You’ll find here some essays as well as occasional and irregular musings and rants.
Some basic questions about change
(This is a piece that I wrote for the Arktos Journal in April 2019. It based some comments I made on an Arktos podcast, which can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dhZLafrlAKQ&t=2147s)
We tend to be very good at identifying problems. We can tell anyone what is wrong, and it is quite a list: democratic institutions are failing, and they are no match for the power of global corporations and organisations; these institutions also cannot deal with the mobility of the postmodern world and its attendant technologies; there is too much materialism and we are nothing but consumers with no spiritual integrity; we are individuals and no longer feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We know what the problems are.
But we are less able to state how we can deal with these problems. We are less capable of providing viable solutions. I believe the reason for this is because we underestimate the complexities that are involved in change. So, in this brief paper, I wish to explore some of these complexities. My point is essentially that we do not merely have to state what change we might wish to see and so work towards, but we also have to be aware of the nature of change itself. We do not merely have to be concerned with a particular end-state, but with the means by which we seek to attain it and the possible consequences, intended and unintended, that may be involved.
When we consider change, I would suggest there are three basic questions that we need to address. First, there is the obvious question of where do we want to be? What is our goal or our end-state? What is the sort of society or community we wish to create? Without this we can get nowhere.
The next question is equally obvious: how do we get there? What route do we have to take? What do we have to knock down and what do we have to build? What do we have to take with us and who do we need to help us? In other words, we need a plan.
The third question is perhaps asked less often, or its answer is simply assumed to be a simple positive. We need to ask ourselves:are our ends and plans, in any real sense, achievable and realistic? We need to understand the obstacles that stand in our way and the likely level of opposition we would face. We need to appreciate just how difficult what we are attempting actually is. It is all too easy for us to lose sight of these difficulties in the glow of our righteous indignation at the wrongs of the world, or in the heady moment of the idealistic pledge to do whatever it takes to secure victory. We are not the only ones seeking to change the world, and they may have a contrary diagnosis to ours and seek to take us in the opposite direction. Also they may currently be stronger than us, with more support and better-defined aims.
Allied to this question is a further one, namely, why should we assume that there is a solution to our problem at all? There may be some questions and riddles that are so complex or so paradoxical that they just impossible to answer. Indeed, we have to remember that we are not the first ones to have pointed out the particular problems mentioned above, and nor are we the first ones to have attempted to solve them. If others in the past have not succeeded, then why should we succeed in the future? In what ways are we better equipped than those who went before us? Perhaps they misdiagnosed the problem, and maybe we know better, but are we sure?
Furthermore, even if there is an answer, we should not assume it is straightforward and direct. In all likelihood it will not be just a matter of changing one thing and leaving everything else as it is. Likewise, it may be that there is more than one possible solution to the problem, and we will have to decide which one to take. Do we want a gradual approach that causes only limited disruption, or do we go for the short, sharp shock, the radical approach, that gets us to where we want to be quickly even if the ride is not so comfortable?
This last point takes to what I believe are two constants at the very centre of any understanding of change. First, we need stability to survive and flourish. If we are to formulate plans and carry them out, we have to be able to take much of our world for granted. We have to assume that all the essential programs are running in the background, allowing us to focus on the task in hand. In other words, we need to have certain levels of confidence in and complacency towards our everyday environment to allow us to focus on our aims.
However, the second constant presents a challenge to this confidence and complacency. This is the necessary awareness that change is inevitable and unavoidable. In consequence, we have to be both prepared and able to respond to change. The problem we have, however, is that change is often unpredictable. It will almost inevitably be outside of our control, and that will be the case even if we are formally to blame for a situation changing: we can set certain things in motion, but not necessarily control them from on. Going along with this lack of control will likely be a lack of understanding: we will not necessarily know what is happening and why.
It ought to be obvious that these two constants clash and they do so continually. We need a level of stability if we are to flourish. But we cannot take this stability for granted. Indeed, it would be much better for us if we were to expect it not to be stable at all!
But there is a further complication. When we are looking to develop a plan, we will only have limited resources. All we have is what is hereandnow. We can only start from here, from where we currently are, and we can only use what we have now in front of us. We cannot wish away our current situation or assume that certain problems do not exist. We may have developed an elegant and lucid theory about how the world works and how it can be made to change, but this is only useful if it works in the real world and in real time.
This understanding of where we must start from is also significant in a further way, in that it tells us that what are perceived as the problems of our current situation – the institutions, policies and practices that we wish to be rid of – will have to form the basic raw materials for our solutions. We can only use those tools that are readily available to us. The only alternative is to pray for divine intervention.
