Sunday, 11 March 2007

30. Why are we here?

I have written you lots of Letters about all sorts of things. In this letter I won’t try to summarize or conclude. I will just jot down a few impressions of some of the things which seem to have emerged.

Is our world just an accident?

Most people in the past, and many in the present, believe that the way in which things develop through time is laid down by God or the gods. God is a master craftsman, artist or mechanic, who designs an elaborate system. People argue that all this present complexity cannot be the result of a pure accident. There must be a purpose behind it. If you believe this, it will solve many puzzles and make it easier to accept apparent chaos.

Personally I cannot see evidence for a human-like force behind creation, though I do accept that there is an extraordinary degree of orderliness. It seems to me likely that this is the result of basic biological and physical laws, operating over millions of years. These lead to constant small variations. Those that work, that improve the chances for the survival of plants and animals (including human animals) are retained. Add to this the nature of human beings, with their conscious experimentation, their cultural memory and desire to improve their world (and their ability to make a hash in their attempts) and it is possible to account for how our world could have reached this point.

In all of this the many ‘accidents’, such as the shape of Cleopatra’s nose, the wind that destroyed Kubla Khan’s fleet off Japan, or the birth of Napoleon, have changed the world. On the other hand there are deep forces and laws, the laws of population, economics and politics which I have told you about, which also operate alongside these one-off accidents. So we can see a mixture of chance, of unintended consequences and comprehensible and more general laws.

What are the inter-connections?

When faced with an immensely complex problem it often helps to break it into manageable sub-problems and to solve these one at a time. So we study different topics at school, economics, biology, history, literature, physics and so on. That is fine and necessary. After we have separated, however, we also need to bring these bits back together again. To get very far in understanding our world we need to see things in relation to each other.

We cannot understand how our family system works without knowing about how it fits with law, economics, religion and politics. We cannot understand population changes without knowing something about biology, economics, law and religion. And so it goes on. So while we study a particular sub-discipline or subject one at a time, we need to be constantly aware of how it fits into a larger picture.

Why compare?

You will have noted my frequent allusions to different parts of the world, particularly to the Nepalese village where I study and to Japan which I frequently visit. To understand ourselves we need to step back from our narrow everyday world and get a wider perspective. One of the best ways to do this is to compare our world with the many other existing and possible worlds that have and do exist. We can do this through travel; literal physical travel or through the infinite forms of virtual travel available in books, films, television and friendships with people from other cultures.

Our own lives and systems very quickly become so familiar that we do not see them. Only when we look elsewhere and then back at ourselves do we notice the air we breathe and have taken for granted. Much of our world is constructed artificially through history, an invented culture. Yet because it is ours, we tend very quickly to see it as natural, the only sensible way to live.

Are the English (and Americans) blind?

This temptation to think that our world is natural and does not therefore need explaining is particularly strong if, like you and I, we are English. As islanders we have been slightly cut off from foreign influences. We have lived in a corner of a Continent, and as has been observed, people who live in corners always think that they are special. Instead of this leading to us thinking we are odd, we have tended in our arrogance to think that our way is natural and does not need justification and everyone else is odd. There is supposedly an English newspaper headline: ‘Fog in the Channel: Continent Cut Off’.

The very success of many things English or British in the last two hundred years has increased this arrogance. Through luck, Britain gradually developed the largest Empire on earth. Through this Empire it spread many of the basic ideas by which many people now live. Industrial production, the scientific method, democratic politics, the simple family system and love marriages, private property and commercial capitalism, religious tolerance, team games, much great literature are all parts of the package. This influence was reinforced by the United States, which refined many of these ideas and gave them strong backing.

Much of the world now speaks English, thinks English, plays English, runs its capitalist economics, its individualistic social life, its democratic politics and its legal systems along English lines. Of course this is an exaggeration and over-simplification because many changes are made to these things when they move elsewhere. Furthermore, most of what we take to be ‘English’, as I explained in the first Letter was originally imported.

Yet it is true that if you travel you will find strong reflections of your own and American culture. To a certain extent the modern world has come to us through a narrowed funnel; the past, like sand through an egg-timer, has narrowed down and then spread out through an English passage. This again makes your own country seem rather natural, universal, invisible in many ways. It also tends to make many of us notoriously bad at learning and speaking other languages and hence limits our ability to enjoy interacting with non-English speakers.

Is England odd?

Yet once you step away from these assumptions you will soon be aware that both historically and cross-culturally what seems ‘natural’ is indeed very odd. England is like Charles Darwin’s Galapagos islands, a place where strange creatures have developed because of their partial isolation.

I don’t think I need to remind you of all these oddnesses. The Letters are full of them. From the curious way we bring up our children, fall in love, believe in ‘the truth’, believe in equality before the law, through to many things which I have not had the space to talk about, like our odd sense of humour or our odd food, we are a bundle of peculiarities and contradictions.

Are humans odd?

If the English are pretty odd, they are only an example of the oddness of the species revealed in these Letters. The contradictions between reason and emotion, body and mind and many others mentioned in my first Letter have been amply shown. Much of this comes from one central paradox described by the essayist William Hazlitt. ‘Man is an intellectual animal, and therefore an everlasting contradiction to himself. His senses centre in himself, his ideas reach to the ends of the universe; so that he is torn in pieces between the two, without a possibility of it ever being otherwise.’

On the one hand humans are companionabel and social beings in their family, love, friendship and playful behaviour. Yet they also engage in great violence in war and persecution. They desperately search for faith and knowledge and constructive understanding to build a better world. Yet they also search for power and order and domination. And so it goes on.

This is why it is really impossible to say that humans are basically of this or that nature. The species is a mass of contradictions, very malleable, full of potential for good and evil. Often it makes you despair as you study its antics, but occasionally you draw your breath in wonder at the beauty it creates and the truths it has discovered.

How did we get here?

These Letters have tried to tell you how the world you live in came about. I have suggested it did so by a mixture of evolution and revolution. In England there was a long evolution for over a thousand years. Although things were constantly changing in small ways, and there were moments of more dramatic change, for instance in the middle of the seventeenth century or during the industrial and urban upheavals after 1780, there is no moment when everything changed at once.

Revolutions can be defined as times when not only the players change, but the rules are altered. People decide to stop playing cricket and start to play football. The English have basically always played the same game. The legal, linguistic, family and other systems are recognizably the same from the Anglo-Saxons to the present. Yet they have modified the rules day to day to fit a changing world.

Many societies and civilizations have had a less continuous history. They have tended in one direction, then suddenly switched to another. They play cricket, then football, then hockey. The famous revolutions in history, in particular the French of 1789, the Russian of 1917 and the Chinese of the 1940’s, are examples. Yet even in these there is often much more hidden continuity than people imagine.

Just as we are now constantly told that our world is undergoing revolutionary changes because of globalization and new technologies, yet we feel that there is also a great deal of continuity, so many French people feel that their Revolution only altered some things and many Chinese argue that Chairman Mao was really just another Emperor. The Japanese have been through huge shifts in their history, successively having a Chinese, feudal, neo-Confucian, European and American phase. Yet below all these there are a set of deep structures, a customary way of thinking and doing, a grammar of actions which has been curiously continuous.

So England and Japan in particular can best be described by the contradictory phrase ‘the changing same’. They are like the famous shoe. The shoe was patched with new leather, a new heel, a new toe. It was entirely new material, yet was also in shape and function the same old shoe. No wonder the philosopher in the story could not decide whether it was the same or a different shoe.

What constrains us?

I have tried to show you something of the deeper tides below the surface of history. Beneath the daily events there are a number of continuing structures and strong tendencies. To change the metaphor, there are paths along which civilizations move and though there is room for straying, they are under some compulsion to stick to the path.

These tendencies and paths are determined by physical, biological, economic, political and social forces. They constrain our lives in the same way that language constrains, but does not absolutely determine, what we can think and say. The best way to harness their power is to understand what they are. In knowledge is freedom. When the fly realizes it is trapped in the fly-bottle, it has established some freedom. It may even find the exit from the jar.

These paths vary between civilizations. None is intrinsically morally better. Each has its advantages and drawbacks. The current dominant one, the individualistic, democratic, capitalistic, industrial and scientific system has a number of attractions. It leads to a good material life for many. It gives a feeling of equality and control over our life. It can avoid fear and oppression. Many civilizations are impressed by it.

On the other hand it has a lot of drawbacks. It can leave individuals lonely and confused. It often leads to a feeling of guilt and inadequacy. It puts a great burden on the individual. It promises equality, but can lead to gross inequalities. It can sap all real meaning from life and in particular can turn work into boring drudgery. It creates ecological desolation and areas of the world filled with drugs and pornography. It is no surprise that even in the midst of its affluence and openness many reject it as empty pleasure seeking.

What is certain is that all creeds that promise an end to suffering and pain on this earth are deluding us. Buddhism perhaps has the best answer, suggesting that we can transcend the suffering. We are animals, competitive animals. We have survived through living off other species and each other.

