Tolstoy’s parable of the miller revisited—a question of what is the motivating power of the contemporary liberal religious/political tradition?

READING: From Leo Tolstoy’s “On Life” (1887) translated by Aylmer Maude (Oxford University Press, 1934, pp. 2-4)

Let us imagine a man whose only means of subsistence is a mill. This man, the son and grandson of a miller, knows well by tradition how to manage all parts of the mill so that it grinds satisfactorily. Without any knowledge of mechanics he adjusts the machinery as best he can, so that the flour is well ground and good and he lives and earns his keep.

But having heard some vague talk of mechanics, he begins to think about the arrangement of the mill and to observe what makes what turn.

From the mill-stones to the rind, from the rind to the shaft, from the shaft to the wheel, from the wheel to the sluice, to the dam, and to the water, he comes to the conclusion that everything depends on the dam and the river. And he is so delighted by this discovery that instead of testing the quality of the flour as he used to, and raising or lowering the mill-stones, clamping them, and tightening or loosening the belt, he begins to study the river. And his mill falls quite out of order. People begin to tell him he is making a mistake, but he disputes this and continues to reason about the river. And he concerns himself so much and for so long a time with this, and discusses it so eagerly and hotly with those who point out the mistake in his way of thinking, that at last he convinces himself that the river is the mill itself.

To all proofs of the error of his reasoning such a miller will reply: ‘No mill grinds without water, so to know the mill one must know how to let the water run, one must know the force of its current and where it comes from, in a word, to know the mill you must get to know the river.’

The miller’s argument is logically irrefutable. The only way to undeceive him is to show him that what is most important in any argument is not so much the argument itself as the place it occupies that is to say, that to think effectively it is essential to know what one should consider first and what later. He must be shown that a rational plan of activity differs from an irrational one in that its elements are arranged in the order of their importance: which should come first, second, third, tenth, and so on, while irrational plans lack that sequence. It is also necessary to show him that the decision of this order is not fortuitous, but depends on the purpose for which the activity is planned.

This ultimate aim also determines the sequence in which the separate reflections should be arranged so as to be sensible. An argument not connected with the end in view is absurd, however logical it may be.

The miller’s aim is to grind well, and this aim, if he keeps it in view, will determine for him the indubitable order and sequence of his reflections about the mill-stones, the wheel, the dam, and the river.

Without such reference to their aim, the miller’s reflections, however fine and logical and beautiful in themselves, will be false, and, above all, meaningless: they will be like the speculations of Gogol’s Kifa Mokievich, who calculated what the thickness of an elephant’s egg-shell would be if elephants were hatched from eggs, like birds.

And such, in my opinion, are the discussions of our contemporary science about life.

Life is the mill which man wishes to investigate. The purpose of a mill is to grind well, the purpose of life is to live it well. And man cannot with impunity lose sight of this aim of his researches for an instant. If he does, his arguments inevitably lose their place, and become like Kifa Mokievich’s speculations as to the gunpowder needed to crack an elephant’s egg.


—o0o—

ADDRESS
Tolstoy’s parable of the miller revisited—a question of what is the motivating power of the liberal religious/political tradition?

One of the really deep and stubborn problems we face in our own age as a liberal religious community relates to the status shared, motivating belief should have amongst us.

When we were just getting going as a distinct, Radical Reformation church tradition during the mid-sixteenth century in Poland and Hungary, having a shared motivating belief was absolutely central. We, like everyone else, held that the Bible was authoritative and could be wholly trusted and that, from out of its pages, in what consisted true belief could be discerned. The primary, true, motivating beliefs we thought we discerned were, of course, a belief in the unity of God (hence the name Unitarian) and in the full humanity of Jesus — i.e. Jesus was not God. We accepted that others disagreed with us on these, and other, matters but, we insisted, we should be tolerant of each other’s different beliefs and should not engage in acts of persecution. As most of you will know, throughout the Reformation this latter plea was for the most part not heard and we, as well as many other groups who interpreted the scriptures differently to either the Roman Catholic Church or the Lutheran and Calvinistic churches of the magisterial reformation, often found ourselves imprisoned, exiled and even executed.  

But we must not forget that throughout this early period, and despite our commitment to toleration of beliefs different from our own, having the right shared motivating beliefs (ortho-doxy) the fundamental nature of things was of great concern to us. Not least of all this was because our forebears believed these beliefs would help us achieve something they called “salvation” in which they would have some kind of “eternal life”. The important thing to see here is that these beliefs were the river that powered their mill, they were its ultimate motivational force.

This situation continued to obtain among us for another three-hundred years until sometime in the mid-nineteenth century when the emphasis of our churches began to move very slowly, if decisively, away from right belief — ortho-doxy — and towards right action — ortho-praxy. As a church tradition we became less and less concerned to articulate what we thought were the right beliefs about the nature of things and, instead, became increasingly concerned to encourage in people a more down-to-earth, practical, ethical religion.

