It takes all sorts make the world. There are those walking quite calmly in the sunlight, who appear to be at home in the environment, and there are those pacing quite angrily under a cloud, who appear to loathe everything about the environment; their deepest disdain, rather poetically, often being reserved for themselves. If we want to know from whence such differences spring, as far as anybody can know it, we must begin at the sources of the river, and not merely dilly-dally in the swamps where it straggles away into a final confusing, labyrinthine delta. We should observe simple origins, not complex conclusions; thoughts, not things. For readily understood but quickly forgotten, it’s our thoughts that shape the world, not the world that shapes our thoughts.
We are the master storytellers. So, we should take great care over the stories we tell. Events take on added significance when they converge with the narrative within. It’s from this convergence where we take the materials to build our reality. Palatial retreats or squalid slums – where we reside in our heads is entirely up to us. The world will ultimately be in alignment with it, as the planets are in alignment with the sun.
We therefore should regularly reflect on what ideas are in our heads at present, and in what way they are likely to mould the future.
“For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind”
– Hosea 8:7
Commonly, we dwell on the unpleasant, the irritating, the ugly; on the unfair and the unfortunate; on what we’ve lost, on what we can never have. We can spend inordinate time complaining, moaning, whining; often, we’ll only begin to appreciate something by bemoaning its loss. But we should remember that every mind is like a God. We create our reality by bringing it into existence. Only playing the bad hands would not make for an effective poker strategy. The same is true of life. A lifetime of tolerating or resisting that which we perceive to be doing us wrong, while ignoring that which is doing us good, is sure to lead to ruin.
Instead of a persistent, nagging recognition of all that blights us, we should be grateful for the blessings within our reach, and not take them for granted. When we do so, we’re at ease with the world, not at odds with it. Gratitude is the gift of levity, without which we can be weighed down, carrying our sullen impressions about like a lumbering stone statue.
By being grateful we are arming ourselves with a cheerfulness, a lightness of touch, an exuberance, which will allow us to hurdle obstacles as if our feet were kissing the ground. Successful people, who seem to enjoy the fruits of happiness and good fortune, have not faced an absence of problems, they’ve merely acquired the ability to deal with them. Optimism – a child of gratitude – is common to all. And frankly, if we’re not practising gratitude, there’s nothing much to be optimistic about.
Hardship is universal, but there’s no doubt some of us have been fated to endure more than others. Still, I’ve never met anybody who hasn’t got things to be grateful for. And what could be better, artistically speaking, than an optimism breaking through anguish like a fiery gold encircling the edges of a black cloud. To be grateful in a world constantly trying to bring you down, is truly one the greatest accomplishments, and always rewarded. Because it is through an honest, sincere appreciation of the blessings in life where we start to calibrate ourselves to a more favourable future. Indeed, if our lives are beset by difficulty, even more reason that we adjust the settings on our metal detector, for the thing we find will invariably be of a kind with the things we sought.
We are governed by what we choose to think about. If we commit ourselves to every doctrine of insanity and despair, we give Torment the keys to our life, and make it sovereign. But we have the power to take the reins, at any moment, by independent action from within, and not mere reaction to without. To act positively and to desist from reacting negatively is the difference between being the architects of our daily experience, and not merely being the instruments of the things that happen to us.
But the ungrateful appear to imagine that affliction was a yoke mysteriously imposed on us by life, instead of being, as it is, a yoke consistently imposed by all of us on ourselves.
To take the proverbial phrase, is the glass half empty or half full? If it is half empty your thirst will never be quenched; but if it’s half full, truly, you’ll never want for a drink. Thus, when we are being grateful, we always have enough; when we’re being covetous, we never have what we need. And so, a grateful person can be the richest person in the world with very little, but no amount of wealth and riches will make the ungrateful anything other than wretchedly poor.
To sit in the driver’s seat, and to tip the scales in favour of abundance, simply, we must be more grateful than ungrateful. We must focus more on the positive than the negative. If a loved one, for instance, is suspicious of a kind gesture or of being the subject of our sincere appreciation, it’s probably a good sign that we should make more of a habit of practicing gratitude. It will change our life.