There is one final issue that we need to consider here too. We should remember that here and now is an accumulation of many things, and a lot of them are worth preserving. In ridding ourselves of the bad, do we really want to throw away the good? Or is it inevitable that we have to lose some healthy tissue to rid ourselves of the cancer that is killing us? So we have to think carefully about the consequences of our actions and whether what we are prepared to sacrifice is worth it for prize at the end.
My aim in this short essay has been to ask questions and not to offer any solutions. This is not because I do not wish for any change, or to stop anyone from acting in the way they see fit. Rather what I hope to have done is to set some of the groundwork for a discussion on what it means to change, and to offer, as it were, a checklist for anyone starting out with the aim of dealing with those problems that beset us.
In the future
(This is a piece I wrote a few years ago. A slightly different version was published by Arktos Journal in March 2019)
- In the future we will be dependent on the past.
- In the future we will be unhappy.
- In the future we will dream of what we will do in the future.
- In the future we will laugh about the dreams of our ancestors.
- In the future we will be afraid.
- In the future we will believe we know more than our parents.
- In the future we will look forward to tomorrow.
- In the future there will be no future.
- In the future we will not be the cause of our own misfortunes.
- In the future God will be on our side.
- In the future we will aspire for what we cannot hope to achieve.
- In the future we will show contempt to those who tell us things we do not want to know.
- In the future we will forget.
- In the future we will blame our parents.
- In the future we will expect even more.
- In the future we will not be prepared to admit how wrong we are.
- In the future God will be dead.
- In the future it will not appear to matter until it is too late.
- In the future we will remember all too well.
- In the future who knows?
- In the future we will continue to search for God.
- In the future we will be confused.
- In the future it will not be our fault.
- In the future we will not be there.
- In the future our children will rightly blame us.
- In the future we will laugh at those who claim to have found God.
- In the future we will not be listening.
- In the future there will be no time left.
- In the future it will not hurt any less.
- In the future may we please be forgiven?
- In the future flowers will blossom whether we see them or not.
- In the future we will regret things we know we should not have done.
- In the future there will be more mistakes than we can account for.
- In the future birds will sing.
- In the future it will all be for the best.
- In the future what more could we hope for?
- In the future the sun will shine.
- In the future things will seem more vulgar than they do now.
- In the future nothing will have changed, and all will be well.
- In the future do you think we will really care?
- In the future dog will eat dog.
- In the future we will be as sophisticated as it is possible to be.
- In the future we will care for others better than we do now.
- In the future there will be nothing left to say.
- In the future we will aim higher.
- In the future we will be disappointed.
- In the future crying will not help us.
- In the future all bets are off.
- In the future we will talk even more than today.
- In the future we will not be able to imagine our past.
- In the future we will know our future.
- In the future everything will be certain.
- In the future we will have no idea.
- In the future we will still be wrong.
(This is a new and as yet unpublished essay that seeks to justify , albeit in hindsight, the work I have done under the collective heading of ‘fragments’. This work includes the second section of On Modern Manners as well as two subsequent projects that I am still working on. Published here on 15 March 2019).
We live in fragments. There is nothing that is so large to be all encompassing. There is nothing that is dominant; nothing that is the essence. Of course, we humans are common in our biology, psychology and our mortality, but this is not what defines us as individuals. As individuals we are wholes that are also fragments. We are complete and entire while also being part of something that is beyond us.
We do many different things that make us the whole that we are. All of these things can be ends in themselves, worthwhile without any exterior validation. We watch and play sport, and we do so for no other reason than the enjoyment we gain from the activity itself. Some of us may feel that our sporting allegiances define us – we are a fan of a particular team and will be, so we say, until we die – but this is never all that we are. We work and this might be the way we describe ourselves, by our job, our profession or perhaps our employer. But we come home at night and are someone else, a wife or husband, partner or parent, brother, sister, friend or even enemy. We have political views and we may only wish to associate with those who we agree with or have some affinity to. We may ‘never kiss a Tory’, but we probably work with them, sit next to them on the bus or train, wait behind them in a queue and are taught or treated by them when we are pupil, student or patient. We have tastes in art – we might hate modern art or love it – and we have tastes in music which might be very different from our taste in art. We can have diverse tastes, admiring El Greco and Rubens as well as Rothko and Twombly; we can listen to Bach and Anthony Braxton and follow it up with Laurie Anderson; we can read James Boswell and Edward Lear before moving on to Vladimir Solovyov; we can watch a sci-fi thriller and then the next night lose ourselves in Tarkovsky’s Mirror or Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (these are all things I do: I’m sure you can choose your own).
