What the horse knows No. 3

12 03 2017

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Life lesson No. 3: Truth

One of the most honourable qualities about horses is their inability to tell lies. So remarkable is this quality that two renowned horsemen authors chose to highlight it in the titles of their books. Interestingly, both titles of these two excellent books expressed the idea in the negative. Horses don’t lie and horses never lie because, obviously, horses tell the truth.

Horses always tell the truth. Perhaps this is because they don’t have to lie. They don’t have to file tax returns, phone in sick or fake ID documents. Horses don’t have to return items to shops or buy tickets or order online. They don’t meet people in secret or make phone calls they shouldn’t. They never put anyone down out of spite, insecurity or envy. They never complain or write snippy emails. In comparison to most egocentric, digitally-distracted, sensation-seeking humans, horses live lives of simple harmony.

Given the vast differences between them and us, it’s extraordinary then that we can learn so much from each other. Yesterday, Sheranni marked his fifteenth birthday, and while I filled the hay-nets in the spring sunshine I reflected on some of the lessons he has taught me along the way to this milestone.

He was born true and good. He was born to run and indeed as a young colt whenever he got up from his straw bed after a long afternoon nap he would canter over to his dam for another feed. One truth he taught me early on was how important physicality is for young male animals. He also taught me that horses need more space than I ever realised. The idea of an acre per horse is ludicrous as is the idea of educating any young male in a confined space for long periods of time.

Looking back over a decade and a half together, it seems that we spent the first two years of Sheranni’s life simply allowing him to let off steam. I’ll never forget those times he enthusiastically charged towards me just missing me by a paper-breadth because I had just walked up the hill to visit the yearlings. I’ll never forget advising one of his early riders to hide in the cowshed because he would become extravagantly exuberant at the sight of her holding the halter. I’ll never forget him running around the lanes with my step-dad and pausing to take a nap on the second lap because he had released all his pent-up energy. I’ll never forget the daily fly-pasts and races with young Dragonfly and the times I stood in churned up clay and decided it was time to move yet again to bigger pastures.

I learned from looking after young Arabian horses that physicality is as essential to them as air. They need to stretch and grow and run at their own pace, which means often that they need to go for the burn. I think the horses were around eight years old when I finally admitted to prospective land-owners that they were full (on) Arabians. Previously, if anyone enquired about their breeding I’d say they had a ‘bit’ of Arab in them, and hoped that the ‘bit’ of them that needed to explore any new territory at top tail-high speed interspersed with impressive rearing play-fighting, dubbed horse-wrestling by one stunned observer, would be miraculously subdued the day we moved in.

In respecting their need for physicality, I looked for homes where they would not be bored and when I saw that they were getting fed up with a place for whatever reason, we moved on. This meant that over the years we moved about twelve times and that in itself was another revelation: horses like variety and change just as we do. Too much down-time dulls their spirits. Too much time, in the words of one of our students, ‘spent staring at the walls is not good.’ All active, intelligent animals need to move because to move is to be true.

dsc_0318Sheranni and Dragonfly on the move.





But Hitler was a vegetarian

3 11 2015

apples

People who want to find flaws in the arguments for not eating animals will often, semi-jokingly, point out that Hitler was a vegetarian. Their anti-vegetarian logic flows something like this: if a carpet-munching, insane mass murderer loved animals enough not to eat them then sane, rational people should not do so because that makes them affiliated with him, the tiny nasty Fuhrer.

In response, it’s likely that Hitler almost certainly ate bread as part of his diet, but few people would give up eating sandwiches or baguettes to avoid being associated with the eating habits of the Fuhrer, so why does his preference for vegetables provoke such an emotional reaction?

Perhaps what stirs people is not so much what Hitler decided to put on his plate (or not), but the effrontery of Hitler taking an ethical position. For many, Hitler cannot be ethical because, of course, Hitler was evil. Ethical positions held by evil people are suspicious therefore we shouldn’t trust them. This curious line of reasoning conveniently lets people off the hook of considering the difficult, embarrassing problem of whether to eat animals or not.

Like many people who grew up in the seventies, I ate animals. Favourites from my childhood diet included crispy bacon sandwiches with spicy brown sauce, sausages cooked to dark sweet stickiness and sandwiched between the crackling crusts of soft white bread, steak and kidney pie, especially those flabby ones in the tin that puffed up to a glorious golden crispy wonder, liver and bacon and onions.

Just thinking about those meaty favourites makes my mouth water. If someone were to offer me a steak right now, I would have trouble resisting, which makes me, I suppose, an inconsistent vegetarian. Sometimes I tell people that I’m a pragmatic vegetarian, who sometimes eats meat, but that is a pretty indefensible position. In fact, it’s really no position at all.

