Contentment in Contention

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1 Contentment in Contention

2 Also by Beverley Southgate: COVETOUS OF TRUTH : The Life and Work of Thomas White, (1993) HISTORY: WHAT & WHY? Ancient, Modern, and Postmodern Perspectives (1996; Second edition, 2001) WHY BOTHER WITH HISTORY? (2000) POSTMODERNISM IN HISTORY: Fear or Freedom? (2003) WHAT IS HISTORY FOR? (2005) HISTORY MEETS FICTION (2009) Editor (and author of Introduction) of Dorothea Krook, JOHN SERGEANT AND HIS CIRCLE: A Study of Three Seventeenth-Century English Aristotelians (1993)

3 Contentment in Contention: Acceptance versus Aspiration Beverley Southgate

4 Beverley Southgate 2012 Softcover reprint of the hardcover 1st edition All rights reserved. No reproduction, copy or transmission of this publication may be made without written permission. No portion of this publication may be reproduced, copied or transmitted save with written permission or in accordance with the provisions of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, or under the terms of any licence permitting limited copying issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency, Saffron House, 6 10 Kirby Street, London EC1N 8TS. Any person who does any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages. The author has asserted his right to be identified as the author of this work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act First published 2012 by PALGRAVE MACMILLAN Palgrave Macmillan in the UK is an imprint of Macmillan Publishers Limited, registered in England, company number , of Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire RG21 6XS. Palgrave Macmillan in the US is a division of St Martin s Press LLC, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY Palgrave Macmillan is the global academic imprint of the above companies and has companies and representatives throughout the world. Palgrave and Macmillan are registered trademarks in the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe and other countries. ISBN ISBN (ebook) DOI / This book is printed on paper suitable for recycling and made from fully managed and sustained forest sources. Logging, pulping and manufacturing processes are expected to conform to the environmental regulations of the country of origin. A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. A catalog record for this book is available from the Library of Congress

5 For Ellen and Thomas, Lily and Hannah, Natasha and Lucy, and especially for Sheila, who gives me much more than contentment

6 God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please you can never have both. Between these, as a pendulum, man oscillates. He in whom the love of repose predominates will accept the first creed, the first philosophy, the first political party he meets most likely his father s. He gets rest, commodity, and reputation; but he shuts the door of truth. He in whom the love of truth predominates will keep himself aloof from all moorings, and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and recognise all the opposite negations, between which, as walls, his being is swung. He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is not, and respects the highest law of his being. (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect, in The Complete Prose Works, London, Ward Lock, 1890, p. 85)

7 Contents Preface Acknowledgements ix xii 1 Introduction 1 Introduction 1 Two classes of men 4 Bentham and Coleridge 10 Synthesis and subversion 12 Conclusion 16 2 Contentment with Reality and Common-Sense 19 Introduction 19 Reality and its representations 25 History, myth, and reality 30 Creating realities: History, identity, and human nature 33 Conclusion 38 3 Contentment within Cages (i): Science, Ethics, Politics 42 Introduction 42 Cages in science 48 Cages in ethics 52 Conclusion: Cages and politics 55 4 Contentment within Cages (ii): Language and History 61 Introduction 61 The cage of language 62 The cage of history 70 Conclusion 82 5 Cages: Dogmatism and Escape 84 Introduction 84 Cages and the dangers of dogmatism 87 Escape (i): Cage-consciousness 92 Escape (ii): Art, poetry, and history 94 Conclusion 100 vii

8 viii Contents 6 Antidote to Contentment: The Sublime 103 Introduction 103 The sublime : A brief contextualisation 106 God/Christianity/Transcendence 114 Aspiration in the arts: Poetry and play 116 The need for a sublime 122 Conclusion Education for Contentment? Utility, Conformity, Dissent 127 Introduction 127 Education for contentment 128 Education and aspiration 131 Individualism, conformity, and discontent 135 A role for the Humanities: Against contentment 137 Knowledge and wisdom 138 Disturbance and perturbation, sanity and slavery 141 Gardens and volcanoes 146 Conclusion Conclusion 152 Introduction 152 Contentment advocated 153 Discontent advocated 159 Now, after the death of God 162 Conclusion: Truth, modesty, and radical hope 166 Postscript 171 Notes 177 Bibliography 197 Index 204

9 Preface This book is concerned with the tension between two modes of being, two ways of living: on the one hand, the embrace of contentment by accepting the reality (and so the inevitability) of our situation as it is; and on the other hand, the need felt for continual striving towards something preferable (though often indefinable) that seems forever just out of reach. That tension has been experienced and expressed from the time of the earliest Western philosophies, and is in certain respects exemplified in the two major traditions of thought represented by Aristotle and Plato, who famously in Raphael s painting of The School of Athens ( ) focus their attention respectively on the earth and on the heavens. As Socrates pupil, Plato diverted attention from what we would call the natural sciences to a concern with how best to live; and the basis for a moral life he found through consideration of an ideal world, transcending the here and now, to which we should aspire. Aristotle then brought philosophy back down to earth, his interest firmly in the physical; and he himself distinguished (at least by implication) between the practitioners of a subject such as History, which was confined to a consideration of what is (or has been), and Poetry, which was free to range imaginatively over what might be or might better be. That distinction continues to be seen today in the twenty-first century, where we daily witness, in both public and private life, a sharp and sometimes contradictory dichotomy between pragmatic acceptance and aspirational idealism. So, for example, politicians, while often concerned to avoid any accusation of visionary idealism, emphasise the realistic and down-to-earth nature of their policies, but at the same time repudiate any hint of complacency and evidently strive to effect major transformations in the world at large. And private individuals, with a seemingly obsessive regard for their own identities and selfhoods, while seeking an unidentified happiness, demand to be accepted as they are ( take me as you find me ), but simultaneously engage in an endless quest to find themselves (an endlessly elusive selfhood). The matter of contentment has recently become a major political and personal issue, with some seeing the global economic crisis as providing a chance to take stock and re-evaluate our lives. Maybe, it ix