Is this inconsistent and incoherent? It might well be seen to be, and we may feel we should be more consistent in our tastes. But what I would say is that this inconsistency is actually quite defining of what we are. The choices of what we listen to, read and watch may be different, but we each have diverse and often contradictory tastes, both at any one time and through time. As a teenager I read lots of war stories and fantasy novels as well as listening to punk music. I actively hated both Wodehouse and Eliot and all they stood for, and I had little time for classical music or jazz. Forty years later I love both Wodehouse and Eliot and have no interest in going back to the novels of Sven Hassel or Michael Moorcock. But even now, as I have suggested above, I shift from the light to the heavy, the old to the new, the tuneful to the discordant, the easy to the difficult. These are all parts of what I am. They are fragments of my personality. None of them defines who I am; not one of them is me. But each of them says something about me and each is as real as the any other.
My choices, I am sure, are not confected. I do not listen to certain types of music because I think I should or because it is what ‘people like me’ are supposed to do. I do not watch black and white Russian and Japanese films out of duty, but because I really enjoy them as well as finding them compelling and challenging. I will quite happily be reading Edward Lear’s nonsense verse while there is Anthony Braxton’s improvised jazz playing in the background.
So I do not see all this variety as incoherent or inconsistent. It is just how I, and, I believe, most others, live. It seems to me to be perverse to believe one should have such a consistency so that if one is a traditionalist in politics one must also be one in art and music. Not only does this forget that these, now traditional artists and composers, be it Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Bach or Mozart, were considered outrageously modern in their own time, but it also ignores that different arts progress at different stages. To do this is to put artificial criteria over our individual choices.
There is a lot of debate and disquiet over the issues of difference and diversity. These terms can be used to impose categories on people otherwise unwilling to accept them. They might also be seen as the means to attack traditional values. I can accept both those points while also insisting that each of us is diverse and full of difference. I would go so far as to say that most if not all of us have contradictory tastes. I would further state that this is natural and to be relished. If we have different moods, why not diverse tastes that can accommodate those moods? I would suggest we accept difference and diversity for no other reason that this is just how we are. This does not mean that we have to accept these terms beyond categories that apply to an individual. We do not have to accept them in political terms and nor does one have to buy into a postmodern worldview. We can have diverse and remain a traditionalist.
What I want to suggest is that we are made of fragments. Each of these demonstrate a particular feeling, attitude, mode of behaviour, even view of the world. Each fragment is, at it were, complete. It is entire and we can express it fully, whether it be a particular allegiance or an attitude towards a painting or poem. We can, of course, express negative attitudes and feelings regarding things we do not like or which we feel in some way oppress us or stop our enjoyment.
These are entire unto themselves: we enjoy Bach’s cello suites and that is it. We do not have to qualify our love for this music or justify it to anyone else. We do not love Bach because of his contemporaries or because of the period in which he lived. We can sit and listen and lose ourselves in its sublime qualities. Yet the following day we may be watching a game of football and lose ourselves in the tribe of fellow supports shouting on our team. Later that day we may read Eliot or watch Saturday night television. We do not have to explain ourselves, and we would resent being made to. We do not question what we are doing either during or after and the issue of consistency doesn’t enter our heads.
However, these fragments, each which are each entire, do come together into a whole. This whole is a person, who is likewise entire. We have a complete life that we take to be continuous and coherent and which we know consists of a multiplicity of parts, each of which can satisfy some aim, need or desire within us. We are seen by others as a whole and are expected to act as such. But this whole is, in turn fragments of a greater whole. We are entire as ourselves, but we can come together in a larger whole we call community.
What I particularly object to in politics is principle. I tense up when someone says that they act according to principle and I automatically wish to support someone accused of lacking principles. This is not because I have no principles of my own – I like to think I am reasonably principled in the manner I behave. But I make a distinction between the personal and the political. I want to be moral and, despite failing often, I work at being so. And, of course, I want others to be moral as well. What I do not want is for anyone, myself included, to feel enabled to impose their principles on society through control over political institutions. What I object to is not that a politician has principles but that they wish to impose them on everyone else regardless of what these others may think. In other words, I do not want my principles to be swamped by those of someone else.