Like many people, I suppose, I want to leave my options open. I want to enjoy the clear conscience that comes from only eating plants and not harming animals, but I’m also someone who loves to cook for people and eat with family and friends, and most of the people I love to cook for and eat with are not vegetarian.

I’ve got round this for a number of years by only cooking meat on special occasions. I believe that if I’m going to eat meat then it should be locally sourced, organic, free range, the best, by which I mean the least harmfully reared meat I can buy. Lamb I consider to be more ethical than pork or beef because at least lambs are allowed to live outside for most of their short lives. Last Christmas I bought from my local butcher a plump free range duck that was lovingly slapped as it slid into its plastic bag. This bird had been branded a ‘good bird,’ simply by the warmth of the butcher’s touch. It tasted delicious, along with the potatoes cooked to a crisp in the sweet clear duck fat.

A year on, and I’ve read more and thought more about the ethics of eating animals and now I’m not so sure I would enjoy the duck without more than a twinge of guilt. A butcher’s banter is no longer enough to reassure me that every bird had a decent life. Free range and local does not necessarily mean a happy bird waddling around by a pond with its friends before someone came along with a bag to whisk it away for slaughter. The duck might, indeed, have been a duckling only six weeks old and fattened up with growth-promoting feed to increase its breast so that it could adorn my Christmas table. Huh!

In preparation for a seminar on food ethics, I’ve been reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. Much of his reasoning resonates. He believes that the question of eating animals is ‘not only our basic ability to respond to sentient life, but our ability to respond to parts of or own (animal) being. There is a war not only between us and them, but between us and us.’ By which he means that eating animals is part of the human story.

I’m at the beginning of a new story in how I work with and relate to animals and I want to start off on the right footing, so to speak. I would no more think of eating one of my animals than I would think of eating one of my brothers or sisters. It isn’t sentiment that stops me considering their flesh as meat, or romanticism, or even squeamishness. It’s a sense of morality. I wouldn’t eat my horse, or any horse for that matter, because it would be wrong to do so.

The reasons for this wrongness are many. Firstly and obviously, I have other options and don’t need to eat them to stay alive, but even if I were starving and had no other option then I would still choose to gnaw on bark or eat dried leaves than sacrifice my horses to feed myself.

How can I know this? During the two and a half years I spent researching the German and Russian occupation of Poland in the Second World War I read many accounts of people eating rats, cats, dogs, squirrels, pigeons and crows simply to stay alive. In one vivid account, people who had been imprisoned in cellars for months ran out and risked their lives to drink the blood of horses. Many horses perished to keep people alive.

I understand the desperation that would drive someone to kill an animal in order to stay alive. I have read enough about the effects of starvation to know that it drives people mad and convinces them to abandon their ethical principles. Under these circumstances, many people would think that they didn’t have a choice. It would come down to this: either my life continues or the animal’s, and my life is more important to me than the animal’s so unfortunately the animal must give up its life to save mine.

When Jonathan Safran Foer’s Jewish grandmother was offered meat by a Russian after coming close to starvation under German occupation, she refused. The meat was pork. It wasn’t kosher. The author was surprised by her decision. Why wouldn’t she eat pork to save her own life? Her response illuminates the ethical position so simply, so beautifully and so powerfully. ‘If nothing matters, there’s nothing left to save.’

If animals matter to us, to make them suffer in their billions worldwide just so we can farm them for cheap meat through the food industry is indefensible and certainly unethical. The question which intrigues me though is why a diet without meat is so difficult for many people to contemplate: why are so many people, and I include myself here, prepared to look away from animal suffering and heap their surrendered flesh on to a plate simply because it tastes good? It just seems such a flimsy reason. My thinking is that eating meat is so bound up with conditioning and habit and mind-set that taking an ethical position on animal suffering is nowhere near as straightforward as taking an ethical position on human torture. Most people aren’t implicated in torture, but most people are implicated in what happens to animals. I’m interested to know what you think. In the meantime, I’m sticking with eating apples for a while.





Adventures in Ethics

18 07 2015

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Is there anything you would be prepared to give up to save the planet from human excess? I put this question to one of my philosophy groups this week after admitting that I was trying to give up buying bottled water, not always easy when I’ve gone out in hot sun completely forgetting to take a drink with me.

Graham said that there were some things that he would be prepared to give up, but not at the expense of marital harmony. His wife was against any form of ethical living and his attempts to sort out their rubbish for recycling really annoy her. I joked that he’d have to start taking out the rubbish under the cover of darkness and he said that it was no joke. One night his wife caught him eating something perfectly edible from their kitchen bin, and went ballistic. He wondered whether ethical living was worth the hassle he would get from someone who thinks that people who care about such matters are basically nutters.

