“Hitch your wagon to a star” or the danger of words on holiday

As you know one of my constant tasks is to find ways to help us as liberals to reconnect with the real world but to do it in a way that is neither prosaic, possessive nor materialistic. But one of liberalisms' great enabling myths is that its words and concepts are rooted, not in transient, embodied physical forms, but in an ideal, ultimately untouchable, transcendent realm - the realm of the ‘really-real’. To be a liberal is for most of us in the West to be unconsciously and un-reflectively Platonic.

But, for many reasons, a belief in the reality of such a transcendent realm is increasingly difficult for many of us. Yet we remain wedded to this enabling myth precisely because it once enabled us to express and hope for remains profoundly attractive to the imagination. In an incredibly complex and contingent world who wouldn't want to believe in the reality of a stable, unchanging realm of universal justice, goodness, truth and beauty? The key operator here is, of course, the word universal – and I wish to stress that I'm not saying that we cannot IN CONTEXT speak and even, at times, point to things and ideas to which we can apply the concepts of justice, goodness, truth and beauty - but I am expressing an increasingly widely held doubt that there actually exists a transcendent really-real realm which securely and definitively roots these conceptions so important to the liberal world-view.

The tragedy is that even as many of us still regularly use terms such as justice, goodness, truth and beauty when we take time to reflect on them we find, as I have just suggested, that we no longer believe in the realm that once rooted them and gave them huge power and which, once-upon-a-time, helped our forbears commit to them with such deep and engaged passion. The world was changed by their passionate belief and we have benefited hugely from their fruits – primarily in the complex form of what we might call liberal secular democracy. (Not that it has been without problems, of course). But now, as we find ourselves under pressure from other world views – some of which we really don't like even though we are sometimes fearful of admitting it - this lack of deep rootedness for our most treasured concepts is disabling our secular culture and is leading us into depression. When we do meet to talk about our values and concepts the tone in which this is done often elegiac – beautiful but increasingly melancholic. When I take a look at some of my earliest addresses given from this lectern this romantic elegiac, even melancholic quality is primarily what I see. They could occasionally be quite beautiful – even if I say so myself (!) – but the trouble is I now I longer believe in the underlying assumption that gave them what power they might once have had – and allowed me to write them in the first place.

Anyway, as I have been suggesting for a couple of years now, it seems to me that for many of us the time for expressing theories about the reality of a transcendent world is over and we must get out into the world again and to see what we can see. To find ways to root our treasured values and concepts in the earth and not in heaven.

I think our basic problem lies in our language and that, if we can begin to look carefully at how language actually works and not let it, to borrow one of Wittgenstein's felicitous phrases, 'go on holiday' (PI 38) we might be in with a chance of recovering our poise, poetry and strength. What Wittgenstein meant by language 'going on holiday' was that philosophical problems only arise when we try to look for the meaning of words outside the context (the language-game) in which they are actually being used. By the time of the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein thought that the job of philosophy was therapeutic and he believed that the true philosopher treated philosophical (and I would add theological) questions rather like one treated an illness; the "illness" being the bewitchment of intelligence by language. What follows is, then, a little bit of therapy for our illness because I think we are ill. And here I’ll turn to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).

Emerson was highly influential within liberal culture both in the US and the UK and rarely did a man use language so bewitchingly and he succeeded, not only in completely bewitching many of those who read him (including me) but also himself. Indeed, his language was so bewitching one is tempted to say that almost every piece he wrote could be described as a holiday camp for words; a literary Butlins.

But, every now and then the mist clears and he writes a passage in which we see revealed how the bewitchment process begin to work and allows words pack up and go on holiday. As a culture we have tended to enshrine and honour words on holiday but entirely forgotten their day-jobs. Here is a perfect example of what I mean. It is found in a book called Society and Solitude in the chapter entitled Civilization:

"Hitch your wagon to a star".