We can strive to make the world better, less cruel, less confused, less unfair. Yet to turn it back to an imagined paradise is impossible, not least because there never was such a golden age. Attempts to make heaven on earth, however well meaning, have usually ended up in the horrors which we associate with movements such as communism and fascism. They tend to lead to Hell and not to Paradise because they are based on a totally unrealistic notion of what we are and how societies work.

In the end, we can only accept our contradictory nature. We can modestly seek to hurt our fellow humans and the other animal and plant species with which we share this small planet as little as possible.

Let’s remind ourselves what a puny and trivial species we are in the words of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

‘Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.’

What else is there to say?

I’ve tried to explain how I think the world works. I’ve kept the letters short and left out most of the detail. Fortunately the arrival of the internet means that I can refer you to other things which will add to this account.

On your very own web-site, , you will find…

Thirty very short letters from you, Lily. These are the questions which I imagine you would have asked me to get these Letters in reply. I’ve read out my answer to four of them (letters from this book).

There are also eighteen short letters in which I explain how my own life led me to write certain of the Letters. I have listed some of the books and other things which I’ve found particularly helpful in trying to understand the themes covered here, some of which you know, others you might like to look at.

There are some reactions to the book by other readers. There is also a chance to add your own comments or discuss the topics here in an international forum (chat room). Finally, there are the sources for the quotations in the book and thanks to those who have helped me in various ways to write these Letters.

More generally on my own web-site ( you will see a lot about my own experiences and life and the various books and articles on which I’ve drawn for these short Letters. There are lots of films and photographs from all over the world as well as things such as lectures I’ve given and television films I’ve been in. These chart my pursuit of the riddles and questions about which I have written and will add flesh to the bare bones of these Letters.


The internet helps, yet there is still so much more I’d like to say to you Lily. I am reluctant to end. The best way I can say good-bye is to pass on a poem which your great grand-mother, my mother Iris, wrote for my sister.

Petition for my daughter

Time be kind. The dangerous world
Presses on the petals furled,
But as bruising years go by
Promise her a sanctuary.

Let her grow with great surprise,
Guard the wonder in her eyes
For a shining sea-washed stone,
For leaves of satin, twigs of bone.

Trust her with your mysteries,
Butterflies and bark of trees.
Woo her with your winds and grasses
Comfort her when summer passes.

Give her body’s flower grace
Into Galahad’s embrace,
That in peace she may discover
Man as friend and friend as lover.

Time be kind, be gentle. Teach her
There are woods where naught can reach her,
There are mornings none can borrow,
Love enough for each tomorrow.

29. What controls our minds?

Many of us believe that we can think what we like, even if we may have to be careful in what we say or write. This is an illusion.

From the moment we are born our minds are being moulded to think in particular ways, to see certain objects, to make certain connections, to establish particular patterns, to value specific things. Other things around us are invisible, unregistered, unvalued. This filter influences the way in which I write and you read these Letters. It also shapes the way in which readers in other parts of the world, whose mental spectacles are different from the English ones, understand what I am writing.

Time flies like an arrow – or does it?

In most human societies, time has not been seen as a straight line. It has usually been thought of as circular, reflecting our normal experience. In plants and animals there is birth, maturation, aging, death, perhaps re-birth. So it is with the days and nights and with the seasons of the year. Time does not advance, it is not split into tiny elements, its rhythm is slow and repetitive, it is not independent of us. The very movement of the stars in the sky declares that motion is circular.

And we know from our experience that time feels elastic, passing too fast or too slowly. The posh name for this is relativity. As Albert Einstein explained, ‘When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity.’

Yet you and I treat time in a more mechanical way, and no-one is sure why we now have this peculiar attitude. We not only sub-divide it into tiny bits, but look on it as a scarce commodity, draining away, to be saved or spent. It is also thought to be going somewhere, aiming towards some future event, like a river or an arrow, and it ticks away irrespective of how we feel about it.

We are not like the nomadic Arabs who knew that it was autumn when they came upon a valley with a certain kind of mushroom growing in it. We know when it is autumn and go to that valley specifically to collect mushrooms. Except in the jokes about confused tourists who wake up and say to themselves ‘We are in Tokyo, it must be Thursday’, we tend to think first of time, and then arrange our lives around it.

There are several theories to explain our obsession, our battling, with time. There is a religious element. Judaism, Christianity and Islam seem to have an idea of time as a progression or straight line. This is very different from the circular concepts of Hinduism or the annihilation of past and future in certain forms of Buddhism. This particular thread was given heavy emphasis when Protestantism emerged in the sixteenth century. From then, God was particularly concerned that we did not waste time or our talents. Accounting for what we do, making every moment count, turning time into profitable activity, were strongly encouraged.

Time had been reckoned in all previous civilizations as reflecting the circular rhythms of nature. Sun-dials and gravity clocks using sand or water were the only ones that existed until the tenth century A.D. Then something strange happened which set time free. A device was developed (the escapement), which broke the continuous motion of gravity into little equal bits. It rotated back and forth regularly like the tick-tock of a clock. There is disagreement as to whether it was invented in China or the west, but certainly it was in the latter that it was rapidly developed.

It is also argued that the regular, enclosed, rhythms of the monastic orders, with their bells and tight time schedules, required such a precise clock to be developed. In other words a new sense of time accounting was present before the mechanical clock was invented. Other suggest the opposite. They say that it was the new clocks available from the twelfth century which gave us a more exact sense of time.

Whatever the answers to these questions of cause and origin, it is not difficult to see how much we are obsessed and ruled by time. We learn to internalize it, to fear or fight with it, to think of it as a commodity to consume. Even with the spread of mobile phones, a recent check among my students suggested that the watch is still the most common machine we carry around.

We now imagine microscopic slices of time, micro-seconds and nano-seconds. Our attention spans have shrunk and our civilization ticks to the clock and whirs with ever faster travel and computers.

Do we look to the past or the future?

In most traditional societies, people tended to look to the past. They revered their ancestors, tried to retain the traditions, lived in a remembered world. In contrast, increasingly for us the past is a foreign country where strangers lived. Most people, especially in rapidly changing societies like America or China, tend to think much more about the present and particularly the future than the past. They see little or no connection between themselves and previous generations. The threads are cut, they have nothing in common with the landscape they live in, except as ‘heritage’. Science fiction rather than historical fact interests them.

Again it is difficult to know why this great change has taken place. Its roots are partly religious and philosophical. Most religions had their great moment in the past, in the life of Buddha, Mohammed, the Prophets or Confucius. Christianity however looks forward to ‘The Second Coming’. Like Communism, it is a Utopian Faith, travelling hopefully towards a world where all sin and misery will be cleansed from earth.

Technology also plays a part. Rapid change cuts us off from the past. The great inventions of printing, the compass and gunpowder meant that the seventeenth century philosophers felt that they were no longer the same as the Ancients. They were no longer living in a circular world, for there was real progress. Now we often feel that those who lived before electricity, cars, photography and modern medicine must have been very different. Technological change is so rapid that a world before the internet, mobile phone, genetic engineering and the latest generation of weapons, seems a different one, with little to teach us.

Societies which are based on the premise of the hierarchy of caste tend to emphasize links with the past. Previous events explain and justify present inequalities. Noble families treasure their family trees and pay respect to their ancestors. Even ordinary families maintain their position by attention to past origins.

When a new world was created in the United States, based on equality at birth (at least for whites), the interest in the past was cut off in one stroke. We ourselves make our own way in life. What our family was or did in the past is largely irrelevant, or just a leisure interest, as in the great interest in family genealogy. Live for the future, make and re-make your world is the view of many.

America has been settled by its majority population relatively recently. Yet its citizens hope and sometimes believe it has a great future. I remember the surprise on my first visit as I passed through the customs and instead of being asked ‘how are you?’ (or as I would have been in my Nepalese village, ‘have you eaten rice?’) I was greeted with a cheerful ‘Have a good day’.

Why does money matter?

‘Time is money’ is an old saying, showing the connection between two of our obsessions. What then is money, this strange thing which, like time, consumes much of our attention and dominates our lives to such an extent?

Money is a trick or a fiction; it is a symbol which has no intrinsic value. Gold, silver, jewels, bits of paper or cowrie shells are in themselves useless and valueless. Value is injected into them by humans. This explains why almost anything can be ‘used’ as money.

At school money was sometimes marbles, sometimes white mice, sometimes sweets. In many parts of Asia, tea blocks are still used as money. They are in many ways a good form of money since they can at least be boiled up and drunk in an emergency. In others, salt, pepper or spices are used, or precious incense. Elsewhere it is shells or stones. These items seem to have intrinsic value, not merely something injected into them.

Whatever form it takes, it turns into full-blown money when the object can simultaneously be a store and measure of value and an item of exchange. It is our attitude to it which determines its value. Hence it is not money itself which is said to be the root of all evil, but, according to the Bible, the love of money.