One observation of modern society is to note the increasing infantilization of its culture. It almost seems as though everything is designed to be loud, shiny and short lived, as if intending to capture rapidly diminishing attention spans. It is of a narcissistic character: attention-seeking, selfish, demanding, self-centred. Indeed, personified and it would be a child – there’s no demographic more narcissistic than children. But, in fact, in many ways it would be too high and hopeful a compliment to say that our culture is becoming more childish. For one of its main flaws is to undervalue the wisdom of children, at the same time as over emphasising the intelligence of adults.
It is in paradox that we see life smiling back at us, and this, one of the strangest paradoxes is, by lived experience, one of the most reassuring. It is that often the more we look at a thing, the less we see the world, and the more we learn a thing, the less we know the world. Those who study something and practise it every day will see less and less of the significance of other things. In the same way, many of us will be so bonded by daily routine that, unless we make a habit of goading ourselves into gratitude, we’ll see less and less significance of the trees, the birds, and the sky. We become obsessed with trivial things and quickly forget the beauty of consequential things.
However, children are full of awe and wonder for the things that typically induce awe and wonder, and they’re rightly bored by the things that typically induce boredom.
When we are asked to perform certain tasks, we overestimate the significance of those tasks and, by inference, underestimate the significance of others. As if we were carrier pigeons with blinkered vision, we become immersed in detail and therefore our outlook is narrowed by detail. Because with age comes a degree of specialisation. We start to know more and more about less and less, until we know close to everything about nothing. There’s little room for mystery.
But children generally cast their net further and further afield. They know less and less about more and more, until they know close to nothing about everything. The world is full of mystery.
Our imagination is limited by social mores and conventions. When we reach a certain age many of us think we have all the answers and talk at great length about things we know little about. But much of the time these are merely socially reinforcing statements. For we don’t dare speak out of turn, knowing that there are certain opinions of certain things that we must take. We are proverbial gardeners tending to flowers in somebody else’s garden.
Children’s imagination isn’t limited in the same way. They are full of questions and have few answers. They are unshackled from the opinions of others; the pull of social conformity does not exert as strong an influence. And so, their opinions grow naturally, like flowers in a field.
Socialisation is the process by which children turn into adults. It’s the internalisation of behaviour deemed acceptable in society. Naturally, there’s a correlation between societal success and degree of socialisation. The more successful in society tend to be the most socialised and the least successful the least socialised.
The drive to fit in and be popular is at core a game with rewards and punishments. In social groups you generally score better the more you assimilate. Because despite all the cultural clamour for “diversity” smaller social groups always gravitate to uniformity. We mix with people we share commonalities with or share common goals with and we clash with those we don’t. That clash will either be respectful or belligerent.
The adoption of social masks is essentially a compromise between individual and society of what a man or woman should appear to be. We grow so accustomed to wearing masks we wrongly believe it to be our authentic self; when in the design of which others invariably have a greater share. Of course, unlike adults, when children wear masks, they understand that they’re playing; that they are becoming someone else. And indeed, as they grow older, they do become someone else. They compromise. They conform.
Without conformity civilisation is impossible – it’s the glue in social cohesion. Certainly, it’s always been an important quality to help us get through this life; for one thing, there’s often little sympathy for those who go on to act upon their own intuition. Society will soon crush into submission all those with a rebellious streak. Most of the time this is quite unnecessary. Youngsters quickly learn that a happy life involves doing what your fellows do. Going against the crowd risks social alienation; or worse, draws a conspicuous target over one’s head.
As we grow older, we lose what it is to be a child. Indeed, it’s largely through socialisation. Much of that intoxicating blend of awe, excitement, wild abandon, unbridled imagination, freedom from judgement, dies when we reach a certain age. Letting go can be hard.
Adults hankering for their childhood is an incongruity in the sense of a contrast. But perhaps the contrast is deceptive. For we humans have only recently developed the upper lobes of the brain and cannot stand using them all the time. It is necessary, therefore, when opportunity arises, that we let them rest and animate the lower centres. In other words, it is necessary that we take a step back into childhood and play. As for those who play all the time, we do have a word for such people: morons.