Anthologised to death this has come to mean that men and women should have high ideals, and great aims and hopes. Presented aphoristically it clearly suggests a human relationship with a real transcendental, heavenly realm – especially if you are (consciously or unconsciously) a Platonist. We are seduced by what it seems to SAY, if we go back to the context in which Emerson introduces the idea (in context - i.e. not on holiday) we can see how its USE gives it its meaning:

I admire still more than the saw-mill the skill which, on the seashore, makes the tides drive the wheels and grind corn, and which thus engages the assistance of the moon, like a hired hand, to grind, and wind, and pump, and saw, and split stone, and roll iron.

Now that is the wisdom of a man, in every instance of his labor, to hitch his wagon to a star, and see his chore done by the gods themselves. That is the way we are strong, by borrowing the might of the elements. The forces of steam, gravity, galvanism, light, magnets, wind, fire, serve us day by day and cost us nothing.


I hope you can see that Emerson’s beautiful phrase - and it is undeniably beautiful - is, in context, given real meaning because it is still tied to the work it is supposed to be doing, which is showing how we working in and with the natural world. In the actual context of Emerson's essay 'hitch your wagon to a star' is not a bunch of words on holiday but turning a tide-mill. We are gifted with a sublime nineteenth century re-casting of Jesus' call to consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air; Emerson has us consider the moon in the sky and the tides of the sea. (My problem with Emerson is that he doesn't always keep his own eye on that and forgets USE and gets wrapped up in what his words SAY. Anyway . . .)

But the danger – the bewitchment – occurs when 'hitch your wagon to a star' is allowed on holiday when we, for example, anthologise it to make it seem to SAY something (either in a real book or our heads). We are in trouble from the moment the words step off the plane somewhere on the Mediterranean coast dressed in a Hawaiian shirts and wearing shorts, sandals and shades – and we allow ourselves to begin to take them utterly out of context and to believe what they SAY utterly forgetting how they were USED back at home. It is my contention that, in precisely the same way, we liberals have allowed to go on holiday nearly all our key words, such as justice, goodness, truth and beauty. More importantly we have become exceptionally vulnerable to those who can see that this process is happening and who have started to use those same words for purposes very different to those so important to liberal, secular democracies.

What we need to do – urgently – is to try and get them home again before they run up any more huge holiday debts and liberal secularism goes bankrupt.

Now, how on earth does this relate to our own church's AGM being held today? Well, I think that our powerful contribution as a liberal religious community to the intellectual and spiritual life of the twenty-first century should be to help un-bewitch our increasingly bewitched times. For we are, everywhere, increasingly bewitched by language on holiday. Our political life is full of it, "New Labour speak", "compassionate Tory speak", our religions are disturbingly full of it too - and it's getting worse. Alas, we now even find this bewitchment creeping into science – especially in its more popular presentations. This bewitchment is present, even more dangerously, in much of our own talking to ourselves.

But if collectively we are to play this role of un-bewitching – and I recognise that you might disagree with me – clearly we need to un-bewitch ourselves first. For starters we need, for a while at least, consciously to uncouple our wagon from its star and re-hitch it to its tide-mill; we need to remind ourselves what our words are doing when they are at home so we can see what mill stones they really turn. This is particularly hard to do in the context of worship – though this address is part of that attempt – but in an AGM it is easier.

In an AGM we try to talk about real buildings and their need for real maintenance; we talk about the spending of money and our real need to replenish our funds – both financial and psychological; we try to get real volunteers to sit on a real and important church committee – our community's democratically elected governing body. If we can see that this meeting is, at its best, trying to use language that is not on holiday, THAT realisation is, itself, a very secure place to begin to re-root our liberal values, such as justice, goodness, truth and beauty, and to make them strong, powerful and relevant again. Why? Well, because in the context of an actual community we can see these words doing real work (turning real mill-stones)and not swanning about on holiday. If we can re-root the words justice, goodness, truth and beauty in the way we ACTUALLY live in the world as individual, committed members of this particular local liberal religious community then we will have begun the necessary process of un-bewitchment.

Of course, this is just the beginning of what needs to be done because when we are, ourselves, a little un-bewitched (which is to be dis-illusioned in the positive, technical sense of the word) we must then go on to help others un-bewitch and dis-illusion themselves. But one step at a time, one step at a time.
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