Painful as it was for Graham to be so compromised in his own household, antipathy and even downright aggression to people who want to live according to ethical principles is fairly commonplace. Judging by the amount of rubbish in my street and the road I walk regularly, there are more people chucking food wrappers and drinks cans out of cars than there are people prepared to pick up the litter. If I want to live ethically, I can’t walk past the grey, flattened bottles, the plastic bags and the drinks cans washed up along the hedge without picking them up, and most of the time I resent having to do so, even while I’m ranting at those who DON’T CARE.

There are many objections to living ethically. Here’s a list of some of the most popular ones.

Living ethically is dreary

Living ethically is earnest

Living ethically makes others feel guilty

Living ethically is difficult

Living ethically will change who I am

Living ethically will make people dislike me

I’m too old for ethics

I’m too young for ethics

Ethics can’t make a difference, as the planet is already doomed.

I’ve decided that I can’t really teach ethics without at least trying to address some of these objections and practise some of the philosophical ideas I’m inviting people to explore.

So, I’m committing to a year of living ethically and I’ll be sharing my adventures in regular posts. For starters, taking the first objection on the list, ethics really needn’t be dreary. Ethics can be fun and it can also involve young people, who love to get involved, as long as the ethical is served up with a generous dollop of spontaneous play. I’ll offer an egg-hunt as my first example of how ethical living can be an adventure.

One the morning after their sleepover I’d promised Anna and Elen pancakes, but I had run out of eggs. We had a choice. I could either nip to Tesco Express and buy some and make the pancakes pretty swiftly, or we could go and feed the goats and ponies and buy the eggs on the way from a local farmhouse with a little roadside stall and a tin for the money. Guess what the girls chose? We went to the farmhouse, but the stall was empty. There are no guarantees of success with this way of shopping. I knew of another farmhouse with eggs and an honesty box, but it was two or three lanes away, and we were by now starving. The girls had to make another ethical choice: go to the supermarket or go to the second farmhouse. Guess what they chose?

The farmhouse had eggs, and what eggs they were, all different colours, from hazelnut brown to sky blue to olive green. We bought two dozen, some for us, and the rest as gifts. We admired these eggs. We talked about them. We wondered about the hens that had laid them. We put them on the counter and photographed them. And then we made golden pancakes and ate them.

If you’re willing to share, I’d be fascinated to know about your own ethical adventures.





Sink or Sing?

9 03 2015

Michael leaping

My heart sinks when I go to turn on the laptop these days. If I can avoid turning on the laptop at all, I will now take that option and it feels like a painful rebellion against the tyranny of work. Just tonight I’ve realised that not turning on the laptop doesn’t mean that I’m not working. Avoiding coming home to my desk doesn’t mean that I’m not out there building something I can be proud of. Spending time with horses makes my heart sing on so many levels and when my heart sings I feel alive. I feel like my best self, and my best self is who I want to be without compromise.

Horses are never less than themselves. They don’t fret about all they have to do in a day. They take care of their needs naturally and easily. If they want to go for a walk, they take a stroll down to the far end of the field, only pausing to watch a raven lift off a tree. If they need a scratch, they find a fence post or a willing human to relieve the itch. Every action has meaning and purpose. As social animals horses spend a lot of time doing what social animals are meant to do – socialise with each other – and the more time I spend with them, the more I want to be with them.

To work I must sometimes cut myself off from other people and that is difficult when you are naturally sociable, when what you do best is learning through being with others. My work with people and horses never feels like work. It feels more like play. It feels like the work I’m meant to be doing.

Horses have profoundly changed me as a person. In the twelve years I’ve worked with my own Arabians I’ve learned more about myself than I ever could have believed possible. This morning I made a list of some of the key lessons I’ve taken from being with horses. Here are the first three:

That I can hold my ground and stand up for myself without fear or aggression

That respect comes from within

That I can live with honesty

I’m still learning especially since taking on two semi-feral Dartmoors over the past year who have taught me about more wildness and having fun than I thought possible. You cannot train a wild pony to be civilised or follow the rules because a wild pony thinks instinctively and acts out of self-preservation. A wild pony does not understand electric fence tape as I discovered in the second week when both ponies ran through a fence line that had taken me over an hour to assemble. They were just escaping horse flies. When I lifted the tape and waved my arms to try to get them to reconsider, they ran faster, pulling the tape with them which somehow pushed against my chest and flung me backwards on the ground.

It marked the end of a long time since I was floored by a horse. In my early days of learning how to work with highly spirited young Arabians there were a few trips to casualty. Even though I had ridden horses since I was a child, training horses was another matter altogether. Early on I realised that I had to up my game, or be killed. Discovering that there was a whole realm of horsemanship and way of being with horses that didn’t mean pushing them around or forcing them into obedience was the beginning of a completely new way of experiencing the world. Twelve years on, the biggest surprise is how differently I now view humans.

