Original Sin and Utopia

Original Sin and Utopia

 it is to be regretted that the doctrine of Original Sin has become hopelessly associated with quite nasty — because self-seeking and sadistic — views denigrating women, homosexuality, all sensual pleasure and ultimately the entire physical world. The doctrine has been highjacked by egotists who use it to convince themselves that they are superior to certain social groups to which, by accidents of birth or orientation, they themselves do not belong. Regrettable above all because the dogma of Orginal Sin is not at all an abstruse intellectual doctrine invented by dry as dust theologians : quite the contrary, it is based on a deep-rooted conviction which very many thinking and feeling individuals have had throughout varied periods of history, though admittedly especially during the decline of great civilizations.

            Doubtless, a lot of people, even the majority, were not ‘happy’ during the Victorian era, or the early Roman Empire, or the Athens of Pericles, but the disadvantaged seem generally to have believed in the particular ideal held out to them at the time, i.e. seem to have believed that the ‘lucky few’ really must have been happy and that such a definition of happiness was the only one possible. This is essentially Aristotle’s position, and Aristotle, apart from being one of the world’s great thinkers, was a sensible and, in a certain sense, a very ‘ordinary’ man. In a period of social decline, such as our era, despite or because of the frantic hype, there is the undeniable feeling that the ‘happy few’ = multi-millionnaires + celebrities’ are not in fact even happy —  they are simply able to put up a better pretence than the rest of us.

            The doctrine of Original Sin is based on the feeling, or rather ineradicable  conviction, that there is ‘something wrong with this world’, and this ‘wrongness’ goes far deeper than such matters as economic inequality, corruption in high places and so forth. Someone who has, deep within him or herself, this feeling is at best sceptical about the possibility of radical change for the better in the world : the Golden Age, Paradise, the City of God, the era of ‘true Communism’, will, so he or she feels, never, strictly never, come about in this world. Why not? In contemporary language, because selfishness is too deeply implanted in our biological make-up. The inhabitants of the second and third centuries in the West would have put it otherwise : they, whether Christian or pagan, would have said that this world was an inferior place and that the true reality lay beyond the physical and human. Who is there who has not thought this from time to time?  In certain periods, such as the declining Roman Empire and our own era, such sentiments become dominant, or, at any rate, inescapable. There is the instinctive feeling that no human efforts will suffice to eradicate this wrong, and that the time has come to look elsewhere. The attraction of drugs is that drugs, especially Ecstasy, offer immediate (but unfortunately very temporary) access to a world that practically everyone would love to inhabit, a world of universal love and friendship, a world where (in Marx’s terms) “each individual would be recompensed according to his or her  needs and deserts”.   

            Theology, Judaeo-Christian theology at any rate, equates this descent into real time and space with a definite occurrence, the Fall as it is (very appropriately) called in Genesis. The trouble is that, once something has happened, it cannot be, as it were, ‘un-happened’. There are only two (non-tragic) options left : either we conclude that this ‘fall’ will give rise to a greater good, and this is the viewpoint of mainstream Christian theology, the ‘greater good’ being the felix culpa  of God’s incarnation as Christ and Christ’s eventual return (‘parousia’) when worldly  history will be wrapped up for good and the Millennium will commence. But extremely few people countenance this view today, whereas the  Early Christians were entirely convinced that this happy event was imminent — so imminent that there was no point in bothering about social and economic improvements in the society of the time.

            Contemporary ‘thinkers’ try to convince us, as they try to convince themselves, that “all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well” — I have even read a leading article in the  New Scientist of all places arguing that the present world can easily absorb the unprecedented world population expansion without getting into serious trouble — indeed this has become the politically correct line, not because there is much, or even any, evidence to support it, but simply because the alternatives are just too awful to contemplate.

            It seems to me far more sensible, even rational, to take the opposite line, namely that there is something inherently not only flawed but actually wrong about life as it is in the universe as it is — which is precisely the Gnostic position. We are told (by scientists) that it is impossible that  the universe can be radically changed for the better, since it is governed by ‘natural laws’ which have been set for all time and which cannot, so we are assured, be disobeyed,  nor can we, who are simply special cases of natural  laws, change ourselves  for the better. According to the most celebrated opponent of theological thinking, Richard Dawkins, ‘natural law’ means selfishness, and not only that, ought to mean selfishness. Since selfishness is certainly not a good thing (pace Ayn Rand) , there is no hope for us, worse still, there should be no hope for us — for this would be unscientific. I was myself told this at an exposé I gave on Rimbaud and his central concern with ‘changing the world’ : a member of the audience remarked that “People who want to change the world for the better always end up by making  things worse” — an extremely convenient doctrine for people who have decided to do nothing, certainly nothing that puts them at a material or psychological disadvantage .          

          All this may seem very far away from the subject of this article/post, Original Sin, but it is not. Ultimately, either one accepts the world as it is, or one does not. Most societies in the past have, in their practice (laws, economy, social hierarchy) accepted the world as it is, but nonetheless with a certain reluctance — because the advocates of the status accompli were sensible enough to realize that what they were advocating was manifestly unsatisfactory, profoundly so. Traditional thinkers resolved their moral scruples by holding out the distant possibility of a quite different, and far superior, order of things which they were obliged to situate either in another plane of reality altogether, or in a distant, and, for the immediate, completely unrealisable future. The Neo-Platonists, Early Christians, Gnostics and other thinkers of the declining Roman Empire opted for the first possibility, while the utopian socialists of the nineteenth century had no choice but to opt for the second  — and we would have to include within their ranks the early Marx, even in a sense the later one.

            During the nineteenth century, an epoch of extravagant hopes and delusions bolstered by undeniable scientific and technological triumphs, there were many people who thought that, just as knowledge of the material world via Newton’s Laws and discoveries such as electricity had undoubtedly changed the physical landscape, discovery of some ‘secret formula’ about human beings would pave the way for a future Golden Age. Arthur Rimbaud, in one of the poems of Illuminations, speaks of wandering frantically about the countryside, in the company of another searcher whom we usually identify as Verlaine, searching for  “le lieu et la formule” — the place and the formula [for changing the world]. And, although I did not know this until this very day when I read it in the Introduction to Anthony Briggs’ translation of War and Peace, the body of one of the most earthbound and ‘realistic’ of nineteenth century novelists, Tolstoy, 


“[is] interred at the top of  small ravine at Yasnaya, where as a small boy he [Leo Tolstoy]  had searched for a little green stick on which was supposedly inscribed a secret formula guaranteeing permanent happiness and brotherly love.”

                                 (Introduction  War and Peace  Penguin p. xvii)



            What is this secret formula and do we need it any more?



Song : The Love for what is Far Away


Because I love what’s far away
My heart is sad yet filled with joy,
All pastimes else appear a toy,
Figures of mist the winds destroy,
Or  hopes and fears that last a day,
Beside this love that comes from oh so far away!

I hear a voice from far away,
An angel voice that speaks my name,
And calls to me, always the same,
Burning me like a heatless flame,
Then in this land I cannot stay
But must depart for what is oh so far away!

 I see a face from far away,
No mortal face its likeness is,
Its eyes foretell eternal bliss,
All earth’s delights are nought to this,
Then I must leave without delay
And seek this face that is so very far away!

Because I sought what’s far away
My life was sad yet filled with joy,
All pastimes else appeared a toy,
Figures of mist the winds destroy,
But now beside me, come what may,
A presence stands that once was oh so far away!


                                                      Sebastian Hayes


The starting point for this song was this vida, or brief biography, of the twelfth century troubadour Jaufre Rudel de Blaia  :

             Jaufre Rudel de Blaia was of gentle birth, and was Prince of Blaia. And he fell in love with the Countess of Tripoli without ever having seen her, simply because of the good things he had heard pilgrims returning from Antioch tell of her, and for her he wrote many fine poems, rich in melody and poor in words. But wishing to see her, he took the Cross and went to sea. In the boat he became ill, and when he arrived at Tripoli, he was taken to an inn, for he was near death. The Countess was told about this and she came to him, to his bedside, and took him in her arms. He realized it was the Countess, and all at once recovered his sense of sight and smell, and praised God for having sustained his life until he had seen her. And then he died in her arms. And she had him buried with great ceremony in the  house of the Knights Templars. And then, on that same day, she took the veil for the grief she felt at his death.  

            One verse of his most famous song particularly struck me :

I shall take no more joy in love
If I have none from far away,
For I know none fairer or nobler
Anywhere, near or far away.
I hold it in such esteem
That, for her, I’d be proclaimed
A captive among the Saracens.

            As the editor writes, “He [Jaufre Rudel] moves in a world close to that of the mystics, where the sensual and the divine become fused. So close is this fusion that some critics have taken his ‘distant love’ as being an allegory for the Virgin Mary or the Holy Land” (Bonner, Songs of the Troubadours).

             For all that, my song is based on personal experience and does not really have a ‘double meaning’ as in Jaufre Rudel, since my song expresses the love for, and desire to be united with, a reality ‘that is far away’, conceived as a vaguely feminine presence which is habitual in troubadour lyrics.

I wrote the words first and intended to get a composer friend of mine to compose the melody. But, although I cannot read music and have never written a song in my life, the melody came to me one afternoon and I subsequently sung it to John Baird who wrote it down and played the piano accompaniment in the CD (for which many thanks).

Download and listen to the first verse of The Love for what is Far Away.


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causality — what is causality?  The basis of all theories of causality is the notion, more precisely intuition, that certain pairs of events are connected up in a  necessary fashion whilst others (the majority) are not. It doesn’t “just happen to be the case” that someone falls over if I give him a sudden hard push : if  he did fall, we would say that I caused him to stumble. On the other hand, if I am shaking his hand and he happens to trip over a stone at this precise moment, I didn’t cause him to fall over — though it might look as if I did to an observer  some distance away.    

            According to Piaget, the newborn child lives in a ‘world’ without space and time, without permanent objects and without causality. The universe “consists of shifting and insubstantial tableaux which appear and are then totally reabsorbed” (Piaget). However, the notion of causality arises very early on, perhaps even as early as a few months if we are to believe the researchers Ann Leslie and Stephanie Keeble [“Do Six-Month-Old Infants Perceive Causality?” Cognition 25, 1987 pp. 265-288]. Allegedly, when babies are shown ‘acausal’ sequences of events mixed up with similar causal sequences they show unmistakeable symptoms of surprise such as more rapid heart beat. Whether we accept this somewhat controversial finding or not, there can be no doubt that the baby very soon realises that by making certain movements or noises it can attract the attention of its mother quite successfully. In other words, Event A, such as gurgling or screaming, becomes regularly associated with a quite dissimilar Event B, the physical proximity of its mother or another grown-up. 

            The notion that ideas can just arise ‘out of the blue’ without antecedents is repugnant to adult human beings and any sort of an explanation, however fanciful,  is often felt to be better than none at all. Belief in causality, whether well-founded or not, certainly seems to be a psychological necessity. The main motive for populating the universe in times past with so many unseen entities was to provide causal agents for observed phenomena. By the time we reach the 18th century, largely because of the astonishing success of Newtonian mechanics, most of these supernatural agencies became redundant, at any rate in the eyes of educated people. The “thrones, principalities and powers” of which Saint Paul speaks disappeared into thin air, leaving only an omniscient Creator God who had done such a good job in fashioning the universe that it could run on its own steam without the need of further intervention. The philosophers of the Enlightenment rejected ‘miraculous’ explanations of physical events : in theory at any rate mechanical explanations sufficed. Newton himself was puzzled that he was unable to provide a mechanical explanation of gravity and, later on, electrical phenomena caused problems : but most physicists prior to the last quarter of the nineteenth century assumed with Helmholtz  that “all physical problems can be reduced to mechanical problems” and that calculus and Newton’s Laws were the passe-partout that could unlock the entire universe. 

            Through all this, belief in causality continued unimpaired. In principle there were no chance events, and the French astronomer Laplace went so far as to say that, if a Supermind knew in full detail the current state of the universe, such a mind could predict everything that was going to happen in the future. This view is no longer de rigueur, of course, mainly because of the discoveries of Quantum Theory which has uncertainty built right into it. But, for the moment, I propose to leave such complications aside in order to concentrate on what might be called the ‘Classic Theory of Causality’ — ‘classic’ in the sense that it was the theory upheld, or more often assumed, by the great majority of scientists and rational thinkers between the 16th and 20th centuries.

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            This Classic Theory would seem to be based on the four following assumptions:

  1. There exists a necessary connection between certain pairs of events, and by extension, longer sequences;
  2. The status of the two events in a causal pair is not equivalent, one of the two is, as it were, active and the other, as it were, passive or acted upon;
  3. The causal impulse is always transmitted from the earlier event to the later;
  4. All physical occurrences, and perhaps mental occurrences as well, are brought about by the prior occurrence of one or more previous events.


            These assumptions are so ‘commonsensical’ that almost everyone took them for granted, witness popular phrases such as “Every event has a cause” , “Nothing can arise from nothing” and so on. But then the 18th century British philosopher Hume threw a spanner into the works. He pointed out that these assumptions, and others like them, were, when all was said and done, simply assumptions. We do not, Hume pointed out,  ever see or hear this mysterious causal link : indeed it is notoriously difficult, even for trained observers, to distinguish between events which are (allegedly) causally related and those that are not — if this were not the case, the natural sciences would have develop much more rapidly than they actually did. 

            Nor do these assumptions appear to be  ‘self-evident’  — though this is undoubtedly how Leibnitz and other rationalist thinkers viewed them. As Hume says, the fact that event A has up to now always and in all circumstances been followed by event B, does not mean that this will automatically be the case in the future. (Indeed, though Hume could not know this, the assumption is false if Quantum Mechanics is to be believed since in QM identical circumstances do not necessarily produce identical results.)

            In brief, belief in causality is, so Hume argues, an act of faith. This was a very serious charge at the time since most scientists regarded themselves as having left behind theological  modes of thought. The nineteenth century, as it happened, took very little notice of Hume’s devastating criticisms : science needed a cast iron belief in causality and Claude Bernard even went so far as to define science as determinism. And since science was clearly working, most educated people were happy to go along with its implicit assumptions — perhaps making an exception for mankind itself to whom God had given the capacity for free choice which the rest of Nature did not possess.


            Actually, the four assumptions listed, necessary though they are, do not suffice to distinguish the post-Renaissance Western theory of causality from earlier beliefs and theories. Further restrictions were required to eradicate the remaining vestiges of magical pre-scientific thinking. The most important of these principles are  :

  1. The Principle of Spatio-Temporal Continuity;
  2. The Principle of Energy;
  3. The Principle of Localization;
  4. The Mind/Body Principle


These principles were, like the original four assumptions, usually implicit rather than explicit in the writings of Enlightenment and subsequent thinkers. (1) and (2) are ‘scientific’ in the sense that they have had great importance in the development of western science; (3) is not far from being ‘logical’ or ‘commonsensical’, while (4) is essentially philosophical.



(1.) The Principle of Spatio-Temporal Continuity.


This Principle is sometimes called the Law of Transmission by Contact. It is the celebrated prohibition of ‘action-at-a-distance’ that is held to mark the line of demarcation between magic and science. In magical belief systems the possibility of action at a distance is implicitly accepted : I can perform a rite here which will, say, cause the death of an animal or person several miles away. And I can perform a rite now which will cause it to rain tomorrow. In ‘scientific’ thnking such leap-frogging in space and time is not permitted : an impulse must make itself felt continuously between the place where it is produced and the place where the effect is observed.