The primary religious question became for us, no longer “What is one to believe?”, but that which Tolstoy was concerned about, namely, “What is one to do?” (Tolstoy, by the way, had a considerable influence on many Unitarian ministers and communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.) Indeed, Tolstoy even titled one of his books, “What is to be done?” in which he explored the matter in relation to the appalling conditions he found in Russia in his own day.

In the parable of the miller Tolstoy is, as I am sure you can see, concerned to offer us a striking illustration of just why he thought an individual person should focus primarily upon the mill — i.e. on the question of “What is one to do?” — rather than upon the river — i.e. on “What is one to believe?”.

He wanted to do this because he could see only too well how much pointless time, anger and violence had been and still was being wasted on countless abstruse, unanswerable, theoretical metaphysical religious questions akin to that posed by Gogol’s character Kifa Mokievich in (Ch. 11 of Dead Souls) who, as you heard, felt it important to calculate what the thickness of an elephant’s egg-shell would be if elephants were hatched from eggs, like birds, and then to figure out just how much gunpowder you would need to crack that same egg.

Such unanswerable, theoretical metaphysical speculations — which included for Tolstoy doctrines such as the Trinity — led him inexorably towards more practical concerns.

Again and again in his late religious writings Tolstoy reveals a deep concern to downplay the rôle of metaphysical speculation in favour of encouraging the living of a practical, ethical life. In short he was concerned to help articulate a religion centred on the example of the human Jesus in which God was present only in and as one’s neighbour (which remember, however difficult this may be, includes our enemies) and in which all fanciful metaphysical speculations have been collapsed into the practical call to justice and love.

Now, all things being equal, I wouldn’t want to challenge our own tradition’s decision to stress practical action over that of metaphysical speculation. The good working of the mill producing finely ground examples of justice and love for our neighbour (and enemy) should remain our primary focus. But, alas, all things are no longer equal.

Tolstoy’s parable, for it to work, requires there to be flowing freely and unquestioningly down our mill race and across our water-wheel a motivational force called the “river” — i.e. a source of power to our “mill” — which can help us to produce sackloads of finely ground justice and love for distribution to our neighbours and, yes, even our enemies. It is unquestionably the case that Tolstoy, and our sixteenth-century forebears right on down to those living in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, found their mills powered by that unquestioningly flowing motivational river, a river which, despite being give countless names, may be given the general name “God”.

But we are no longer in that situation. For us this motivational river no longer flows so powerfully, nor so freely.

Throughout the course of most liberals’ (both political and religious) lifetimes they will have to confess to have noticed that the level of the motivational river has got lower and lower and that, today, it is often little more than a trickle and only able to move our waterwheel either very slowly or intermittently. Church community after church community (across the Christian traditions) is finding that their old motive power is drying up; they want to concentrate on being good practical millers of love and justice but they are finding they simply cannot turn their wheels efficiently any longer.

In the same way free supplies of actual water to our mill is being threatened by the ecological crisis of our times it seems to me that the flow of motivational water which once powered our old religion is also being threatened by the crisis that is the absence of a source of sound theological/philosophical motivation.

In short, this suggests to me that Tolstoy’s parable needs to be looked at again in the light of two of its later paragraphs, namely, that

“. . . a rational plan of action differs from an irrational one in that its elements are arranged in the order of their importance: which should come first, second, third, tenth, and so on, while irrational plans lack that sequence. It is also necessary to show him that the decision of this order is not fortuitous, but depends on the purpose for which the activity is planned.
          This ultimate aim also determines the sequence in which the separate reflections should be arranged so as to be sensible. An argument not connected with the end in view is absurd, however logical it may be.”

Our ultimate aim as liberal religious people remains, I would argue, that of a good miller, it is “to grind well” and this aim, if we are to keep it in view, will “determine for us the indubitable order and sequence of [our] reflections about the mill-stones, the wheel, the dam, and the river.” But, today, our situation is such that order of importance Tolstoy saw as vital needs to be altered because the old motivational river is no longer flowing properly.

Now, in all this, I’m completely in agreement with the contemporary British philosopher Simon Critchley in believing that there is today serious motivational deficit in both contemporary liberal democracy and liberal forms of religion and I personally agree with the basic strategy he is employing in his attempt to restore some kind of meaningful flow. You can find that strategy in his two books “Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance” (Verso Press, 2007) and “The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology” (Verso Press, 2012). As some of you will know I’ve brought various aspects of both these books before you in many earlier addresses and I unhesitatingly recommend them to you (for example see HERE and HERE).

But right now I don’t want to get into the details of Critchley’s atheistic, yet mystical anarchistic strategy but simply to try to make the following, basic point.

