One of the things which many people forget, when concocting their wonderful histories of the rise and fall of civilisation, it is that much relies on chance. Not everything is planned, and most certainly not everything planned comes out as it should. There are far too many factors involved, far too many things which we, as mere specks of dust on a massive planet which, itself, is smaller than a speck of dust in a universe of wonders, cannot take into account or cannot anticipate. Let us take, as an example, the migration of peoples from one side of the globe to another. It is clear that this must have happened, and that these migrating people left small branches of their family behind them. It could almost be the tale of the lost son, travelling the world and leaving a child here, a lover there but for the fact that we are talking on a far larger level. Perhaps many thousands of people migrating, following the weather, advancing in front of fires, famine, seeking out food and shelter with the change of seasons. In each station they come to they pause, perhaps for one or two generations, perhaps permanently, letting a mere handful move further on as the infrastructure of the times reaches its natural limit.
These people begin to adapt themselves to the natural habitat, to the food available and to the local conditions, building up their knowledge, their immunities, their skills. They travel far afield to seek necessary resources, perhaps as hunters or as fisher folk. In a great storm fishing vessels can be whisked away, brought off course, dragged far out to sea and there, beyond the horizon, might lie the next new and glorious land, and the settlement story begins anew. There is no need for people to speculate, today, about how it all happened, it did and that is a good thing. At some stage the original – as we know them to be now – occupants of a land made landfall, claimed their rights to that land, and made their home there. Smoke on the horizon? Possibly, but would that be enough t entice them to sea? Would smoke and the possibility of fire not warn of danger and scare sensible people away? But an accident of nature, a family torn away from home and cast out to sea, or an extended family, perhaps. The possibilities are many, but also the very real possibility that a branch of human life originated in Australia, and the migration went in the other direction.
To my way of thinking, as there were several different forms of human tens of thousands of years ago, and we all originated from water at some stage or other, it is equally possible that branches of the original human-forming sea life settled across the globe, and then migration brought the different strands together over generations. Which would also suggest that the Aborigine could be a pure form of humanity, having settled from the original sea-form on land, grown and evolved, and then later moved across the ocean in the other direction. Or remained where they were until the white settlers came along and began destroying their civilisation and land. But, who am I, just another person in a far off country with a very basic understanding of evolution and migration, but a foible for imaginative concoctions.
I have not had the pleasure of being accosted by a JW whilst reading a book, drinking a cup of coffee or any other more worthwhile pursuit, although I do see them regularly, standing of street corners and in railway stations with their various publications. I have, unfortunately, had them visit me at home but not, I am glad to say, in order to speak to me. I bought my house from three Turkish brothers over a decade ago, and they had regular visits from the local branch of the JW, whose temple is just down the road, trying to convert them from their own chosen religion to Christianity, as the JW understand it. On one of these visits I engaged them in conversation for about half an hour, with my eldest daughter sitting behind me on the staircase listening in. In this conversation they attempted to convert me from whatever they think believe in to their own cause by telling me that Isaac Newton was a Christian – since I am English and that was the only name they could come up with – and, therefore, I should follow his example. As many know, Newton was indeed a Christian, it was the only way in the England of his times, but by faith alone. He had clearly pronounced his decision to reject the Bible as a source of factual history and anything more than a basic guideline.
Having failed with Newton, they attempted to convert me by using another famous person whose name they’d come across at some stage in their education, and the use of which fairly and squarely condemned them to failure: Albert Einstein. I could have ripped them apart to find out what they understood about Einstein’s religious beliefs – Jewish origins and affinity but a self-declared agnostic believing in a pantheistic god who, at the end of his life, stated he would have been a Quaker were he not born Jewish – but I felt sorry for them more than anything else. Trying to convert someone to your beliefs by a complete lack of knowledge of all other beliefs is, for me, a bad thing. Each person should choose their own way, believe in their own god, or not, as appropriate, as it fits with their understanding of the world and any afterlife there may be, the creation stories, morals and so on. And if they have a need or desire to follow the dogmatic, liturgical teachings of one established religion or another, and allow the words of someone else to be placed in their mouths rather than voicing their own desires, so be it.
This is really the only objection that I have to writers, philosophers such as Marsilio Ficino: they take the writings of a philosopher from pre-Christian times and attempt to turn his words into the Christian meaning, as if he, Plato in this case, had anticipated the religious direction people would follow according to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Admittedly, it was difficult at the time to write on anything without incurring the wrath and censure of the Church, which had more than just life-threatening powers, but there were others prepared to take on the establishment and fight for what was right at the time – Nicolas of Cuza and Lorenzo Valla come to mind – and still hold religious values acceptable to those in power. Leaving aside any attempts to twist the words and meanings of a long-dead philosopher to modern – fifteenth century modern – beliefs, I have also always enjoyed the challenges such works bring for the mind.
A variegated cloud, having received the ray of the sun, may likewise produce various colours in itself. So the simple fact of the cloud‘s shining derives effectively from the sun; but the fact of the cloud’s reflecting a particular colour derives, at least formally, from itself.