10 x Preface is suggested, capitalist values so long simply taken for granted as good and even natural are due for reassessment; maybe happiness is not determined simply by, or even primarily by, economics; maybe we need to escape the treadmill of continuing economic expansion and settle for what we have which is itself, of course, an aspirational goal. So my theme has its roots in antiquity and flourishes today, and my intention is, through interdisciplinary enquiry (historical, philosophical, psychological, literary and theological), to clarify some attendant issues and ambiguities. This might sound like a highly theoretical agenda, but I believe that such clarification may have very practical implications. For education is concerned with encouraging the development of individuals, and that development must obviously and inevitably be in one direction or another, according to our own beliefs, preferences, and objectives. So we need to ask if we wish (in various contexts) to encourage acceptance of constraints of those multifarious cages in which we are all (perhaps necessarily) in different ways confined or if we wish rather to provoke questions that might unsettle and destabilise, by opening up reality to alternative interpretations and aspirations. The socio-political implications of that choice are obviously enormous, for it sets acceptance of the status quo against potential revolution; and it may be that compromise, or acceptance of continuing tension, is the most positive goal at which to aim. Indeed, we need, further, to consider whether those two approaches (simplistically presented as contrasting) exemplify different types, or perhaps rather different aspects, of human nature itself, and whether they are of necessity mutually exclusive. It may be and this is my overall argument that we should ourselves aspire, not to one or to the other, but to a more inclusive synthesis, which might better serve the future. So, in elaboration of that theme, I contextualise the two traditions in an introductory chapter and, following Coleridge, identify what appear to be two classes of men [and women]. Chapter 2 is concerned with reality and common-sense, both of which concepts may seem simple enough. But the question does arise of whether or not we have a choice in what we accept as reality, and whether or not it is just commonsense to go along with the acceptance of certain limitations. Some of those limitations derive from the cages in which we find ourselves, often very comfortably, constrained; and a number of these are considered in the following two related chapters. First, in Chapter 3, I consider intellectual frameworks in science and ethics, where they often seem to provide desirable and necessary foundations. But I go on to indicate some important, and potentially negative, political implications which

11 Preface xi is a theme that continues in Chapter 4, through my treatment of language and history, both of which can develop into prison houses that narrow down options. This provokes discussion in Chapter 5 of the associated dangers of dogmatism; and here I consider certain escape routes provided in particular by art, poetry, and history. That leads in Chapter 6 to an examination of the Platonic and religious traditions of aspiring to escape towards a sublime that, however indefinable and unattainable, may have value as a continuing goal; which takes us in Chapter 7 to a review of education, where it may be timely to reconsider objectives. In particular, should education be geared to encouraging conformity or, as I argue, dissent (whether intellectual or socio-political)? Are mavericks out of step with their contemporaries inasmuch as they repudiate prevailing notions of common-sense and reality to be seen as in some sense sick or as actually healthier and more sane than the conforming majority? And in this context, don t the humanities have a positive duty of promoting discontent? Then, in a concluding Chapter 8, I attempt to draw some threads together, and note that a continuing search for a truth or sublime, as provoked by discontent with the present, may yet underpin radical hope for the future. Finally, a Postscript, added after completion of my first draft, derives from my reading of Iain McGilchrist s The Master and His Emissary (2009) a book concerned with the cultural implications of neuro-scientific theories. With its intriguing analysis of the two hemispheres of the brain, I believe it illuminates my discussion of Coleridge s distinction between two classes of men, and adds support to my argument in favour of synthesis, or (in Emerson s terminology) of oscillation between acceptance and aspiration. My approach throughout is cross-disciplinary by which I mean that I make use of sources, or summon evidence for arguments, from a variety of thinkers (whether philosophers or historians or theologians or novelists or poets or artists) of various times (from antiquity through the Middle Ages and Renaissance to the present); the purpose of such retrievals and introductions being to engage, one with another and with all, in conversation a conversation made possible only now, through sometimes unlikely and chronologically impossible juxtapositions, such as are made in postmodern novels. I hope that this will prove both enjoyable and fruitful.

12 Acknowledgements I am grateful to John Ibbett for continuing conversations on the theme of this book, and for his kindness in making extended loans from his library. My particular thanks are due to Keith Jenkins, who read a penultimate draft with meticulous care, and made many helpful suggestions which I have followed; any remaining semicolons are my sole responsibility. As publisher s reader, Alun Munslow was characteristically generous in his reaction, but he also provided an extremely helpful critique that has resulted in what I hope is a significant improvement to Chapter 4. My wife, Sheila, continues to retrieve words that prove temporarily elusive and to help with problematic drafting; and with her superior perceptiveness and insight, she continues to give the physical, emotional, and intellectual stimulus that makes writing possible and pleasurable. xii

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