Money stands for a relation of power over others. It is like oil in a machine, for it allows the parts to function without grinding against each other. It is a translation device, a leveller, it makes objects in different spheres exchangeable. It allows us to create one commodity and then to exchange this for another. It has no morality, no inner essence, but it can enter almost all of our life.

We do try to protect specific areas with invisible signs ‘No money here’. Certain beautiful things are beyond the reach of money. I cannot sell King’s College Chapel, or even the hundredth part which I appear to own as a Fellow of the College. I cannot buy or sell true love or friendship. I cannot buy or sell truth or religious salvation, although the Catholic Church did at one time sell indulgences. I cannot buy part of the public park in the centre of Cambridge. I cannot buy a place in a cricket team, an orchestra or a chance to study at King’s College if I have no talent.

Yet in much of our life, money holds us to ransom. It slips through our hands in a slithery way. The more we have, the more we seem to need. Few people admit to having too much and many have less than they need or want. Indeed much of our capitalist world is propelled by an apparently unavoidable shortage of money. This is created by the desire for the substance itself. It seems, as in many fairy stories, to turn into dust when it is touched.

In comparison with most of the world we are ‘affluent’ or rich in Britain. Our world is awash with the things that money can buy. Yet few of us feel satisfied. At the other extreme there are some simple societies where people wander about in forests and savannahs. They appear to have hardly anything at all, yet it is reported that they feel satisfied with their lives.

This paradox arises from the fact that satisfaction comes from the relation between means and ends, income and expenditure. This was immortally put by Mr Micawber in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. ‘Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery’.

Some simple hunting and gathering societies had a finite need for food and water, for shelter and clothing, and for leisure and social relationships. There is more than enough of all of these; ‘income’ exceeds demand. We, on the other hand, often reach for the stars, have an open-ended demand and a deep craving for more and more.

Very soon we forget that what made us happy yesterday would not satisfy us for a moment today. I met a Chinese man in his thirties. He said that as a country boy all he wished for in life was one day to be rich enough to have boiled dumplings every morning like his city cousins. Now his daughter wants a Ph.D. from Peking University. The ‘revolution of rising expectations’ condemns many of us to eternal dissatisfaction. Buddhism calls understanding this the second Noble Truth.

Each choice we make is a minor deprivation. At the restaurant of life we can only gorge ourselves on a certain amount. If we choose the curry, there is sadness that the pizza or stew is untasted. The Romans made themselves vomit so that they could enjoy the taste of more food, but in the end even they were satiated and could not eat everything. We always want more. Happiness is seen as lying in some future bonus or better job.

Yet we are constantly brain-washed to think that money really exists, and that the more we have of it, the happier we will be. The whole capitalist consumption machine, would crash to the ground if we could not be persuaded to spend, spend, spend. The billboards, television advertisements, life styles of media and sporting heroes constantly shout ‘Money, Money, Money’ at us.

It is therefore sensible from time to time to stand back. We can try tasting a bit of money in our mouth. It tastes (unless it is tea or pepper) of nothing. Nor does it last. As the Irish philosophically put it, ‘a shroud has no pockets’. That wise economist Adam Smith, pointed out that if we want to escape from the trap of anxiety and dependency on money, the thing to look at is not how to get more money, but how to spend less.

For though we can never earn enough to satisfy our ever-expanding cravings, through frugality we can learn the pleasure of being free from care. We certainly need sufficient money in the present world and, as the comedian Woody Allen observed, ‘Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.’ We can also perhaps start to enjoy one of life’s greatest delights, which is seeing how a little of the extra which we have saved can give relief and pleasure to others. For, as the philosopher Francis Bacon wrote, ‘Money is like manure, not good unless it be spread’.

How sensible are our categories?

Our culture teaches us to create a grid or map of the world, placing things into boxes. Some things are alike, others are different. Those that straddle the borders are often dangerous or dirty. We believe that these things really are what we believe them to be because of their innate qualities, that apples and plums belong to one class of things, cats and dogs to another.

A delightful undermining of our categories is shown by the arrangement attributed by Dr.Franz Kuhn to a Chinese encyclopaedia called the Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. This divides animals as follows:

‘(a) those that belong to the Emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) et cetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.’

The logic behind this is not easy to see and we may wonder what would happen if innumerable suckling pigs became frenzied and broke a flower vase at a great distance!

We might think that this Chinese example is somewhat fanciful, but the Japanese numbering system is quite like it. For each class of thing there is a different series of numbers. The ordinal numbers ‘are divided into nearly as many series as there are classes of objects. There is one class for all animals – expect the flying and swimming species, and insects. Another for birds, in which, however, hares and rabbits are included! A third for ships, and junks, and boats; a fourth for liquids drunk with a glass, as water, wine, tea etc.; a fifth for things having length, as trees, pens, sticks, masts, beams, radishes, carrots, fingers, brooms, pipes etc. and so on ad infinitum;’ The author stopped there ‘in despair, foreseeing that they would fill a volume by themselves’.

Yet, arbitrary as these classifications look, your or my classification would probably look just as arbitrary to a visiting spaceman. For instance, why do we classify the bottom of things as more stable and truthful than the top, so that what appears at the bottom of a television screens is more ‘believed’ than that at the top?

Our mental worlds are filled with reflections of the present and past worlds which created them. These reflections in turn re-shape and determine what we can think. They are instilled in us by our family, school, media, friends. Only a considerable effort makes it possible to stand back and examine what have been called ‘the idols of the mind’, the things we fall down and worship without much thought.

How can we talk about our world?

The difficulty of examining our mind’s hidden paths is made even greater by the entrapment of language. As Rudyard Kipling rightly observed, ‘Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind’. Their power is not just mental. As the Japanese proverb puts it, ‘One kind word can warm three winter months’. Almost everything we do and feel is affected by language.

So, although our thought is not determined by language, it does set a grid through which we see, feel about and report our world. The comparative linguist Benjamin Whorf wrote that ‘We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language… Language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a defining framework for it.’

For instance, by contrasting English and Hopi, Whorf tried to show that, in English, time is divisible into past, present and future, while in Hopi there is just a division between those things that are manifest and those that are still in the process of being manifest – there is no equivalent of past, present and future tenses. This alters our way of perceiving time.

In Japanese there are no tenses, no way of knowing whether something has happened, is, or will be happening. There is no use of pronouns, so one does not know if I, you, we or they are doing something. There is no positive and negative distinction. So if we invite someone to dinner and they say ‘hai’ it means yes or no. This is combined with many other, to us odd, features of grammar and syntax and the fact that sets of characters (there are three systems in Japan) can mean entirely different things.

I well remember sitting for fifteen minutes while a Japanese companion went through a menu with the waitress and tried to ascertain what certain dishes on the menu really were. When the food finally appeared, it bore little resemblance to what we thought we had ordered. It is no wonder that the Japanese have a proverb, ‘language is a barrier to communication’, and prefer haragei or body language to the spoken form.

Each language has its peculiarities. English has very little grammar, but lots of words. Romance languages (the ones which come from Latin, including French, Italian, Spanish) force us to specify the gender of all nouns. Certain American Indian languages force people to indicate whether an object is near or far from the speaker and whether it is visible or invisible. In the Himalayas, it is not difficult to see why there are three forms of the verb ‘to come’, meaning to come up, to come down, or to come on the flat.

It is an endlessly enthralling topic. For example, can we see things for which we have no word? Among the people I work with in Nepal there is only one word, pingya, which means both blue and green. Can they see the difference if they cannot speak it?

A clue to the answer is given by the fact that in Russian there are two words for ‘blue’ which roughly mean light and dark blue. A Russian anthropologist studying us might come to the logical, but incorrect, conclusion that because we cannot differentiate the two blues, the Oxford and Cambridge boat race teams could not tell each other apart. When I asked my Nepalese friends they said that of course they could see the difference between the green grass and the blue sky.

The nature of the primary colours, and the very idea of what ‘colour’ is varies greatly. In China, Japan and Korea there are five primary colours: white, black, green-blue, yellow-red, brown-red. We do not consider white and black to be ‘colours’ at all, but have a wider range of primary colours including yellow.

Thinking is our strongest survival tool, and language and culture the expressions of this. Yet we are constantly trapped into certain habits of the mind. Much of our world goes unnoticed, or noticed too strongly. Yet these blinkers are at least half-explicit and we are taught a little about this at school, especially if we learn other languages. Deeper and less examined are the seductions of our senses, the ways in which knowledge comes in through our ways of apprehending reality through our body.

28. What is sex and is it good for you?

I was not sure whether to write to you about sex. You are my grand-daughter and I felt a bit uncomfortable at first. Yet I think I should try, since it is clearly something you will wonder about a great deal, especially at this time in your life. We have discussed almost everything over the years so I feel we can look at this personal issue without embarrassment.