The problem, however, as mentioned, and as Shakespeare put it so eloquently, is that the world presents itself as one large stage full of players (actors), and though children can generally distinguish between work and play, adults have become so accustomed to games that they fail to make this basic distinction in their work and private lives. As children innocently play in the garden, full of joy and wonder at the world around them; adult play is tedious, cynical and downright dishonest. There are whole industries that are presented in the aspect of enormous fortresses of lies. The automatic result of economic forces, like all our behaviour, the individual strategizes their ascension through the ranks with no more conscious thought than the digestion of his or her food. It is in such a way that the game of self-preservation is won and lost.
The multi-generational winners of this game that own and run the world wish everything to remain as it is. In fact, their sole motivation is to amass more power. As one of the functions of ownership, these winners control culture and determine taste. They glorify the moron – the man or woman who has emotions and not brains – and thus much of the culture is directed toward the creation of an artificial childhood. By debasing the culture, to put it starkly, their goal is to weaken and degrade those upon whom they prey, like a thief who gets their victim drunk before they rob them.
Children are far easier to control than adults, which is why people are increasingly acting and behaving like children. There’s an entire generation of adults who’ve been socially engineered to be emotionally incontinent wrecks; not wishing to relinquish their grip on their reassuring childhood, presumably because of their sheer terror of adulthood. It can be seen right across the cultural spectrum, from movies, popular music, tv shows. It appears as if popular culture is becoming more and more low brow to meet the needs of an audience frozen in a state of arrested emotional development.
Equally, the cultural advancement of personal truths over objective truths is the cultural equivalent of throwing a cold bucket of water on the burning fire of reality. Like children, many people are increasingly incapable of dealing with their own problems and are being encouraged to seek the solace of comforting illusions, safe spaces and, if all else fails, are redirected to the safe harbour of prescription medication.
Incessant escapism is a survival tactic for people who haven’t learned how to survive. Pain can never be released; real growth can never therefore be attained. People become trapped in self-destructive circles which, in the temporary alleviation of pain, makes them dependent on the very pain that they are trying to alleviate.
These cultural developments are somewhat organic but coexist in a rich ecosystem which is managed and engineered by the class that owns it. The intention behind them is akin to the one behind the emasculation of men. It’s for people to embrace their weaknesses. Power wants us confused, emotional, subordinated and child-like.
Socialisation is the process by which children transition into adulthood but ironically, in many ways, it’s also the process by which adults are regressing back into childhood. I think society would be greatly improved if it really embraced its inner child, rather than be comprised of adults who merely act like children. Because children are always engaging with a world that adults are increasingly escaping. They love their childhood whereas many adults are progressively fearful of adulthood. And as children are free to choose, adults are compelled to imitate. It’s a voice in the valley as opposed to echoes in a cave.
“Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions (perceptions) without concepts are blind”
In ‘The Critique of Pure Reason’, Prussian German philosopher, Immanuel Kant outlined his theory of perception. He propounded that our understanding of the external world has its foundations not merely in experience, but in both experience and a priori concepts (reasoning that proceeds from theoretical deduction rather than from observation). In a nutshell, he said that the external world provides things that we sense. Our mind processes this information and gives it structure, enabling our comprehension; in part, because space and time are pre-conditions of the mind. Therefore, in what he called the “transcendental unity of apperception”, “the concepts of the mind (understanding) and perceptions or intuitions that garner information from phenomena (sensibility) are synthesized by comprehension”.
He maintained that without this synthesis of understanding and sensibility the world would be quite unintelligible. Which is to say that abstractions without perceptions are nondescript; perceptions without abstractions are featureless and unrelatable.
In a Kantian sense, our understanding of objective reality is tinted by our intuition. There’s no way of separating objectivity – the external world – and subjectivity – the internal world. Both are dependent upon one another. Because awareness of the external necessitates the internal. And so, in simple terms, perception of our surroundings is akin to wearing green-tinted glasses. All our experiences are filtered through them. We therefore cannot reliably conceive of an outside world that’s truly independent of the way we perceive it, just as someone who unknowingly wears green-tinted glasses would not be able to conceive of a non-green colour. The thought would be alien to them.
