It is a commonplace that before a person leading a chaotic and out of control life can begin to turn their life around they must first hit "rock-bottom". In an ideal world it should be possible for a person to begin to sort themselves out before they reach that dreadful lowest of low points but, for this to happen a person must be able to experience, if you like, an earlier penultimate rock bottom, one that is very nearly as powerfully shocking as the ultimate one. Today’s address is an attempt to provide you with an imaginative, penultimate rock bottom to hit with regard to democracy. My hope is that shock is powerful and creative enough so that, ultimately, it is able to help us drive a healthy and hopeful recovery.
Kant’s Copernican turn: After Emmanuel Kant’s (1724–1804) groundbreaking, revolutionary work no discussion of reality or knowledge could take place without awareness of the role of the human mind in constructing reality and knowledge.
Promethean myths: Prometheus is the deity in Greek mythology who was the creator of mankind and it is claimed, its greatest benefactor, who stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to humankind. “Promethean myths” is often used to refer to those myths which encourage the idea that a human (or humanity) can, through it’s own power alone, surmount all obstacles.
From “Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance” by Simon Critchley (Verso Books, 2007, pp.1-2)
Philosophy does not begin in an experience of wonder, as ancient tradition contends, but rather, I think, with the indeterminate but palpable sense that something desired has not been fulfilled, that a fantastic effort has failed. Philosophy begins in disappointment. Although there might well be precursors, I see this as a specifically modern conception of philosophy. To give it a name and a date, one could say that it is a conception of philosophy that follows from Kant’s Copernican turn at the end of the eighteenth century. The great metaphysical dream of the soul moving frictionless towards knowledge of itself, things-in-themselves and God is just that, a dream. Absolute knowledge or a direct ontology of things as they are is decisively beyond the ken of fallible, finite creatures like us. Human beings are exceedingly limited creatures, a mere vapour or virus can destroy us. The Kantian revolution in philosophy is a lesson in limitation. As Pascal said, we are the weakest reed in nature and this fact requires an acknowledgement that is very reluctantly given. Our culture is endlessly beset with Promethean myths of the overcoming of the human condition, whether through the fantasy of artificial intelligence, contemporary delusions about robotics, cloning and genetic manipulation or simply through cryogenics and cosmetic surgery. We seem to have enormous difficulty in accepting our limitedness, our finiteness, and this failure is a cause of much tragedy.
One could give an entire taxonomy of disappointment, but the two forms that concern me most urgently are religious and political. These forms of disappointment are not entirely separable and continually leak into one another. Indeed, we will see how ethical and religious categories are rightly difficult to distinguish at times, and in my discussions of ethics I will often have recourse to religious traditions. In religious disappointment, that which is desired but lacking is an experience of faith. That is, faith in some transcendent god, god-equivalent or, indeed, gods. Philosophy in the experience of religious disappointment is godless, but it is an uneasy godlessness with a religious memory and within a religious archive.
“The Ball Poem” by John Berryman from “Collected Poems 1938-1968” (Faber and Faber, 1972).
What is the boy now, who has lost his ball.
What, what is he to do? I saw it go
Merrily bouncing, down the street, and then
Merrily over—there it is in the water!
No use to say 'O there are other balls':
An ultimate shaking grief fixes the boy
As he stands rigid, trembling, staring down
All his young days into the harbour where
His ball went. I would not intrude on him,
A dime, another ball, is worthless. Now
He senses first responsibility
In a world of possessions. People will take balls,
Balls will be lost always, little boy,
And no one buys a ball back. Money is external.
He is learning, well behind his desperate eyes,
The epistemology of loss, how to stand up
Knowing what every man must one day know
And most know many days, how to stand up
And gradually light returns to the street,
A whistle blows, the ball is out of sight.
Soon part of me will explore the deep and dark
Floor of the harbour . . . I am everywhere,
I suffer and move, my mind and my heart move
With all that move me, under the water
Or whistling, I am not a little boy.