If it does make you feel worried at all, imagine that you are just one of the eighty or so first-year undergraduates at Cambridge to whom I used to try to provide a simple survey of the huge varieties of sexual behaviour and attitudes among human beings. I tried to treat it in a matter of fact way. I did this to put their own lives into context and to relieve them of some of the guilt which certainly I felt as a growing boy.

What can I say about the patterns of sexual relations?

In the era before effective contraception, a sexual relationship outside marriage was not only widely regarded as sinful, but dangerous as well. The woman, in particular, took a huge risk. To have an illegitimate child often led to disgrace, even imprisonment in a mental asylum, or a life of prostitution and perhaps infection with a venereal disease.

I was brought up on the edge of that period and the idea of having sexual relations before I married was still considered sinful and dangerous. You will know how things have changed and how the age at which these things happen has dropped alongside the fall in the age of sexual maturity. There is little that I can say here that you cannot learn from good books, frank talks with friends, teachers, your parents and others. Perhaps the most important thing is that if you make decisions which you regret, you should as quickly as possible admit them to more experienced people and work out a good remedy.

Another thing to say is that sexual relationships have long been regarded as the very height of human experience. Sexual symbolism is widespread in the bible, as in the Song of Solomon, and in the writings of great religious mystics. By bringing together our senses of touch, smell, sight and sound , and uniting them in a mounting moment of pleasure, we seem for a moment to reach a reality and happiness that transcends this mortal life. To miss this dimension is very sad.

Yet most of those who have thought deeply about the matter have also stressed that for sex to really satisfy it should be part of a wider relationship. It is both an end in itself, but also part of a communication with another. If it occurs within a context of trust, commitment, long-term and deep friendship, it will attain heights which fragmented and momentary bursts of pleasure cannot.

Another comparative point is to remind you of what a peculiar civilization you come from. In the majority of societies, sexual relations have been embedded in social relationships. It is socially wise or stupid to be engaged in them at certain times or places or with certain people. The Gods are sometimes involved if a taboo is broken but generally sex is not really much to do with religion.

We can see this, for example, in Japan. Sexual relations there are mainly seen as a form of bodily function, alongside eating, drinking, working, defecating. They are pleasurable in themselves and there is nothing to be ashamed about them. The body itself has not been historically a sexually charged object.

In much of the west, however, there has been an association of sex and religion. God is concerned with the ‘cleanliness’ not only of our bodies but also of our minds. To read the tortured autobiographies and novels in the western tradition with their constant deep sense of guilt and conflict, is to be in a different world to the literature and art of much of India, China and Japan which openly celebrates sexuality and its pleasures.

It is a matter of balance. You will be aware of the way in which those who are trying to sell you drinks, cars, clothes, cosmetics, are constantly trying to use the power of sex to sway your mind. You will notice how television and other media are obsessed with the subject. Much of your conversation is about it. You may be disgusted or intrigued by all this. You will certainly need to be wary of this constant pressure and try to stand back from the insistence to treat your body as primarily a sexual object.

On the other hand, you should also be aware of the still remaining traces of a guilt-ridden Christian civilization, with its anti-female bias, its concealments of the shameful side-effects of sexuality, its trading on guilt and embarrassment. If you accept that we are sexual beings, that the survival of the species depends heavily on making sexual intercourse a delightful sensation, that we can sometimes express our most intense love through such behaviour, then you will not loathe your body.

All of this is made more difficult for you by various things. Though there is overlap, men and women are different and their desires and pleasures in sex are not the same. Be frank with your partners and do not through embarrassment cover up hidden conflicts of aim or achievement. Furthermore, as Bob Dylan put it, ‘the times they are a changing’. The liberation of sexuality in western societies is one of the greatest social changes I have witnessed in my lifetime. At my boarding school we were not allowed even to talk to girls. Now my boarding house is a girl’s house in that same school!

Relaxation of standards, better contraception, all this has brought new pleasures and reduced anxiety about the consequences of sex. Yet it has also put new strains upon you, made it more difficult to say no, threatened you with new dangers (sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS). There is both a gain of experience and a loss of innocence.

Are homosexual and lesbian relations natural or cultural?

Almost all of us are physically attracted at some stage in our lives to someone of the same sex and almost all school-children go through the a stage of love for a person of their own sex. The attitudes towards this and the statistics are often not in line. Twentieth century estimates suggested that more than four in ten men in the west have had same-sex relations leading to orgasm and that more than one in twenty of adult males are exclusively homosexual. Amongst women, about one in five females in the United States have had physical relations with other females, and half have had ‘intense emotional relations’.

In the past, for instance in ancient Greece, the love between men and boys is thought to be deeper than that between man and woman. We find it referred to in the Bible and in great love poetry.

Yet in other societies, including England for long periods, same sex relationships were looked on as perverted and deeply sinful. They were regarded as unnatural, shameful and subversive. The case of the writer Oscar Wilde, imprisoned for his relations with other men, is just one example. In many parts of the world, for instance China, it is still not easy to talk about same sex relations. Yet some people, whether by nature or upbringing or a combination of the two, clearly end up more attracted to members of their own than the opposite sex.

Recently, the question of marriage between same-sex persons has been much discussed in Europe and America and is now allowed in an increasing number of countries. This is a really dramatic change and it is causing a huge debate, particularly in the United States, since it is claimed to subvert the true nature of marriage.

What is the incest taboo?

You may well have heard of the myth of Oedipus, who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother and was hounded down by the gods. Another Greek legend, of the love of a father for his daughter is known as the Electra complex. The other common form is sexual relations between brothers and sisters, sibling incest as it is known.

Many have thought that the prohibition of such relations and the horror that surrounds the breaking of the taboo is universal. Indeed, some have argued that it is this rule which distinguishes us from animals (who often avoid close kin but do not seem to have a ‘taboo’) and hence is the start of human culture. And it is indeed true that, because it confuses the patterns of power and the flow of blood in the family, it is almost universally banned.

Yet most myths of origin tell of incest between brother and sister and it was relatively common in ruling dynasties such as the pharaohs of Egypt. There are even cases where many ordinary people married their true brothers and sisters and had children together, as in Roman Egypt.

The important thing to realize is that almost everyone during their life will be sexually attracted to someone else among their close relatives. The art is to understand this temptation, but not to give in to it either. As many have pointed out, the confusions caused by having sexual relations with a father, mother or sister or brother can cause very deep problems. Yet it is often the horror of others which turns a temporary and often minor deviation into something enormously destructive.

For example, the religious reformer Luther was told that through an accident a man had unknowingly impregnated his own mother and he was then asked whether those involved should be told of what had happened. This was a decision made all the more difficult because the young man had fallen in love with, and wanted to marry, the woman who was simultaneously his sister and his daughter. Luther advised that they should not be told and be allowed to marry.

How sacred is marriage?

In the majority of human societies in history people have had several wives or several husbands, or both. In other parts of the world it is the custom to marry only one person at a time, though in practice many people have several marriage partners, one after another. In Christianity, in particular, it is thought that, once married, a person should not have sexual relations with anyone but his or her partner. Adultery, a strangely old-fashioned sounding word nowadays, was a serious offence.

Again the attitudes and the statistics are in conflict. Twentieth century investigators thought that about half of married males had intercourse with women other than their wives during their marriages, and recent analyses of the DNA of new-born infants has suggested very high rates of children not being the real blood children of their supposed father.

It has been usual in almost all societies where there was a rule that sexual relations should be contained within the married pair for there to be a ‘double standard’. Men could have other liaisons, but if women did so they were in real trouble. This is particularly marked in a belt of societies which include many Catholic and Islamic nations, much of traditional India, China and Korea. A woman caught in adultery was to be driven out, or even stoned to death. A man was treated much more leniently.

What about masturbation?

A number of societies have looked on sex with oneself, masturbation, with horror. In the Christian Old Testament, it was called ‘the sin of Onan’, who ‘spilt his seed upon the ground’. In Victorian England it was often thought of as degrading and even medically dangerous – leading to blindness, loss of hair, even madness. This fear continued well into the twentieth century.

This is all rather peculiar. To start with, while those who masturbate may think that they are a lonely, perverted, minority, almost everyone does so at some point in their lives. A set of famous surveys in America in the twentieth century showed that over nine out of ten males and seven out of ten women masturbated to orgasm at some point. In early adolescence, the average was two and a half times a week among males, and it is very widespread among unmarried women.

Although I have never visited a real or virtual sex aids shop, I suspect that it would show the vast ingenuity of humans in dealing with a very widespread demand for self-gratification. With this near universality, it seems strange that it should have been so frowned upon.

Yet the horror is not universal. Anthropologists have found societies, for example in the Himalayas, with a much more relaxed attitude. In some societies boys or girls go out in groups and masturbate as a form of communal activity. In others there is no disapproval of the practice.

In Britain in the past, the pressures leading towards masturbation were very pronounced. People were forced to marry some ten years or so after reaching sexual maturity, many did not marry at all, yet there was a ban on sexual relations unless one was married. At the same time there was a strong attitude of horror. The result was a deep sense of guilt.

Is sex in the head or in the body?