The summation of Kant’s ideas on perception can be found in his doctrine of transcendental idealism. He said that space, time and causation are mere sensibilities. Unlike George Berkeley’s subjective idealism, Kant’s theory maintains that the external world ‘does’ exist, but that its objective nature is unknowable.
Kant’s transcendental idealism concerns metaphysics (a branch of philosophy that examines first principles and the nature of reality). But we can surely apply much of his ideas on perception to how we process information in a more practical sense. In terms of personal preference and bias.
It seems all humans crave certainty – our unconscious abhors message incongruity. When a message is not internally consistent or does not fit surrounding information, a clash occurs. This clash can cause psychological discomfort. We will instinctively try to remove this discomfort by either eliminating dissonant thoughts or by incorporating them into our current belief system. Psychologists call this process ‘cognitive dissonance’. In other words, a mind with disunity of thought is a mind at war with itself. Sooner or later one side wins and imposes its tyranny.
Similarly, if a new message does not match preconceptions it will hit a defensive wall of incredulity. But if it does, it will be let through the gate of credulity. Psychologists call this ‘confirmation bias’, which is one example of ‘cognitive bias’.
All of us are prone to bias of every shade. We’re all guilty of having our opinions colour and shape our thoughts to such an extent that what we wish to see can hardly be differentiated from what we end up seeing. So, in some ways, the green-tinted glasses metaphor, which clarifies the Kantian position on perception and the interplay between understanding and sensibility in a metaphysical sense, can equally be applied to all of us in a cognitive sense.
Our mind can be rather like a cookie cutter tray making the same shapes and designs. These tried and tested cognitive patterns have the allure of being able to be used in every circumstance, which has the effect of whittling the vastness of the world down to a more manageable size.
In fact, I’m quite sure life would be unnavigable without an inner compass pointing to our north star. It gives us certainty which cultivates action, whereas uncertainty cultivates inertia. The problem, however, is that reasoning requires inertia, and action negates reasoning. This paradox has been the bane of the human experience; for while the wise tend to be full of doubts, the foolish tend to be full of conviction.
Perhaps there are none more foolish than those who are locked up in the prison of ideology. In the cognitive sense, this is the ultimate manifestation of Kant’s green-tinted glasses. A one-stop shop for every problem, every situation. Ideologies feel good because they are familiar to us; they appeal to sentiment, not reflection. A kind of turbo-charged certainty fuelling a basic psychological need.
One method to unravel ideological thinking or extreme bias is to use somebody’s own argument against them. Because often every reason articulated to discredit an opponent’s position is one that will discredit their own. Essentially, an intellectual boomerang. Such as accusing somebody of indulging in conspiracy theories before proceeding to indulge in a conspiracy theory. Or saying, for instance, that women are exactly the same as men, but then insinuating, by effectively invoking special status for women, through the support for some diversity quota, that they’re different.
Thus, the ideological will naturally protect their ideas with huge impenetrable fortresses of doublethink (self-contradictory positions). Only that by some accident of arrangement the fortresses’ pieces of artillery are almost always set up with the tails pointing at their adversaries and the mouths pointing at themselves. This is most unfortunate because the most ideological are always the most defensive, and the greatest line of defence, of course, is to attack. Commonly, attacks are projecting and self-deceiving. Such as accusing somebody of being hateful while screaming at them. Or accusing them of being science deniers but maintain a position, on other fronts, that denies basic human biology.
To be ideological is to think in a general way, wanting to tackle complex social and economic issues with a broad sweep of the brush, rarely going to the trouble of being specific. This is because specificity requires a high degree of cognition, whereas ideology allows you to remain in that state when you are not thinking of anything and yet your thoughts come into your head by themselves, each more pleasantly self-affirming than the last, without even causing you the trouble of chasing after and finding them. In other words, ideology not only provides us with the comfort of certainty, but also the ease of laziness.
To find faults with ideological thinking, therefore, it is not so much through the Critique of Pure Reason, but merely through a critique of poor reasoning.
This is by no means to point fingers and declare myself immune. On the contrary, to a lesser or greater extent, we are all ideological. We all wear Kantian tinted glasses. Because what we see and hear are always pre-conditions of our mind. That’s how we make sense of the world. And of course, to make any kind of sense of it we must be confident in our own ability to do so.