The idea that animals have something to teach us about being human remains controversial because humans are supposed to be the rational, thinking beings. Humans are supposed to have all the answers, but my experience of looking after large social animals daily over the past twelve years has taught me that my human actions are sometimes gross, offensive and excessive. It takes a more subtle, gentle intelligence to show us supposedly rational creatures that we don’t have all the answers. In this respect, horses have refined my thinking.

I’m fascinated when people change through their connection with horses, when the animal enables the human to learn something new, often in a wondrous, thrilling way. Looking at it Socratically, these lessons are insights, recollections of knowledge that we have forgotten as we have evolved. I remember one young man, who had little support in his life, lit up after working with an untouched pony on Dartmoor. He had learned how to help the pony to trust the touch of a human hand, an alien feeling for a prey animal, and in teaching that simple lesson to the pony this young man had learned how he could be valued himself. For the first time he had felt deep in his being the precious feeling of self-worth and he was radiant with it. He was dancing as he told us about it.

It still seems strange to me that animals can give humans, the so-called higher mammals, feelings of self-worth and of value. But if I turn to Socrates again for help, I’m less puzzled. Socrates believed that the way to fulfilment and happiness was through self-awareness.  Because they are both like us and utterly different to us animals can help us to study ourselves. Animals reflect back insights which we can so easily ignore from another person who may not always have our interests at heart.  Animals are self-interested without being self-absorbed, and this applies particularly to highly sensitive and self-aware horses. Horses know instinctively what feels good and that is of enormous benefit to us in helping us to know ourselves, and ultimately feel good about ourselves.

I found this clip of Ulrika Jonsson working with a horse and I’m sharing it because it’s so brave and moving. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jnb0eM8WohA

A short clip showing some of the work we’ve been doing at the Dartmoor Pony Training Centre Community Interest Company. http://youtu.be/5QzKHjNaeN0





Being and time

4 01 2015

Spending time with friends is the reason why I’ve not been writing as prolifically as I thought I needed to. During my career as a professional author and teacher I have at times considered spending time with friends to be a luxury. When the time came for me to go deep into a new work then my friendships were rationed, to be indulged only on special occasions.

I splurged on my friends this Christmas and New Year. Instead of buying expensive presents that I could not afford, I wanted to be generous with time instead. If a friend called or texted and asked whether I wanted to meet for a walk or a pub lunch, I replied with an enthusiastic ‘yes,’ and ignored the scrooge voice that urged me to sort out my end of year accounts or respond to work emails. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve committed to a social life that reminded me of how carefree I used to be in my teens and twenties until I got seriously into writing books. Breaking my self-imposed limits has been liberating and has made me appreciate the benefits of keeping friends closer and made me think about how I might live more spontaneously now that the holiday is over.

The temptation is to return to the grind, to fall back into work and lurch towards the next holiday. Teaching in schools encourages this mentality and I know that some of my colleagues will be jokingly counting down the days until half-term. Instead of pushing on regardless, I’d like to create some more room in my life for the people who matter most to me and the people who interest me the most. I realise that this requires an adjustment in attitude. Spending time with great people is not indulgent, it’s a privilege. It’s essential for a full and vigorous life.

I haven’t really understood how not being able to afford time for people is the ultimate poverty. I suppose I just thought that I would make time to catch up when I had more time to give. I now have a better insight into how much more productive and creative I can be when I have spent time in ways that enrich my life, whether that is long frosty or windy walks and talks while out and about with much adored dogs, playing Happy Families after having feasted and drunk champagne at New Year or a lunch at an old-fashioned pub in Dunster when my friends instead of complaining about my lateness simply ordered for me and then navigated our way across Exmoor so that all I had to do was to enjoy their company.

At the start of 2015 I’d like to say a huge thank you to my friends from all elements of my life for reminding me what life is for. And for showing me that the work-holiday dichotomy is a habitual way of thinking. This time has made me realise that I don’t need to ration or be mean with my friendships. The demands of work and other daily commitments will always do that for me. Ever since hearing Jonathan Rée lecture on Heidegger and hearing him say that the greatest gift that anyone can give to another person truly is their time and full attention I’ve understood this intellectually. But I don’t think I’ve fully got how to go about it until now. Allowing myself to actually afford time is the best gift I’ve had in years.

Happy New Year.

Some of my happiest moments from the year were spent working with horses and friends.

Michael leapingBelinda with dusters

Dom with Trixie jumping

Jo with Dragonfly

Horses at Netherton3

Setting up





On civilisation

16 06 2014

 

 

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After years of living in a charming thatched cottage made of lumpy damp cob, I appreciate the joys of the smooth walls and year-round dry warmth of my current flat. I’ve rented the flat for nearly five years now and at the end of the summer when the heating clicks back on I feel the glow of knowing that I won’t have to sit through a winter at the laptop suffering with stiff, cold fingers, icy feet and a chest infection.

