I’m not going to say that I tire of people thanking me for writing to them, I do appreciate that the contact offered, and perhaps some of the content written, can be of interest and, perhaps, opens new avenues of thought and interest for them in what could otherwise be a very boring or monotone existence. This, I hasten to add, goes just as much for those out and about in the free world as it does for anyone incarcerated or within a society where freedom of opinion, movement and belief are not written large, or are even discouraged to the point of persecution. And a thank you note is always a precursor to other comments, to news and opinion and, for me at least, the beginning of a new excursion into realms of potential interest which have often never presented themselves before, as well as showing that the writer still has an interest in corresponding, and that is what makes the whole exercise worthwhile. I have had the dubious pleasure, in the past, of writing to people who have never replied, and to those who have replied with a single sentence or the shortest imaginable paragraph which, as you can imagine, presents something of a challenge. Luckily I always have plenty of thoughts and ideas which I wish to share, which have been running through my mind over the previous hours and days, and even a single sentence can bring some of these ideas to the fore and make a complete letter out of them. Not that I particularly wish to be challenged in such a way, it is very hard work replying to someone who doesn’t take the time to answer a full letter, but the option is always there for those of us who wish to demonstrate that we are there, that we do have an interest, and that we enjoy what we do.
And then there are those who simply let each day wander past them as if there are an infinite number of days at their disposal and, despite the perhaps seemingly hopeless nature of their situation, waste the time they have been given. Most have a library, an education facility, or some means of contact with the outside or the literary or educational world available to them, but do not take the time to explore, to find something which could occupy their otherwise lonely hours. I’m pleased to see that your interests extend in the direction of philosophy and humanism, which are fascinating subjects far from complete and always open to new ideas, new thoughts, new directions. Philosophy is a matter for each and every one of us, no matter at which level we may believe ourselves to be, and gives us so much fuel for thought it is unbelievable. And we don’t have to agree with those who have gone before us, which is a great benefit, since philosophy is not a subject set in stone which cannot be changed, honed to perfection or even turned on its head. It is one of the few subjects where many different answers can be correct, all in their own way, and where discussion is always fruitful for those who are prepared to listen as much as they are to talk because, as we all know, there are those who love the sound of their own voice, but do not have anything to say because their own voice is all that they have ever heard.
I don’t so much as watch the news, to answer your question, as read about what has happened from several different sources. I gave up the many pleasure of television several decades ago, and do not miss this form of entertainment one bit, and decided I’d rather read what other people have to say about events, and then not just one person but several different sources. The advantages of the internet, where you can find almost anything that you wish, and concoct your own news and information from many different sources. So I get to read, often very quickly after an event has occurred, about all the mass shootings, the murders, the flooding and other catastrophes of Nature, the politics, the misinformation and, I am pleased to say, the good stories from a variety of sources. Sometimes it is good to take a news item, especially when it is something like politics, and see what several people have to say about it since, as I am sure you appreciate, what Fox News reports is going to be completely different to what the New York Times, Washington Post, Seattle Post-Intelligencer or Chicago Sun-Times have to say. Sometimes it is difficult to pick the political party slant out of a news report, but by mixing several together, you stand a better chance of a reasonably unbiased view of what has been happening, and all those things which are likely to come down upon your own life – even mine here in Germany – at some time in the future.
Of course, my main interest is in European affairs, and watching the dumpster fire that is British politics at the moment, but a wide-ranging selection of sources for information is still needed, as the newspapers in the United Kingdom are just a politically split as in the United States, and will always seek out the advantages for their own political viewpoint, their own chosen party above what might truthfully be happening, or about to happen. Sometimes, though, I watch debates and committee sittings which are broadcast either as a live-stream over the internet, or as a set fixture on certain channels, and ask myself how politics can have sunk so low, how we, as the voting public, as those responsible for the people who are meant to represent our own best interests, could have been fooled into voting for such a bunch of incompetent, lying, self-interest people. I see politicians in a position of power who are avoiding questions which desperately need answers, who are hiding reports and information, or, as is happening in the United Kingdom with the moves to leave the European Community right now, who claim they are regaining sovereignty for the country, but admit that there will only be a vote on that sovereignty, on the agreements to sever contacts and contracts, after it has all taken place.
Truth be known, I dislike discussing politics – and religion for the same reasons – as those who have any form of interest tend to be very set in their ways and very unyielding when it comes to new ideas, to cross-party work, to anything outside the very strict and unbendable dogma of their political beliefs. In philosophy the whole subject is one of constant discussion, of finding new ways, of explanations and theories, or potential solutions and discourse. In politics, and religion, it is a set defence of what is known, what has been taught, and nothing is allowed to deviate from a course, no matter whether that course leads to damnation or worse for the individual or a larger group of people or, perhaps, even the world. I have come across people who are so set in their ways, so unyielding in their belief, that they refuse to read anything which might not follow their dogmatic beliefs to the letter – a New York university professor, a few years ago, told me she does not read The New Yorker because it has a different political slant to her own – and then fail to understand why things are not going their own way when someone else comes to power or is in a position to make the decisions, and also fail to understand how close some beliefs are, if only a few people of divergent views would sit down and talk to one another. It worked in the past – I can remind you of the very close work of Islam and Judaism together in the ninth century – and there is no reason why it shouldn’t work now and far into the future. Added to which, how can you argue against the opinion of someone else if you do not know what that opinion is and have not thought their arguments through?
