The Pity and the Wonder

Part 2

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

from Signs of the Times, No. 24 - Jan 2007

Part I's introduction to 'character, talent, chance and destiny', ended with a brief discussion of determinism and freewill, and Robin Blackburn's defence in Being Good, 2001, of the common sense view that, 'whatever our genetic make-up programs us to do... it leaves room for us... to be influenced by information gathered from others... it makes us responsive to the moral climate.' J. B. S. Haldane put it this way in Possible Worlds , 1927: 'If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason for supposing that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.' As neat a reductio ad absurdum as one could wish to see. Though some determinists have claimed he was shown the error of his ways so that he later agreed he was a determinist, which may well be true, it wouldn't have altered his conviction that beliefs should be based on evidence and that he wasn't a robot.

As for character, writing in The Sun newspaper in November, Tony Blair said: 'The toughest thing anyone faces in their life is bringing up a child.... We [the Government] have earmarked an extra £4million to appoint parenting experts in 77 areas across England as a first step.' Howls of protest. 'The Nanny State!' First he invades Iraq and now he's the 'Womb Raider', thinking potential troublemakers can be identified before they're born. Children might retort that being brought up by certain parents or ordered about by teachers claiming to be in loco parentis can be just as tough. 'Give me a child for the first seven years,' runs the allegedly Jesuit maxim, 'and you may do what you like with him afterwards.' 'I am putting old heads on your young shoulders ... all my pupils are the crème de la crème.' High-minded, unforgettable Miss Brodie with her narrow, fascist, self-centred zealotry. 'To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil's soul.' She'd have given Gibran's The Prophet short shrift: 'Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls ... '

H. H. Munro, 'Saki', in his short stories made typically barbed observations about Prime Ministers and children. 'We all know that Prime Ministers are wedded to the truth, but like other married couples they sometimes live apart.' 'Good gracious, you've got to educate him first. You can't expect a boy to be vicious till he's been to a good school.'

Joking apart, one wave of a powerful magic wand could transform our human world by making the benevolent consequences of working for the long term good of all as vivid to each of us as are the short term gains of individual selfishness. Unfortunately, there is no such wand and evidently no benevolent Deity could design us that way or it would have been done. The best biological evolution can do is select for a degree of altruism in families and close-knit groups. Self-consciousness evidently evolved because some degree of conscious self-determination, however limited, had survival value. To physico-chemical and biological evolution was added socio-cultural evolution. W.R. Inge, professor of Divinity at Cambridge, and then from 1911 to 1934 dean of St Paul's, popularly known as 'the Gloomy Dean' for being something of a Jeremiah, was a prominent member of the MCU. He underlined the importance of culture: 'The proper time to influence the character of a child is about a hundred years before he is born.'

Special talents aside and the importance of nurture acknowledged, many of us end up with the brains we deserve. London cabbies finish 'the knowledge' with a brain developed for the purpose, as famously did Einstein. Some are born with a potential Rolls-Royce and wind up with a wheelbarrow.

Wonderful world?

Part I had a section: 'The shadow side of human kind'. Time to attempt a redressing of the balance.

'And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

Yes, I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

Oh, yeah.'

Banal lyrics. Lovable voice will bring it to you.

Keying 'What A Wonderful World' into Wikipedia may surprise those who don't know its history and the use often made of it. For instance, '... it was included in the sound track for the film Good Morning, Vietnam in 1987. In the film, the song plays over a montage of bombings and other violence.'

Those receiving a daily email from the online edition of The Independent may have noted on 12 December the first six headlines:

The Ipswich Ripper: How a town became a hunting ground

Asylum-seeker feted by the Blairs faces deportation from Britain

Departing Annan attacks Bush's 'war on terror'

Gunmen kill Hamas opponent's three young sons

Thousands pay last respects to Pinochet

Revisionist fringe gathers for Iran's Holocaust denial jamboree

What a wonderful world.

'If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, it's just possible you haven't grasped the situation.' Jean Kerr

The Family of Man

Described as the 'greatest photographic enterprise ever undertaken', The Family of Man was created by Edward Steichen at MoMA, The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Over two million photographs were reduced to 503 from 68 countries; the photographers to 273 men and women, amateurs and professionals, famous and unknown. The exhibition opened at MoMA in January 1955 and then toured the world repeatedly, before finding its permanent home under the auspices of UNESCO at Clervaux in Luxembourg, the country of Steichen's birth. These inestimable riches were made available to all in the large-format paperback book, which includes all the photographs and the well-chosen quotations covering the 38 themes of love, marriage, pregnancy, birth, childhood, joy, beauty, poverty, war, sorrow, sickness and death, all the hopes and dreams of humankind together with 'the flaming creative forces of love and truth and the corrosive evil inherent in the lie.' The 30th Anniversary edition, 1986, was in its eighth printing in 2000. Some of us, when the exhibition was staged close to wherever we were living at the time, were fortunate enough to secure a number of the full-size reproductions used for advertising purposes. Steichen's brother-in-law, Carl Sandburg, contributed a fine, brief descriptive prologue. Over four million copies have been sold and the book remains in print.

Beginning with 'And God said, Let there be light' and the lyrical last lines of Joyce's Ulysses (inexcusably omitted from the 5th edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations ), through Anne Frank's '... I still believe that people are really good at heart', to a black page with, in white, '... the best authorities are unanimous in saying that a war with hydrogen bombs is quite likely to put an end to the human race ... there will be universal death - sudden only for a fortunate minority, but for the majority a slow torture of disease and disintegration... ' Bertrand Russell. There follows a two-page spread showing the General Assembly of the United Nations in session, illustrating the solemn declaration of the UN Charter, 'We the peoples of United Nations, Determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind ... ' and then, from the supreme portrayer in words of the human condition, there comes that wondrous paean of joy, 'O wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful wonderful! and yet again wonderful, [and after that, out of all whooping!]'

'No other writer,' says Bernard Levin in Enthusiasms, 'and with the exception of Mozart no other artist, has brought us so close to the heart of the ultimate mystery of the universe and of man's place in it; no other has felt and presented the numinous with such certainty and power, no other penetrated so deeply into the source from which he derived his genius and from which we all, including him, derive our humanity. The ultimate wonder of Shakespeare is the deep, sustaining realization that his work in addition to all its other qualities - poetical, dramatic, philosophical, psychological - is above all true.'

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Patrick Lewin was convenor and chair of a philosophical society and is a Modern Church council member.