Any society is made of diverse and different individuals who believe in many different things. These views may well be irreconcilable. A society may consist of traditional Roman Catholics and radical feminists, and progressive liberals and reactionary conservatives. All of these views are legitimate and we must assume they are sincerely held. People naturally disagree on a whole range of issues such as abortion, immigration, gender, the proper roles of governments and markets, the environment and globalisation. While we hope that we can talk with those with disagree with, it will often be the case that we cannot agree. Some views are simply irreconcilable and all we can agree on is that we differ. What we need then is some means that we can be left to differ in peace. We might take the view that we accept the majority view, and there is indeed some sense in this. In many societies, views are accepted because they are supported by the majority in periodic elections or through referenda. But this does not end the issue of principles. Even if we there is a majority in support of an issue, why should we assume that an argument is determined solely by the number of its supporters. A Roman Catholic will still belief they are right to oppose abortion even if they know they are in a minority. A traditional conservative will not agree with radical views on the fluidity of gender merely because there appears to be a majority of parliamentarians who will vote for it. A majority does not negate or diminish the principles of the majority.
Politics, then, is essentially antagonistic. It is made up a diverse collection of views, all of them deeply held and based on clear principles, but which cannot be reconciled. The proper response of government here is not to impose one view at the expense of the others, but to find a means of balancing these irreconcilable views in such a way that the society remains peaceful and stable. This means developing and maintaining institutions that protect different views and maximise the ability of individuals to express them freely and safely.
This suggests that the only purpose to governing is governing itself. Governing is indeed an end in itself. There is no end to governing in either sense of the word ‘end’. Governing does not stop and there is no presumption that we will reach a higher or better state, whether we express that as human perfection, utopia or the end of history. Governing is necessary to hold a balance between antagonistic ends sincerely held by free and competent citizens. It is about protecting those institutions that allow for those views to be expressed in a manner that does not coerce others.
Government then does not believe in anything other than its own maintenance. The reason this is necessary is not because a society believes in nothing, but precisely because it believes in many diverse things.
Just as there are irreconcilable ends in a society, so there are within each of us. We act inconsistently because we hold diverse views and act according to the context in which we find ourselves. These fragments within make up a whole, and we try to hold them in balance, but they are not necessarily reconcilable. We can only them serially and not concurrently (without making ourselves unwell).
However, it is this serial nature, that at any one time we are committed to a particular end, that allows us to lead untroubled lives. Each fragment of ourselves is complete unto itself and we can live with it. To change the metaphor, we can live within a series of bubbles that allow jus to operate fully, but which are quite distinct from other bubbles we might move into at other times.
To be consistent is to lack imagination. It is where we do not feel or think. People who are oppressed or coerced appear consistent because they have views imposed upon them. They are told what to believe, what to think and how to act.
We are made up of regrets as well as triumphs, of things half done, things we wished we had done or not done, paths not taken or only part taken, things left unbuilt. These are all fragments, which we did not complete. Yet they stand there as memories or regrets. These too are now complete, in that they cannot be completed or added to. They can only be lost further or retained as they were left.
Think of a pot that has been broken, smashed into a thousand pieces. It is though valuable. It is irreplaceable, and we feel we should try to save it. Over many days and months we painstakingly put back the pieces of the pot back together again. Once we have finished our labours we and others can again admire it.
From a distance the pot may look complete and as good as new. It has much of its old grandeur and elegance. But when we get closer we can see the multiple fractures and how the pieces have been joined together. It is skilful work, but we can see that it is not the same as it was when it was made originally. And there may be weak points or even bits missing.
But it is still a whole, it is pot. And it may well now have a different form of beauty that comes from being in this reconstructed state. We can sense its vulnerability and its complexity. We can better sense the love that went into its making and in its preservation.
This is how we are, skilfully put together from many, many pieces. We may be scarred and there may be gaps but we are, in our own way, more or less complete.
Here and Now
(This essay has been published by Arktos Journal and, in a slightly different form as the introduction to my book Here and Now (Arktos, 2015; see ‘More Books’ page). The essay sums up my personal credo. Published here on 7 February 2019.)
There is inevitably much discussion about how bad things are and how they are getting even worse. There are indeed many things that we can complain about. It would be very easy, then, for us to either fall into despair – ‘how can we carry on in this cruel world’ – or turn to anger – ‘we must fight and fight until we have created a new world’. However, while I have no intention of telling anyone else how they should live or even what they should get angry at, I want to offer the alternative view that we focus on what around us is good and which we can use to enhance our lives.
We should not mourn what we have lost, but instead celebrate what we still have. Why be angry and cast about for enemies when there is so much left for us to savour? I hope I am not being either naïve or sentimental when I say this, but traditionalists and antimodernists have much to be thankful for. For example, without leaving my house I can put my hand on the three great English translations of the Bible – Wycliff, Tyndale and the King James versions – as well as The Book of Common Prayer; I can pick up Shakespeare, Dante, Stendhal, Scott, Dostoyevsky and Eliot; I can listen to Byrd, Monteverdi, Bach or watch the films of Tarkovsky. I can catch a bus and in 20 minutes be sitting in a magnificent 13thCentury cathedral.