Wherever I have lived I’ve appreciated the convenient delights of hot water for washing up, daily showers and the simple pleasure of being able to boil a kettle for a pot of tea. When it falls dark in the evenings being able to turn on a lamp is reassuring. These small daily conveniences confirm that all is well with the world.

For many people in the western world heat, water and light are considered essential for a civilised existence. Take away just one of those elements and many people would feel deprived. Perhaps I have become soft, but there is no way I could live in cold, damp ancient places again. The rat thudding up the bedroom stairs and out through the charming little cottage window under the eaves ended romantic dwelling for me. Given the choice I suppose I could cope with candle-light as long as I had warmth, but it would be irritating and tiring reading and writing by dim light. It makes me wonder how the writers and thinkers of the past managed to get so much work done.

The desire to read a book in a warm well-lit room might seem innocent enough, but the romantic 18th century thinker Rousseau felt that a comfortable, intellectual existence prevented people from living rich lives.  In the words of Bertrand Russell, romantics ‘did not aim at peace and quiet, but at vigorous and passionate individual life.’ Rousseau believed that civilisation enslaved people. Real life was lived with intense feeling, preferably outdoors as much as possible. Think Wordsworth swooning against a tree and you get the picture.

The romantics rebelled against convention. Individual freedom was worth fighting for and worth all the hassle of going against the status quo. Perhaps this leads to solipsism. Bertrand Russell certainly thinks so and condemns romantic values as destructive. ‘Hence the type of man encouraged by romanticism, especially of the Byronic variety, is violent and anti-social, an anarchic rebel or a conquering tyrant.’

Rousseau fitted the stereotype. True to the romantic spirit he sold his watch (being Swiss that was obviously the first thing he thought of) and spent time wandering through France homeless, pick-pocketing and befriending wealthy women when he became short of cash. He had a long-term affair with a chambermaid with whom he fathered five illegitimate children, and all of them ended up in orphanages. He became a social celebrity and was granted favours by Kings. His writing was banned. He inspired a revolution and he fell out with the most benign of philosophers David Hume.

I like to imagine the scatty Swiss and the sober Scot settling down with a good malt whisky or two to discuss the idea of taste and what constitutes human identity, but this philosophical friendship ended badly when Rousseau accused Hume of going along with a plot to kill him. A broken-hearted Hume mourning the loss of his crazy companion remained generous to the end. ‘He has only felt during the whole course of his life,’ Hume said of Rousseau. ‘He is like a man who was stripped not only of his clothes, but of his skin, and turned out in this situation to combat with the rude and boisterous elements.’  Rousseau returned to France where it is believed he ended his own life.

It’s easy to see why 18th century society with its emphasis on land and property rights seemed so depressing to someone who had no home of his own, but had Rousseau lived in the 21st century he might have recognised the benefits that modern civilisation has brought: not only electric light, but high speed trains and air travel. Civilisation has enabled us to build hospitals, waste systems and recycling plants. It has created reservoirs and universities, nature reserves and clean beaches.  It has given us digital photography and film and free music.  It has brought us vaccinations, the world wide web, safety lamps, flushing toilets, postage stamps, pencils, and rubber bands, all of which the Sun newspaper reminded everyone (or at least the 22 million who received the free copy this week) were invented by the English, brand leaders of civilisation itself.

Civilisation is no longer the chain that shackles us, but rather the bridge that takes us to where we want to go. Seen in this light civilisation frees us.





For curiosity’s sake

14 04 2014

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What was this like before we got here?

Sometimes when I look around it seems that we’re living in a self-service world, an automated world that points us down a particular avenue. It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security by all the conveniences of living in the contemporary western world. In our post-industrial quest for efficiency and productivity, we have made things streamlined, safe and standardised. We have ironed out the idiosyncrasies. In such a world it’s easy to become dull and live on auto-pilot. It’s easy to forget how to think for ourselves because the world we have created doesn’t want us to. Where does that leave curiosity?

If I had to lose any one of my senses then I’d fight hard to save my sense of curiosity for it seems to me that being curious means being truly alive and awake. Without curiosity there would be no challenge for who could be bothered to explore, to discover, to enquire, to create or to reach out with no curiosity? Without curiosity we would become shut-in to the self. Without curiosity we would imprison ourselves.

Thinking philosophically is a curious occupation. It requires very little except an open mind and perhaps a notebook to catch new insights and understandings as they come. Thinking philosophically is something that anyone can do given a little time and attention. Philosophy is for the curious. One reason why thinking philosophically comes naturally to children is that their minds are more curious than adult minds.

Yesterday after a picnic with friends and their children under the oak trees I asked Anna, ten, and Elen, six, what they were most curious about. Anna said that she was most curious about the boy who cried wolf. She’d heard the story the day before and kept thinking about it. ‘I’m curious to know why he didn’t get a book or do something else. Why did he have to keep tricking people?’