            This Principle was assumed by Newton though he was embarrassed by the undoubted fact that his Law of Universal Attraction violated it, since the gravitational impulse was supposed to be propagated ‘instantaneously’ throughout the entire universe. This was incidentally one of the main reasons why continental scientists of Newton’s  time, while accepting  most of Newton’s terrestrial mechanics based on pushes and pulls, rejected his gravitational theory as being much too far-fetched. 

            Einstein in his Special Theory of Relativity also assumed the Principle and made it rather more precise by stating that no message, or causal impulse, could be transmitted at a speed faster than that of light. Since the speed of light in a vacuum is known, and believed to be fixed for all time, this put a serious restriction on the effects that any action of mine, or anyone else’s, could have : whole chunks of the universe were condemned to follow quite different destinies with no possibility of interaction between them simply because they were too far away from each other.

            Einstein was such a firm believer in the principle that he remained to his dying day sceptical about Quantum Mechanics (at any rate the orthodox formulation of it) because QM seemed to involve a sort of ‘telepathic’ connection between distant particles — the term was used by Einstein himself. (To date, experiments such as those conducted by Aspect suggest that there is indeed a ‘non-local’ connection between certain elementary particles.) 

            Despite all this, most of us still assume the validity of the principle : if I want to get from A to B, I have to traverse whatever lies in between, anything else is science-fiction. When we say that someone or something ‘did not have the time’ to get to a particular place, we are implicitly appealing to the Principle : if  it were possible to disappear and reappear more or less immediately somewhere the other side of the globe, travelling about wouldn’t require any more time than staying put. 


(2.)  The Principle of Energy


The Principle may be stated thus :


            All effective action on or in the world requires an energy source.


            This is a (deliberately) vaguer and more general version of the 1st Law of Thermo-dynamics which states that the total amount of energy within a closed system remains constant.

            We are familiar with the feeling of ‘being drained’ when we have concluded an exhausting task : it is as if something has been taken from us. What is this something? Not seemingly anything we can touch or see.

            Newton did not deal in ‘energy’ as such but ‘force’. Strictly speaking, ‘energy’ is ‘Potential Work’, i.e. “the first integral of Force with respect to Distance”. But few people, even professional scientists, envisage energy in this way. The 19th century scientific and technological concept of energy fitted in well with a much earlier and more primitive notion, that of an immaterial potency that  is all around us and can be harnessed by man, what the Polynesians called mana, the North American Indians wakanda and the ancient Chinese ch’i. 

            Why “can’t you get owt for nowt?” Essentially, because of the Principle of Energy : if you want results, you must expend energy, either yours or someone else’s. Even money only brings about changes in the world  because it enables one to command machines or persons to do your bidding, and both persons and machines wear out. 

            Why are a lot of people sceptical about Uri Geller’s alleged ability to bend spoons by touching them? Because of the Principle of Energy. Although the human body does contain electro-magnetic energy, the source is too feeble to bring about such effects directly. Most so-called occult phenomena involve a violation of the Principle of Energy which is why the present society, rightly or wrongly, dismisses them out of hand — a well-known physicist of the time damned Professor Taylor for even investigating Uri Geller. But, of course, if one is not allowed to test certain alleged effects, it is impossible to get them accepted by the scientific authorities : this shows to what extent science is not pragmatic but remains hidebound by certain long-standing beliefs or prejudices.  


(3)  The Principle of Localization


This Principle does not, as far as I know, appear explicitly in the writings of any thinker, ancient or modern : it is nonetheless extremely important. Put crudely, it is the claim that  


Everything that really exists must be somewhere.

 As such, this is a very restrictive requirement indeed. Where are we to locate  the home of all these gods, spirits, demons that obsessed and terrified ancient man?   In the past they could be safely relegated to unexplored parts of the Earth, or to ‘Olympus’, somewhere up in the sky. But we, having been to many of these places and taken photographs of them, know that these beings are not to be found there and, if astronomers are to be believed, there’s not much place for them on distant galaxies either since the same set of natural laws are applicable everywhere in the universe. So, according to the Third Principle, these alleged beings must either be ‘nowhere’, or ‘in people’s heads’.

            The Principle of Localization, or a natural extension of it, also stipulates that an entity cannot be in more than one place at a time, i.e. the possibility of multi-localization is explicitly denied.  It is basically because of the Principle of Localization that scientists and rationalists do not take to the idea of a ‘Group Mind’ or ‘species mind’ — for where exactly are these collective entities? 

            Quantum Mechanics, of course, does not verify the Third Principle since, prior to an ‘act of measurement’, an elementary particle does not (according to the orthodox interpretation of the theory) have an exact position, it is, if you like, ‘all over the place’. But this is one of the main reasons why Quantum Mechanics is so worrisome.


(4.) The Mind/Body Principle


The Fourth Principle may be stated thus :


            The mind is confined within the bounds of the body, and can only bring about changes in the world via the body, or an extension of the body.


            The Fourth Principle is really nothing but a special case of the First combined with the Third — for the mind, if it exists, must be somewhere.

            For many physicists and psychologists ‘mind’ is just a handy word : only the brain exists. But the looser and more general formulation above is much more significant since even people who are prepared to accept that there is such a thing as the ‘mind’, distinct from the brain, are maybe not prepared to accept that the mind can be separated at will from the body, can ‘have a life of its own’, so to speak. 

        When a burglar ties up a man’s hands and feet, and gags him or her, the burglar feels pretty confident that the victim will be unable to send for help. Why does he believe this? Because of the Fourth Principle.

            A certain Zen exercise tells you to “Stop that ship on the distant ocean”. By the Fourth Principle, such a feat is impossible.      

            Not all persons and societies subscribe to the Fourth Principle — indeed I am not sure that I subscribe to it myself. The young child imagines that it can affect the world around it simply by an act of will and most early societies were firm believers in the power of Mind over Matter. “Hopi attitudes,” writes Whorf, “stress the power of desire and thought. To the Hopi one’s desires and thoughts influence not only his immediate actions but the whole of nature as well” (Whorf, Language, Truth and Logic).

            The radical dualism which we inherit from the Greeks (rather than the Jews) probably goes right back to shamanism which has been described as mankind’s earliest religion. In trance the shaman’s body remains on the floor of the hut in full view, but his ‘spirit’ travels far away. Contemporary people who claim to have had OBEs (Out-of-the-Body-Experiences) — and there are plenty of them — clearly do not accept the Mind/Body Principle. Such people claim, for example, to have seen themselves (or rather their bodies) undergoing surgery, and have described what went on. Official science takes a dim view of such claims — why?  Because of the Fourth Principle.


The case of Free Will


We appeal, implicitly or explicitly, to one or other of these Four Principles every day of our lives and belief in them is built into our legal system. Why is it so important for the accused  person to produce an alibi? Because of the Third Principle. If Mr. X was at spot A at 10.30 p.m., ergo he cannot have been at spot B several miles away at the same moment.   For societies which believed in virtually instantaneous travel — as happens in some stories in the Arabian Nights —  Mr. X’s observed presence at spot A during the evening wouldn’t be so convincing. 

            In this sort of case we are also implicitly invoking the Fourth Principle since we rule out the possibility of Mr. X causing Mr. Y’s death “just by willing it”, even if we knew he hated Mr. Y like poison and would have been glad to see him go. But in the days when people often died suddenly from wholly mysterious diseases, the idea that someone had perhaps put the Evil Eye on you seemed perfectly plausible, since, after all, people don’t die without a reason — Every event has a cause 


            We believe, broadly speaking, that adult, sane human beings are responsible for their actions and, in consequence, can be justifiably applauded and/or rewarded for certain acts, likewise justifiably reproved and punished for certain others. We  believe there really is a causal connection between the two events of, say, my pressing the trigger and Mr. Y collapsing (assuming, of course, we have no reason to believe that there was a third party who also fired off a gun at the same moment). But the two events are quite distinct and the connection between them, though ‘obvious’ to us, would not be ‘obvious’ to someone who had never seen or heard of firearms  — why doesn’t the bang of a firecracker cause someone to collapse to the ground?

            In such a case we would normally also believe that I was ‘responsible’ for Mr. Y’s death : I had either been culpably negligent or had wanted to kill him.  Belief in free will includes belief in causality but involves other assumptions, notably the belief that I am in some sense ‘above and beyond’ the mechanical processes that govern inanimate nature. We don’t blame a rolling stone for unleashing an avalanche, or even the hare that dislodged the stone. But we would blame a rock climber in such circumstances if only for not taking enough care, especially if he or she had been warned in advance.

            It is not clear whether belief in freewill contradicts one or other of the four Principles listed here, but possibly it does. A belief in Freewill is maybe the last relic we have from a religious/magical view of the universe and many scientists are uneasy about it for this reason (though, illogically, that doesn’t seem to stop them becoming  extremely indignant if anyone actually attacks them physically or steals their property).    

Are Human Beings Rational and Purposive?

Are Human Beings Rational and Purposive?


do people act purposively and pursue their goals using broadly rational methods? Is it even desirable that they should behave in such a way?

          The issue really belongs to basic psychology and theory of history, but since it first came up with regard to films, I start here.

          Some sixty or so years ago, Joseph Campbell, drawing on his encyclopaedic knowledge of myth and folklore, came up with the idea that very many of these stories had a basic pattern which he called The Hero’s Journey  and  which, broadly speaking, could be broken down into twelve stages. Typically, the hero is first shown living in an ‘ordinary’ environment, he then receives a ‘Call to Adventure’ which takes him on a perilous journey to ‘another world’. If successful (which he almost invariably is) the hero returns from the other world with a treasure or secret of some sort, elixir, cornucopia, wonder weapon, important piece of knowledge &c. which he then confers on the community. He (more rarely she) typically retires ‘a better and a wiser man’ for his deeply challenging adventure.

          A little later on, Christopher Vogler had the brainwave of applying this schema (slightly adapted) to Hollywood films, especially action movies, and brought out a highly influential book, The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screnwriters.  

          Christopher Vogler’s book is extremely interesting and illuminating, but more with regard to life generally than to filmcraft — there are very few films indeed to which this schema can be applied directly. (To take two examples chosen by Vogler himself, the schema applies tolerably well to An Officer and a Gentleman but hardly to Titanic.) And countless would-be screenwriters must have cursed the man since the Vogler schema has given producers and readers of screenplays a marvellous all-round excuse for dropping scripts into the trash-can without giving them a second reading. “My God, his hero misses out Stage 5! We can’t have that”, or “Can you believe it? She’s got Stage Ten and Stage Nine the wrong way round!”.

          People in the film industry don’t rely on Vogler’s schema so much these days, thank God, but the idea that films should be written according to a specific formula is far from dead. There are any number of schemas and templates, the Three Act Form, the Twelve Decisive Moments, and so forth, and discussion of films  within the industry evolves around arcane issues like how many turning points a film should have and where the mid-point should  be. Film critics — except possibly in specialist magazines — never mention any of this : they go straight to the point and say whether the film grabs them and whether they engage with the central character. I would say that the main reason most English language films are so bad is not that the screenwriters don’t know their stuff, but precisely the reverse — they know far too much  and write films according to an approved template rather than just getting on with it.  It is ironical that in 2007 a slow, hopelessly old-fashioned and cliched film with negligible sex and violence was refused a showing at Cannes (doubtless for these reasons) but topped the audience polls as film of the year in this country. I am referring to Das Leben des Anderen (The Life of Others). The film is certainly no masterpiece but made such a pleasant contrast to the usual stuff on offer because of its obvious sincerity and what one might call ‘film innocence’ that the audience rightly went for it, as I did myself.

  But I am in this article more concerned with the plausibility and realism of contemporary films,  than their artistic shape and form. The dominant genre of the last twenty years has  been the action movie cum thriller, and the schema and underlying psychology which has worked (up to a point) here has become de rigueur in most other genres. Cobbling together what I’ve picked up from workshops and books about how to write a successful feature film, the schema goes something like this. 1. Choose a hero (or heroine) who is given, or who gives himself, a specific mission or goal;  2. Make him decide to achieve this goal at all costs using all his formidable intelligence and strength of purpose; 3. Set up obstacles to the achievement of this goal (to make the film interesting); 4. Introduce characters who help or hinder the hero in the achievement of the goal;  5. End the film with the successful achievement of the goal and 6. Leave the audience with the feeling that the hero or heroine has learned something really valuable by  the experience, however tough it was. (See Note at the end for an example.)

          Is life even remotely like this?  No.

          In my experience, people very rarely have any sort  of goal  in life beyond  the vague one of being  reasonably attractive to the opposite sex (or desirable members of the same sex) and becoming tolerably well-off without having to work too hard for it. People’s careers often  depend on unplanned events  such as  chance meetings with someone in a bar who offers you a job, and people typically end up marrying, or living with, a particular partner because they don’t expect to get anyone that much better. In saying this, I am not necessarily criticising people for living their lives in this way : there is plenty of evidence that so-called “satisficers” — people who content themselves with the first available option — tend to be  happier than ‘maximisers’, people who always have their eye on the jackpot. One might even argue that the famous ‘traditional wisdom’ of the ancients simply boils down to ways of changing people  from  being  unsatisfied ‘maximisers’ into  contented ‘satisficers’ — certainly both the leading philosophies of the Roman world, Epicureanism and Stoicism, had this as their goal. Similarly, the main reason people today are so miserable, though far richer than ever before in history, is that the free market economy encourages ‘maximisers’ and disapproves of ‘satisficers’ because satisficers are less likely to buy what they don’t actually want and less likely to spend their lives hankering after the unattainable.  

          Even when they do have a particular goal in life, people never  pursue it with the ruthless dedication and infallible logic of the typical film secret agent or detective. (One doubts that these Secret Agents and Private Eyes would in practice be any good in their profession : they’re usually ‘too clever by half’ and far too rigid in their methods.) Most important of all, people practically never learn anything  from a particular adventure or assignment, because the next challenge that life throws at them is almost certainly  going to be completely different. As a rule, people (and governments) drift into situations they did not foresee or found it convenient to ignore  (like the present credit crunch), they cope more or less with life’s predicaments because they can’t afford not to,  and succeed, when they do succeed, more by luck than judgment.

          OK,OK, one might say, but this is just ordinary people : exceptional people, the really successful ones, don’t behave like this. And films and novels should, arguably, be concerned with exceptional, or at least special, people, not with Joe Bloggses. But, surprisingly, if you look at the lives of famous people, world-shakers and movers, the situation is not so very different. There are a few examples of people who received an unmistakeable call from the beyond —  Joan of Arc and Saint Paul spring to mind  — and one or two examples of highly ambitious men who pursued a specific goal from the start with iron dedication and persistence, Christopher Columbus for example.

          But, take a long hard look at history,  and you will find that by far the greatest number of individuals who changed the world for better or worse were people who showed no particular promise in their childhood and youth, whose sense of mission, if it came at all, came fairly late in life, and who never had more than the vaguest idea of where they were heading. Without the very specific circumstances of seventeenth century England, in particular the conflict between the Crown and Parliament, Oliver Cromwell would have remained  an obscure country squire who never bestrode a horse except to go fox hunting. Genghis Khan, as a young man, never had his eye on world domination : he started off, like a petty Sicilian mafiosa, painfully trying to assert his authority in a small clan because he was the senior male in the family left alive. And  the adolescent Hitler never had any boyhood dreams of being a great dictator and military strategist : he saw himself as a brilliant architect and if the Viennese School of Architecture had seen fit to accept him, maybe the history of the twentieth century would have been very different.