Almost five hundred years ago the philosopher Montaigne noted how variable human culture is. He described how in one nation ‘if a tradesman marries, all the other tradesmen invited to the wedding anticipate him with the bride.. and yet in that place strict fidelity is recommended during marriage.’ Elsewhere ‘there are public brothels of males, and even marriages between them.’ In some countries ‘fathers lend their children, and husbands their wives, for the enjoyment of their guests, in return for payment.’ There were countries ‘Where a man may, without scandal, get his mother with child, and fathers consort with their daughters and sons.’ Anthropologists have discovered examples of all of these and many other variations which seem bizarre to us. This sets one wondering what, exactly, sex is about.

One of the strangest things about sex is that it seems to be as much a mental as a physical matter. We know that the powerful urge to mate is biological. Yet the object of our attention, what arouses us, seems to be so variable. In our own experience we know that we may be thinking of entirely different things when suddenly the curve of an image, the movement of an eye, the flash of a piece of flesh can quickly arouse us.

It is a recognition of the way our minds cannot control our bodies which suggested to the medieval church authorities that women should cover their hair in church in case members of the congregation, and, so it was alleged, even the angels, found their thoughts turning to lust.

Such a belief can be seen in the covering up of the bodies and faces of women in many parts of the world today. The incredible lengths to which societies have gone to put women into purdah or seclusion in many societies are well known. Sometimes they are walled in, to such an extent in upper class Korean families that the only chance women had to see outside the walls was to invent swinging and jumping games which gave them a swift glimpse of another reality. Sometimes, as with the millions of Chinese women whose feet were broken in childhood, they are crippled to prevent them from wandering off and becoming the objects of men’s lust.

Yet what modesty consists of is enormously variable. One of my favourite stories is of a nineteenth century American visitor to Japan. When he tried to help two young Japanese ladies over a fence, as he would have done in his country, they fled in embarrassed confusion. But when he came to the next town, he was called by them with great warmth to go into one of the communal bath houses where the naked young ladies were bathing totally at ease.

What becomes clear is that while the sexual drive is strong, it is almost entirely subject to the invisible mental categories which tell us what is attractive and what is not interesting. Sex is an appetite very similar to that for food. Some like steak, some like vegetables, I hate prunes and marmalade while you, Lily, like both.

It is the same with sex. Some fall in love with people much younger than themselves, some with rubber dolls, some with their pets or other animals. The extraordinary images we hear about on the internet have made us aware that even the most lurid fantasies of psychiatrists are dwarfed by the ramblings of human desire.

What attracts us and what is allowed is fairly arbitrary, but there are always rules. This is one reason why the anthropologist Robin Fox declared that ‘sex is in the head’, and it is why I would like to move on now to the last letter on a specific topic, namely the way in which our minds control us without our being able to do much about it. Let’s move from sex to money, time, space and language.

27. What makes us feel good?

Amidst all the numerous pressures, frustrations and injustices which I have described in these Letters, humans still survive and sometimes glory in their world. They create masterpieces and feel intensely. I will tell you in a different kind of letter of a few of the things I have discovered about the pleasures of our senses.

Our senses stir us to our greatest efforts and our greatest achievements. Yet they also entrap and ensnare us, lulling us, diverting us, overpowering us, compelling us away from freedom and creativity. Even the tools we create to heighten our enjoyment of them, styles in art, music, cooking and many arts and crafts can soon become cramping and inhibiting, creating ruts out of which it is almost impossible to escape.

Why does smell enchant us?

As I write this in late May our garden is filled with the scent of flowering honey-suckle and the first yellow roses are out as the lilac dies away. The Japanese tea-house in which I write has the memories of rich incense which we have burnt and the aroma of green tea. This evening the smell of onions and tandoori chicken will fill our house.

Smells give us a vast amount of pleasure, even if we are not as sharp-sensed as a dog or tiger. Developing the pleasures of smell, suddenly being wafted back to other places, times and people, all these enrich experience. They carry us in an instant across space and time. The smell of a particular herb takes me from the Philosopher’s Walk in Kyoto, Japan, to a hot terrace in the Nepal Himalayas in a fraction of a second.

The sense of smell has been developed more intensively in some cultures than others. An extreme case are the Japanese. In the eleventh century novel about Prince Genji there are frequent scent-guessing competitions. The Prince himself can be smelt well before he enters a room because of his particular exquisite mix of scents. The military rulers of Japan traditionally stored their wealth in precious incense sticks, rather than in gold. Apart from gold, the most precious gifts which the Kings could offer to the infant Jesus were frankincense and myrrh.

Yet we are hardly conscious of how smell affects us. Body smells of loved ones, newly cut grass, the smell of wood-smoke evocative of summer barbecues or winter bonfires, all these are parts of a rich tapestry of almost invisible pleasures. Likewise we are warned of danger by smells which disgust us, like those of rotten meat or faeces. Every age, every culture, every group selects from a repertoire to highlight certain smells. Even the Gods can be enticed by the smell of burning flesh or blood, of precious incense or sweet flowers.

Every society and civilization has its own smells, and the delight of travelling in India or China or South America is the new palette of smells that absorbs us. If you smell eucalyptus leaves or a salty breeze, you will be taken back to your childhood in Australia. Each reader will be able to reflect on the smells which instantly take him or her backwards; herbs, flowers, cooking or just the air, full of dust, earth smells or the fumes of buses and cars.

How has taste changed our world?

From infancy we are very aware of nice and nasty tastes and a great deal in between. Smell enhances taste, but perhaps less obvious is its connection to sight. This became apparent to me when a Japanese friend tried to explain the comparative virtues of Japanese and Indian cooking.

He said that ‘we Japanese eat food with our eyes’. The more elegant meals are beautifully presented, exquisite colours and arrangements on the plate or table. ‘Turn off the lights’, he said, ‘and eat it in the dark and much of the food is so delicate that it hardly tastes of anything’. It works by tricking our brain through associations. It is poetry on a plate.

On the other hand, to his way of thinking, an Indian curry was rather boring to look at. It consisted of a pile of white rice, with various brown sauces. Nothing to please the eye. Yet turn off the lights and eat it with one’s taste buds and nose, as it were, and it was really delicious.

Certainly the joys of taste are ones which can hardly be over-emphasized. Great civilizations have revelled in food and cooking. It is very easy to argue that the heart of Chinese culture is food, its preparation and eating. Or again, much of American culture is now carried around the world in its food and drinks, the hamburger and coke culture. Italy is for many a series of delicious pastas, the eastern Mediterranean various cooked meats and kebabs.

Other civilizations are known for their drink. The contrast between the two great religions of Europe is between the Catholic wine-drinkers of the south and the Protestant beer drinkers of the north. It is not difficult to argue that beer and the pub have long been one of the central identity markers of English culture, just as whisky is for the Scots, or sake for the Japanese.

The connection between Catholic cultures and wine reminds us that not only are food and drink among our greatest pleasures, but we project these pleasures onto the Gods. In almost all religions the chief offering is a sacred drink – wine, millet beer, rice wine – or food-stuff, bread, sacrificial meat. Like humans, the Gods delight in incorporating the material world through their mouths. Only a part of the pleasures we get from eating and drinking comes from filling our stomachs. Much of it is an expression of other things, including creativity, delight and fellowship.

How did a ‘nice cup of tea’ make all the difference?

I did not fully appreciate the significance of consumption and the importance of what we eat and drink until, with my mother, I wrote a book on just one small part of the vast array of foods and drinks, namely the history and influence of tea drinking. As I worked on this, I began to realize to what an extraordinary extent we are what we consume and our lives are shaped by our scarcely examined sense of taste.

In Japan, the introduction of tea drinking some six hundred years ago altered almost every aspect of life. It had a very deep influence on aesthetics, in particular pottery, but also architecture, painting and poetry. It influenced politics as the tea ceremony became a place where warring factions could meet. It fundamentally altered religion, for tea and Buddhism were inextricably mixed together. One cup of tea was worth an hour of Zen meditation.

Tea altered economics. The growing and exporting of tea was vital to the growth of the Japanese economy. The extra energy which the caffeine in the tea provided enabled the Japanese to work incredibly long hours. It deeply affected health, for the boiling of the water and the chemicals in the tea which destroyed bacteria almost eliminated water-borne disease. In sum, the ‘Way of Tea’ as it was called, and the ‘Japanese Way’ became almost identical. Tea was Japan, and Japan was Tea.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the Asian continent, when tea began to be imported in quantity into Britain in the early eighteenth century it also affected everything. It altered relations between men and women, parents and children, shopkeepers and customers. It changed the nature and timing of meals. It altered architecture, furniture, pottery, shipping, navigation. It helped make the industrial revolution possible through improving health and added to the ability of people to survive fatigue and poor food. It provided the secret weapon to sustain the creation of the largest Empire the world has ever seen. Without tea our modern world would be very different from what it is today.