Right now I feel it’s vital to stop pretending our liberal religious mill is still working fine and that it’s just a matter of keeping calm and carrying on. It’s not, our mill is, quite literally, grinding to a halt due to a lack of motivational force. So, in the interests of being able to grind good wheat and corn again some time in the future we need to have the courage to stop primarily focussing on this for a while. In my opinion there is a pressing need to put on stout walking shoes, pack a rucksack, pick up a sturdy walking stick and a decent shovel and head on up the mill race and onto river to see what on earth is blocking the flow of water and where, and then to spend considerable and careful time together figuring out a practical way by which we might get a motivation river flowing again.

The plain truth of the matter is that the world has, for us, radically changed and the motivating metaphysical river that was unquestioned belief in God has ceased properly to flow and it is less and less able to drive our mill. Despite this most of us still want our mill to grind, we still want to offer the practical flour of justice and love to our neighbours and enemies. This is, I’m sure, still our primary aim but this aim cannot be achieved unless we find a way of unleashing a new supply of motivating power to drive our mill. (Keeping to the flavour of Tolstoy’s parable a member of the congregation astutely pointed out in the conversation after the address that perhaps the motivational power we need to look for today is analogous to using wind power rather than water power).

Surely a rational plan of action under these circumstances is to do what Tolstoy’s suggests we should not do, and that, today, under our own exceptional circumstances, we need to think just like the miller and say:

“No mill grinds without water [or some other motivating power like wind] , so to know the mill one must know how to let the water run, one must know the force of its current and where it comes from, in a word, to know the mill you must get to know the river.” 
 
Hard though it may be for those of us desperate to get on, right now, with the practical task of grinding flour, it really does seem to be time to do some serious work getting to know the river (or the winds), that is to say getting diretly in touch again with some shared fundamental motivating beliefs about the nature of things which can once again effectively drive our mill wheel. Without reconnecting to some such motivating power we will not be able to take our venerable liberal tradition forward.

Comments

Unknown said…
Andrew - since listening to your address last Sunday, I have reflected on my own journey in life starting with growing up in a Methodist Church Manse where conversation was sort of encouraged but not to the extent that it was sufficiently meaningful My father was a left wing activist and supported the Labour Party totally, the CND (I went on CND marches) etc. The 3 institutions which were central to my upbringing were the Church, the Family and Education. I have concluded since leaving my family of origin that my father's concept of these institutions is very different to my own. To him, the individual was almost excluded and subordinate to the continuance of the Institution What was important to him was the institution was protected totally from criticism. Sadly, my father had, therefore, a limited view of the adverse effect some institutions have had in history and still have on individuals. For instance, one C of E priest made what a racial comment about our son, David, when he was a baby in my fathers's presence. He said nothing. Why did he not confront theis priest? I can't say conclusively but for him to do so would have meant putting his head above the parapet which would have weakened the institution of the church and his relationship with this priest (for him, his life long wish was for the C of E and the Methodists to re-unite).
I have moved from the centre left to the centre right and have concluded that both the far left and far right have one BIG thing in common - the individual is sidelined 'to pursue the agenda'. I do not believe in this. For me, the individual is hugely important to me. My feelings of compassion for those who are less fortunate than me are stronger now than they ever were when growing up - the guy sleeping rough, the alcoholic who loses his fight against his addiction and so on. I believe, however, that I should do the best I can in life to face the challenges which face me and have faced me such as my alcoholism (I am now 34 years sober). I believe that I should do what I can to support my family, the charities which I belong to (I include the Unitarian Church as one of them) and to try to deal with the many challenges which we face both as individuals, as a country and the world). This is big order but I do my best. I do not also think that those who politically are to the left of me are 'my enemies' and, in fact, there is much which unites us rather than divides us. I will always reject the actions of people on the far left and far right whether it be Labours's deep rooted anti-Semeticism or Trump's far right supporters who feel it is OK for white police officers to shoot a black teenager dead before asking questions. I say, for instance, to the students of Goldsmith University that Stalin's gulags were NOT holiday camps as they tried to make out a few days ago. I believe that what unites you and me is far more important than what divides us. We both hold values which we cherish and which we will want to nurture for the rest of our physical lives.
I lost a dear friend 2 weeks ago and attended his funeral yesterday. He was 41 years sober. He had had many health issues for at least 15 years . We had many conversations on addiction illness, AA and our philosophy of life. He believed in 'tough love' when trying to help alcoholics as I do. He also had great compassion for all who face challenges in life. He, like me, attended too many funerals of addicts who lost their battle to stop drinking. He was a great support when we lost Mark. The thing, however, which I will always remember him saying is that 'it is the small acts of kindness which mean the most; not the grand gestures'. He always thanked those who helped him - always appreciative of Katie's chilli con carne, chicken curry and, of course, her trifle (no sherry!). I will miss him greatly.
Thank you again, Andrew, for your address.

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