          Typically, a world-historical individual finds himself unexpectedly in a situation where he has to sink or swim : if he swims, he discovers powers within himself he never knew he had — like Hitler discovering by chance that he had a formidable gift for public speaking, or Oliver Cromwell discovering that he had a natural talent for being a cavalry leader and military organiser. Nothing succeeds like success and the world-historical individual, if he’s lucky, gets ferried along by the current and he may well conclude that, all things considered, that it’s less dangerous to keep going than to turn back. Although I don’t entirely pooh-pooh the idea of ‘world-historical forces’ moving individuals across the chessboard of history, what actually motivated famous people on a day to day basis was often extremely mundane. Julius Caesar frittered away his youth as a Roman playboy and at forty found himself crippled with enormous debts. In those days the only way to make really big money was to wage a successful war, so this is what he did (several in fact); furthermore, Julius Caesar didn’t dare to retire from public office because he would have lost immunity from prosecution and he had, more or less right up to his assassination, big lawsuits pending.  For him and people like him, the only way to move was up.

          This is not to belittle the greatness of these figures, on the contrary. But very few of them got there by sheer ambition, reasoning power and systematic effort. Indeed, two of the persons already mentioned, Cromwell and Hitler, were past masters at using chance situations to their advantage : they were great opportunists rather than far-sighted planners. Cromwell is credited with the astonishing remark, “A man never rises so high as when he does not know where he is going” and Hitler once said “I go to my goal with the precision and confidence of a sleepwalker”. We don’t generally think history is made by sleepwalkers.

          The point about all this is that the entire portfolio recommended  by rationalism and conventional  self-help : assessing the data logically, setting oneself achievable goals, developing deep-sighted strategies and so forth is largely irrelevant in the real world because  successful people, on their own admission, even (or especially) businessmen, rely above all on hunches, gut instinct, chance situations, rapid adaptation to changing circumstances… They are pragmatists who employ methods that work, not methods that are intellectually respectable.  

          I’m not being facetious or flippant in saying all this. There’s plenty of findings coming out now that suggest we don’t live our lives by taking rational decisions at all :


“It’s difficult for people to accept, but most of a person’s everyday life is determined not by their conscious intentions and deliberate choices, but by mental processes put into motion by the environment” says John Bargh of Yale University (quoted New Scientist, 7 July 2007 p 37).


The NS article in question, written by Mark Buchanan, concludes with the astounding statement — astounding since it comes from a scientist —  “Perhaps the best way to understand human behaviour is to ignore the supposedly rational, consciously generated actions of individuals.”
To return to the cinema.

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As a sweeping generalisation, I would say that films today are based on the premise that what drives history, both personal narrative and world-wide trends, is character rather than events. I believe exactly the opposite : it is events that drive history and especially unforeseen, apparently ‘chance’ events. Character really only comes into it when and if specific events provoke deep changes within a person, which they can but rarely do in practice, (not even extreme events like war and imprisonment).  And few people ever learn anything from their experiences, usually because their most traumatic, or ecstatic, experiences are strictly unrepeatable.  

          If this is roughly true, it follows that the ‘hero’ — the ‘real’ hero, not the impossibly fictional James Bond one — is not someone who ‘makes things happen’, but is more like a surfer who ‘goes with the current’, though remaining upright and ready to jump off if there’s a waterfall ahead. But in most thrillers and detective dramas we are confronted with two unbelievably prescient  and determined people, the criminal and the detective : they pit their wits against each other, knowing exactly what their respective goals are (catch that murderer/ avoid getting caught) and how and where they want to end up (get promoted/ escape to a safe country &c.). Victory goes to the more alert and rational of the two Supermen, the one who makes the least mistakes. Not only is this tussle of wits and muscles becoming increasingly boring, it is a hundred miles from reality and though we certainly need escapist films to counterbalance the boredom and ugliness of everyday life, we need some sort of plausibility and verisimilitude as well. 

          Fortunately, there are a small number of   films, even one or two Box Office successes, that are beginning to break away from the tired rationalistic, goal-orientated mould. Take the Jason Bourne series. Here we have a protagonist who, though a trained killer, is a romantic and not a conceited macho thug and misogynist like James Bond or the young Michael Caine. More significantly in the context of present discussion, Jason Bourne  never  knows what he’s supposed to be doing, since he is not given a specific assignment (or rather he reneges on it and forgets what it was), nor does he have a specific goal of his own except the vague one of staying alive and somehow getting to the bottom of the mystery. Though capable of rational planning, he  survives because of his brilliant improvisation, his adroit use of chance events, his inner confidence and reliance on gut feeling — he senses at once when a situation is going bad and whether someone is trustworthy or not. He surf rides on the sea of events and is rapid enough to keep upright on his surfboard. Moreover, there is no final conclusion (or not yet anyway) : in the next round (next film) he is no further advanced than he was at the beginning, but has to start everything all over again. All this is far closer to what actually goes on in real life  — provided, of course, we discount the fatuous car chases and other impossibilities.

          Jason Bourne actually has a foot in both camps : he is not a perfect  example of what one might call the ‘drifting hero’ , and this is, in a way, right and proper since the genre is, at the end of the day, still the action movie/thriller. But Jason Bourne is very different from his tiresome know-all  predecessors because, for one thing,  he is reactive rather than pro-active : he is at his best when he is being attacked which is why he employs the highly original tactic of making his whereabouts known so as to get his enemies to come at him (by deliberately getting picked up at Naples Customs in The Bourne Supremacy and, again, by using a known passport identity in New York in The Bourne Ultimatum). He is someone who never knows who he is nor where he is going, and thus finds himself continually buffeted about by unforeseen events,   because in his case he has literally lost his memory. For once the amnesia cliche has an existential dimension : Jason Bourne is humanity thrown into an unintelligible and dangerous world  where,  to survive, one has to adapt, endlessly adapt, to endlessly novel situations. Maybe, the future, if there is one, will depend on people like this, people who do not know who they are (but are eager to find out), and who do not know where humanity is heading. 

A much purer example of a ‘drifting hero’ is Solly in the much underrated film Europa, Europa. The main character is a young Jewish boy successively forced to flee Germany and then Western Poland because of Hitler. (The film does not depend on suspense, so I do not think I am giving anything important away by summarising the plot.) Solly is the ‘victim’ of events throughout the film, but surprisingly this works to his advantage partly through luck (or providence if one believes in such things) and partly because of his chameleon-like adaptability. He does not choose to flee, his father orders him to do so and he reluctantly obeys. It is chance not intent that separates him from his brother and makes him fall into Russian hands which, as it happens, gives him temporary protection. Again, by chance not judgment, he gets separated from the fleeing schoolchildren of the Komsomol orphanage and thus gets captured by a division of the German army.  Far from being a disaster, once again this ends up to his advantage and despite his Jewish origins  and eventually he is even enrolled in an elite Hitler Youth  school. He has throughout the film no goal whatsoever except to stay alive, no tactics to speak of except to play along with whatever happens to him. He only ever makes two decisions off his own bat, one to desert from the German army to the Russians  and the other to try and make it look as if he has a foreskin. The first decision results in him leading a successful attack on th Russians — the last thing he aimed to do — and his feeble attempt at tying up his penis has no importance in the story except to show his desperation. 

You may be surprised to learn — I was not actually —  that this  completely  fantastic tale is based on reality, which James Bond and Rambo most certainly are not. (Solly’s story is roughly  that of Solomon Perel, a German Jew who survived the Holocaust .)


Another example of the same sort of hero, or rather protagonist, is Butch Haynes in what is perhaps Clint Eastwood’s best film, A Perfect World. Two convicts break out of an American prison and take a young boy as hostage. Predictably one of the two gets shot and good riddance. The rest of the film is taken up by Butch Haynes (brilliantly played by Kevin Cosner) driving around Texas with the young boy hostage. He has no special goal and, as one of the pursuers says, “he’s just going  around in circles”.  Instead of using the boy as a human shield — which would be the expected and indeed rational thing to do — Butch Haynes develops such a good relationship with the boy that from then on his main interest  is to stay with him and enjoy life. on a day to day, or rather hour by hour,  basis. There is some talk of ‘going to Alaska’ but they never even get on the road there and this detail is actually not only redundant but strikes  a rare false note.  Nor does Butch Haynes end up in the town where he was born in a sort of  Freudian ‘return to the scene of the crime’  (as it looks at one point  that he might): he just keeps driving around with the engaging young boy and changing cars.  I cannot say much more without giving away the plot which, in this case, does matter. The unexpected conclusion is emotionally unsatisfying (to me at any rate) and just prevents the film being a masterpiece,  but is entirely convincing realistically — suffice it to say that it is all based on a mistake as so many tragic events are in real life (think of the Menzies shooting). 

Whether there are going to be any more films predicated on the sort of human psychology I have suggested remains to be seen : I think this very likely. We are moving into a very different era now and presumably this will eventually be reflected in the films and novels that will be  produced. Something like a paradigm shift  is emerging in Western society, a movement away from the whole rationalistic, macho, goal-directed take on  human nature  that we inherit from the Enlightenment . Towards what exactly? Something much more fluid and adaptive, and something which makes much more use of the unconscious.  But there is a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ way of drifting your way through life : indeed the aim of one of the world’s  most important philosophies, Taoism, is to teach — or rather encourage —   the ‘good’ way of drifting.

"The Web of Aoullnnia" Topics Arising

Various Topics arising from “The Web of Aoullnnia”

Cosmology & Cosmogony of the Sarlang

‘Reality’ – the Katylin term means ‘All That Is or Can Be’ — is divided by the Sarlang into two regions, the Manifest and the Unmanifest, which are in turn subdivided into the Occurrent and the Non-occurrent.


Unmanifest Non-occurrent.

Void.  No-form. Ultimate source and end of everything. Tao.

 Unmanifest Occurrent.

Domain of Half-form, drifting potentialities not yet fixed into shape and form. Here there is no Dominance (Causality) and any event can be followed by any other.  Chaos.


Manifest Occurrent.

Fixed world of events. Specificity. Full form. Will. Causality.

 Manifest Non-occurrent.

Constructed realm of archetypes, dreams, wishes.


The Katylin Language

 Katylin is a language developed by the Sarlang during the latter part of the Abyss (2012 – 2056 by your reckoning) when they lived in underground settlements in North-West Territory (your Amrica). There are two forms, Lenwhil (or ‘true mode’) Katylin which is the language actually used by the Sarlang, and Sarwhil (‘easymode’) Katylin which is a simplified version of it with much borrowing from other languages. No one today speaks Lenwhil Katylin and it would be regarded as sacrilegious to even attempt to do so. However, a good deal of the chants and litanies to Aoullnnia are in a relatively pure form of Katylin and devotees of the Yther (a mystical movement restricted  to fam) use written Lenwhil Katylin for letters and official texts.
The linguistic principles on which Katylin is based have their origins in the manner in which the Sarlang experienced reality. In Katylin the first word of every sentence is usually a ‘gerund’, a verbal noun. There is ‘action’, something occurring. Then comes a word or group of words giving  the origin of the action and finally a word or group of words giving the result of the action. Thus the statement “I am painting a picture” will in Katylin be put in the form                          Painting / me / picture.”     

   As a secondary or alternative double specification we have the localisation of the origin of the action and the localisation of the effect. Thus the ‘sentence’             
          “Flashing/ sky/ ground”
 indicates that a flash (of lightning) has occurred, originally localised in the sky but seen from the ground.  If I direct a beam of light up into the sky I will write something like

   Because of the (to you) strange Sarlang conceptions of causality, there is often no great distinction made between the origin and localisation of an action. However, if the action is definitely the result of an act of will, the prefix shows this, distinguishing for example between
           “Shooting/I/him deliberately”
and  simply
          “Shooting/I/him ”   


The name Sarlang  comes from the Katylin ‘sar-whellan’  which  means literally ‘easy birth-ing’ and by extension ‘midwife’. The Sarlang are those who ‘ease the birth’ of material reality — drawing half-forms into concretisation in the manner of midwives who aid women in labour.

            Originally the Sarlang employed pre-existing half-forms — what you would call ‘archetypes’.  But quite soon they created their own key images which they located in the Manifest Non-Occurrent, and which eventually became the basis of Rhewenia’, the so-called Unfinished World. However, their real interest was in the Unmanifest and they regarded themselves not as creators of reality but simply as ‘helpers toward manifestation’ hence their  name.      


Recognition of Aoullnnia
Aoullnnia means literally ‘She Who Is Unique’  aullunn  means ‘single’ or ‘alone’ and ‘-ia’ is a feminine suffix.  
Aoullnnia is never represented in art.  Aoullnnia can be ‘recognized’ but not seen or heard, can be known but not in the way physical things or ideas are known.  Indeed, it is one of the central tenets of the Recognition of Aoullnnia that every sentient being has knowledge of Aoullnnia : this deep intuitive knowledge can be obscured but never utterly obliterated.

      What are sometimes represented in the Temenoi (‘meditation halls’) are ‘yrangloi’ (‘angels’?) : they are messengers between estranged parts of Aoullnnia and as such are forces for good, or more specifically for re-union. Some Temenoi  also contain images of ‘dyrantroi’, agents of estrangement and disunion and thus, in traditional terms, devils or malign forces. But ‘yrangloi’ and ‘dyrantroi´  are equally necessary for the functioning of the whole: they are like movements of contraction and expansion, breathing in and breathing out.   


Incipience is  inexpressible in your language and perhaps in any system of sounds  — this is said to be one of the main reasons why the Sarlang invented Whoirl. (In Whoirl the intensity of a body-pulse expresses incipience — apparently with great accuracy.)

            Degrees of incipience were denoted in Katylin by tones. There was a ‘neutral tone’ used for bald statements of fact — “It will rain tomorrow” (which in Katylin would be roughly ‘raining/day/after-now’). Other common tones express ‘probability’, ‘hope’ &c. For future events there were five basic tones. A harsh emphatic tone (never used concerning the future) expresses complete conviction. 

Reality Fixation

This is the basic Sarlang technical innovation though there remains much disagreement as to what exactly it consists in. According to Sarlang conceptions all events in the Manifest can be traced back to their origins in the Unmanifest where they exist in a tentative and nebulous state as  ‘synghia’ or  ‘half-form’.  
Supposedly, there are several stages between a pre-event’s ultimate source  in the Unmanifest Non-Occurrent (which is totally out of reach) and its appearance in the Manifest  : generally five stages are distinguished though some authors list as many as twenty-seven. In theory it is possible to intervene during some of these stages and repulse or transform a pre-event before it has become completely defined. This procedure is called ‘uz-syrsann’ or Reality Fixation. Successful reality fixation requires the ability to penetrate into the world of half-form which lies behind and between phenomena. But this is by no means the end of the story since it is essential to distinguish between pre-events that are still malleable and those that are already well-defined —  a  distinction that is very hard to make.

            Note that ‘making a wish come true’ is not Reality Fixation but Reality Construction. In Sarlang terms, all wishes, desires, fantasies and so on are   situated in the Manifest Non-Occurrent and not in the Unmanifest.

Pre-existence and Emergence  

One of the chief Sarlang ideas was that everything in some sense pre-existed in the Unmanifest. A completely ‘new’ event (new to us) emerges directly from the Unmanifest in which it pre-exists as ‘half-form’. Other events (the vast majority) are just repetitions of previously occurrent events with slight modifications. A further category includes events that are projected into the Manifest Non-Occurrent and as it were reflected back into the Manifest Occurrent. In this roundabout way the imagined can become ‘real’, i.e. operative. 

            The Sarlang attempted in their philosophical system to take account of  two opposing and equally important aspects of ‘reality’, discontinuity and emergence from pre-existing elements. The future state in some sense pre-exists in the earlier state from which it ‘emerges’. However, there is no flow, no continuity, and it is even possible to cut off an outcome which in some sense pre-exists.