This is just one substance. I might have rehearsed the history of sugar, potatoes, tobacco, beer, rice, herrings and many other foods or drinks. Each would show how far the culture of human beings is almost invisibly, but very powerfully, shaped by our sense of taste. The desire for pleasant sensations is, of course, manipulated through advertising and ‘market forces’.

How does touching affect us?

When you were little, you had a passion for ‘cuddly toys’ and spent hours stroking the cats, teddy bears and other little creatures which accumulated in a pile on your bedroom floor. You loved stroking things, moss in the lawn, hazel catkins, sand and smooth stones.

The textures of the world are infinite. The pleasures of running water through the fingers, the differences of wool, silk, cotton or velvet against the skin, there are so many ways in which half consciously we enjoy bodily contact with our environment. The poet Rupert Brooke’s lines about what he loved struck a chord with me many years ago:

‘Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon
Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss
Of blankets; grainy wood; live hair that is
Shining and free; blue-massing clouds; the keen
Unpassioned beauty of a great machine;
The benison of hot water; furs to touch’

There can be no doubt that we are touchy, feely, animals. The hugs, kisses, brushing and encounters with many surfaces through our lives gives us immense pleasure, not least in our sexual life. These pleasures are again very variable across time and culture.

What opens magic casements?

Humans are almost defined by their ability to articulate and interpret sound, particularly through language. Remove our vocal chords and we would never have flourished at all. The variations and importance of languages through history is immense. Two of the forms in which sound has given me particular pleasure are poetry and music.

It is difficult to over-estimate the degree to which the rhythms and rhymes of poetry and popular songs infiltrate our lives. I find that lines of poetry haunt me through every waking hour.

‘To cease upon the midnight with no pain’; ‘Drips wet sunlight on the powder of mine eye’; ‘Had I the heaven’ embroidered cloths’; ‘Surprised by joy, impatient as the wind’; ‘The glory jest and riddle of the world’; ‘With beaded bubbles winking at the brim’; ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’; ‘As numberless as leaves in Valambrosa’; ‘When the hounds of Spring are on winter’s traces’; ‘O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall, frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed’; ‘A green thought in a green shade’; ‘And drunk the milk of paradise’; ‘The savage wars of peace’ and a thousand other fragments (some of them no doubt slightly mis-remembered) echo through my life and give richness and consolation.

Without their cadences, and of course the accompanying worlds of plays, novels and other literature whose sounds echo in our minds even if we do not say them aloud, our life as humans would be immensely poorer.

What passions cannot music raise and quell?

The world of sounds where the words are subordinate to the sound itself, which we can roughly term ‘music’, is as rich as that of intellectual sounds. This may be the music of nature, bird song, water falling, a kettle boiling, the wind of autumn sighing through the trees, waves breaking on rocks. Yet the special human pleasure is composed music. Here, of course, there is an almost infinite variety, from ‘pop’ in all its variants, through ‘jazz’ to classical, east and west, north and south.

Music is indeed a very deep form of communication, entering us in a way which we cannot put into words. The melodies and harmonies affect us at the level of our animal being. Music moves us to feel the most powerful of emotions, hate, fear, jubilation, love and calm. We are both liberated and trapped by its entangling enticements.

Since it is so powerful, we believe we can trap and entangle others, in particular the Gods. For, as with taste and smell, it appears that the Gods share our enthusiasm for music. Not only, we are told, are there heavenly choirs, but the angels play trumpets and harps to please God

In particular, spiritual powers can be called by a distinctive sound; the deep note of a Tibetan horn in a Buddhist ritual, the bleat of a conch shell in a shamanic rite. Breaking continuous time with an abrupt sound is particularly effective in summoning the gods. Whether it is the clapping to attract the Shinto gods, the cymbals and drums used in many death rituals, the ringing of bells large and small in Christian churches, the cacophany of gongs, bells, drums and cymbals is central to much religious ritual.

What are the pleasures of the eye?

Humans are basically visual animals. Something like three quarters of what we absorb in the way of information about nature and other human beings comes into our brains through our eyes. It comes in as a mass of meaningless fragments of light, and then we start to interpret it. Although we do not have as powerful an eye as a hawk or fly, we far outstrip either because of the size of the brain which makes sense of what the optics gives us. We have the eyes of a predator, looking forwards. We notice very minute variations that stimulate our curiosity.

What to say of the pleasures of the eye? There is so much that I shall arbitrarily confine myself to just one form, painting. The pleasures of painting have grown on me over the ages, but they are obviously ones which have given you enormous happiness. I have watched and filmed you drawing and painting from a time before you could speak.

How do we learn to see the world so clearly?

Although I have become increasingly interested in looking at paintings, I did not think that I would ever come to write or think explicitly about the history and meaning of art. So it was a surprise to find myself proposing a new theory to answer part of the largest question in the history of artistic representation. This was how, after many centuries of symbolic, non-realist, art did some painters with their brilliance, realism and accurate perspective become intense mirrors of their worlds? What caused the Renaissance in western Europe and why had it only happened in that one small, relatively backward, part of the Asian land mass?

My attempt to answer some of these huge puzzles led me to read the major historians and critics of art. I began to understand a little of how, as children, we start by seeing the world quite clearly. Then, as we grow older, we are systematically taught to distort and bend the world, both as we perceive it and as we represent it, to fit into the current fashions.

Yet, for a magical moment, roughly between 1380 and 1450, the whole visualization of nature changed in one area of the world and the earth became bathed in a glorious light which is even richer than what we normally see with the naked eye. How did this technology of enchantment become so rich, and the world consequently become enchanted in a new way?

My suggestion is that it happened primarily because of the rapid development of the one substance on earth that has directly affected what we can see, namely glass. As Leonardo da Vinci wrote, ‘the mirror is the master of painters’ and the glass mirror started to alter western vision dramatically in the century up to the time he painted. It not only allowed proper self-portraits, but it changed the angle of vision on the world, disturbing our conventional views and allowing the painter to check what he saw against another exact image. It doubled reality.

Coloured glass in churches ‘stains the white radiance of eternity’ and panes of glass frame the world and make possible new ways of perceiving the world. Glass prisms and lenses were used in experiments to determine precise laws of perspective and allowed the artist-mathematicians to understand how light and the eye work. All these developments suddenly shocked one part of the world into a new way of seeing.

That shock and surprise only occurred in western Europe. It only occurred in areas where fine glass had developed and it did so at precisely the moment when glass manufacturing became far more sophisticated.

What is the garden of earthly delights?

The garden is one source of delight which brings together all the senses. It combines smell, touch, sound, taste and sight in a powerful and evocative way. My large rambling English garden full of roses, honeysuckle, fruits and trees is an example of this and it seems to me deeply natural. Yet I also know how very odd both its form and my intense feelings for it are.

People in many cultures appreciate gardens but they are often rather formal affairs and shortage of space or wealth makes it impossible for many to have a reasonable sized garden. The semi-wild garden is somewhat unusual. The English share the essential spiritual view of the irregular and ‘natural’ garden with the Japanese. Yet there is a marked contrast between the often miniaturized rock and pine gardens of Japan, the exquisite complexities of Chinese gardens, the formality of great French or Italian gardens and the tumbling pastoral woodland I have created. It is part of a wider difference in attitudes towards nature which has long intrigued me since I roamed the hills and woods of northern England as a boy.

I think the key to my English garden lies in the controlled confusion. Some have suggested that the love of artificial wildness was basically the result of the alienation caused by the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In reacting to the machines and daily horror of urban squalor the British were cut off from nature. Yet they simultaneously regarded it with all the more emotion. They broke the link with the natural world, but at the same time tried to create a deeper link. In order to gain peace and serenity, they began to worship nature. They artificially constructed nature, yet pretended that it was natural.

Personally I think that the mixture of manipulation and sentimentality, of calculative exploitation and uncalculating spontaneity, is much older than the eighteenth century. I believe that there is an unbroken tradition in the attitude to nature from the Anglo-Saxon period, through Chaucer and Shakespeare, up to Alexander Pope, the Romantics and the Pre-Raphaelites. Now we see the obsession with gardens in flower shows, garden centres and on the television.

This ambivalent attitude, the creation of an artificial feeling of the countryside, the garden cities, the parks and widespread tending of small plots, arises out of the tension of an unusual social structure. The English have invested their landscape with a strong commercial mentality and morality from the middle ages onwards. Nature has not been really wild or untamed for a thousand years. Yet to preserve oases of tranquility and non calculative, non-competitive, not over-rational space in the midst of all the daily bustle, the garden and the park were preserved as a space for feeling and spontaneity. There the human senses of smell, touch, hearing, tasting and above all seeing could be liberated and the body refreshed.

Certainly this is how I feel about my garden. After an exhausting day at committee meetings or teaching, of struggling through traffic or buying the week’s food, like many others I find the natural world a deep solace, a ‘haven in a heartless world’. Many find this restorative power in walking, mountaineering, deep sea diving, sitting on a river bank fishing. I find it in my garden, supplemented by walks up the reedy fen rivers or in the foothills of the Himalayas. Gardens and walking release the mind, allow us to become animals again for a brief moment in our over-cerebral existence.