Certainly, confidence is at the heart of it. As is optimism – ideologies invariably offer the reward of idealism. To metaphorize appropriately, then, we should say that we wear rose-tinted glasses. For often we are pretending to know a lot about things we really don’t know enough about, believing that to blindly follow these ideas it will lead to a future more advantageous than the present.
Whether everything is tinted in red, green or blue, or every hue in between, we can only begin to dim this tint by challenging and testing our own opinions at least as much as we challenge viewpoints which are at variance with them. This is the only antidote to ideological thinking that I know of.
The funny thing about religion is that many of those who seem to be most swept up in it are those who believe it to be a fraud. At least that seems to be the case in our secular society. To be faithful today is to live in a hall of mirrors. For every person who believes their faith to be self-evidently true, in reverse images, there is a multiplication of those who equally believe that faith to be self-evidently false.
“Evidence!” is the cry from the Secularists. “We must have evidence”. This would appear an eminently reasonable demand if the Secularists themselves didn’t believe in a whole multitude of things that have not a shred of evidence. Haughty and muddled, they are like Stavrogin who “if he believes, he does not think he believes. If he does not believe, he does not think he does not believe” (‘Demons’ Fyodor Dostoevsky).
Because they are not commonly anchored by what they are, but unanchored by that which they are not, secular positions can be like shifting sand dunes in a desert. It’s an arid, barren land starved by mere repudiation. Nothing much of value grows there. If it does, it doesn’t survive long. The flowers that do survive tend to be the result of thousands of years of combined thought, not a few decades worth of musings from a sect of secular clerics; they tend to grow farther away from pedants and their explanations, and nearer to the souls of simple people.
Our ancestors instinctively understood that the soul of discovery is a story, and the soul of a story is a personality. It was inclusive. Narratives and evocative stories are much easier to follow than, say, the existential phenomenology of Heidegger or the deconstructionism of Derrida. But in the same way the longshore drift at a coastline is constantly changing the fabric of the environment, rationalism eroded religious beliefs in proportion to the new secular illusions that took their place. Instead of warm metaphorical treasures it has left us with cold abstractions.
Many come to cherish them, holding them to their hearts as their forefathers did with their own foundational tales. And since they have a thirst for Truth, this is also a thirst for God, so they too have had their reward of illumination. But even in order to understand that reward, we must understand that for philosophers that reward is the completion of the incomplete. Because it doesn’t consider what Camus noted as the absurdity of the human condition. These truths are therefore no more eternal than those they dethroned. And they are no more objective. Because we can’t separate ourselves from the meaning of the universe any more than a dramatist can separate themselves from the meaning of a play.
If you want to learn about somebody’s morality, you’d do better to watch them in their private moments than to study their public pronouncements. Similarly, in the quest for Truth, I should think you’re more likely to find it in the unconscious conduct of simple people than you are in textbooks. More in the fables, which are the unconscious masterpieces of humanity, than in academic definitions. Those may be, on the face of it, of a more exceptional character, but by putting a premium on the exceptional, in terms of Truth, we grossly underestimate the unconsciousness of the normal.
For example, if Moses had said he saw God as infinite energy, I should think words were being put in his mouth. As he said he saw a burning bush, the event has more resonance. It also seems more reasonable that Moses found the one true God on a mountain, than if he had said: “Energy is eternal; it’s a pervasive and impalpable essence which connects all things”. If he had said this, I’d think it more probable that he had taken a lecture in quantum physics than conversed with God.
Bronze age stories are quickly dismissed for being the crude imaginings of simple folk. Yet despite their seeming improbability they stand the test of time. And are even, in some respects, reinforced by the sophisticated cogitations of advanced science. I wonder, will Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity stand the test of time?
Religion is criticised by Secularists as being an archaic method of population control. Yet they would have to admit that there are certain views of certain things that they must take even if their private thoughts happen to conflict with convention. Which is a set of beliefs in the same way religion is a set of beliefs. As ever, the more diffuse the belief, the more likely it is that it derives from or is buttressed by that class of persons with the greatest reach. So, in the interests of fairness, are we to criticise notions like “diversity is our strength” and “the war on terror” as being methods of population control?