            As many opponents of the Sarlang system have pointed out there is a fundamental difficulty here: if everything pre-exists, then so does emergence and so there can be no true emergence (since what emerges is already in existence). The Sarlang would doubtless  say that the above argument applies to what goes on here (in the Manifest) but not to a process which commences in the Unmanifest. The emerged world indeed pre-exists in the Unmanifest but that does not rule out the possibility of us, who do not belong to the Unmanifest, experiencing emergence. Indeed, if we did not experience it, we would not be alive at all — we would belong to the Unmanifest completely. There is a famous maxim found in the notebooks of Awailyia, the founder of the Yther movement,  


“For Aoullnnia there is no emergence, but for us who are not Aoullnnia there is only  emergence.”  


The Ramanujan Problem

st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } in january 1913, G.H.Hardy, perhaps England’s best pure mathematician at the time, received a bulky handwritten letter from a poor clerk in Madras who had three times failed to get into an Indian University. The correspondent confessed that  “since leaving school I have been employing the spare time at my disposal to work on mathematics” and wondered what G.H. Hardy thought of his efforts. Then followed ten pages full of weird theorems along with the claim that the author,  Srinivasa Ramanujan by name, had in his hands “an expression for the number of prime numbers less than N which very nearly approximates to the real result, the error being negligible.”             Hardy was completely knocked back by this letter, “the most extraordinary I received in my life” and eventually arranged for Ramanujan to come to Cambridge (without having to pass any examinations, of course), sponsoring him a year or so later for election to the Royal Society. So far this reads like a fairy tale but there is a sad ending. Ramanujan didn’t take to the English climate, awful cooking and stiff upper lipness : he tried to commit suicide once in the London Underground and ended up contracting  tuberculosis which, after his return to India, killed him before he was thirty-five. Those interested in his fascinating life story would be recommended to read “The Man who Knew Infinity” * by Robert Kanigel, Scribners 1991. My only fault with this book is the insufficient mathematical coverage, too scanty even for my modest level.              Ramanujan, even in his ‘maturer’ years gave very few proofs and those he did give were usually inadequate, and very occasionally actually wrong. He was a man who had received no more than the equivalent of ‘A’ level formal training in mathematics. I am not competent to read, let alone comment upon, Ramanujan’s mathematical output. But his reputation seems to be standing up  pretty well since his death and even underwent something of a  renaissance when his last Notebook was discovered in the eighties since some saw in it anticipations of string theory.  (Not that Ramanujan was at all interested in physics or indeed any applied mathematics.)              So how did he do it?             Patience and keen observation (of numbers) accounts for some of Ramanujan’s results. In the days when the PC was not even a pipe dream Ramanujan spent a lot of time trawling through seas of numbers, exactly the sort of drudgery Western mathematicians at the time rather looked down on. However, one can’t see observation alone producing         113          +     213        +      313         + ……          =     1               e 2p   1            e4p 1           e6p 1                                   24 or                coth p          +    coth 2p        +      coth 3p         + ……   =     19p7                    17                          27                          37                                 56700 just two of the results contained in this now celebrated letter.  (Note : p signifies ‘pi’.)  

            The early twentieth century was the era of rigour : Hardy himself disliked loose mathematical thinking and wanted to reform English mathematics to bring it up to the continental standard. And a stone’s throw away from Hardy’s rooms, Bertrand Russell was busily reducing the whole of mathematics to logic. Russell’s very definition of mathematics — “The science of drawing necessary conclusions” — seemingly excludes Ramanujan’s entire output. Unless, of course, one wants to argue that the reasoning that went on was largely unconscious. But this sort of talk wouldn’t have gone down very well with the early Russell’s positivist friends who tended to ridicule the very idea of the unconscious .              Most eminent pure mathematicians in the twentieth century have either been open or closet Platonists — Hardy himself was an open one. Mathematical Platonists believe that the truths of mathematics are true in an absolute sense : they are not human inventions, and cannot be refuted by an appeal to observation and experiment.   But Hardy was also a militant agnostic, a sort of mathematical Dawkins, and thus hostile to anything smacking of ‘mysticism’. The vision of the higher mathematical Sacred Grail required years of hard work, university training and self-discipline — there was no royal road to analysis. And here was a fellow who claimed to receive formulae for hypergeometric series and elliptic integrals in dreams and who attributed his mathematical achievements to his family’s tutelary goddess, Namagiri. This was Rider Haggard or worse.           If one takes a Formalist point of view, mathematics is invention, and belongs to the arts rather than to the sciences  — at least in principle. In practice, however, students of mathematics are never invited to devise their own symbolic systems in the way in which, for example, artists are invited (or more often obliged) to choose their own subjects for their paintings.  It is just about permissible, at least in popular books on mathematics, to speak of  ‘mathematical instinct’ and ‘inherent mathematical judgment’, but few writers on mathematics  even attempt to define such terms which belong to aesthetics or psychology. Obviously Ramanujan did have these elusive qualities but the trouble with the ‘creativity’ angle is that it leads us into the murky underwater channels of the unconscious, and the least that can be said of modern mathematicians is that they don’t fancy getting their feet wet. Also, it  does not explain why Ramanujan, working almost entirely on his own, homed in on so many of the great themes of nineteenth and twentieth century mathematics albeit from a rather different angle. One might have expected him to go off completely at a tangent, but he obviously didn’t or he wouldn’t have been elected to the Royal Society. So how did he do it?              Must we, after all, believe that Ramanujan was a sort of mathematical Joan of Arc? This is an explanation of sorts and has the merit of being the one Ramanujan himself preferred. In the 16th and 17th centuries Ramanujan would not have been such a misfit: even Descartes, the father of modern rationalism,  claimed to have been visited by the Angel of Truth.  There are nonetheless difficulties with this explanation, even for such an anti-rationalist as myself, principally the fact that Ramanujan was not invariably right. His claim to have in his hands a formula giving the distribution of the primes unfortunately turned out to be mistaken. (It has apparently since then been shown that no such formula can exist.) Of course, there is no reason why a goddess should not err on certain technical points but it is suspicious that the slips made by Ramanujan (or his source) were precisely the ones to be expected from someone not fully au courant  with  the very latest research into the divergence of  infinite series ¾ research that Ramanujan, in his Madras backwater, was unaware of.             I personally don’t have the sort of trouble Hardy and Russell (or today militant rationalists like Martin Gardner)  have with the idea that some people can tune in ‘directly’ to sources of knowledge most of us can’t, though I interpret the phenomenon more in terms of Jungian ‘Group Minds’ or ‘Collective Memories’ than in terms of goddesses and spirits. It may be that Ramanujan from the mysterious East connected up with planes of being invisible to us educated Westerners, had readier access to the Akashic Records of Mme Blavatsky, if you like. I certainly have less of a problem with this approach than that of   mathematical Platonism. The latter made good sense in the days when people viewed God as the Supreme Mathematician (as Kepler and Newton did) but cuts little ice today with anyone except professional mathematicians. For what it is worth, the consensus amongst physicists today is that the world we live in is not the result of intelligence and planning — it just happened. And the fact that mathematics has proved to be a useful tool in investigating the cosmos doesn’t in the least mean the cosmos is inherently mathematical. Is a cat mathematical? To actually model a predator pursuing its moving prey on the savannah, quite complicated mathematics involving differential equations is required, but no one in his right senses is going to suggest that a cheetah or a cougar knows what he or she is doing mathematically speaking, or needs to : trial and error and natural selection suffice. And, as far as we know, there’s nothing special about the values of the most important mathematical constants, G, c or  the fine structure constant: so far all attempts to derive such values by a priori reasoning ¾ as Eddington tried to do ¾  have been miserable failures. We just happen to be in a universe where these constants have the values they do and that’s ultimately all there is to it. And if there is something beyond and behind all possible and actual universes, the Matrix to end all matrixes, my feeling is that neither words  nor symbols nor numbers are going to be of any help here ¾ “The Tao that can be named is not the original Tao” (first line of the Tao Te Ching). As far as I am concerned mathematics deals strictly with what is measurable and, whatever ultimate reality is, it’s certainly not measurable or it wouldn’t be ultimate.             So how do I explain Ramanujan? As someone who believes that the origins of mathematics lie in our perceptions of the physical world in which we live, I must  admit Ramanujan worries me a bit. Because of the terseness of his results and his  air of absolute conviction he does, at first glance, look like  someone who has a window on a higher  reality, a strictly mathema
tical one, and that all he has to do is to transcribe  what he sees.  But then again part of the reason for this lies in his idiosyncratic working habits. In India at any rate — where he did most of his creative work — he did his mathematics with chalk and slate because he found paper too expensive. He rubbed out with his elbow as he progressed and only noted down the final result. So he  probably couldn’t remember the intermediate steps by the time he’d finished and had no means of checking. Maybe he even covered up his tracks on purpose : we don’t really want a magician  to reveal his secret as Cutter, the magician’s ingénieur, says in the film The Prestige
¾  it spoils our pleasure. Indian mathematics never was too much concerned with proofs anyway — there is the famous example of the ‘proof’ of Pythagoras’ Theorem by way of a diagram with the caption “Behold!”

            One thing that’s certain is that  Ramanujan was born in the right place and time and that maybe accounts for a lot about his mathematics. India was, at the end of the nineteenth century, a country looking in two directions. It was still immersed in mysticism, the occult, philosophic and religious speculation. But at the same time it had an advanced educational system modelled on the British, and was encouraged,  to send particularly  bright pupils to Oxford and Cambridge. The rational plus the irrational (or supra-rational) is  a heady and treacherous mixture but it suits certain types of minds perfectly. Kepler, astrologer and astronomer, mystic and painstaking observer, was a child of a similar place and time, Renaissance Germany. The dangers of irrationalism have been trumpeted in our ears for two centuries already , but there are equally grave dangers attendant upon the exclusive use of ‘reason’. There has always been something threatening and, above all, puritanical in rationalism. Hardy wrote of one of his contemporaries, “Bromwich would have had a happier life, and been a greater mathematician if his mind had worked with less precision”. The Houhnhms, the strictly rational beings of Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”, are not only rather dull but not even very congenial since they entirely lack spontaneity, tenderness and enthusiasm.             Much has been said about Ramanujan’s lack of adequate mathematical training. But it was, on the contrary, very suitable — for him. He was given about as much as he needed to get going, namely groundings in most areas including calculus (still little taught in schools at the end of the nineteenth century). He didn’t make it to university but he did get to know several eminent  Indian savants and his immediate superior in his office was an excellent amateur mathematician. So Ramanujan had people he could talk to about mathematics, and it was in many respects an advantage that such persons did not know more than they did, or more than he did  — for they would have put him off following down certain pathways. It is an open question whether even Hardy, who discovered him, had, in the last analysis, a good or a bad influence on him.            Mathematics has, in the last two centuries, become a matter of solving the great problems, and rigorously proving the great theorems, bequeathed to us by the previous generation. It has become grimly serious and has long since ceased to be the carefree exploration  of virgin territory that it was in the time of Fermat and Euler. Ramanujan was not a prover nor  even especially  a problem solver :  he was an explorer. In his youth, after giving up the idea of getting into college, he spent five happy years supported by his poor parents doing nothing except sitting on a wooden bench in the sun in front of the family house working at mathematics, his choice of mathematics. After his excursion into Europe he returned to this mode of life in his last years, exploring peculiar things he called “mock-theta functions”. The best thing to do with such a person is to let him get on with it and have someone check up on his results later. But that wouldn’t do in the contemporary era, it sounds far too lax, ‘libertarian’ ¾ people might actually get to enjoy mathematics if they were allowed to follow down pathways that caught their fancy.              In this era of “education, education and education” it is worth pointing out that, though lack of knowledge renders people impotent, too much knowledge available at the drop of a hat makes one lazy, blasé and unimaginative. It is indeed often salutary to be deprived of knowledge.  If Pascal’s father had not forbidden him to study geometry, he would not have got off to such a good start by re-discovering whole chunks of Euclid unaided.  Ramanujan kicked off with an out of date pot-boiler, Carr’s Synopsis,  which is apparently all formulae and no proof. The author was an enthusiast for his subject, however, and managed to communicate this to his readers. According to Kanigel, the book has a certain flow and movement ¾ indeed I’d like to read it myself and I’m sure I’d get a lot out of it.            Now you can’t teach ‘exploration’ but it can be encouraged. In contemporary schools and colleges it practically never is. What we get is the  message to the world delivered by Head of the American Patent Office in 1890 : “Everything worth discovering has already been discovered” (he actually said that)    with the exception perhaps of a few abstruse issues that require ten or fifteen years of preparatory training in a college of higher education. As it happens, one of the most exciting mathematical events in the last twenty-five years has been the discovery (or rather invention) of fractals. But they were turned up by an explorer of mathematics, Mandelbrot, who worked at the time for IBM, not Princeton University  — I gather that  even  today the snobbish pure mathematical fraternity in America does not accept Mandelbrot as being part of the club. And it all came out of looking into a simple function that goes back to Newton and is known to most sixth formers.             The great objection to exploration is that there’s no point in re-inventing the wheel. But there is. Invention or re-discovery gives you a thrill that  answering  routine questions set by someone else never does. Secondly, it gets you into the habit of inventing and “If you want to be a blacksmith, go and work in the forge”. Once you’ve started inventing, you may well end up with something that really is original since discovering something for yourself is much more likely to lead on to further discoveries. A retired civil engineer of my acquaintance, Henry Jones by name, with no mathematical training beyond ‘O’ level, produced a weird-sounding definition of an ellipse, namely the locus traced out by a point on the circumference of a revolving circle, the centre of which is revolving around a fixed centre at half the speed of the point in question. This is in effect the parametric equation of the ellipse which goes back to Copernicus though Jones did not know it. This hopelessly old-fashioned geometric definition suggested an immediate application — which the algebraic definition doesn’t— and Jones went on to design a compass which could draw ellipses, as well as circles and straight lines, since the circle and the straight line are, mathematically speaking, limiting cases of the ellipse. (Although he took out a p
atent I believe the Jones elliptical compass was never manufactured, though it deserved to be.)   
            On the basis of Kanigel’s book, I don’t think I am able to subscribe to the conventional wisdom that “if only Ramanujan had had the proper training what a great mathematician he would have been!” More likely strict training would have turned him, or killed him, off. Einstein himself, a mediocre physics student who found himself obliged to borrow the notes of his friend Besso when preparing for his final examinations, only just survived the academic obstacle course3.    Ramanujan had the sort of education suitable for a bold and imaginative person, more would have weakened his self-confidence and destroyed his enthusiasm for the subject. His very failures were glorious. Although Ramanujan’s claim that he had a function giving the distribution of the primes fails for very large numbers, it is for all that a tremendous achievement. “Of the first nine million numbers, 602, 489 are prime. Ramanujan’s formula gave a figure off by just 53 — closer than the canonical version of the prime number theorem.” (Kanigel, op. cit.) This really is David against Goliath, on the one hand a hundred or more years of research from the cream of the West’s pure mathematicians with all the data available and on the other a man with a slate and a piece of chalk who had never even heard of the Cauchy Integral Theorem. If he’d done nothing else the man deserves a name in the history books — and this was one of his errors!  


 * The title of Kanigel’s book, The Man Who Knew Infinity,  is a misnomer and would be more applicable to a biography of Cantor. To my knowledge  Ramanujan never showed any interest in Transfinite Ordinals and, when he came to England, does not seem to have even heard of Set Theory. The Man who Knew and Loved Ordinary Numbers  would have been a more suitable, but less eye-catching,  title for a biography of Ramanujan. .   