Why do children delight?

Participating in the lives of children also mixes our senses and helps us shed the brittle shell of adult rationality for a while. Our own children are often a great source of joy, but also of ambivalence, strain, guilt, tiredness and confusion. They are too near us for unalloyed pleasure. My pleasure in children has reached its peak through the privilege of distance and closeness combined. I first learnt this pleasure amongst children in Nepal, and it has been repeated at an even more intense level in the pleasure of watching you, Lily, grow up.

It is difficult to say what is the ultimate source of this joy. Some of the ingredients are clear enough. You are certainly very beautiful and sometimes when the sunlight weaves into your hair or you look up with a startled smile, I suddenly see again the worlds of Cleopatra or Heloise. Certainly you are very clever and as I listen to you, discuss with you, or watch you solve problems or learn to paint or read, I am awe-struck at the complexity and brilliance of the human mind. Certainly you are full of humour and rumbustious fun and inventiveness and when you and Rosa used to pretend to fight and tumble I was reminded of so many childhood games and pretended terrors.

So, as we explore together the virtual world that hovers on the edge of this material life, the many imaginative territories you inhabit bring back another reality. I catch glimpses of my own childhood wanderings on Pook Hill, to Toad Hall, Narnia, the land of Hobbits, through Mowgli’s jungle. All these are deep pleasures which combine all my senses and momentarily transport me into another dimension of living.

So if I were to bring it all together I would say that amidst all the misery, fear, injustice and pain which I am explaining to you, I hope you will not forget moments when all this fades away into moments of innocent joy. It is when we bring all our powerful senses together, perhaps in a moment in the garden of earthly delights, perhaps when we encounter again the first Eve, that we triumph over despair.

So a moment when Lily danced to Handel, or when she sat in a pool of buttercups, or gravely took part in her first tea ceremony are the moments I treasure. These are, with similar moments with other friends and loved ones, what makes being human bearable. It is also what makes me want to write these Letters to you, Lily, for helping me to remind me of all this.

26. Why have children?

In an insecure political environment, the family group is often the only protection. The more children a person has the better. In an insecure social environment, the only people we can trust and be relaxed and honest with are close relatives. So the more relatives one has, the merrier. Having many children adds to a woman’s standing in the community and the increasing prestige of the group in general. It helps to overcome feelings of loneliness and isolation.

In most civilizations, much of economic production depends on human muscle power, so the more workers the better. Crises are frequent, sickness, accident, loss of home or livestock are always feared and in such crises only family can be depended on. A person spreads the insurance against risks by investing in people. This is far safer than hoarding money which can be stolen.

Family members are particularly essential as an insurance for old age where there are no pensions and few social services or hospitals. Without sons and brothers a man (or woman) is at high risk. All this encourages large families. The joys and pleasures of children is another attraction. There is also the biological drive and pleasure of sexual intercourse.

The desire to have as many children as possible is both reflected and re-enforced by the family and religious system. In most societies a great emphasis is put on the family line. The ancestors are important and still interested in their descendants. They require people to keep their shrines attended and a child (often a son) to carry through an effective funeral ritual.

Even God or the gods are concerned that a person has offspring. The fertility of animals, crops, humans and spirits all become intertwined. Continuation of the society and continuation of the family and individual are all linked in popular thought. The Chinese used to have a saying that ‘the lack of filial piety to one’s ancestors and family is seen in three ways, the first and most serious is having no child.’

Is it difficult to have many children?

Many infants die at birth, others in childhood, women in childbearing, men in work and war. In order to ensure even a couple of living male descendants, given such risks and the unpredictability of the sex of infants, a family will need to use every device available to maximize fertility.

Girls will be married off at, or before, sexual maturity. Those families which do not have the right number of heirs will adopt them from other kin. This is a world of enormous pressure on the individual and family to produce as many children as they can.

For thousands of years this pressure has been felt in the majority of human societies. It tends to produce large numbers of births balanced by high numbers of deaths. In good years births dominate, then a crisis occurs and the gains are wiped out by war, famine or disease. Despite this crisis, the family and the society, having built up a surplus, survives.

The fact that a number of these crises are partly precipitated by the preceding high fertility is not appreciated, or, if it is, seems unavoidable. Heirs are generated in excess to protect against crises which are partly caused by the over-production of heirs.

This is a situation we find almost everywhere in the past. It is a pattern of high birth and death rates which has profound implications. Any resource improvement, a new crop or technology, will almost inevitably soon be swallowed up by rapid population growth. A more precarious situation is the outcome. Yet, given the interlocking set of pressures, it is difficult to see how individuals or families can behave otherwise. Political alliances, social status and co-operation, economic production and religious merit, all are dependent on having large families.

Indeed, over time, the situation becomes more difficult. Any success in overcoming an obstacle will lead to greater population. This then feeds back into increased political risks, higher mortality from the diseases of crowding, a larger number of priests and elders to tell people that their spiritual salvation requires that they have many descendants. In particular, as more human labour becomes available, it characteristically becomes cheaper, driving out alternatives such as animals. Diet deteriorates as meat and milk are replaced by cereals, and the strain on the human body increases. More children to labour in the fields are needed.

Why have fewer children?

The puzzle is why people sometimes want fewer children. Some argue that there was a three stage sequence. In the first period, high numbers of births and deaths more or less balance each other. In the second period, the number of deaths falls dramatically. After a period of very rapid population growth there is a drop in the number of births. Deaths and births balance each other at a low level.

Reasons for the move to the final stage are crude but plausible. The number of deaths was reduced by external factors, a vaccination campaign or clean water drinking system in a Third World country, for example. After a few years of experiencing children surviving in larger numbers, people began to realize that they did not need so many in order to ensure heirs. So they limited their fertility.

Are there cases which do not fit?

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in a few parts of Europe such as Norway, Switzerland and England, people were not reproducing at the ‘natural’ level. Some were not having children at all, most women were marrying some eight to ten years after they had reached child-bearing age. All this in a period when there had been no obvious medical or sanitary revolution.

There is no real evidence that England ever had a high birth and death rate. Instead it seems that the number of children was controlled by rules which encouraged late and selective marriage. There is no evidence that, apart from the higher aristocracy, women married in their teens. On the other hand there is evidence throughout the ages of quite large numbers (perhaps up to a quarter) of women never marrying.

There was no possibility of legal adoption in English law until the later nineteenth century. There is no need for descendants to ensure a prosperous after-life and no worship of ancestors. There is no inspection of the bride to see if her child-bearing potential is unsullied. There is no special interest in having large families. Women’s status was not dependent on how many children (particularly sons) she had. Men’s power and authority did not depend on kin. Children were only of minor importance in crises or old age. Children were ultimately, as one person put it, ‘pretty things to play with’, an antecedent of modern consumer durables or pets.

What part did marriage play?

Whereas marriage and the maximum number of children are ‘natural’ in most societies, they have been turned into matters of choice and conscious weighing of advantages in England. There are arguments for and against getting married and we find them throughout English literature from the earliest fragments of poetry. These arguments are given particular expression in the system of romantic love which I described in another letter.

This peculiar and long-term English pattern which ties marriage to love and makes children an option, a cost as well as a benefit, is not easy to explain. The key lies in the way in which biology is linked to other forms of continuation of the society, that is to say the reproduction of power (politics), wealth (economics), spiritual status (religion). If all of these are closely linked together, then in order to reproduce them, the production of human beings will be emphasized. If there is little or no connection, an individual can decide whether he or she wants the pleasures of children.

Almost everywhere, the family is the foundation upon which society is built. Whether in India, China or elsewhere, much of the political, social, economic and ritual world is based on family ties. What is odd in the English case is the separation of these different spheres. The political and legal system, developed from Anglo-Saxon England onwards and maintained to this day, has not rested on the family but rather on abstract relations between those living within a state, subjects of the Crown. The political and legal security of the English was mainly guaranteed by contractual links and not by birth and blood.

There were few economic pressures to breed. As today, there was a downward flow of wealth through the generations. Children cost money and time to raise, train and marry off. Children are always costly, of course, but unlike almost everywhere else they could not then be depended on to return the expenditure. They, in turn, could not automatically expect to receive anything from their parents. At any point a parent could decide to leave his or her property to a chosen heir and, if necessary, exclude one or all of the children.

Nor was economic production based on family labour. There might be, as there are today, family firms. Yet the normal work force consisted of a group of fellow villagers, manorial tenants, apprentices or servants, hired workers. The work force was recruited on the basis of market forces, not family ties. There was no institution similar to that in China, India and many parts of Mediterranean Europe whereby parents and their married children, or one married child, jointly owned and produced as a family enterprise. Nor did brothers and their wives co-own and co-produce.

