it is almost impersonal. Hillman likens this to the bringing of ‘fate’ back into psychology: “Psychology shorn of fate is too shallow to address its subject, the soul.”

Character can influence events and people. Hillman quotes cases where the emphasis of particular characteristics by a strongly developed character has an unexpectedly significant effect on others. Dennis Skinner, the MP for Bolsover, comes to mind!

Character cannot be objectivised; it requires descriptive language to describe it – adjectives such as ‘stingy’, ‘sharp’, ‘opinionated’, adverbs such as ‘slowly’, ‘carefully’, ‘deliberately’.

This is starting to sound a bit like astrology, and in particular astrological psychology. [Non-astrological readers ignore this paragraph!] Where the Natal Chart provides a sort of map of the essence of an individual, the aspect structure highlights basic motivations at a deep level, the planets, influenced by the signs, show how we most effectively operate in the environment represented by the houses. I could even extend this to suggest that the three charts provide a sort of map of Hillman’s concept of character. And the Life Clock identifies those times in life that are most propitious for the development of character, for becoming what we are in our essential selves.

Hillman’s book is an interesting read, although its origin as a stitching together of separately written pieces is sometimes apparent. You may well learn something about aging that you didn’t know. And it’s interesting to come across the development of some new psychological thinking that is totally consistent with the viewpoint of astrological psychology. Indeed, Hillman recognises the link with astrology:

“Character had [its oldest] refuge: astrology, where it still thrives today.”

The four little girls

Birmingham (Burr-ming-HAM) Alabama is renowned for its role in the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s, that were spearheaded by Martin Luther King Jr. In 1963 there was the bombing by the Ku Klux Klan of the 16th Street Baptist church that was at the heart of the movement, 4 little girls were killed. Birmingham police with dogs and water cannon attacked defenceless crowds, including children, in the nearby park. All this was orchestrated by the renowned mayor Bull O’Connor. I remember it all so well from the UK media of that time.

That park (Kelly Ingram Park) is now a moving memorial to these events, with a number of evocative statues. Near the entrance are statues to the four little girls, and to King himself.Read More »