Observations on 'Li'


Li — what is li ? The basic sense seems to be “the pre-established harmony and unity of the universe” (Chu Hsi).

            There are three ideas here. Firstly, Chu Hsi states that this ‘order’ is pre-established, it is not something that we would like to come about (such as the Millennium) nor something that was once but is now out of reach (like Eden) , it is simply there and always will be. Secondly, there is the idea of harmony, which implies variety and movement — one could hardly speak of the ‘harmony’ of Nirvana or the Platonic solids. Finally, there is mention of unity , which implies, amongst other things, that there is no fundamental difference between man and the natural world. Li also has the more mundane sense of ‘rites’, ‘ritual action’ and again ‘propriety’, ‘ceremonial behaviour’. Confucian thought traditionally divides up the cosmos into the triad Earth, Man, Heaven. The latter, Ch’ien, Heaven, is above all ‘order’ : it has permanence and stability and most traditional Chinese thinkers seem to assume, without question, that this underlying order is ‘good’ — ‘good’ in the sense of ‘desirable’ or ‘as it should be’ rather than in the sense of ‘benevolent’. Man has limited free will : he can align himself or not according to the ‘rule of Heaven’ though ultimately he/she will be brought back within the larger scheme even if he rebels against it. If his actions in life, his own li, mirror or embody the overriding heavenly li, he will attain contentment — “the good life consists in attunement to li” (Chu Hsi). Within the human sphere li is thus behaviour which is aligned to the ‘rule of Heaven’, the harmonizing of the here-and-now and the eternal (which is the essential aim of ritual). Courtly ceremonies, politeness, suitable dress and music (to which Confucius gave much importance) are all means to the same end. The following passage from a philosopher of the Chinese classical era shows the connection between li as ‘rational behaviour’ and ‘celestial harmony’ — the spirit is very close to that of the Enlightenment French philosophers who, of course, greatly admired Chinese civilization. “In all matters relating to the functioning of the body and the mind, if they are in keeping with li , there will be a far-reaching self-control; if they are not, there will be a disordering of the rhythm of living. Thus in eating and drinking, in clothing and housing, in [the alternation of] energetic action and stillness, if these matters are in keeping with li , then there is the harmony of moderation : if they are not, then there is physical collapse and disease. In matters of outward appearance and bearing, in meeting and parting with people, in one’s style of walking, if these are in keeping with li , then there is the beauty of refinement about them : if they are not, then they show arrogance, surliness, vulgarity and a barbarous spirit. Thus it is that without li man cannot live, nor his business in life succeed, nor his states and families abide.” (Hsun Ch’ing)
All this, however, is a strictly Confucian approach, stressing as it does deliberate behaviour. The Taoist approach is quite the opposite though the underlying aim is identical : to get human behaviour in tune with the rhythms of the universe. For the Taoist, and even more so for the Zen Buddhist, only a spontaneous response to a situation can have li (or ‘be li’?). Hence the development of ‘grass-style’ calligraphy (‘ts’ao-shu-fa’) which supposedly imitates the movement of grass bending in the wind, or ‘hsieh-i’ brush painting which is done in a flash ideally without the brush even leaving the paper — the great modern exponent of this style is Ch’i Pai-shih. It should be noted that the aim is not self-expression and spontaneity for its own sake, though there were undoubtedly painters, particularly in the latter Sung era, whose work does sink to this level, much as our own ‘modern’ art has done. The underlying purpose is to give expression to latent energies and event-patterns within the individual and within nature :


            “In his paintings Ch’i attempts to express the hidden order of things, to depict their substance as a general symbol and to catch the rhythm of life in nature. (…) Ch’i’s art is a synthesis of the concrete and the spiritual; it is an expression of balance between the objectivity of the world and the subjectivity of the creator.”

                                                                        Josef Hejzlar, Chinese Watercolours


Appropriateness In a number of contexts ‘li´ simply means ‘behaviour appropriate to the circumstances’ which sounds at first sight rather commonplace but is actually a very far-reaching conception. The notion is almost completely absent from the Western cultural tradition which, mainly because of Plato and his influence on Christian theology via Saint Augustine, focuses on absolutes. From the Chinese point of view, the cosmos is in a perpetual state of flux — or, more correctly perhaps, is perpetual flux — although there are certain recognizable repeating event-patterns ; in consequence behaviour which is a proper response to the situation at one moment may well be quite misguided a moment later. Hence the value of the Y Ching (‘The Book of Changes’) which was originally regarded as a technical work, on a par with a treatise on hydraulics — this is why the first Ch’in Emperor, when he ordered the burning of all unnecessary books, spared the Y Ching considering it to be, not a philosophical work, but a work of practical utility. The Y Ching purports to tell the enquirer what the ‘world-situation’ is at that precise moment, and what it is most likely to evolve into. Thus, by responding appropriately to the situation the individual can “be harnessed by, and harness for himself the changing state of nature” (“The Fortune Teller’s Y Ching”).

            If we take this idea of li as appropriateness and apply it across the board, we end up with some interesting conclusions. Moral virtues are, then, not absolutes in the sense of being praiseworthy whatever the circumstances. Modesty is undoubtedly a virtue but when inappropriate is indistinguishable from cowardice. This approach does not necessarily lead to moral nihilism or relativism since we can still hold to certain general principles while being at all times ready to adapt them to the passing moment. Indeed, fitting actions to the circumstances is itself a general principle, while opportunism is a debased form of li since the notion of a higher order and an objective standard of ‘rightness’ is completely lacking. Photographs of buildings can be beautiful in themselves, but to be successful as buildings, churches or houses must harmonize with their surroundings. A baroque cathedral requires a baroque city. The eighteenth-century architects who found it necessary to make vast changes in the landscape when they designed and built a country house were, from the point of view of li, completely right : the building needed an appropriate setting. Of course, one could equally well take the Romantic view that the natural setting should dictate the style of architecture. To be a ‘world-historical figure’, it is not enough to have exceptional abilities : one must be in tune with the underlying (but not necessarily the apparent) Zeitgeist. A genius in the wrong place and time will achieve nothing : if he had not lived during the ferment of mid-seventeenth century England, Cromwell, who had no military training whatsoever and no military interests even, would have remained an obscure country squire. Einstein’s genius fitted his time (1905-1920) — but only just. Twenty years earlier his ideas would have been too novel (thus not li), while twenty years later Einstein found himself fighting a desperate rearguard action against Quantum Mechanics in the name of classical physics as he conceived it.

            What of pure mathematics? Without a doubt contemporary pure mathematics is not li. The idea of producing a proof so long-winded that it requires a computer to print it out, let alone check it (Four Colour Theorem) is just plain ludicrous — and what is ludicrous is by definition not li, is ‘anti-li’. Judged in terms of appropriateness, Fermat’s Last Theorem has not yet been proved and quite possibly never will be since a result in Elementary Number Theory should, to be li, only use the methods of Elementary Number Theory. On the other hand, Wiles’s approach is perfectly acceptable as a means of establishing the Shimura-Tanayama Conjecture since the latter concerns modular forms, a very modern branch of mathematics.

“Here is a branch that is short, and here is a branch that is long” (Ts’ui-wei) I was relieved when I first read that it had been proved that no formula will ever give the complete distribution of the primes : this is how it should be. If he were alive in our scientific and mathematical era, Ts’ui-wei might well have written, “Here is a number that is prime and here is a number that is composite”. Several people have remarked on the agreeable combination of apparent deep structure and randomness that the distribution of the primes exhibits. But this is exactly what nature when left to itself exhibits almost everywhere! To be sure, we do not expect this combination within number theory and its presence at the very heart of the natural number system is highly significant : it suggests that the distribution of the primes is ‘natural’ in a way that man-made distribution functions are not. Although I believe there must be some physical/mathematical constraints for there to be a universe at all, living Nature does not seem to adhere to them with much consistency. I am not referring to the unpredictable element introduced into evolution by chance mutation — though certainly this is an extremely important fact of life. On a more mundane level, just look around you at the extraordinarily diverse and convoluted forms of plants, trees and grasses. One might have thought that the ‘laws of physics’ combined with the ceaseless ‘struggle for existence’ would have left in place only a very few mathematically correct shapes which maximized certain parameters. If we assume an upright stem (or trunk), and the periodic production of leaves and branches around this axis according to a single interval fixed in advance, it can be shown that a distribution based on the angle 360° /Φ2 (roughly 137.5°) is the most advantageous since it keeps successive branches well spaced out while allowing them all to receive the light of the sun. Having worked this out in the study, I went out armed with callipers and protractor to see how many plants and trees actually employ this angle (sometimes known as the Golden Angle). The answer was none at all as far as I could make out.1 In reality shrubs and trees don’t need to bother about all this since their branches, being flexible, can easily curve round to avoid each other. One even comes across plants making the elementary mistake of using an angle of 180° : clearly they have not yet heard of irrational numbers. The moral is that although certain features are fixed in advance, in the genes, plenty of other features are deliberately left unspecified with the result that the plant can adapt to varying environments and improvise its responses (which a man-made mechanical device is incapable of doing). The planned features give the feeling of underlying order, the unplanned the sense of randomness : what you never get in the animal kingdom is shapes taken from a textbook of Euclidian geometry. If you want to find li in this sense of ‘order + randomness’ your best bet is to go somewhere untouched by man, a deserted beach, a wilderness. In practice few trees and shrubs have a single upright trunk anyway and the arrangement of leaves and branches is pretty haphazard — a complete mess mathematically speaking. If you don’t believe me, take a walk in the park.2
            In the fascinating section on li on his website, Dr Watkins and the authors he quotes emphasize the mobile, ‘flowing’ aspect of li. Dr Watkins himself defines li as “the order of flow, the wonderful dancing pattern of liquid” while Alan Watts refers to li as ‘a watercourse’ and David Wade says that li “are essentially dynamic formations”. Now, if the patterns to be found in the ripples of sand-dunes, in the cell-structure of a nettle-stalk, in the protuberances on the bark of trees and so forth, are in some sense ‘residues’ or ‘relics’ of a deeper level of reality which is the Chinese view, it follows that this ‘ground-swell’ of existence, the ‘order’ which is of Heaven rather than of Earth, is in motion. David Wade speaks of the observed patterns as “frozen moments” and Dr Watkins relates that he was at one time haunted by the idea of “the prime numbers as moving particles…eventually coming to rest when they achieved dynamic equilibrium” (Prime Numbers, the Zeta function and Li). I emphasize this because it runs completely counter to the entire Western philosophic and mathematical tradition which has always viewed the Absolute as essentially motionless. Plato’s Ideas are static and were intended to be : by Plato’s time the Athenians had had enough of change since the disastrous Peloponnesian war with Sparta and subsequent political upheavals were in everyone’s memories. These beautiful eternal Forms that man could approach only by way of geometry were utterly removed from the conditions of earthly existence

 “War, death, disease could not affect them and their truth

Did not depend on trial or experiment,

Each step self-evident, demonstrable and sure”.


                                                                        Sebastian Hayes, The Initiates


We fare no better if we jump nearly two thousand years to Descartes’ Co-ordinate Geometry. The algebraic formula of a curve y = f(x)  includes all the points along it and it is ‘our fault’ if you like that we have to laboriously work out particular features — to the eye of the omniscient mathematician, God, all these features and doubtless many more not apparent to us are immediately present. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw the birth of dynamics but in reality motion is always presented as a succession of stills — how could it be otherwise since “notre intelligence ne se représente clairement que l’immobilité”? As Bergson pointed out, the trajectory of the moving particle is a set of points : the moving arrow is never in motion. Newton, perhaps following some sort of a mystic intuition comparable to his intuition of the universality of Attraction, groped towards a true mathematics of motion in his theory of fluxions 3 but even he was unable to make it into a coherent doctrine and he found to his annoyance, his version of the Calculus short-changed by that of Leibnitz which dealt in final ratios between infinitesimal quantities.  We may, in fact, ask whether mathematics is, or can be, li in the sense that it reflects and embodies in its operations and formulae features of a transcendental ‘order’ (that of Heaven, Ch’ien). The Platonic answer is, “Yes”, and almost all pure mathematicians in all eras are either open or covert Platonists. The vision of Kepler and Newton was of a Creator God who decided once and for all what the rules governing the universe were to be; moreover, these rules were mathematical in nature and only mathematicians could hope to detect and decipher them. Even today, although most mathematicians have long since dispensed with a Creator God, they hold firm to a strong belief in mathematics, not as an aid to industry and science, but as the nearest one can get to certainty in this world. “If there is another world, then it must be mathematical” is the unspoken (and occasionally outspoken) assumption. However, mathematics deals in truths which are essentially unchanging and has the greatest difficulty representing movement — much greater difficulty than music or even painting — so this means that the transcendental realm, if it exists at all, must be static. My personal feeling is that there is indeed a higher level of reality but that it is not static, and so for this and other reasons is unmathematical. The Eastern traditions, inasmuch as one can generalize, tend to view the ‘beyond’ as being ‘in motion’, as, for example, the dharma of Hinayana Buddhism, a flux of evanescent point-instants, or the ceaselessly changing but endlessly recurring event-currents studied by the Y Ching. Mathematics aims at finality and by and large achieves it — which is why it is so impressive. Generally speaking, art does not. A painting, however, well-executed and inspired is hardly going to stop someone else trying his or her hand at the same theme and each generation finds itself obliged to produce its own love songs, funeral dirges and tales of adventure. But once someone has stated that if p is prime, ap-1 = 1 (mod p) , that is it. The theorem can be generalized and proved in different ways but, for all that, it stands there as unchanged and unchangeable as a rock. Mathematics tends to advance by accretion, by building on what has been already established, and for this and other reasons appears to be timeless. Successive generations of mathematicians simply uncover different portions of a gigantic sphinx buried in the sand.

            There is, however, a serious limitation to this approach : precisely because mathematics aims at finality and logical consistency it cannot tolerate anything the slightest bit random or subjective. Thus it cannot be li in the ‘Order + randomness’ sense : it is ‘Order + Order + Order + ….’. The beauty of Euclidian constructions or modern algebraic formulae is a completely different beauty from that of ripples on sand dunes : it is an unnatural beauty. It is not necessarily the worse for that but one cannot have everything and there is something deeply offensive in statements such as Bertrand Russell’s :

“Mathematics takes us still further from what is human, into the region of absolute necessity, to which not only the actual world, but every possible world must conform” .

Is this true? I say it is not — at any rate not without very serious qualifications. Go out into Nature and you receive an impression that is far, far closer to the Taoist vision of the casual combination of the haphazard and the constrained than it is to the strait-jacket of modern or ancient mathematics. The ‘region of absolute necessity’ of which Russell speaks is essentially a figment of his imagination, a projection, since it neither corresponds to the reality ‘down here’ nor ‘up there’. Unpredictability has made an astonishing come-back into science during the latter twentieth century though rather few people have learned useful lessons from this. I have sometimes wondered whether it would be possible to introduce randomness into a mathematical system without wrecking it completely — as far as I know noone has tried. It may be that only a very different type of mathematics, one that precisely does allow a certain degree of randomness and subjectivism, will be able to cope adequately with the shifting realities of the quantum domain which lies below the sharply defined particle-like level of reality we are more familiar with.
Sebastian Hayes





1  I have since then found some lilies and hollyhocks that use something approaching the Golden Angle.


2   Phyllotaxis in plants does exist but it seems to have more to do with ‘close packing’ at the tip of the growing plant than with optimizing air and sunlight.