There are many mutually incompatible religions, say the Secularists, so what does that incompatibility say about religion? There are many archetypal stories. If they were more unique, they would be less archetypal. One example would be two brothers fighting over a woman; another, lovers separated by Fate. Are we to suppose that because these stories are common to Legend, brothers were never estranged over a woman or lovers parted by circumstance? These stories are surely not made more improbable by their recurrence; rather, point to a hidden truth about what it is to be human.
There are a variety of theories for an ideal society. From Plato’s Republic to More’s Utopia. And on the most equitable distribution of power. From Hobbes’ Leviathan to Rousseau’s The Social Contract. They all share certain themes – the desire for the betterment of the social condition – and oppose each other in certain others – the elusive formula in how we are to reach this standard. But surely the abundance of mutually incompatible theories is not preclusive of society ever improving social conditions. If anything, like the Bible, they suggest the human tendency to yearn for a better condition.
The Three Wise Men’s Hope for something better was embodied by an eternal and majestic light in the dusk, which they followed to Divinity, but many Secularists fall under the influence of that starry impulse which leads people to take a great deal of trouble about quite useless and passing things. As society is itself predominantly secularist this impulse has become quite feverish. In fact, opinions often read like a list of symptoms. As if we were all huddled together like inmates on Poveglia island, people do not form these opinions; the opinions form themselves.
Disavowing religion as dogma, the modern world, the product of the enlightenment, ridicules the ascetic monk in a monastery as an eccentric madman; but as the whole modern world would now seem like a lunatic asylum, one might almost be driven, in the pursuit of sanity, to take refuge in a monastery.
We rightly shudder at the blood-soaked religious fanaticism of the past. Many of us think that religion must be bad because it leads men to do wicked things. But causes are of a different nature to results. It is perfectly possible that the cause was just and the effect unjust. After all, people commit crimes for good and bad reasons. The peasants of France, who had liberté, égalité, fraternité upon their lips, a motto inspired by the likes of Rousseau’s The Social Contract, were full of good reasons for social reform in the run up to the French Revolution; but the eruption of anger and violence that ensued, less so.
Fanaticism has nothing to do with religion. There are philosophical theories which can produce enough fanaticism to fill the world. Over 100 million people were slaughtered by their own governments in the 20th century, more than all the wars combined. You would think the philosophy behind this carnage would be renounced by all and sundry; but many Secularists, though they will be quick to denounce religion as harmful nonsense, are equally quick to approve the varied produce of this philosophy as anything but harmful nonsense.
Perhaps it would be erroneous to distinguish religion and philosophy in many instances. Most sincere attitudes take on a religious bent. Indeed, in many cases the complete loss of religious belief has made political positions become quasi-religious. Frequently, these are not arguments about society. They are statements about absolute values. They are ideals about how we should live our lives. This is not a debate where evidence is adduced – if you disagree you are considered fundamentally wicked. Because people are now treating their political opinions as though they were creedal formulations; to dissent from them is heresy.
Much of this is done under the banner of “tolerance”. While some people really are tolerant, clearly others are fearful and tired. How many is hard to say. Since alternative views are rarely given a significant platform, nor expressed. But judging from a strong undercurrent of online frustration, it appears modern tolerance is as deaf as intolerance.
But all this is very familiar. When something is put before enough people that seems enormously valuable, the chance of having it, the chance of losing it, can drive them quite mad. It has a similar effect in the moral world as pursuing gold in the economic world. It can create a kind of gold rush. People want to reach Nirvana ahead of their fellows. And are extremely disdainful of those who don’t want to reach it at all.
Though this story is as old as the hills, its age doesn’t make what it reveals about human nature any less true. We have an innate need for justice and meaning. A need for purity and perfection. A need to transcend the limitations of self. A predilection for in-group conformity and out-group belligerence. We are predisposed to crusade for these things. But while the ancients had the humility to supress their ego, the wisdom to not put themselves at the centre of the drama and to be subordinate to something much greater, the gold hunters of today seek wealth in their own name, not His; they don’t do it for His glory, they do it for their own.
This is a huge difference and one I thought that was worth mentioning.