Of course, much is wrong, and some things are really very wrong. But not everything is wrong. There may be some things that are worth fighting for, but the things above I have just mentioned are in no real danger. I can take part in services according to The Book of Common Prayer; I can and do listen to Bach often and have recently had the pleasure of watching my wife singing in a performance of The St Matthew Passionin the aforementioned 13thCentury cathedral. I can read, and re-read, the works of Eliot and Scott at a time of my choosing. So, I have much to relish, and I do not think I am particularly exceptional in this. Indeed, in some ways, there has never been a better time to gain access to all these wonderful things. I no longer have to go to a concert to hear Bach but can listen via my laptop. It is also undoubtedly now much easier to find and maintain contact with likeminded people via the Internet.
I can understand the tendency to want to fight, especially if one feels threatened. But what I find harder to accept is the hatred and the anger that gets generated in debates over the state of our world and the direction in which it seems to be moving. This anger and hatred are most unhelpful to the cause of antimodernism and tradition in general. It makes us appear unattractive and gives the impression that all we are concerned with are things that are wrong, with things that we oppose or wish to stop. We often appear with a sneer, and with an obvious sense of resentment. We give the impression we would rather be anywhere but here.
But in doing so, we give much ground, and this is because hereand nowis all we have. We cannot rewind time any more than we can fast-forward it. This is the only chance we are going to have on God’s earth and so perhaps it would be best if we stopped being angry, stopped hating things and started to relish all that has been accumulated by better minds than ours and which is still there for us if we only reach out our hands. If we have only the one life, why waste it chasing what is very likely to be unattainable in our lifetime. So I want to suggest that we take a positive view of our situation and look at what we can do rather than what we cannot.
This does not mean that I am not critical of certain ideas and groups. Like all antimodernists, I choose to define myself by what I am against rather than what I am for. I do not want to be a Dr. Pangloss, who can only see the best in everything. But I do insist that antimodernism needs to show its positive side. In part this is precisely because we define ourselves by what we are against, but also we need to show that we have some purpose other than going red in the face and saying ‘over my dead body’. I am not suggesting that we should forego our principles and capitulate to modernity. Rather I am just reminding those who see the imminent end of all things that there are some very good reasons to carry on. And, if we are serious that we are seeking to defend our civilisation, then we ought to attempt to do so in a civilised manner. If we wish to preserve the very best of what has been thought and said, then perhaps we should try to emulate these high standards in the way we ourselves act.
I realise that this might annoy some people. They might feel that things really are desperate and that I am being complacent. For them the world might really seem to be in ruins or civilisation really is on the verge of being overrun. I have no intention of trying to dissuade anyone of their sincerely held views. But even if one does believe there is an imminent threat of destruction it still might pay one to stop, to calm down and to think just what it is that one is fighting for, and why it has managed to survive for so long. And in doing so, one might come to appreciate that this survival is not due to anyone’s anger or hatred.
What I think we need to do is to show that the antimodern case can be stated positively, and indeed it can be stated quite simply: antimodernism is where we place one idea above all others, and this idea is the love of home. I want to suggest that this very simple statement is at the core of all we believe and why we believe as we do. It is even why we might get angry. But, for most of us, home is an entirely positive concept. It is a place of comfort, security and stability. Home is a store of memory, a nest and a refuge from the world and a place when we can be ourselves. It is what we are most familiar with and it is the place we share with those we feel closest to. This sense of home, for most of us, is more extensive than the place in which we live, but also encloses a culture and a way of life.
This idea that antimodernism is the love of home helps us to deal with the problem of how we can claim to be positive while labelling ourselves by what we are against. Antimodern, it appears, is defined by what it opposes rather than saying anything positive. This, of course, is true, but then I would argue that it is the love of home that modernity finds so hard to accept. With its emphasis on Progress and human perfectibility, modernity simply cannot accept where we are now as anything other than contingent. If we have a home, it is to be continually remade so as to remain ‘relevant’.
The form of antimodernism I am expressing here is one that is formed out of English conservatism and so is dispositional rather than ideological, quiet rather than confrontational, reserved rather than strident and angry. For me, antimodernism is not really a set of ideas but a disposition: it is an attitude we take towards the world around us. It is therefore about how we live and how we relate to those people and things that are around us. Whether we look backwards or forwards we need to remember that we are standing here. This place we are now in, with all its faults and all its glories, is where we have to be, we can be nowhere else. We cannot go back, and we cannot wish away the present. So, we should try and enjoy it.
