"Firm ground is not available ground"— everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man or woman who built their house on sand.
|The sand dunes at Wells-next-the-Sea|
Jesus said: Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!
Lucretius “On the Nature of Things” trans by David R. Slavitt, p. 51 (De natura rerum 2.72–79)
Pay close attention and understand my words. We have already agreed that matter is not one packed and coherent lump, since we see how, over the course of time, things will tend to diminish, enfeebled by age and ebbing away before our eyes. And yet the sum of matter remains nonetheless the same—for as bodies pass away from one thing they diminish by leaving, they then increase another to which they go: the first fades away and the second grows and blossoms. And yet bodies do not linger there but pass on to something else, in an endless renewal so that the sum of things remains constant. Creatures depend on each other, and some species increase while others wane and diminish. In a fairly short span of time we can see how generations of living creatures are born and die, but the race goes on as the runners pass the torch of life, one to the next, different and yet the same.
From A. E. Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad” XXXII (1896) in which he consciously draws upon Lucretius' words:
From far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither: here am I.
Now—for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart—
Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart.
Speak now, and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
I take my endless way.
|Susanna walking along the beach near Wells on a very windy day|
But, be that as it may, the picture that lies at the heart of this parable is a powerful, common-sense one and it remains generally true that if one wants successfully to build a building, one knows one really should build it upon solid rock and not upon shifting sand. This is a quotidian truth I imagine none of us would have any wish to challenge. Given the power of this picture it seems natural and simple for most people to go on to say that the same thing must, therefore, also be true about our natural world and to the way we build our beliefs about the world. For the world and our ideas about the world genuinely to be secure our beliefs must be grounded on something truly solid. That something was nearly always believed to be God, “with whom”, as the writer of the Epistle of James put it, it was thought “there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17) and countless numbers of people came to say along with the psalmist that “The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Psalm 18:2). (Think, too, of Luther's great hymn "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott")
But is it the case that what might be a true picture when it comes to building buildings is in fact also a true picture in other domains? Many, perhaps most people will answer “yes” to this. We shouldn’t be surprised at this state of affairs because, as advertisers know only too well, pictures are very powerful things and, as Wittgenstein reminds us in his “Philosophical Investigations” (§115) it is so easy for a picture to hold us “captive” outside of which we cannot get because “it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.”
(I should add here the important note that we are always going to be captive to some picture/s or another. I'm not suggesting that we either can or could be free from pictures about the world. However, what we can do is is to become aware that pictures are always holding us captive and, when those pictures are no longer useful, to be able to seek out others that fit more closely the current state of our experience and knowledge.)
It is clear that the picture of solid rock being a preferable and necessary foundation to our world and our beliefs about the world rather than shifting sand is most certainly one repeated in our culture inexorably and, especially in religious circles, we are often still firmly held captive by it.
But Wittgenstein has helped some of us intuit a different, and one hopes more healthy and creative, picture.
|The sand dunes on Wells beach|
According to this view (which I hold), all human thinking and acting is, in the end, grounded in the form of life to which we are committed. But, having said that, please hear this next sentence well: This is not to say we can believe anything we like but it is to say we can only believe what we can. There are always in play good and/or less-good reasons to believe this or that and we should pay very, very close attention to them. But, in the end, there is a point beyond which we cannot go, beyond which we cannot give another final, absolute reason for our beliefs. At this point those of us with more liberal mindsets have to say some thing like "well, OK but it seems to me that this or that is the case but let's continue talking about things." If you have a less than liberal mindset this becomes transformed into the much more problematic "well, OK but let me tell you that this or that IS the case" at which point any further talking often stops.