The One Thousand and One Nights is framed by the story of Scheherazade, the beautiful daughter of the vizier to the Sasanian King. The King’s heart has been darkened by his wife’s infidelities. He’s concluded that if she was so pure and still betrayed him all women must be incorrigibly wicked. After sentencing his beloved to death, the King, Shahryār instructs his vizier to provide him with a virgin to marry, only to have her executed the morning after their wedding night. What follows is a succession of marriages and executions in the same vein, bleeding the kingdom dry of young women. In a bid to save the remaining maidens, Scheherazade decides to marry the King, to which her father reluctantly agrees. She has a plan. On their wedding night she begins to tell a rich and imaginative fable but does not end it. This forces Shahryār to postpone her execution if he wants to hear the end of her story. The following night she ends the first story, then starts a second one, again stopping halfway through to trigger Shahryār’s curiosity. This goes on for one thousand and one nights, hence the name. All the stories of the Arabian Nights are housed within this tale with Scheherazade as the narrator.
Like all good stories the Arabian Nights embodies more than just its internal structure. For instance, Scheherazade’s plight is a metaphor for life: without change life’s not possible. And it’s noteworthy that all the stories, which characterise the vast ambit of human experience, are contained within this truism that life must be in a state of constant renewal and rejuvenation to stave off stagnation and death.
To stay enthralled we must seek new experiences, for what is new is already gathering up dust, and what is gathering up dust will soon be replaced by the new. Life is motion and change inevitable. To live a happy and rewarding life is rather like a riding a bicycle. It’s much easier to remain seated on a moving bicycle than it is a sedentary one.
In order to truly be alive there must always be enthusiasm for the new, the modern; there must be incessant excitement about what’s around the corner; about new shoes, new dresses and shirts; new trinkets, new styles, and new ideas. Enthusiasm is the winepress of the soul, without which we can sink into despair. Like Scheherazade, if we don’t tell a new story every day we’ll perish; we’ll lose our vitality and freshness because a fast-flowing river has fresher water than a bird bath.
Fashion is the fetishization of change. For the aforementioned reasons, there’s an instinctive pull to drink from the fountain of youth; but most of all, it’s because fashion carries social distinction. To be fashionable implies a certain amount of wealth and privilege, as it is an abiding feature of the downtrodden that they are too often submerged under a flood of toil to be more than intermittently conscious of anything outside their daily struggle for air. People who have been chopping wood all day, or cleaning floors, don’t have the energy to explore new fashionable ideas on gender identity, nor the wealth to buy the latest threads from Milan. But those who can proudly pour forth torrents of song, showing off their virtuosity with rhapsodies of new-fangledness.
The one essential of fashion is to be ahead of its age. That is, there must be something new known only to a few. It must be modern. To be admitted into its great hall of distinction there must be a password that can’t be easily obtained or deduced. And the password must be in a state of flux, lest the uninitiated rapidly become the initiated. Because when the age fully catches up what was once fashionable ceases to mark initiates out for distinction.
Fashion’s race is over when the greyhound catches the hare. In order to avoid slipping back into the great body of humanity, the propelled mechanical hare must always be in advance of the greyhound. Which is to say that a key component of what is fashionable is its artificiality, for naturality might rapidly be caught; it must be somewhat irrational, for if it were rational it would be too easily calculated; and it must also be impractical, for if it were practical it would be altogether common. There are ironical fashions but the sole qualifier of these is the irony. Because the whole point of fashion is to not be of low status; it is to not be poor, economically or socially. There’s a similar dynamic going on in the quite arbitrary and mystifying rituals of the upper-class, which are intended to confer selective prestige and social importance.
Societal problems start to occur when the balance between structure and change is disrupted. Too little change is suggestive of an oppressive society; it is stifling, crippling. Too much change is suggestive of a decadent one; it is muddled, chaotic. Presently, our secular liberal society fits snugly into this latter category.
In the past a small caste of eccentric Bohemian types, whose long leisurely hours combined with substantial wealth and privilege, were a driving force behind many new fads and philosophies. Today’s consumer society has provided the conditions which has engineered a much larger class of would be Bohemians.