3 “I consider mathematical Quantities in this Place not as consisting of very small Parts; but as described by a continued Motion. Lines are described, and thereby generated not by the apposition of Parts, but by the continued Motion of Points; … Portions of Time by a continual Flux : and so in other Quantities. These Geneses really take place in the Nature of things….” Newton De Quadratura

Observations on the Distribution of the Prime Numbers

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the first question to ask is: Could the Distribution of the Primes be other than what it is?    Seemingly not.  Could a ‘universe’ exist where the basic constants of physics, such as c, the speed of light in a vacuum,  and g, the gravitational constant, were completely different? Most physicists I have talked to say yes. In any physical universe there would have to be an upper limit to the transmission of information, but there is no reason why it should be anywhere near the value of c. As for g, it has been suggested by some physicists that it actually has changed during the evolution of the universe we live in.  Could there be a universe where Hook’s Law, or Boyle’s Law or any of the other basic laws of physics was not valid? Conceivably.
The distribution of the primes is thus, in some sense, more ‘necessary’ or more fundamental than even the most basic physical constants and principles. (It has apparently been shown that not only is there no formula which will give us the distribution of the primes exactly, but that no such formula can possibly exist.)  But the distribution of the primes is not a logical law nor even a mathematical one : it is a physical law. Consider a hen laying an egg —  I assume a hen that can only lay one egg at a time. This hen carries on laying eggs indefinitely. We make copies of the egg situation at successive moments thus deriving all the natural numbers (in concrete form). They are already ordered, firstly temporally and secondly quantitatively, so there is no need for any ‘Axiom of Order’, let alone for the Axiom of the Least Upper Bound or the Axiom of Choice. We then test as to whether we can make each ordered collection of eggs into so many smaller, non-unitary, numerically equal collections. If we can,  we put such collections on the right, if we can’t we leave them on the left.   Thus   000000 goes on the right, since we can break it down into 
00 00 00, while 0000000 goes  on the left because we can only break it down into 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 . This procedure can be continued indefinitely and requires absolutely no knowledge of mathematics whatsoever. There is no ‘intelligence’ involved as such, no need to posit the existence of a supreme Mind behind the scenes. As soon as you have a ‘world’ where there are ‘little bits floating around’ you have primality and non-primality and you are landed with the distribution of the primes whether you know it or not, and whether you like it or not.

            As far as I am concerned I am very pleased about this : it is the victory of Nature, ignorant, witless Nature over human intelligence. “Pull down thy vanity, mathematician, pull down”. To judge from the writings of certain people, you would imagine that the actual distribution  of the primes in reality was a crude and misguided attempt to approach the Li function or the Riemann distribution.   And yet at the same time there is nothing special about the distribution of the primes — at any rate not to my eyes. I am sceptical about the so-called ‘beauty’ of this distribution and am convinced that no one would for a moment pay any attention to it were it not for the extraordinarily complicated mathematics that is (indirectly) involved. The curve on the graph is no different from hundreds of others, and the coloured 3-D pictures no different from thousands of other vaguely psychedelic computer simulations. Show patterns based on the distribution of the primes to an assortment of people who don’t know their origin and see whether they pick them out from the rest. I wager no one would. And, incidentally, this is not true of all shapes, all curves : there are plenty of mathematical shapes which really are inherently beautiful and fascinating, the parabola, the equiangular spiral spiral mirabilis, that Bernoulli was so enamoured of he had it inscribed on his tombstone. Even the graph of log x  is, to me, aesthetically more satisfying than the Prime Distribution.
So in a sense the prime distribution is ‘nothing special’ : it has the supreme Zen quality of being as it is and not otherwise — but then so does everything else.  We should, I think, consider what exactly we are looking for if we want a ‘reason’ for the distribution of the primes. An explanation should involve facts or principles that are much more fundamental than the fact or behaviour we want to explain. A vast amount of so-called ‘elementary’ Number Theory is based on such basic truths as A number cannot be at once odd and even or pragmatic procedures such as  the Euclidian Algorithm which is so simple (yet so powerful) that it could be carried out by a caveman using collections of twigs or pebbles.
But on what great truths is the Prime Distribution based? I see none. Only that Some numbers are prime and others are  not and they come in a certain order  which is not so much a truth as a fact of experience. It is for this reason that I have always derided any attempt at finding any  great significance in the distribution — until I stumbled across Matthew Watkins’ website.

             Seemingly, we have to recognize that there are certain mathematical assertions that may will never be ‘proved’, not for any highfaluting Gödelian reason, but simply because they are about as basic as one can go. Quite possibly Goldbach’s Conjecture (“Every even number > 4 is the sum of two odd primes”) is a case in point. Wiles’ much vaunted proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem  is only valid if one considers that the assertion on which it is based, namely the Taniyama-Shimura Conjecture, is in some sense more basic than the (apparent) fact that there are no cubic or higher order Pythagorean Triples. (Actually, it would seem to me there must be some strictly physical rather than mathematical reason for the truth of Fermat’s Last Theorem, something involving dimensionality of the real, rather than the mathematical, world.)   Also, the Distribution of the Primes is almost completely useless — if we except its recent use in codes.  No great  discoveries in physics depend on it, or seem likely to. (I am aware of the ‘chaos’ interpretation of the Prime Distribution and find this interesting but it was not observation of the Prime Distribution that gave rise to Chaos Theory.) 

            The uselessness of the Prime Distribution highly significant. As I see it, the Distribution of the Primes in itself gives us negligible knowledge about the physical world (I would say none at all) : if such knowledge really were embedded in it surely we would have got the pearl out of the oyster by now. Of course, the problem of the Prime Distribution has been a most stimulating and entertaining intellectual exercise for generations of mathematicians but that is not the point. But the  mathematics enveloping  the Prime Distribution is no more revealing of the structure of the world we live in than Mozart’s symphonies, and we don’t go to Mozart for knowledge but pleasure.

            At the same time, the interest the Prime Distribution is currently arousing (of which I was not aware until scanning Dr. Watkins’ website) is not just intellectual and aesthetic. There are articles on the distribution of the primes which view it as a ‘chaotic’ phenomenon, there is the claim that the Riemann zeta function is a generator of a vast class of functions, and, most significant of all, we have the interpretation of the zeta function as “a thermodynamic partition function defining an abstract numerical gas”. What this amounts to is that the Distribution of the Primes has a quasi-physical nature : so maybe it does have something  to tell us about reality after all.  

So what to conclude?  The only possible way forward is to suppose that the Distribution of the Primes tells us something about a deeper level of reality from which the visible and intellectual universe we know once emerged, and is still emerging.  Is the universe self-sufficient?  Self-explanatory?   It would seem not. All societies and practically all thinkers have at some stage found it necessary to appeal to some being or principle which is outside the physical universe. Newton and Kepler still believed in a supremely intelligent Creator God  and the rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment, despite their hostility to organised religion, still needed a Prime Mover or a vague impersonal Deity. Mathematicians found themselves in a quandary when the nineteenth century brought about the death of God : they were left with a handful of equations and formulae without a supreme intelligence that produced them. And curiously, the twentieth has taken us right back to the idea of a beginning in time and a Space-Time singularity beyond which is….?  

            Most pure mathematicians, closely followed by theoretical physicists, are secret — sometimes overt —  Platonists and do indeed posit a reality beyond the material. However, they are unanimous about this ‘higher reality’ being mathematical in nature. They do not ever think for a moment that it may be professional blindness that impels  them to this conclusion. Musicians would doubtless be more attracted to the Vedic doctrine that “In the beginning was the sound”  and lovers to the idea that the universe came about through amorous play.

           I do believe that there is “an order of things of an entirely different kind lying at the foundation of the physical order”, as Schopenhauer put it, but I am equally convinced that this order is utterly unmathematical. “The Tao that can be named is not the original Tao”. Lao Tze in the fifth century BC was living in a mainly verbal, not numerical,  culture : today he would almost certainly  write “The Tao that can be numbered is not the original Tao”. Within the reality beyond this one — let us call it K0 as opposed to K1 — there would, as far as I can see, be no separability and no discreteness, no shape and no form. It would be  a domain beyond,  and prior to, plurality : the only number appropriate to it would  thus be 1 (or equivalently 0). Is there anything at all we can say about it?  A little. It is presumably ‘continuous’ which nothing in this universe actually is. The current universe must in some sense be contained within it, since otherwise nothing would come of nothing and manifestly something has. Also, surprisingly in a way, it would seem that K0 is in motion, in perpetual motion.  In the more speculative part of Dr Watkins’ website he speaks of the ancient Chinese concept of li  and views li as “essentially dynamic formations”, perhaps analogous to Newton’s mysterious ‘fluxions’ which have been completely rejected by modern mathematicians. (Newton was incidentally much interested in alchemy and mystical literature.).

            The only way I can take on board the idea that the Prime Distribution is significant and meaningful is by interpreting it as a sort of ‘frozen wave’ on the ocean that is K0. The physical world, K1, is not primary, but is a residue, an offshoot, of K1  in much the same way as David Bohm’s Explicate  Order is aan offshoot from the original Implicate Order.  However, it may be a ‘first order’ residue or offshoot and thus hold precious information about the reality that is beyond this one.

“The child is father to the man” (Wordsworth) —  a most paradoxical statement. Wordsworth presumably  meant that the child was closer to the source and therefore had a more vivid memory of what existed before birth. It may be, then, that we see in the Distribution of the Primes a relatively pure trace of what is almost (but not quite) unknowable and from which the entire physical universe has emerged. Whether true or not, this is certainly a beautiful thought and I am most grateful to Dr Watkins for introducing me to it. For what is striking is that the natural numbers, which by their discreteness and separateness, are entirely of this world and can say nothing about the beyond, but nonetheless by their distribution  perhaps point towards a reality that is the very opposite of all this since it is single, unitary, continuous and in perpetual motion.       

Via Contemplativa, Via Activa

Reflections on the Contemplative Life

The world is too much with us, late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers…”

William Wordsworth

Some of you reading this may have seen the Millennium play On the Green Rock by John Cregan which chronicles so vividly the most dramatic event in the history of Shaftesbury (where I live) : the dissolution of the once mighty Abbey of Saint Mary and Edward the Martyr. The last Abbess, Elizabeth Zouche, is presented in the play as vacillating and worldly and most of the nuns (though not Dorothy Clusey, the central figure) are unattractive figures, gossipy, malicious and devious. Nonetheless, those of us who, as in a sort of time warp, witnessed the nuns in their blue robes leaving the Abbey gates for the last time with quiet dignity singing the haunting Agnus Dei under the watchful eyes of the Royal Commissioners, probably had the uncomfortable feeling that, for all that can be said against the monastic life, something precious and irreplaceable had been lost.

The note of the sublime, which is as unmistakeable in the humble plainsong chants of the twelfth century as in the organ music of Bach or Mozart’s Requiem, bears witness to a particular range of emotional experience which has almost completely disappeared because there is no place for it in our wholly secular era. Although the West had to wait another two centuries before the definitive triumph of rationalism, the Dissolution of the Monasteries was a point of no return. It marked the shift from a feudal and clerically dominated society to a modern commercial and scientific one — no bad thing one might think. Yes, but it also marked the transition from a society which recognized a reality beyond the physical and valued the contemplative life to a society which sees our present physical existence as the be-all and end-all and which is almost exclusively concerned with the making and spending of money.


from the modern point of view the Dissolution was a big step in the right direction even though present-day rationalists and economists might baulk at some of the methods used. The main thing was that Henry VIII had got rid of a lot of people who were just a drain on the community and were sitting on a great deal of valuable land. Cardinal Wolsey, who began the whole movement by closing one or two smaller religious houses, used some of the proceeds for purposes we would today regard as perfectly acceptable, namely endowing university colleges. Henry VIII, however, who presided over the full-scale Dissolution used the money from the sale of lands — he gave very little away — to finance his unnecessary and unsuccessful foreign wars.

But to centre all the attention on the personalities of Henry VIII and his notorious (though very able) minister Thomas Cromwell only blurs the real issue. A ruler whom posterity judges much more sympathetically, Frederick the Great of Prussia, a child of the Enlightenment and patron of Voltaire, might well, in a similar situation, have acted just as ruthlessly as Henry VIII and, if he had diverted the money to the Prussian Academy of Sciences, modern historians would be positively enraptured. Practically everyone today believes that the replacement of Abbeys by university colleges and business schools is a thoroughly good thing : instead of singing psalms and praying people are more sensibly employed cramming their heads with facts and doing something about increasing the Gross National Product.


for reasons that are still somewhat obscure, Protestantism, especially the Calvinist variety, favoured commercial enterprise and technical innovation. The burgher Dutch republic soon eclipsed Venice as the leading European maritime power while Catholic Spain and Portugal, after a few decades of glory, sank back into priestly superstition and commercial stagnation.

We can see this social evolution even at such an early date as the Dissolution (1539). Many of those who acquired the vacated estates were already noble, but there were quite a few new men as well, go-ahead merchants and lawyers in the style of Arundell in On the Green Rock, persons who lost no time in managing the lands they had bought in a much brisker fashion than the Abbots and Abbesses of the preceding era. Up to then many of the tenants of lands owned by religious houses paid their landlords in kind but we now notice a switch to producing for the market and the replacement of cereal growing by sheep farming since there were fortunes to be made from wool during the sixteenth century period. One of the results of the new agricultural economy was galloping inflation. Enclosures and the replacement of arable land by fields given over to sheep-farming did not begin at the Dissolution but the pace of agricultural change accelerated tremendously during the English Reformation — in fact so much so that it began to seriously alarm the State authorities who had done so much to make it possible.

In any case, we do not have to subscribe to a narrow economic theory of history : ideas have, up to a point, a life of their own. For some time already the pendulum had been swinging away from the monastic ideal. It was not so much that the monks and nuns in the early sixteenth century led particularly scandalous lives : the picture one gets is certainly not of a motley crew of drunkards, rapists, murderers, racketeers and vice girls in nun’s clothing, simply of a lot of people who were not particularly into spirituality and so were in the wrong place. The vast majority of the religious houses meekly accepted their dissolution and one suspects that quite a few inmates were secretly relieved to be out in the open air again especially since they were often given very decent pensions.

The ordinary people were the immediate losers by the Dissolution since, apart from the commercial spin-offs which came from being near places of pilgrimage such as Shaftesbury, they lost free distribution of food and firewood and a network of hostels stretching across the country where travellers could put up for the night. It is thus at first sight surprising that more citizens did not rally to the support of the religious — the so-called Pilgrimage of Grace was the only serious revolt and it was restricted to Yorkshire. One reason was that people felt some sort of blow for national independence had been struck, somewhat akin to what the Egyptians felt when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. But there was a question of ideas as well. The inhabitants of England and the Northern countries of Europe by this time seem to have largely ceased to believe in the efficacy of kissing saints’ bones or touching fragments of the true Cross. The Reformation was not, and was not intended to be, a progressive rationalistic movement but it indirectly favoured the growth of scepticism and eventually science because the list of miraculous events and implausible dogmas you had to sign up to was a good deal shorter than the Catholic one.

This movement of ideas did not necessarily concern the contemplative ideal as such, only specific abuses like the trade in relics and indulgences, and it seems that some of the disbanded nuns and monks continued to live together voluntarily in lay communities. There were even a few Protestants, like those grouped around Nicholas Farrer, who in effect founded new monastic-style organisations. But they remained very much the exception : the idea of retiring from the world to a life of prayer and contemplation was definitely a thing of the past. The Puritans were certainly not that way inclined : they not only believed that men and women of God could but actually should soil their hands with trade and should remain at their posts within the corrupt society to reform it from the inside, or alternatively emigrate to make their own, very unmonastic, society in America. Surprisingly though, there did eventually emerge a Protestant group which persisted in giving great importance to the Via Contemplativa while producing quite a few men who were at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, namely the Quakers.