She thought for a minute then added: ‘Also why do people say that cows lie down when it’s raining?’

Elen wanted to know why her friend Charlotte had left school and yet her sister Bella had stayed. She also wanted to know how cows make milk.

Her father Jeremy said that he would be curious to ‘have a chat with Darwin or Julius Cesar to see what they think of what we’ve made of the world.’ The girls’ mother Annaig was also curious about talking to people about lived experiences of the past. Annaig noted that when we start thinking about curiosity we end up with questions about the beginning and the end. Curiosity leads us into the big questions of philosophy.

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Declan is most curious about how he can carry the biggest stick 

After our picnic we went for a walk on Dartmoor through an ancient and curious landscape. As we warmed our backs on granite rocks more than 20 million years old, we wondered what the world might have been like before there were humans to experience it. As I tried to imagine a perfect, pristine wild landscape, I realised that what we think about the world is part of evolution, too. Old models of thought erode and change over time. Old ideas become replaced by new and fresh ideas. The things we are most curious about today will shape our future in some way and then be replaced by other ideas to get curious about. It’s only when we stop being curious that the light goes out on human thinking.

Here are some of the things I’m most curious about at the moment:

Is curiosity a sense or a skill?

Why do people still fall out when all their needs are met?

What will the drowned wreckage of the missing Malaysian plane look like?

Will my fancy ruffled tulips open today?

I’d be curious to hear from anyone who wants to share their own curiosity list.

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A cynical dog’s life

16 03 2014

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The Cynics were a school of Greek philosophy and early fans of self-sufficiency. Living well for the Cynics meant living off the land. Hard work equated to a virtuous life. The four schools of philosophy: the Cynics, the Sceptics, the Epicureans and the Stoics were established in the early part of the third century BC partly as a reaction to the collapse of the old form of society based on independent city states.

One of the first Cynics was Antisthenes, who followed Socrates and who lived a fairly conventional life, mixing with other thinkers in the rather elite circles of early Greek philosophy, but after the death of Socrates and the collapse of Athens, he seems to have gone through a mid-life crisis. He rejected the fine clothes, high conversation and the wining and dining favoured by his aristocratic friends and instead starting hanging out with the workers, apparently dressing like a labourer.

Declaring that refined philosophy was worthless, Antisthenes left the rarefied atmosphere of the academy and started teaching philosophy in the open-air to those without education in what might be considered the first open university. He wanted to return to a so-called more ‘natural’ way of living and that meant doing away with government, private property, marriage and religion. He also thought slavery should be abolished. So what did that leave him with, apart from smelly clothes and clean conscience? Well, not much, according to historians. Antisthenes disliked any form of luxury and thought that indulging the senses was wrong.  He reputedly said:  ‘I had rather be mad than delighted.’

Few people would echo his view nowadays. Given a choice, most people would prefer to be delighted rather than mad, as delight in our understanding carries much less stigma than madness. But perhaps we need to consider Antisthenes in the context of his time. He was by no means the only philosopher to despise luxury. Socrates before him created the identity of a philosopher-eccentric by dressing in old rags and sometimes neglecting to put on his sandals.  Granted that a Mediterranean climate makes it much easier to wander around in the ancient equivalent of beach wear all year round, maybe these philosophers were not as rebellious as they seemed, but their example in giving up luxury is worth examining.

A new Waitrose opened in my home town this week. The giant high street mobile advertising, the wrap-around sandwiching front and back of the local newspaper, the texts, the endless stuff in the letter box, the home visits from freshly uniformed Waitrose butlers bearing free cheese and wine samples on silver platters ensured that I took notice.  In the interests of philosophical research I went to see what all the fuss was about.

As I stalked the shelves, browsing what looked to me to be the same sort of produce and goods you get in every other supermarket, I wondered why people had chosen to come to Waitrose in droves. Apparently on opening day people started queuing at 7am, an hour before the store officially opened. So what is going on? What’s the appeal? Part of it must be that Waitrose is a marketing triumph: it packages things nicely, makes everything look pretty, trains staff to smile and to help the customers feel good, and then makes a huge profit. If that sounds cynical, it’s meant to in the spirit of the original cynics who would not have been seen dead near Waitrose.

Nevertheless, my visit to the shiny new store made me wonder whether there is something interesting going on because from what I could see most people shopping in Waitrose know exactly what they are doing. Most people shopping in Waitrose are buying what they can’t get elsewhere and that’s the feeling of a shop that cares, even if it is manufactured.

Walk into Waitrose and you feel uplifted by the sense of abundance and plenty, by the sense that the age of austerity, exemplified by the dusty cut-price world of Lidl and Aldi and the now struggling Morrisons is over at last. Goodbye cruddy old Co-op with your worn-out slippers and cardigan and your unappetising deli. Hello Waitrose with your Easter-egg colours, your outlandishly priced delicacies and your sweet smile. Spring is finally here!