But this groundlessness is not confined to our beliefs about the world for we now see that it seems to extend into the world of matter and energy out of which creatures with beliefs, like us, have emerged.
|My copy of Lucretius' passage from Book 2|
Both their poems pre-date, of course, the ground-breaking work of people like Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, Paul Dirac et. al. but the natural world these great scientific minds helped reveal is one that rhymes strongly with the poetic (and ethical) vision of Lucretius and Housman. As the contemporary physicist Carlo Rovelli notes in his “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics”, to which I introduced you to a couple of weeks ago,
“Quantum mechanics and experiments with particles have taught us the world is a continuous, restless swarming of things; a continuous coming to light and disappearance of ephemeral entities. A set of vibrations, as in the switched-on hippy world of the 1960s. A world of happenings, not things” (Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Penguin, 2015, p. 31).
|Geese flying over the marshes at Wells|
I’ve been thinking about this for years but have never had the good fortune to find a strong enough picture and parable that could do all the required work and was appropriately captivating enough. Then, last November, it gracefully and wonderfully emerged into view and I offer it to you now.
As we so often do in the month of November Susanna (my wife) and I spent a winter week in Wells-next-the-Sea on the North Norfolk coast. Every day we wrapped up warmly and took a walk down to the sea and then along the beach and amongst the dunes and pine trees. The week was very windy and, whether under sunny or cloudy skies, the whole landscape was always visibly shifting; the sea, sand, wind and sky formed “a continuous, restless swarming of things” and there was “a continuous coming to light and disappearance of ephemeral entities”. On this coast in windy weather nothing seems to be a more ephemeral entity than the sand dune which constantly displays a Lucretian dance in which their bodies “pass away” as grains of sand leave one dune only to “increase another to which they go: the first fades away and the second grows and blossoms.” It is to me an utterly exhilarating and life-affirming experience to be tracing my own finite line of life through such a dance of ephemeral and passing fellow particles, and this teeming endless activity lay at the centre of much of both my philosophic and photographic reflections during that week.
One of the books I had taken with me was Gordon C. F. Bearn’s “Waking to Wonder: Wittgenstein’s Existential Investigations” and I brought you some of his insights to you during Advent and on Christmas Day.
|Looking across to the East Hills, Wells|
Well, at the beginning of Bearn’s book, by way of an epigraph, is a poem by A. R. Ammons called “A Coast of Trees”. It’s a wonderful, striking piece and I was so taken with it I decided that “upon my return to the neighbourhood of libraries” I’d hunt down some more his work. I am so glad I did because I quickly came across his poem “Dunes” which can stand as my new, strong parable to replace the one about building on rock I’d inherited from Jesus. With it I’ll begin to draw to a close.
Taking root in windy sand
is not an easy
to go about
finding a place to stay.
A ditch bank or wood’s-edge
has firmer ground.
In a loose world though
something can be started—
a root touch water,
a tip break sand—
Mounds from that can rise
on held mounds,
a gesture of building, keeping,
Firm ground is not available ground.
Using everyday language and an everyday image, Ammons, to my mind, brilliantly and concisely offers us a strong picture of how it is perfectly possibly to build a form life in a world where we are increasingly coming to understand that there is no ultimate firm ground and, more importantly, there need be no such ultimate firm ground to found a creative and meaningful form of life.
It is always possible to be in such a world and build a life. True enough, this is not the old firm picture of the world and, for some, this clearly remains disturbing but, to quote my childhood hero Houseman once more, “The house of delusions is cheap to build, but droughty to live in, and ready at any instant to fall; and it is surely truer prudence to move our furniture into the open air” ("A.E. Housman" by Richard Perceval Graves, Routledge, 1979, p. 82). The delusion that must be dispelled in our own age is the belief that firm ground is available ground — it is not; such ground is unavailable and the sooner we find a way to accept this the happier we will be in a world now shaped willy-nilly by the natural sciences. And this is why, along with Housman, I find that, these days, I prefer “the spacious abode of science to the ramshackle dwelling of metaphysics and mysticism.” In a book on Greek philosophy that he owned he wrote the following note: “Plato’s doctrine of Forms or Universals is useless as a way of explaining things—it is up to Science to show what is the reality of the world” (ibid. p. 48).
|Dunes at Wells|
So to conclude I would like to risk saying out loud and proud:
Firm ground is not available round and everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man or woman who built their house on sand.