Voltaire, in a typical passage, paints a heart-warming picture of honest burghers going about their business at the Amsterdam Stock Exchange and follows this up with the description of a Council of black-robed ill-tempered doctors of the Church arguing incessantly about obscure points of doctrine. Like many thinkers of his time, notably Adam Smith, Voltaire sincerely believed that there was no fundamental conflict between self-interest and public interest and he would have wholeheartedly endorsed Samuel Johnson’s dictum that “there are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in making money”. The blithe assumption made by practically all Enlightenment thinkers that the mass of humanity would, if only given the chance, ‘naturally’ behave in a public-spirited way appears today to be unbelievably naïve.

In any case the contrast Voltaire makes is false since in the days of a triumphant market economy there are still plenty of conventions of intellectuals endlessly arguing about obscure points of doctrine though the topic is more likely to be scientific or psychological than theological these days. But contemplation, chanting, a concern with non-material values or a reality beyond the physical and so on, is quite a different matter. This sort of thing is not only archaic but positively offensive because there is an implied put-down, a tacit rejection of everything the present society values : material possessions, travel, comfort, noise, speed, status in society, display, physical excitement and, of course, last but not least, sex. Today married persons in India still occasionally retire from the world after having brought up children, concluded a career &c. &c. but they cease to live together and typically retire to different if related ashrams. This is possibly one way out of the dilemma of squaring one’s obligations to society with the desire to look at ‘the other side of life’.

Is it necessary to take such a drastic step? Maybe not, but there is no doubt that there is a battle for one’s attention going on every minute of the day and it is a battle that commercialism is winning hands down. You can’t hear the “still, small voice of calm” with cars hooting, electric drills hammering and rock music blaring away full pelt.

Contrary to popular belief Christianity did not invent either monasticism or asceticism : both, as far as the West is concerned, seem to have originated in Northern Greece and to have been associated with the mysterious figure of Orpheus. Although Orpheus is mainly known today as the minstrel who charmed wild beasts by his playing and went down into the Underworld in search of his wife, the cult that sprung up around him was otherworldly and his followers typically foreswore meat and wine, practised austerities and believed that there was a fundamental opposition between the divine element in man, the psyche (‘soul’), and the physical body in which it was imprisoned. The strand not only of otherworldliness but of positive contempt for the body which is so prominent in the Early Fathers should be traced back, not to Judaism, but to the tradition of wandering Greek holy men who included amongst their ranks philosophers like Empedocles and Pythagoras.

It is quite astonishing (and repulsive) to read what some early Christian and late medieval monks put themselves through in the pursuit of spiritual development, but modern psychologists who are convinced it was all down to sado-masochism rather miss the point. The aim of these exercises was to develop latent powers, not to enjoy oneself, and Dodds* seems to me to be quite right in ultimately tracing the whole business back to the devastating influence of shamanism to which the Greeks became exposed with the opening up of trade in the Black Sea area during the seventh century BC. Out-of-the-body experiences, if genuine, seem to imply that the ‘soul’ or ‘mind’ really is separable from the body and this idea was taken up and given tremendous respectability by Plato who may himself during his youth have been a candidate for initiation at Eleusis.

The mainstream Churches, in both the West and the East, have always stressed that the aim of ‘spiritual exercises’ and austerities is not to develop mysterious psychic powers which are, in the long run, more of a hindrance than a help. But just as persistently the ‘ordinary people’ tend to judge holy men by their paranormal abilities. Christ himself, though he raged against a sinful generation always on the look-out for signs, nonetheless owed much of his reputation to his miracle-working and it was precisely this that annoyed the Pharisees and Sadducees (since they could not match him on this level). In sixteenth century Spain people fought over scraps of clothing and hairs from the head of Saint John of the Cross when his body was still warm. Even in our own time, there are plenty of fairly well-documented stories of Tibetan monks being able to cause rain, dematerialise objects or warm themselves in near arctic conditions and, nearer home, in contemporary Italy there is the case of Padre Pie, now in course of beatification, who, apart from the stigmata, allegedly had the shamanic power of bilocation — people claim to have seen him in more than one place at the same time.

I am mentioning this not because I think the sensational side of monasticism and the contemplative life generally is, or should be, the essence of the phenomenon but because it is important not to deceive ourselves. Although I would claim that there is a certain capacity and need for contemplative experience in most of us, the sort of training undergone by monks and yogis was, and still is, extremely intensive. It cannot be regarded as ‘natural’ in any obvious sense of the


* See E.R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational especially chapter V. The author (not to be confused with Dodds the Biblical scholar) was not only a Professor of Greek but also for two years President of the Society for Psychical Research.
word — though one could argue that human beings seemingly do have a recurrent need to do unnecessary, extreme and apparently ‘unnatural’ things. In biological terms, the entire phenomenon of monasticism and the intensive practice of the

contemplative life which, if we trace it back to Orphism and Pythagoras, has been going on for well over two and a half thousand years, constitutes a vast, apparently unsuccessful attempt to provoke a mutation in the human species. The aim seems to have been to create a new type of human being, new in the sense that the men and women who underwent the life-long training would develop senses more attuned to a ‘deeper reality’ (would ‘experience God’, ‘achieve enlightenment’ &c.) while on the human level they would succeed in transforming their natural selfish urges into wholly altruistic ones (as Christ or the Buddha had done). In a word, the aim of monasticism was to produce saints and saints are not normal people.


monastic practice can be justifiably criticised if it depends on the labour and generosity of lay persons who, to add insult to injury, rate lower in the spiritual scale than the people they feed and clothe. But many abbeys and monasteries started off as self-supporting and part of their success lay in the peculiar way in which their wealth was preserved : individual monks owned nothing but the Order as a whole might have at its command extensive lands*. In many cases it would not be going too far to say that the religious orders had wealth imposed upon them. For rich people frequently left property to religious houses in their wills, either because they were genuinely impressed by the example of people giving up the world or, more often perhaps, because they regarded the money spent as a sound investment which would pay them dividends in the afterlife. The problem is not specific to the West and Christianity : Buddhism was brought to China by penniless monks but by the eighth and ninth centuries Buddhist monasteries were enormously wealthy with great statues of the Buddha in solid gold and on top of that the Buddhist monasteries were exempt from taxation.

A much more telling criticism is the charge that the monastic style of life is counter-productive : instead of improving the character of the monk or nun, it makes it worse. The iron discipline, lack of comfort, restriction of movement and so on makes the individual irritable and aggressive ; the sexual abstinence leads, not to ‘purity of mind’, but to complete round the clock obsession as in the case of North African hermits such as Saint Anthony who ended up by hallucinating and, as it were, producing their own porn. Alternatively, those who do manage to get the sexual instinct under control run the risk of becoming power-mad control-freaks so the cure turns out to be worse than the disease.

There is no easy answer to these criticisms since in so many cases they are obviously just : many of them were made at the time of the Reformation by Erasmus and others. The best that can be said in reply is that in other cases the monastic or monastic-style training apparently ‘worked’, that is, produced quite exceptional individuals who would, on their own admission, not have been like that left to their own devices. Contemporary atheists and religion-bashers get embarrassed


* Any modern company which could imitate the organisation of a monastic order would rapidly become extremely successful because it would have negligible labour costs and little risk of litigation with the personnel — although, surprisingly, there are one or two cases of monks demanding certain ‘rights’ from their Abbots.
when confronted with people like Mother Theresa or the nuns and monks heroically tending AIDS victims in Africa at this very moment. It is an uncomfortable truth that many of the worst, but also some of the most admirable, human actions have been done by people who, rightly or wrongly, believed themselves to be vehicles of a higher power. It must also not be forgotten that secularism has its own kind of fanaticism which is (in Europe) rapidly becoming much more of a nuisance than the religious variety.


Many mystics have excelled in poetry and music but the contributions of the contemplative life to science and learning — at any rate the learning we value today — have not been considerable and tend to be exaggerated by religious apologists. People in the past did not withdraw from the world to study the natural world and even today monasteries do not contain laboratories — why should they? We owe one or two important innovations to monks such as the Russian Cyrillic alphabet; also, priests and monks have, from time immemorial, always been much concerned with the calendar and thus astronomy. But such matters are basically off-shoots or side-effects : a written alphabet was required to spread the word of God and the main point in establishing an accurate calendar was so that churches far and wide could celebrate the religious festivals (especially Easter) at the ‘right time’.

What one can, perhaps, say is that the meditative religious outlook did contribute to a fruitful cultural ambiance which well outlived the heyday of monasticism : Kepler, Newton, Boyle, Leibnitz and so on were all profound believers who thought they were glimpsing the mind of God when they wrote down the equations governing planetary orbits. Newton, who never married and was something of a recluse, would probably have been a monk during the Middle Ages. This worshipful attitude which persisted right through the ‘classical’ period of science and mathematics (17th and 18th centuries) has now long since disappeared. Ask a theoretical physicist whether he ever spends a few moments in prayer or meditation before sitting down to a tableful of equations and he would think you were mad. “We don’t do God here,” as Alisteir Campbell put it so memorably.


“Leave off this chanting and singing and telling of beads! Who do you think you are worshipping in that lonely dark corner of a temple with all the doors shut? Open your eyes and see that God is not in front of you! He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the pathbreaker is breaking stones.”

This passage from Rabindanath Tagore, which at one time I heartily agreed with, now strikes me as being seriously off the mark. He is making a typical twofold attack on the Via Contemplativa by arguing (1.) that you do not need to be inactive to ‘find God’ and (2.) that the divine is everywhere around you so there is no need to single out a particular place like a temple or church as being ‘holy’.

As a matter of fact certain Orders, especially the Benedictine, very much emphasize the importance of manual work alongside devotional practices — “at fixed times, the brothers should be busy with manual work” (Rule of Benedict). And if we move eastwards to China, the Cha’an (Zen) school made manual work obligatory for all monks and placed ‘ordinary day-to-day activities’ at the very centre of things

“Miraculous power and marvellous activity —

Drawing water and hewing wood!”

Tagore is quite wrong to imply that there is something necessarily unhealthy in searching out a special place (temple or church) where there is seclusion, quiet and a dim light, or that there is something ridiculous in repeating over and over again a simple movement like telling beads. Most of the features of the monastic or solitary meditative life, the regularity, the avoidance of noise, the repetitive movements and so on, are means to an end : they favour, or at any rate can favour, the unfolding of a certain way of feeling and living which without these conditions does not develop, or only with the greatest difficulty. As someone who grew up in sixties and seventies I, like most other people at the time, despised all kinds of discipline and tradition as curbs on spontaneity. But in practice this laissez-aller approach doesn’t work : it just leads to a general dissipation of energies and aimless self-indulgence. The Taoist and later Zen cult of spontaneity arose as a reaction to the extreme ceremonialism of the dominant Confucian moral code ; the simplistic message “Do what you feel like doing at the moment” is, within the lax, consumer-orientated culture of the West, no sort of ‘wisdom’ at all since there are so many people out there whose job it is to tell you what you ‘really want’, namely the product they happen to be selling

There are in any case serious drawbacks to a straightforward pantheistic creed which is what I assume Tagore was in favour of. Nature is totally indifferent to the emotional needs of the human individual and even to his or her survival : if you fall ill or get old, from Nature’s point of view the best thing you can do is die. We modern Europeans live in one of the rare parts of the world where Nature is relatively benign, but in places where monsoons, earthquakes, hurricanes, scorching heat and freezing cold are everyday occurrences ‘Mother Nature’ is more likely to be pictured as a ferocious blood-sucking goddess like the Hindu Kali.

At the same time there can be no doubt that the natural world is magnificent, unbelievably impressive. Look around you and

“Learn of the green world what can be thy place

In skilled invention and true artistry”

(Ezra Pound)

Like many other people a romantic pantheistic creed suited me well enough when I was young and healthy ; by midterm general disillusionment set in and religious and philosophic systems such as Buddhism which sees life as a tragic error, or Gnosticism which considers that the physical universe in its entirety is divorced from the true God, suddenly seemed to have a dreadful plausibility. Ideally, it should be feasible to combine what is valid in both types of world-view, fuse what is positive in pagan sensualism and in otherworldly Christianity if you like, but in practice this seems not to be possible. Man has one foot in each of two utterly different worlds : alienation is part and parcel of the human condition. We are well aware today of the folly of trying to repress the sexual instinct altogether, but it is equally stupid and counter-productive to repress the religious impulse : all that happens is that it re-emerges triumphantly in a much more dangerous form, in the pseudo-religious frenzy of Nazi rallies or the blind fanaticism of contemporary terrorists.


“The One remains, the Many change and pass”


that there is a reality beyond the physical which was there long before the latter came into existence seems to me intuitively almost certain ; surprisingly, it is of late becoming a rather more intellectually tenable position as well. For the last twenty years scientists and popular writers on science have been dinning it into our heads that it is “meaningless to ask what there was before the Big Bang” and calling anyone who dared to disagree a flat-earther or worse, but there are now on offer several different cosmological theories which posit the emergence of the current universe from ‘something’ which was already there and is completely indestructible.

“Was the Big Bang really the beginning of time? Or did the universe exist before then? Such a question seemed almost blasphemous only a decade ago. Most cosmologists insisted that it simply made no sense — that to contemplate a time before the big bang was like asking for directions to a place north of the North Pole. But developments in theoretical physics, especially the rise of string theory, have changed their perspective. (…) At least two potentially testable theories plausibly hold that the universe — and therefore time — existed well before the big bang. If either scenario is right, the cosmos has always been in existence and, even if it recollapses one day, will never end.”

Veneziano, The Myth of the Beginning of Time

Scientific American Vol. 16 No. 1, 2006-04-30

What seems to be painfully taking shape out of the present welter of cosmological/philosophic speculation is the paradigm of a universe emerging spontaneously from a pre-existent ‘eternal’ matrix to which it will eventually return — which is precisely what the Tao Te Ching, written around the sixth century BC, teaches. The pre-Socratics, especially Heraclitus, taught something similar and indeed it is a current that is to be found in practically all cultures. It must be emphasized, however, that this is a very different concept from that of a universe deliberately created by an omnipotent and omniscient God which is the traditional Judeao-Christian schema.

The present society which is so full of noise, bustle, competitiveness and consumerism is obviously at the completely opposite pole to the ideals and practices of the contemplative life. Never in fact has the latter been so despised and neglected in both West and East. There was a certain scurry of interest in the Sixties and Seventies, especially amongst fringe groups, and a half-hearted attempt in some post-colonial countries to revive Buddhism on the basis of cultural nationalism, but that is about all. Few Christian churches set aside time for silent prayer and meditation and practically all Christian religious today are involved in education and/or social work. I remember meeting a nun who told me that she took Orders because she wanted to live a life of contemplation only to be directed to study for a degree at a modern university — which she could not refuse, of course, having taken a vow of obedience. Such an emphasis on works rather than faith is fair enough in countries crippled with AIDS and famine : I have no doubt that there are better things to do in the Sudan than retire to the hills to watch and pray. But in the materialistic West the priorities are quite different. Instead of so much ‘doing’ most people would benefit from stopping to think where all this is leading, and thinking requires quiet and at least temporary seclusion.