For the Cynics, luxury was to be avoided if you wanted to feel good. For people living in 21st century Britain, luxury is what makes us feel good. So why have things changed so radically? Why is it now that when we want to cheer ourselves up, we are encouraged to do so by brands that parade their luxury status. I bought muesli the other day; wholesome muesli that used the word ‘luxury’ prominently on the front of the packet. Why? I didn’t buy it for that reason; I just wanted some breakfast cereal, so why did the company try to persuade me that I’d somehow invested in my wider well-being? It is precisely this form of marketing that makes many people feel cynical.

Dropping out to grow my own muesli seems a bit extreme, but not as extreme as Diogenes, another Cynic who followed Antisthenes. Diogenes famously claimed to be ‘a citizen of the world,’ but decided rather bizarrely to live like a dog. Indeed the word ‘cynic’ is derived from the Greek word kynikos, which means canine. He ditched most of his clothes, didn’t wash and moved his bones into a burial urn, a big terracotta pitcher. He was visited by many dogs and considered them to be his friends. Naturally when people annoyed him (and you can just guess at how much he was teased) he barked and howled and sometimes sank his teeth into his tormentor’s ankles.

Alexander the Great apparently dropped by one day and the great leader famously asked Diogenes if there was anything that he could do for him: some more Winalot, perhaps, or maybe a brisk run on the seafront followed a good scratch on his tummy? Diogenes famously told Alexander that yes there was something that Alexander could do for him and that was that he could get out of his light. Alexander’s reply is lost in history.

Diogenes believed that living simply was the only way to live freely. For him, moral freedom is only possible without desire for material possessions. In this respect he belongs to a long tradition of ascetics and alternatives who believe that withdrawing from the temptations of society is the way out of the bind of consumerism. But for modern society it certainly is not that clear-cut. We have recognised that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. We are not about to start lining our kennels with newspaper. Most people don’t mindlessly consume luxuries. We are canny enough to know the real motivations behind supermarket temptations, and we are open-minded enough to make our choices. We don’t need to give up on comfort in order to achieve wisdom. True wisdom lies in the subtleties of discernment.

Woof…





Maths matters to those with golden bones

10 03 2014

Pythagoras has been called ‘one of the most interesting and puzzling men in history.’ Mathematics as we understand it today began with Pythagoras and also Philosophy itself as he was the first to use the word ‘philosophy.’ He is also credited with applying the term ‘cosmos’ to the universe. His ideas blended together mathematics and theology and directly influenced the philosophy of Plato and in turn St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and the rationalist philosophers Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz and Kant.

As Pythagoras wrote nothing little is reliably known about the man behind the right angle triangle, which is still getting people worked up in maths tests. Some legends describe Pythagoras as the son of the god Apollo and accounts of his  miraculous, shamanic powers are fantastical making him seem like a character from a Greek myth. He was supposed to have travelled to the underworld and back and he could remember his previous lives. Reputedly Pythagoras could speak to animals, including eagles and bears and if that weren’t enough weirdness he also had a golden thigh which he liked to show off at parties. Some scholars have doubted whether he even existed at all. Perhaps he was made up by the cult of the Pythagoreans.

What is known is that Pythagoras was born on the island of Samos, a particularly violent and corrupt Greek island ruled by a tyrant called Polycrates who practised a Machiavellian style of leadership, dispatching his brothers when they got fed up with his wicked ways and using his own navy to make raids on foreign fleets. Understandably Pythagoras decided to take his golden bones elsewhere and he moved to southern Italy where he set up a religious society in Croton (some sources spell it Kroton). His disciples were loyal, but the citizens of Croton turned against him and he had to flee to another part of Italy, Metapontion, where he worked until he died.

Pythagoras was the first to understand that numbers, if they are real at all, are eternal and outside of time. Such was the power and purity of numbers that the early disciples believed that they had discovered the secret to God’s thoughts. The Pythagoreans discovered that everything in the universe is based on numbers. This mystical cosmology relates to patterns in nature from seeds to shells to the rings in the bark of trees, and the markings on insects, birds and animals. For those early thinkers, numbers were the key to understanding the mystery of nature.

The understanding of numbers led to advances in astronomy, physics, engineering and meteorology. Any discipline requiring data and statistics can trace its lineage right back to the Pythagoreans. The beauty of numbers is expressed in the forms of architecture, painting and music. Without an understanding of numbers civilisation and culture as we know it would not have developed in the way it did.

Given the importance of numbers, it’s interesting to note that recent headlines about the state of British education claim that ‘schools are going backwards.’ The reason is that today’s pupils are seemingly worse at maths and reading than their grandparents. A report showing literacy and numeracy tables for 24 countries ranks England near the bottom at 21 and 22 (below Poland and Estonia in one report I read, and of course that must mean Brits are really and truly off-the-scale thick).