A liberal religious meditation on the inauguration of Donald Trump and Democracy
With the inauguration of Donald Trump to the US Presidency on Friday we, understandably, start this new week with a sense of bitter, bitter disappointment, filled with “a palpable sense that something desired has not been fulfilled, that a fantastic effort has failed.”
For many people such a disappointment is only going to be experienced as a bad thing. But in the belief that disappointment can help lead us towards greater wisdom rather than only into greater despair, today’s address is an attempt to help us see something of disappointment’s abiding and creative value.
As you heard in our readings, in his book “Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance”, Simon Critchley argues, for me persuasively, that philosophy begins not in wonder as Plato and Aristotle thought (d. 155 Theaetus and 982b Metaphysics) but in disappointment.
Critchley begins by indicating that for our wider European and North American culture one of the greatest disappointments we have faced was when, thanks to the groundbreaking work of Emmanuel Kant (1724–1804), we began fully to understand that no discussion of reality or knowledge of the nature of things (ontology) could take place without a deep awareness of the role the human mind plays in constructing reality and knowledge. The revolutionary change this brought about in the way we viewed the world cannot be understated because, just as Copernicus demonstrated to a world which firmly believed the Earth was the centre of the universe that, in fact, the sun was at the centre of the solar system, so Kant demonstrated that all our empirical, scientific knowledge centres in some way upon us as the kind of highly limited creatures we are. As Critchley succinctly puts it, “[t]he Kantian revolution in philosophy is a lesson in limitation” one which helped us see that the old once cherished idea that our human souls could move frictionlessly “towards knowledge of itself, things-in-themselves and God was just that, a dream” and that from now on we must learn to live with, what is still for some, the huge disappointment of knowing ourselves to be frail, fallible and finite creatures.
Alas, as a species, we remain terrible at acknowledging this limitation and our failure to do so remains a cause of much tragedy as the example of Donald Trump shows only too well. His inauguration speech revealed he is a man utterly addicted to the myth of Prometheus, a man who thinks he alone can solve all problems faced by the USA and, possibly, even the world. What is perhaps even more disturbing is that enough people have also bought into this ancient Promethean myth of a great and all-powerful human leader and once again have given it powerful and dangerous human and social form. What is true in the USA is, alas, also becoming true on this side of the Atlantic where there are appearing more than a few wannabe strong-men and women as the so-called “counter-summit” of European right-wing leaders in Koblenz this weekend shows only too clearly. Neither should we forget in this toxic, Promethean mix the figure of Vladimir Putin.
We are now unquestionably in the dangerous presence of some very powerful individuals who have not learnt any lessons in limitation and it seems to me that one of the most important, sacred tasks a liberal, radical church such as our own must continue to attempt to carry out in these dark days is to teach, again and again, Kant’s vital lesson of human limitation and of our need to be humble in the face of the universe and each other. If you take only one message from this address let it be this one.
But we, on the liberal end of the religious and political spectrum urgently need to learn our own important lesson in limitation because we have continued thoughtlessly to hold on to our own collective version of the Promethian myth from which we desperately need to be cured; it is the belief that the various kinds of democracies we slowly constructed over several hundred years are somehow eternal and that, having once made them, we can simply relax and lazily bask forever in their sunlit and peaceful precincts. We need to re-learn the limitations of democracy — the chief of which is that it’s not forever, it is never something perfectly expressed and finished but an always-already ongoing, flawed, if often beautiful and holy work of frail, fallible and finite creatures.
It is at this point that I think John Berryman’s 1948 poem, “The Ball Poem” can be of great help to us by providing a penultimate rock bottom to hit.