But perhaps the greatest threat to the future existence of monasteries and suchlike places is the obligation to comply with petty EEC regulations and the ease with which such communities get sucked into the system if only because they have huge electricity bills to pay. A correspondent in the Catholic magazine The Tablet recently suggested that the expansion of ‘religious tourism’ was one of the few options left so perhaps we shall soon see managers brought in from the outside to improve monastery performances on the lines of NHS hospitals.


it is not easy to specify the benefits, if any, that accrue to the individual or the society from the practice of prayer and meditation. Certainly, I do not subscribe to the idea that an individual ‘gains points’ in this way and that the accumulated merit will affect what happens to you after death. On the other hand, people today seem to think that praying for someone, dead or alive, is not only pointless but in some sense actually ‘wrong’ : the accepted wisdom now is that the best way to help others is to help yourself especially by going out and buying something (because in that way you are helping the national economy).

I have heard devotees of Transcendental Meditation say that the rates of violent crime have been reduced in American cities that have more than a certain number of practitioners, but obviously one would need to see hard data to support such a claim or the similar one that praying for sick people does have tangible medical results. But I do not think one needs to get bogged down in such arguments. As far as I am concerned the alleged benefits are more subtle. ‘Modern’ society is the first society in history that collectively believes the physical world is all there is and that there are no values other than human or man-made ones. Our society is pointing in one direction only and is in this sense totalitarian though politically and socially diffuse. A cartoon that appeared recently in The Economist showed two prosperous looking men in suits with the speech bubble, “Religious discrimination? Certainly not, we all worship mammon.” In any society, but more especially ours, it is important that there should be people who are looking in quite the opposite direction and this is what the basic function of religion should be. We do not need people clamouring about the benefits of the free market, the vote and higher education because there are enough propagandists for these things out there already.

The message of the monasteries and of the contemplative life in general, or at any rate what I choose to take from it, is a simple one. It affirms that there is a deeper reality beyond that of the five senses and the intellect and that one can, to some degree, apprehend it within this life. This knowledge is buried deep down within us all : the artifices of the contemplative life are simply means of bringing it to the surface. Since this power or reality is far more basic than everything else, this puts human achievements and aspirations in perspective. ‘Pull down your vanity, mankind, and know your place in a vaster scheme of things’.

The current society says exactly the opposite : “There is no deeper reality except perhaps abstruse mathematical formulae which only the very few can ever hope to comprehend : all thoughts and feelings about ‘God’, ‘the numinous’, the divine &c. &c. are simply delusions. Mankind has no need to feel anything but pride for its colossal achievements especially in science and technology and has the right to do absolutely anything that suits it including if need be destroying the whole planet. For there is no morality except human convenience.”

The wheel has not come full circle, it has stopped halfway. What during the Renaissance was a defiant affirmation of the beauty and splendour of this world and a rejection of the darkness of medievalism, has five centuries later become a pathological obsession with technology for its own sake that is leading the whole planet to disaster. No one ever debates whether wealth, television, an increased Gross National Product, possessions, education, travel and all the other things are good or bad : it is either taken for granted that they are or that nothing can be done anyway. It is pointless to expect politicians to address the issue since, within the current cultural climate, no politician would ever get elected on an austerity ticket and anyone actively campaigning for higher prices at the petrol pumps would soon receive death threats from enraged motorists. It is for the ordinary person to change his or her life now, not to shift the responsibility onto someone else, for example one’s parents or the current government.


I do not want to give the impression that the appeal of the monastic style of life necessarily has anything to do with ecology or the dangers to the planet : it is not a matter of taking upon oneself the sins of the world like the medieval flagellants. There is something in the rhythmic balance of manual work, prayer, chanting, studying sacred texts and so forth that is immediately attractive and which many people today still aspire to though in general they cannot realise it while following a career within the modern world. It must have been a tremendous relief to the inhabitants of religious communities to have no personal money worries — apart from the Bursar a monk would not normally even touch money. Paradoxically, it is the restrictions of a monastic community that made this possible : within an extremely narrow area you can be free, and not only that you can feel free.
Although my own personal interest in contemplation and a life-style which favours it basically stems from a desire to understand ‘what life is about’, not all schools of meditation by any means take such a serious attitude and some specifically condemn it. Krishnamurti towards the end of his life preached and seemingly practised a general meditative attitude which was deliberately ‘goalless’ and he was extremely critical (excessively so) of what he saw as the artificiality of traditional yogic techniques. As for Zen, what is valuable in it is precisely the cultivation of a particular kind of disinterestedness which is that of the natural world

Sitting quietly, doing nothing

Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.

Things are as they are : why should they be otherwise? This is not a philosophy that is going to solve the world’s ills but it may be that they are insoluble. As Alan Watts puts it in his book The Way of Zen :

“To the Zen or Taoist mentality, the aimless, empty life does not suggest anything depressing. On the contrary, it suggests the freedom of clouds and mountain streams, wandering nowhere, of flowers in impenetrable canyons, beautiful for no one to see, and of the ocean surf forever washing the sand, to no end”.



so if I think the monastic style of life is so wonderful, why am I not leading it? Well, one reason is that I didn’t find a suitable religious community to sign up to and the non-religious communities I was involved in were pretty disastrous.

Living in a community, religious or not, presents many challenges but I would say there are basically only two really serious problems, neither of which surprisingly is money (at least in the West). The first is what sort of organisation to have. ‘Direct Democracy’ sounds wonderful but usually leads to its exact opposite : the pushiest individuals are the ones who come to the fore. Apart from this, discussing every little issue with all members of a community is unbelievably time-wasting and plenty of people I know, maddened by their experiences of the chaos and endless arguments within hippie-style communities, went to the opposite extreme and joined cults or fringe movements which tell you exactly what to do and think.

The second really great stumbling block of the monastic life is sex and reproduction. The very word ‘monasticism’ has come to mean ‘celibate’ though there is no reason ipso facto why people devoting themselves to a religious life should be celibate — within both Judaism and Islam there is no such sense, rather the contrary, since more children means more believers. A celibate community always needs to recruit from the outside or it dies out — though this didn’t bother the early Christians too much since the return of Christ and the Last Judgment were expected in the near future. But by the end of the third century Christians realized that if too many of their number voluntarily abstained from sex the new religion would never be able to compete with paganism. This was doubtless one of the main reasons why the Church condemned Origen’s simple solution to the problems of the flesh : castration.

Religion is by definition concerned with what is beyond the physical, and thus beyond the sexual also, but sex, as the most powerful human instinct, cannot be so easily discounted as the early Christians found to their dismay. But neither can sex be readily integrated into a religious schema. Religion is supposed to be for the whole community, not just a small group of healthy, good-looking young people, and it is practically impossible to design a shared religious ceremony open to all which is overtly sexual — if you disagree think about staging one yourself. It is possible for a ceremony with sexual content to be acted out by a priest and priestess such as the ‘Sacred Marriage’ which seems to have been part of the Initiatory Ceremony at Eleusis, and reputedly has a place in the rituals of some contemporary pagan groups. Such practices, however, do not develop bonds between the whole community in the way in which a shared meal (the Christian ‘love-feast’) does or non-sexual rituals such as communal singing and chanting, the celebration of the eucharist and so forth. Sixties hippies sometimes staged ‘love-ins’ in California but the majority opted for the much less demanding ‘solution’ of a communal acid trip.

The more perceptive modern historians have pointed out that the Christian Early Fathers, with their pathological horror of sex, were reacting against the extreme sexual licence of the late Roman era. Temple prostitution and the casual use of slaves of both sexes and all ages for sexual purposes by their masters may sound mind-blowing to a contemporary male, but the reality on the ground must have been pretty obnoxious especially since sexual pleasure became increasingly linked to cruelty within the declining Roman world. The early Christians, living in loose mixed lay communities, practised agape or sexless love and friendship which is in practice the only possibility if you want to include everyone, young and old, healthy and sick, good-looking and unattractive.

However, Nature is not to be defied so easily and this ingenious solution to humanity’s greatest problem ultimately proved unworkable. For many members of religious communities what to do with sexual desire was and is a very serious issue indeed : the current Dalai Lama, in a staggeringly ‘religiously incorrect’ admission, when asked what he most regretted missing out on in life, answered bluntly, “Sex”.

Part of the difficulty has little or nothing to do with religious belief or ideology. A tightly knit community where everyone knows everyone else is not at all conducive either to romance or sexual experimentation — you need the anonymity of the big city for both. At the same time it is the soullessness of the great urban centres that makes people long for a more communal life in the peace and quiet of the country. The problem may well be insoluble.

NOTE. This essay is available for purchase as a booklet from www.brimstonepress.co.uk/books/main/books-SH.htm Price : £2.50

Mortality: Be Prepared

I, sebastian hayes, being of sound mind do hereby on this day August 16 2006 commence this blog not knowing what I shall put on it nor who will read it.

K.W. came over mid-morning to go through with me parts of my book on Rimbaud (translation of A Season in Hell with Notes and extended Commentary).

Got onto talking of death, or rather preparing for it. I mentioned that often during the Middle Ages people who lived long enough (and perhaps could afford it) would retire from active life to a monastery to ‘prepare themselves for the next world’, as apparently some people still do in India (husband and wife may go to neighbouring ashrams). There is apparently a medieval book called The Art of Dying. It is, I believe, about hedging your bets so you manage to get into Paradise or at least Purgatory. “But for the modern society,” I said, “there’s just a brick wall. No one wants to talk about it”.

The idea of preparing yourself is not at all stupid or morbid necessarily and indeed I am starting to do this now, even though as far as I know I am in good health mental and physical. Feel strong urge to ‘leave everything in order’ as much as possible and this means getting my ideas in order, sifting through twenty or thirty years of odd writings. Also, putting right some of the bad things I did in my youth inasmuch as it is possible, like sending this cheque (for £500) to the man in the bookshop in Paris who lent me money when I was down and out there years and years ago. Maybe he’s forgotten who I am, and I don’t think he needs the money particularly but that’s not the point. This is not done in any spirit of acquiring merit, but sort of in a spirit of cleaning up, housekeeping, putting things in order.

It is not a question of fearing what happens next, punishment &c. but simply beginning to look at death, or what is after death, the Great Unknown (which yet in some sense we know). Sex has something regressive in it – I speak as a male heterosexual – it is concerned with where we came from (the womb), not where we are going although ultimately the two are the same, I suppose. Camille Paglia rightly pointed out that there is something “infantile about contemporary male sexuality”. Whatever is on the other side there will not be any sex because no physical body.

I’ve done a few interesting things but, basically, I reckon I’ve spent my life thinking about the meaning of life and in the end I’ve not come to any great conclusions….”

But five minutes later I contradicted myself and said,

S.H. “Actually, I do feel I’ve reached some conclusions.”

K.W. “Like what?”

S.H. “Oh what the whole thing is. Mixture of theism and pantheism. There is no creator God, no personal deity in the usual sense. But there is not simply ‘Nature’ – Nature is a thing of the past. There is just one entity which has always existed and always will and everything physical, and intellectual as well for that matter, is just passing patterns on this backdrop.”

K.W. “Like ripples?”

S.H. “Froth, more precisely. Because froth doesn’t last long and disappears without a trace. Surprisingly, there was an article on quantum gravity in the New Scientist last week which read exactly like a mystic tract. The cover title was “You are made of Spacetime, Our Ultimate Origins Revealed”. [Yes, it really said this, 12 August 2006]. Inside, the title of the article was “Out of the Void”. It was basically arguing that what we call matter, elementary particles, are not ‘things’ but ‘braids’ or tangles of empty space. These tangles will disappear one day. Where do they go to? Nowhere. Back to the origin. But you’re not particularly into this sort of stuff.”

K.W. “No, but maybe you should keep on with this. Write about it.”

S.H. “Yes, I think you’re right. That’s what I’m most concerned about. Of course, the difference between these people writing about quantum loop gravity and my position is that they don’t believe — or don’t say so if they do — that one can have knowledge of this underlying substratum, call it God, the Tao, Brahman, Ain Soph, the Void, K. But the testimony of the mystics across the world, and they say very much the same thing, is that you can have knowledge of K inasmuch as this is possible for physical beings. It is a truth of experience, almost but not quite a physical experience. Actually, about two months or so ago I got a very strong sense of this, but it’s very fragile, elusive…. It’s gone already, although maybe it’s coming back a little bit. I do actually start the day with a sort of hymn or invocation I’ve had to write myself [“Hymn to Aoulllnnia”].”

K.W. “Carry on.”

S.H. “Only thing is we must be quite clear about what this theory/experience does not do. It does not, and cannot, justify the details of any organised religion though it is maybe the substratum of all religions and why people still go back to religion in this scientific age. More particuarly, it doesn’t have any morality attached to it, doesn’t tell you what to do. In the past I may have thought that an advantage but I don’t now, we need some sort of rules of behaviour. Of course, this is the criticism that was levelled at Taoism : that it relied entirely on spontaneity, didn’t give rules of what to do in life. Yes, I do want to get this stuff across, but how?”

K.W. “You should maybe mix in the ideas with autobiographical passages, that would make better reading.”

There is the general point though that as you get older you find everyone around you is dying — and you don’t expect this. Almost you’re indignant!

K.W. had on another occasion mentioned a record from the sixties with the line,  “I want to die before I’m 30”.  And he went on, “We sat there saying, Yea, great, man, great. Who the hell would want to be that old?” And most of the singers who sang such songs  and the blokes who listened to them, saying, “Great!” are still around.

On this note I sign off S.H.


Blogger Myra said…
i have been very much aware of my own mortality from a very young age. Convent educated from the age of 4 it was very much impressed upon us that we must try and live in a “state of grace” in case we should suddenly die and be condemmed to eons in Purgatory or even worse an eternity in Hell. Consequently I lived my life in a state of vicarious anxiety enjoying the sinful bits but also experiencing the terror of the possibility being deprived of life whilst luxuriating in my state of sin.
From the age of 7 I grew to recognise the face of The Angel Of Death I grew to know his soft footfall by the time I was twentysix I faced up to and became comfortable with the fragility of my own Mortality. I am no longer fearful of Azrael’s soft footfall because it is an inevitability that I cannot escape from – and would not wish to do so. In my job I tread in his foot steps on a daily basis. We none of know when the moment will come that we will look into his eyes but being prepared – either by orhaving organised our earthly affairs or girding our spiritual self is certainly something that we should all do.
 Blogger Mary Murphy said…
Hello to my friend RM. Since turning 50, I have had some of the same thoughts about my mortality — that I should get organized, clean up my home office and not leave a mess behind for my loved ones to have to deal with. Some times I panic about doing everything I want to in the dwindling time left to me.
I just attended a funeral today, so it seems ironic to read this blog today. I alternate between panic and a peaceful calm belief that death is very natural and we should embrace it as some kind of forward momentum. I love your idea about some kind of substratum or continuum. I find that energizing and hopeful.
Look forward to reading more.
Blogger Josefine said…
When young, people tend think of sex a lot; and when getting older it is natural for them to think a lot about death. Preparing for dying is a healthy thing to do, to think about it, discuss it with close family and friends. Where would you want to die? How would you like to ideally die? How do you want to be cared for when you are dying? What kind of funeral would you want for yourself? All these questions are good material for discussion and sharing. Apart from the obvious practical benefit, to know what your loved one wishes are in the event of their death and to making your own wishes known, it is a great way to bring into focus that our time here is terminal and we need to make the most of it whilst we are still here.
If you are interested in learning more about this, about how to prepare for dying, how to organise an environmentally friendly funeral with or without a funeral director, find out what the choices are, get inspired by other people’s stories and look through a huge directory of useful contacts and advice, etc. I recommend you read the latest edition of the Natural Death Handbook, available directly, with update sheets, from the Natural Death Centre 02073598391. Or you can call the NDC helpline for free advice over the phone 0871 288 2098. You can also look up the NDC website for upcoming workshops and events: http://www.naturaldeath.org.uk or email me: josefine.speyer@googlemail.com

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