Of the world
(This essay has also been published in a number of forms. An early and longer form can be found in the introduction of my book The Antimodern Condition (Routledge, 2014; see ‘More Books page) and in an amended form in both Here and Now and Arktos Journal. The essay is an attempt to integrate my ideas on dwelling, which I developed in my academic work, into the anti modern worldview. Published here on 7 February 2019.)
Some scientists tell the story that we are all made of matter that has existed since the beginning of the universe, and which will remain after we have gone. We are literally of the world, we are the dust of the earth and we breathe in the dust of those who have been and those yet to be. This is a frightening, as well as being a rather sentimental, idea. But whether it is true or mere speculation, it carries with it an important lesson. This is that we are all, to some extent to another, fixed. We are not just here now, but we always have been. We are part of a whole, something much bigger than ourselves.
I do not know whether what the scientists tell us is true, and I doubt that they really know either. But it is a nice idea – that we are not just in the world but arethe world – and it is one that I wish to take up, to strip from it this veneer of scientific speculation and return it to the field of metaphysics where it properly belongs. We are made out of the stuff of the world. We are one with the world and not against it. We are not separated entities, or differentiated subjects, who can use the world as object. We are made up and remain of the dust of the world.
One of the defining characteristics of modernity is the belief that we are subjects distinct from the world. We are, according to Descartes, thinking subjects who are able to look outwards onto the world. We exist, as it were, in distinction to the external world beyond us. This separation is crucial for understanding modernity and its motive force, namely, the idea of progress. We exist to further ourselves, to progress and to achieve (substantially, if not entirely) human perfection. Human beings are perfectible – that is why we believe in the material basis of science – and they can attain this through their use of reason to exploit the objective world. The world has particular attributes that we can recognise, catalogue, and then exploit for our own purposes. The world is made up of discrete pieces that we see as objects available for our pleasure.
But this separation of ourselves from the world is a dangerous one. It forces us to look forwards and only forwards. We are focused on progress towards perfectibility and so we need not look backwards. We take for granted what we have now and use it to reach ever further into the future in the belief that this will make us happier, healthier or better. But the act of looking only forwards means that we deliberately limit our vision. There are things that we refuse to look at and which in time we may forget about entirely. Those things behind us do not matter, and the fact that we cannot see them proves this. So we insist on progressing forwards, towards what we are sure is a better place.
But this reaching out, this stretching to attain what we feel is only just out of reach, might lead us to over-balance. We are so concerned with what is ahead of us that we forget what we are balancing on. We take for granted all those traditions, institutions, relationships that we need in order to stand where we are and reach out. We are so focused on the future we forget how much we depend on the past. We ignore that we are only standing where we are now because of what has gone before us and what has been expended in maintaining us.
The desire for progress is exploitative. It uses up what is around us and, in taking for granted our past; it uses up our inheritance without regard for the consequences. But as we are convinced we are always just on the threshold of some better future why worry about the current cost? Whatever we sacrifice now can be more than made up when we have achieved our potential. After all, we must speculate to accumulate.
The problem, and hence the danger, is that progress, and the transgression it necessitates, is not temporary. It is not a short transition from one stable point to another. Instead progress becomes an end in itself. The whole purpose of modernity is the journey: progress is, in reality, nothing but flux and transgression. There is no agreed end point, no accepted notion of what human perfection would be, but merely a desire to be better, to reach the next step. But this step is merely the next point of departure.
What progress ignores is the importance of harmony, whether it is within ourselves, between ourselves, or between the world and ourselves. Progress stresses the separation, the apartness, of ourselves from the world. However, to recognise the need for harmony challenges the rush for progress. It makes us question the cost of our action, that what we do might pull and tear at our connections with others in the world. It forces us to look at what we are using, what we are stepping on and exploiting to achieve our pleasures.
Harmony is a concern for balance. It is where we recognise that we cannot move without it affecting everyone and everything else. We are connected and our actions are consequential. What we do impinges on others and so we should factor this into our calculations. Indeed, it makes us question the very nature of our calculations: what are we seeking; why do we do it; what might we achieve, and what happens if we do not achieve it? If we move so does everything else and do we know what the consequences will be?