The ‘damning report’ shows that Japanese school leavers are more advanced than graduates from British universities (given that some of these same graduates would of course be Japanese, I’m not sure how this works, but you get the idea). The thrust of the reports is that action must be taken if the United Kingdom is not to fall drastically behind, remaining the dim-wits of the world, forever assigned to selling programmes and hotdogs at the great game of life. The question is what has happened to Britain’s world-class education, a system that used to be the envy of the world? How come children in the Netherlands and Finland end up more literate and numerate than British or American children?

Education minister Elizabeth Truss has been visiting China to see how things are done there. Working class Chinese children typically score higher at maths than middle class British kids. That must be so galling for those parents who are shelling out huge amounts of money to send their children to private schools, when any son or daughter of a Chinese factory worker will easily beat them in the race of life, well at the very least a maths Olympiad.   Simon Jenkins, writing (ranting) for the Guardian online says that there’s nothing like maths statistics for sending people mad.

“It is maths that has the mesmeric appeal. To Gove and Truss it is virtually a state religion…. Stuff the little blighters full of maths, they demand, and Britain will again rule the world. Square the hypotenuse, and Johnny Taliban will beg for mercy.”

Aside from letting off steam, Jenkins does raise some interesting questions about the relevance and importance of mathematics in education today. Why is there such a focus on testing the mathematical ability of school children? Why are humanities A levels now failing to attract students convinced that they need ‘proper’ subjects like English, science and maths? Why don’t we instead teach primary school children about old golden legs Pythagoras himself?

I have to say that I’ve never used any O Level maths knowledge in any real life situation, but then and again, I don’t use French much either. What interests me is why the British education system is (statistically, it has to be said) failing our children? Why is it that the children of Chinese hospital porters do better at school than children of British doctors and lawyers? There seems to be an assumption that the system itself is the key to success. Culturally the UK and China are worlds apart. Few parents and teachers of British children would welcome the Chinese system of nine-hour tests and drills. One newspaper commentator reminds readers that a couple of years ago film images of Chinese students hooked up to intravenous amino acid drips to keep them going in the classroom while they studied for their entrance tests went viral on social media. What is also interesting is why the education minister picked China when the Netherlands (or dare I say it Poland) is so much closer to home?

Pythagoras has no idea of what he started.





The view from history

25 02 2014

I wonder what the next generation will think when they look back over this particular period in history. Will people think that we were trying to do our best for the world and those who share it? Will they think that we made mistakes, but that was understandable because in 2014 we simply didn’t know any better?

The German philosopher Georg Hegel believed that we could only understand history retrospectively. By taking the long view of the way we came through the years we are able to see the routes we took, the decisions we made, the plans, projects and people that were important to us at the time. For Hegel the unfolding of history is a way of showing us who we are and what we are made of.  By his understanding, history is not just a series of events, history is human progress. History is the way we move towards greater awareness, evolution and personal freedom.

Hegel believed that there would come a time when the world was free from conflict. In this new dawn there would be no more slavery, no human trafficking, no child labour, no corrupt governments, no use of starvation as a weapon of war, no prejudice, no human rights abuses. By rigorously and systematically challenging our old ways we would come to realise what we could keep and what we could chuck into the dustbin of history. We’d carry on like this, refining and polishing our ways until we had no more improvements to make. Only then would we be actually free to follow our destinies.

Does this sound like an impossible ideal? For many critics of Hegel, it certainly does and there are plenty of examples of terrible situations in the world that illustrate how humanity seems to be moving backwards. Sometimes, on days like today when I cannot get the image of the Syrian camps out of my mind, I cannot bear to listen to the news, but equally I cannot make myself tune to something less distressing because it feels like a betrayal of all those who are desperate that the world should not turn a deaf ear to their suffering.

I don’t blame people for tuning out. There is only so much that people can take and even the Radio 4 reporter sounded choked this morning by what she had witnessed among those families starving to death in the camps that have been under siege for months.  The word she used was ‘overwhelming,’ and that was the word that kept me listening and got me thinking of how people in starvation situations become so weakened that they cannot help themselves. Take food from people and you take their will to live. Cruel and corrupt regimes use starvation as a weapon of war. It is less direct than shooting protestors on the streets, and far less costly. Those who starve their people do not dignify them with opposition; they simply disregard them. They give them nothing so that they will become nothing.

The question we must ask is why do some regimes fear people so much that they must starve them into silence? What history are such regimes trying to prevent? We know from the gulag, from the death camps, from the mass exterminations that these acts are remembered and documented. The names of the silenced and the starved will be forgotten, but their suffering will not because there are people who witnessed it, and can never forget it. Those who suffer as the warriors of atrocity are those who become the new history. 








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