No, in the end it makes little difference which books you read, as long as you have a good selection from all points of view, and are capable of reading, interpreting and thinking for yourself. That is especially true for philosophy, whichever branch it may be, as each individual confronted with the manifold thought trains and paths of the subject(s) brings their own experiences, thoughts, education and environment into the equation which, in almost all cases, have not been taken into consideration by the author of a book who, of course, can only refer to their own experiences and knowledge, their own education and thought coupled with that of those other authors they have personally read, those people they have had the good luck to talk and discuss or debate with. One of the minor problems of philosophy is that it encompasses a great deal, often too much for one person to effectively master, and was once considered the overall means of discussion, encompassing everything in the world. As the centuries have moved on we have split philosophy into many different sciences – all the present sciences, from quantum mechanics and quantum gravity through to basic physics, liberal sciences, humanism, were once considered a part of philosophy – but they all still mix one with another somewhere along the line, logic with rhetoric, geometry with astronomy, architecture with mathematics and so on. There was a time, not all that long ago, when the liberal arts, as we call them today, were still taught in their original form in schools and universities, where the basic educational level required was only three subjects, the advanced level a further four subjects, and a student could graduate from university, having followed these seven fundamental areas of study, at the age of fifteen and be fully qualified to learn about the real world. Today we try to fit everything into the school and college years, which means that our students graduate without a real knowledge of the world and have to be retrained in reality, having only attained textbook levels of learning.
Can you imagine graduating from college at fifteen? I wish it had been that way during my student years, I would be much better off and so would many other people. The difference was that education was seen as providing the basics, the foundation for life after school, and a student then went out into the world and furthered their knowledge, their experience, through action, travelling, through learning on-the-job. A person who has learned how to work from the ground floor upwards is a far better workman – assuming that they have learned, have dedicated themselves to this task – than someone who comes into a company at the middle-management level, but has never seen the tools needed to produce their company products. I’ve met a few people like this in my life, and been amused as they have tried to tell me how to do something, textbook fashion, I have been performing for many years, especially when the two methods do not agree. Putting tools into their hands and telling them to show me how their method works usually wakes them up to reality, and they see the need to learn what they thought they knew, what they believed they were qualified in afresh, from real experiences instead of the pages of a book. A book is good, but the personal experience, the debates and discussions when it comes to philosophy, the actual laying on of hands when it comes to any one of the trades, is far better.
Art was one of my favourite subjects at school, mainly because I could do something I was good at and be left in peace to do them, both from the other students and, more importantly, the teacher. My own interests, as I am not an artist by any stretch of the imagination, tended towards printed mediums, and I would often spend hours working on a scratchboard image, or a linocut print rather than frustrating myself with pencils and paint brushes. These days I tend to collect rather than produce, having accepted my complete lack of artistic talent many years ago, and have a small collection of original and antique artworks to call my own. I find them in out-of-the-way shops, in backstreet antique markets which are more collections of dust and weird remains than true antiques, and in flea-markets where, to my pleasure and gain, those who do not care for art, do not understand its value – or even the monetary value of some of the pieces they offer for a few pennies – literally throw valuable works at anyone prepared to give out the price of a cup of coffee. My only problem with any form of art which needs to be displayed is that I simply do not have the room – at the moment – to give it due credit: I am patiently renovating my house and have only managed to finish two rooms, sleeping and working, and the entire wall space in both of these rooms is lined with bookshelves. Added to which, my true area of interest when it comes to collecting is antique photography, and specifically the old small format photographs people had taken of themselves to give as memories to other people – rather like Instagram today, except that the images are real and not virtual and you need to be with a person, or use the postal service, to share.
I certainly have no problem with you sharing my letters with other people, whether they write to me or not, and would be interested to know in which direction your discussions go and, especially, the one or two things you hint at where our opinions differ. Perhaps you’d like to write your feelings or opinion on these one or two things and give me something to think about too, since any form of knowledge can only be gained by knowing what other people think too, where they see their interests heading, what they have learned in life. Sometimes it is also possible that a person gives me such an interesting point of view that my own opinion changes, or that I look into something much deeper than before, and reconsider or bring forward new information, new arguments. One of the great advantages, of letter writing as you know, is that you can put your thoughts and opinions down on paper, and there is no one to interrupt you, no one to try to convince you that something is wrong for quite a while – if at all – thanks to the travelling time and distance between debating partners. But don’t just talk of positive things, take a look at the negative too: it is the negative which influences as much as the positive and, as with knowledge, if you do not know or consider the opposite side, you’re never going to have a good argument to combat it.