Of course, we might weigh up these consequences and conclude that the benefits outweigh the costs. We might consider that a change in the balance is a price worth paying for what we hope to achieve through progress. But this would not be to properly understand what we mean by harmony. It is not merely a matter of being aware and so perhaps taking notice of the consequences of our actions. Harmony is where we question the actual process of calculation. What matters is the balance itself and not what this means to any one part of the whole. If we are part of the world then what matters is the world as a whole and not just ourselves as part of it. In other words, harmony is an end in itself.
Harmony and balance imply that we stay in place. We do not seek to move, to progress or improve on what we now inhabit. Harmony is a concern for permanence, for settlement, for what we might call dwelling.
To focus on dwelling allows us to focus our actions in their fullness, on their complete effect and on all the levels implicated in that activity from the very idea of human settlement to our most private inner thoughts. Dwelling focuses on our relations at all levels, with loved ones, friends, neighbours, strangers, and with the world itself. Martin Heidegger, in his essay ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’ equates dwelling with building: for humans to dwell means they build structures for themselves. In turn, he defines building, through its etymological roots in Old English and German, as related to the verb ‘to remain’ or ‘to stay in place’. Dwelling as building is thus more than just mere shelter, but is a reference to the settlement by human beings on the earth. Indeed for Heidegger, dwelling is humanity’s ‘being on the earth’.
Heidegger sees dwelling as human settlement in general: it is the house, the village, the town, the city and the nation, but it is also humanity taking root in the soil and recognising our part in the world. We are rooted, embedded and not able to fly free of the world seeking our interests independent of it.
Dwelling then is about balance. It is the activity that creates, maintains and sustains the permanent human presence in the world. Dwelling is about the material and non-material relations that create the capacity for human continuity. Dwelling deals with the human presence it all its complexity, in that it allows us to talk about the universal and the subjectively private: human settlement and myhome.
To dwell means to live on the earth. It is to be in place. We are at home in the world. We have a place of rest and a place that makes us. Dwelling is what we do: it is human settlement in the most general sense. To dwell is to be present in the world. We show our presence through the domestication and taming of nature, and so become tamed ourselves. We dwell through the creation of permanent social and political structures and through the private space we make for ourselves. When we dwell we mark our place in the world and so are be marked ourselves as worldly creatures.
Dwelling is to be in the world and to be at one with the world. Dwelling manifests our need for permanence, stability and stasis, and our wish for things to remain as they are. Dwelling is what we do as part of the world and in doing so we become one with the world. It is where ordinary quotidian habits link to mystery, where we join with something much larger than ourselves. Dwelling shows us that the ordinary and the mysterious are not distinct but are one and the same: the mundane habits of our existence are where we make use of the world and inhabit it with meaning. In doing so, we become a mere part of the world. The world does not require us to understand it.
Dwelling is our inhabitation in the world in all its fullness. We are all one with the world; we are of the world and it is in us, and as such we act the world out and the world acts through us. How we act is determined by the world and we are not distinct from it. There is no sense of humanity being against or beside the world. Humanity is manifested as a mere part of the world. This does not, however, suggest any simple determinism or that there is any prefigured pattern. We have no necessary or preordained role in the world. Instead our actions carry with them a responsibility of involvement: how we act, the decisions we take individually and collectively, can affect how the world is. Without doubt we can change the world and make it into what it currently is not. But it still remains the world, and we are still part of it. The world is changed, and we are changed with it. And with change we take a risk in our lack of understanding. We throw things out of balance.
We can see the world either as a process of change or as a point of acceptance: it can be transgression or accommodation, movement or stasis, harmony or displacement. To create change is to displace, to move ourselves away from where we currently are. It is where we reject the idea of keeping ourselves in place and seek to keep moving. We forget we dwell and seek instead to transgress. We see a virtue in movement and in change and we repudiate the static point. Yet when we keep moving, when we stay in transit, we can never be sure of where we are.
But to dwell is to recognise that we are points of being rather than processes of movement. We are fixed points of the world existing within a web of relations. We are rooted and connected through well-worn ruts of meaning. And we seek to maintain these and persist with them and we do so precisely because they keep us fixed. We do not wish to be pulled away from our place, to be uprooted or to be taken out of those ruts we know so well. If we are uprooted then we become displaced and become disoriented and our connections with others become strained. So we do not seek to break new ground, but instead we relish the anchor, the foundation, the solidity of the known; we know our place and the meanings that this exerts on us are palpable and help to ground us.
This notion of being in place is threatened by modernity and the chase for progress. As we have seen, progress insists that we set ourselves apart from the world. We seek to improve our condition and we refuse to accept what have now as anything other than transient and contingent. Nothing is therefore beyond transgression. We believe in our own perfectibility and so cannot accept the boundaries of our current life. We always want better and believe that its achievement is possible. The desire – the need – for transgression inherent in modernity prevents stability. There is no one place, but a series of temporary holdouts from where we plan our next move. What we lose in this desire for transgression is our connection with the world. We forget the closeness, the openness we have to the world and which it has for us. Our loss is one of balance, the ability to remain level with what is around us.