In the poem we see a pivotal moment in the life of a young boy when he learns well, behind his desperate eyes, the epistemology of loss; that is to say when he first senses first responsibility in a world of possessions; when he learns that people will take balls, that balls will be lost always and that no one buys a ball back. The boy is learning in his own personal life the disappointing lesson in limitation we have already explored, namely that he is a frail, fallible and finite creature who, if he is to live an adult, mature and full life has no choice but to learn, in Berryman’s words:
“. . . how to stand up
Knowing what every man must one day know
And most know many days, how to stand up.”
As we know this is always a hard lesson to learn and it is important to realise that it is only the boy’s ultimate shaking grief that fixes him as he stands rigid, trembling, staring down all his young days into the harbour where his ball went that is powerful enough to do this important work. (It is, of course, an open question as to whether the boy in the poem will respond to this lesson with a commitment to democratic, mutual ways of proceeding or Promethean ones.)
OK. Now let’s use this insight to help us reflect on our own current situation and disappointment.
When it comes to democracy I fear that we present day liberals are rather too much like the little boy in Berryman’s poem who has not yet learnt his ball is not forever. With the passing of the years we have forgotten that there will always be people desirous and quite able to take democracy away from us as easily as any ball, that democracy can be as easily lost by us in our own carelessness as any ball and, lastly, that once democracy has gone nothing can buy it back. After it has gone any possible return is something that will take, as it did once before, generations of blood, toil, tears and sweat — this is something money cannot buy.
This Friday many of us had yet another heart-stopping glimpse of the truth that this valued democracy of ours is, like the boy’s ball, by now clearly bouncing merrily down the road and towards the river; and it's an horrific thing to see occurring.
We are, however, fortunate that right at this moment the ball of democracy is not yet (quite) in the harbour even as it is getting damnably close to the edge.
Let us, therefore be both brave and wise and use Berryman’s poem to help us see clearly and forcibly feel that, if we can at all help it, we really, really don’t want to arrive at a day when democracy has been lost to the harbour for on that day a truly ultimate shaking grief will fix us all as we stand rigid, trembling, staring down all our days into the harbour where democracy went.
So, to preempt this, let’s therapeutically just pause for a minute in silence and use this poem and our own memories of childhood loss to help us imagine, really imagine, what the loss of democracy into the harbour of time would be like. Try and sense what it would be like to feel ultimate shaking grief at its loss.
PAUSE (In the service we held a minute's silence at this point)
I hope that this little, therapeutic exercise makes it abundantly clear that we need to recover, extremely fast, the knowledge that, like the boy’s ball, democracy is never simply forever. For it to last any decent length of time, even as it remains something always at risk of being lost, we need to understand that it is something which must constantly be nurtured, loved, cared for, repaired, remodelled and passionately protected by us, even unto our own deaths.
I think we best begin do this by together (starting with our families and local communities) by beginning to remind ourselves of the long story of democracy and of Kant’s Copernican revolution, by reminding ourselves of our human, all-too-human limitations which are best overcome, not by recourse to Promethean dictators and demagogues, but by encouraging mutual, democratic support in and through all our activities from the local to the national and beyond and in all sectors of society. To remind ourselves of the need to find our own ways to say together, and truly mean, something like this (and I deliberately make a change appropriate for our own times):
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men and women, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” (Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776, adapted).
let the boy’s lost ball,
let Trump’s victory,
let Putin’s ascendecy,
let the existence of Frauke Petry, Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Nigel Farage and Viktor Orbán,
let them all shock you to your very core.
Let all these things cause you creatively to experience here and now, penultimately in your imaginations, in the present democratic safety of this church and country, amongst a diverse community of supportive friends, neighbours and loved ones, something of the ultimate shaking grief that you will certainly experience for real if democracy is ever lost to us.
Jim Morrison and The Doors once memorably sung:
The time to hesitate is through
No time to wallow in the mire
Try now we can only lose
And our love become a funeral pyre
Come on baby, light my fire
Come on baby, light my fire
Try to set the night on fire
This is exactly what needs to happen to us; we must be ignited in the sacred cause of democracy or be gone.