The commentary on Plato’s Phaedrus by Ficino gives us so many things to think about, and speaks a clear truth which needs no religious connotations whatsoever: we receive knowledge, process it, and pass on our own understanding of the original in many new ways. This is the art of the philosopher, as Plato and Socrates clearly saw it: to take a simple notion and work through it to a logical conclusion by all possible means, following all possible paths, and creating many new paths for others to follow and explore. The problem arises when someone takes just that initial piece of knowledge and begins to twist it into a new form, such as a modern religious one, to fit an idea they already have so that, when discussion begins, an answer has already been formulated to which this discussion is then directed. This is often what has happened to symbolism, especially in the ancient styles of classic theatre and belief when confronted with the power of religion. The emblems and symbols carried by Greek and Roman gods and goddesses to show their function, the areas of life they are responsible for had meaning and could be understood by so many, back then. The very appearance of a personage bearing a specific symbol – a measuring stick, a bunch of grapes, a pomegranate for example – told those watching all they needed to know; the perfect mechanism of explanation in the theatre. We have lost all of this today. For us the symbols are, as you say, the logos and trademarks of major commercial concerns, the outward signs of a specific religion, the followers of fashion. The old street signs hung above a shop which crowded the alleyways and side streets of major cities are all but gone, replaced with a name and a designation.
I have never had a problem with the idea of people gaining wealth, of becoming rich, providing it is not done on the backs of other people along the way who, despite their hard work, do not also benefit. This is one of the problems that I have with the misnamed Tax Cuts and Jobs Act currently (not) being discussed in the United States. It is clear to me that there are many problems with this piece of legislation, otherwise it would not have been rushed through the Senate, wit handwritten amendments, and without the chance for decent discussion. The fact that a vote to postpone the vote on the legislation was turned down, that time was not given for the lawmakers to read through an almost five hundred page document, tells me much of what I need to know about this work: there is something wrong with it. And when I read that the basis for the legislation, that tax cuts to major corporations are involved, which will be paid for by an improvement to the economy – meaning higher tax income – and through trickle-down economics, which these self-same corporations have clearly stated will not happen, then I know that the gaining of wealth by these means is on the backs, and to the detriment of a major portion of the population.
I, personally, am happy to live without riches, needing only those essentials to make life comfortable and enough money to feed my desire for more reading matter. I’ve never understood the desire some have to amass wealth they cannot use in their own lifetimes, or even in that of their grandchildren, whilst ensuring that other people have nothing to live on, or are on the edge of the existence minimum. I have also never understood the stance of those governments which claim their country – under their governance, of course – has become a place to be proud of, when so many suffer, live in poverty, or require welfare and food stamps just to get through the day. An elected government who claims that those not lifting a finger to earn a basic wage are at fault, while they receive a massive income without turning up for work, strikes me as being the height of greed. These are people who have not taken that path along or through the rabbit hole of wonder, who have not looked outside their own sheltered existence, who do not understand that there is more to life than a fresh cup of tea, served to them with a newly ironed copy of The Times, and a chauffeur-driven ride into the City.
I have had the pleasure of transporting myself back in time for a few books recently: Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow caught my eye and then brought me on to his Rules of Civility, both set in the same time frame, but one (clearly) in Moscow and the other in New York. I challenged him over the use, in both books, of a woman claiming a ‘second chance at a first impression’, but he did not reply. In between the two I had Lincoln in the Bardo from George Saunders, which was an interesting read to say the least. I came to the conclusion that it was good, if you accepted it as a stage play and not a book – I am told that the recorded version is excellent – but couldn’t get away from the idea that, were he not already well-known and the recipient of several writing prizes, no publisher would have taken the work on. Possibly already mentioned, The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan was enjoyable and eye-opening, especially over the cooperation between religions – especially Jewish and Muslim together – in early years. Yesterday, despite having much to do and being out on the road for a few hours, I read the new Lee Child, keeping up with the series on Jack Reacher. My only defence is that I’ve read the other twenty-one books, so I shouldn’t give up now, and it is delightful brain-candy. My thoughts are now turning to Botho Strauß and Mikado – a German title – and then probably Simone de Beauvoir’s L’Invitée, a German version of which has just fallen into my eager grasp. I am also inclined towards reading Lorenzo Valla’s On the Donation of Constantine again, having pulled it out from my shelves whilst writing this letter. There is much viciousness included which appeals to me at times, especially when seeking out quotations others have not used. I sometimes get the feeling any worthwhile quotation has already been listed on some internet site and readers imagine I have surfed a few words out rather than having read the books themselves. There are few today who believe that a few of us still read, and remember what we have read.
As to your attempted correspondent in Germany, I wonder whether this really is the case. I have understanding for those who are proud of their heritage, as I am sure you understand from our own correspondences, but not necessarily for those who feel the need to prove something when the context is not there. I know that a lot of this patriotic fervour still exists, through a mistaken and distorted belief in what is and what should be, in some parts of the former East Germany, resulting in far-right election successes. And I do have copies of original certificates issued in the Thirties and Forties from those required to prove their German status, right back to the middle of the eighteenth century. But today? Quite unnecessary, I believe. And, hopefully, unnecessary in the future too. I would have been inclined to write back and challenge, explore, discover why, but can well understand why you may feel your garden deserves the enrichment of his missive, and the post office should live without the sale of an additional postage stamp.