We should see transgression as the very opposite of stability. Modernity relishes flux and this serves to separate us from the world. We can agree here with René Guénon, who argues that modernity has severed our traditional connection with the world. Hence instead of progress and evolution – both peculiar to Western modernity – he sees our predicament as one of inversion, of a decline from a once enlightened golden age. The idea of progress is, for Guénon, a western aberration: the idea that we can improve, that we are capable of moving towards a better society planned and made by ourselves, is an absurdity. We are by no means capable of perfectibility and our attempts to achieve it are both naïve and hubristic.
Progress and modernity depends on the assumption that we can control the world, and that it is there for us. It is where we assert a distinction between the world and humanity, and that the world is a resource for us to exploit and use as we see fit. But this is disharmonious and destructive: it means we cannot maintain the world as it is, or as it wishes itself to be. Instead we try to make the world in our own image. We see it as ours and as a distinct object separate from us. We feel we know it, that we own it and so can use it as a resource. To be striving for change is therefore to see ourselves outside or beyond the world. We tear ourselves from the world. We uproot ourselves and breach our connection with the world in the belief that we can remake ourselves and the world as we please and relocate ourselves to a time and place of our own choosing. In doing so we become footloose and forgetful, and lose what makes us what we are. We empty ourselves out; we become hollow shells. We become separated, displaced and anonymous to the world. We become subjects capable of transformation within an imagining of transgression. And in our imagining, in our dreams of a perfect world, we become forgetful of dwelling. In our forgetfulness we seek to mould the world in the image of our dreams of perfection. And it appears that there is little that can stop us. In the moment that is now, the time we have before us, we come to see that we can remake the world. We believe that we have the power to transform what is around us.
But this leads only to destruction. We cannot sustain what we make and remake and this is because we are not capable of understanding our actions. So what we create is disharmony. We cannot remould the world and leave it harmonious. We can only remould the world on the presumption that we are distinct from it, that we are separated from it; that we are above and beyond the world and that it is ours to control and to make and remake according to our own will.
But we are not distinct from the world: we are mere parts of it. So when we tinker with the world we tinker with ourselves. We think we are in control of what we are doing and that we will stay in control. But, in reality, we cannot be trusted and we are not in any way acting responsibly. We have power but lack authority. We cannot justify what we do in any way that goes beyond ourselves, and this is because we do not properly know either the world or ourselves. The only justification we can find is that we have, at this moment, the power to hand; that, in this moment, we see ourselves as capable of acting. But what we seek to alter is not ours to change. Others have bequeathed to us what we now have, and we are beholden to those who will follow us to hold what we have in trust for them. But also we cannot alter the world without altering ourselves. And as we are a mere part of the world, and not beyond the world, we cannot properly control that change. If we alter what we are dependent upon then we change ourselves, and we will do so in a manner that we cannot properly predict.
What allows us to maintain our hubris is the fact that, being part of the world, we are well supported. We can live well because of the fecundity, diversity and resilience of what is around us. But this is not infinite and we cannot ignore our connections indefinitely. We cannot act indefinitely without the world responding. And the world will respond because of its implacability. It cannot respect our separateness. The world does not know us as things distinct from itself. And so it is impartial in its responsiveness. The world’s response to our actions depends on its nature as world and not on the power we lay claim to hold, no matter how great that power might appear to be to us. The world has its limits and once they are reached the world responds implacably. This means the response will be unyielding and beyond our capabilities to control or understand. We need the world to sustain us and once we separate ourselves from it we lose the connection that absorbs us. Standing out alone makes us vulnerable to the world in its implacability.
We can start to remedy this when we remember how to dwell as part of the world. We then recall that we are located beings. We realise we are not beyond the world able to look at it in its totality. We cannot transcend it. Or rather, we accept that we cannot do this without losing our hold on the world, without losing our connection to it as world-giving, and without the loss of much of ourselves as part of the world. What we must do, therefore, is to regain the sense of ourselves as being within the world. We must re-accommodate ourselves as part of the world and accept our part in its wholeness. We must reject transgression and the desire for separation from the world. If our attempts at distinction and control are destructive – of the world and ourselves – then we must accept our limits. However, in doing so, we can recognise that our limits are the world itself, and so it is our very inhabitation that provides us with these limits.