Essentially, in our industrial age the increased capacity for production has demanded increased consumption. Because economic expansion entails the increased freedom of how to make your money and, crucially, the increased freedom of what to spend your money on. Moreover, technological advances, and civilisation’s dominion over the world’s resources, means that, in most cases, people are consuming far more than they are producing.
A very rudimentary understanding of economics will inform you that unhappy spendthrifts create employment and growth, and contented misers, unemployment and decline. Thus, in order to remain economically competitive, liberal society has had to largely obliterate timeless wisdoms, such as prudence, temperance and responsibility, replacing them with desire of the flesh, idolatry and a whole litany of confused causes. Which is why the Gods worshipped by societal planners of this age lack the metaphorical vison of their predecessors. They are as bland as the market efficiency principle and as sterile as cost-benefit analysis.
This unbridled consumerism has created in a large enough pool of society a corrosive mixture of indolence, extravagance and entitlement to precipitate a tumult of social reform. People have more time and energy and means to consume more and, thus, change more. And so, out of waste and luxury and lethargy, the sickness they call Progress came into the world.
Excessive consumption, in all things, is the hallmark of liberal society in the industrial age. Hence, people will take good ideas and will stretch them to their implausible extremes. Such ideas, on account of feeling modern and progressive, will quickly take on the tint of fashion. They’ll carry social credits.
But to invoke the God of Progress as a reason for reform, without fully anticipating the consequences, is to brag about the mere fact that today is not yesterday. To declare that today is better than yesterday is like sneering at a lady because of her age. An ideal which is simply modern is already becoming ancient. Death is staring at it in the face. Because new philosophies come and go like the clouds in the sky. Iridescent ethical systems come and go as often as the fashionable change their shoes. Simply because iridescence happens to be the defining characteristic.
Unless society is built on truisms it is not built at all. Clearly, there would be little safety in a society in which the remark that murder was wrong was open to debate. Similarly, there would be little certainty in a society in which every truth is enveloped in a subjective mist; in a society where there’s an insistence that no objective or absolute truth can be affirmed; in a society that isn’t even too sure what a man or woman is, so leaves it to individual men and women to define. But there can’t be a multiplication of personal truths for the same reason there can’t be a multiplication of the earth and sun and moon. Truth is eternal otherwise it’s not Truth.
Certainly, an idea is no truer for being modern than it is false for being modern. To wed truth with change is dangerous because every age has its follies, spurred on by forces inimical to reason and sound judgement. To wed truth with change is to not fully grasp the blinded fate of Progress to which every age unwinds.
Liberal consumerism undervalues moderation. Indeed, it can even be paradoxically immoderate when claiming to be moderate. But moderation and stability are not necessarily a limitation but a liberty, for they provide the structure and discipline to be able to hit out in all directions. Moderation acts as a reliable barometer which can measure extravagance. It will reveal a light if only in the long fantastic shadows that it throws from common things. Immoderation, however, leaves us only in a gloomy vagueness of shifting shadows. It will nurture a cultural stampede akin to wild buffalos on the western prairie.
Society will always grow riotous in a long period of decadence; a hurricane of change will sweep all before it, laying havoc on the very foundations upon which it was built. But at some point, the liberal economic clock, which has hitherto had such a mechanical influence on the minds of its members, will be wound back. Because tempests don’t go on forever; they blow themselves out, and usher in a period of calm. Like the perfect stillness of a morning after a ferocious night-time bombardment.
On this front, the conclusion to Scheherazade’s tale on the one thousand and first night of the Arabian Nights is, I think, most instructive. Having exhausted her reservoirs of imagination she enters the bed chamber with trepidation, fearing for her life. But Shahryār has long since fallen in love with her and spares her.
The meaning? With age we grow accustomed to the world, while some are young enough not to have grown accustomed to anything. We slow down, while younger generations are forever in a spin moving from one thing to the next in eager anticipation. The old are closer to death and are resistant to change because it starts to remind them of their own mortality. Whereas the young think themselves immortal and are resistant to structure because they are restless.
What is true of people is certainly true of epochs. Long periods of change incubate structure; long periods of structure incubate change. As sure as trees shedding their leaves in autumn and the flowers blossoming in spring.
We are approaching the one thousand and first night.