Once a person had left home or married he was economically, as well as politically, independent. Thus there is no evidence from Anglo-Saxon times onwards of those extended families which appeared over much of Europe in the later middle ages and which are the dominant form in Eastern Europe, China and India.

Finally, spiritual reproduction was not linked to the family. There might be family prayers or even, among the wealthy, a family chapel. Yet for the vast majority, and particularly after the Reformation of the sixteenth century, religion was largely a private matter. Christianity in general set its face against any acknowledgement of a link to dead ancestors. Even for the rich, the memorial services and feasts by descendants are not expected to bring blessings or avert wrath, but merely to be a thanksgiving and remembrance.

Heaven is not barred to those who do not have a son to light the funeral pyre (or instruct the crematorium attendant how to dispatch the dead). Parents are as little concerned with their children’s religious beliefs as they are with their political and economic opinions. The sins of the father are only indirectly visited on their children through loss of income or bad upbringing. The sins of the children are not visited on their parents.

This is unlike the situation in most societies. For instance, in ancient China nine generations of the family were to be executed for a serious crime of one member, often involving hundreds of individuals from the great grandfather’s generation down to the great-grandchildren of an accused individual.

With chastity so cherished by Christians, it seemed clear that God had little interest in whether a person has children. Indeed sexual intercourse and child-bearing are widely considered a second best, a fall from grace, a sometimes necessary but unfortunate effect of our fallen nature. If possible, abstain from sex and marriage; if not, then marry and have children, this is the message of Christianity.

How did choice become possible?

So the political, economic, social and economic worlds were split apart and dealt with by different institutions. The market as a separate institution with its own rules was already beginning to be developed in England over a thousand years ago. Political and legal life was also partially segregated, as were religious and ritual activities. Each had its rules largely independent of the family. The family gave comfort, companionship, meaning, love, childrearing support, as it does today. Yet it was not the building block out of which society was constructed.

Where society continues free of other pressures, people can respond in an unusual way to changing circumstances. If there are strong demands for human labour, reasonably paid jobs are plentiful, people are optimistic, there may be a rise in fertility as there was in the later eighteenth century in England. People feel that they can ‘afford’ to get married and have a child. In many ways child bearing was like house buying and the demand for mortgages. When the economy is booming and confidence is high, a house and children seem inviting.

On the other hand, when the economy is flat or in decline, or people start to prefer goods other than children, then the number of babies per family starts to drop. Consumerism may lead couples to prefer cars or holidays to children. Women may decide not to get married at all or to postpone marriage and child-bearing until some later date.

This is a very different attitude to that in the majority of societies where childbearing is encouraged for everybody. Yet it is an attitude which is sweeping across the world as part of the package of individualism, consumerism and capitalism. Many people now feel that they can only ‘afford’ only one or two children.

25. Why are we diseased?

The world, including the human body, is full of tiny organisms. When there are either too many or too few of them they can be harmful to humans. These include those without life such as viruses and prions, as well as the vast array of bacteria and similar living micro-organisms.

Some diseases are with us all the time, others suddenly sweep across the population. Endemic diseases, such as malaria, dysentery, leprosy or the common cold are present all the time. Epidemic diseases, such as influenza, measles, cholera and plague, burst out suddenly for a few months or years, then usually subside when their hosts have been destroyed.

There are four main ways in which major diseases spread. There are bacterial diseases which are carried into the body through the mouth, in contaminated food and drink. The various forms of dysentery, typhoid and cholera are examples. If we are to understand how these types of disease change over time, we need to look at human eating, drinking and cooking patterns and the ways in which human and other excrement is dealt with. A change such as eating a new foodstuff or installing a new sewage system can change the pattern of these diseases.

Then there are the vector-borne diseases which are ‘injected’ into parts of the human body by fleas, lice, mosquitoes, snails, flies and other insects. Major diseases are plague, typhus and malaria. These are affected by housing, clothing, footwear and bodily hygiene.

There are also diseases which spread through bodily contact. They include leprosy, venereal diseases and various skin and eye diseases. A new one is AIDS.

There are air-borne diseases, viruses that travel short distances when people cough or sneeze or just breathe; smallpox, measles, tuberculosis and influenza. These are very difficult to protect against, as are a number of other diseases whose causes are little understood, such as various forms of cancer.

Why do diseases become more deadly?

Early successes in increasing human resources in the past led to denser populations in large cities and a congested countryside. This would provide sufficient population density for viral infections such as influenza, smallpox or measles to be sustained and spread. It would also lead to the increased dirt and pollution of water supplies which would raise the levels of diseases such as cholera, typhoid and dysentery.

When war or famine occurred, the final death toll would largely be accounted for by the deaths from disease afflicting a weakened population. As the population built up, cities and towns would become slaughter-houses, gobbling up immigrants who died of the diseases of crowding.

Until very recently this seemed an inevitable tendency. Human populations could only reach a certain density before automatically creating a situation where numbers were cut back again by one disease or another. The rise and fall of ancient civilizations, as well as the collapse or stationary state of many European and Asiatic societies at various times in the last thousand years, can be accounted for by the ravages of disease. No escape from this pattern seemed possible.

Did we have to wait for modern medicine?

Many aspects of the history of the rise and fall of diseases up to the present are still a mystery, but one or two things are plain. There seems to be a dramatic improvement in health in England from about the middle of the eighteenth century. One feature of this was the disappearance of recurring bouts of plague.

By 1750 it seemed clear that both in England and western Europe as a whole plague had disappeared bringing an end to constant anxiety about this horrific disease. Yet no one really knows why plague suddenly vanished within about ten years after 1665.

The fact that bubonic plague vanished within a few years over all of western Europe suggests that the disappearance cannot have been caused primarily by a change in the type of rat (black to brown) which in any case occurred fifty years after the decline. Nor is it possible that all over Europe there was a dramatic change within a few years in the nature of the fleas or the bacillus, housing conditions, standards of living, clothing, climate or any of the other reasons usually put forward.

Some of these may have helped. Yet the only plausible pan-European explanation is that the periodic entry of plague through shipping from Turkey, was prevented by quarantining ships when they arrived in west European ports.

Another significant change in England was the rapid decline of malaria. It was noted that in 1700 about one in twenty of the London population died of malaria. By 1800 malaria was unknown as a cause of death in the city. The previously heavily malarial regions of East Anglia and the Kentish and Sussex marshes were no longer centres of danger.

Again we do not really know why this happened. The explanation that it was due to improved drainage, better houses, or changes in animal husbandry is not convincing. All that is certain is that while southern Europe and particularly Italy were becoming more malarial, England became almost free of this disease in the eighteenth century.

A third change concerned smallpox. Smallpox did not disappear, and there is much argument about whether early vaccination had any positive effect. But it certainly infected and killed different people. By the 1750’s smallpox mainly affected children and in many cases did not kill them.

Why did fewer babies die?

Dysentery, along with malaria, is the greatest killer in history. One of the main ways harmful micro-organisms enter the human body is through the mouth, particularly in the two to four pints of liquid which every human has to absorb daily in order to stay alive. A couple of pints of liquid could contain enough dysentery bacteria to kill the inhabitants of a small city. Almost all liquids which humans drank in the past, particularly milk and water, were contaminated.

People with dysentery evacuate the micro-organisms in their faeces, these then pass onto hands and clothing and, in particular, enter the water supply. Others become infected. At least half the infant deaths in most societies in the past were caused by infant diarrhoea which de-hydrates the body.

As a population grows denser it will pollute the water supplies with human excrement. London, a city which had grown hugely in the eighteenth century, was a classic example and dysentery rates should have been soaring as it grew in size. Yet from about the 1740’s there had been a reversal of this trend. Mortality from dysentery had risen until nearly the middle of the century and then, suddenly started to fall. This meant that the largest city on earth enjoyed relatively low rates of infant and adult dysentery. This was one of the greatest reversals in human history. How had it been achieved?

Again we do not know for certain. All that we do know is that all the conventional explanations, that it was due to improvements in medical knowledge, in hospitals, in the treatment of disease, or changes in the nature of bacteria, in the food supply, in public sanitation and hygiene and in housing are unsatisfactory. Many of them did not occur at all. Those that did were not powerful enough to explain the change.

What did people drink?

What we need to do in solving the problem of this escape from the dysentery trap is to ask what the English were drinking from the 1740’s. If they had been drinking water, then a rise in dysentery (in the absence of water purification and proper sanitation) would have been the result. In fact the majority of the people did not drink water. In England the normal drink had become tea.

Tea became the staple drink of the English in the middle of the eighteenth century. The boiling of the water to make tea killed many of the dangerous amoebae and bacteria. Furthermore, the tea contained a substance called tannin (phenolics) which is one of the most powerful anti-bacterial agents known to man. Typhoid, cholera and dysentery bacilli when placed in even a cold cup of tea will be destroyed within a few hours. When people drink tea they wash out their mouths and stomachs, ingesting not only a sterile liquid (because of the boiling) but also a powerful anti-septic.

The Japanese, and before them for some centuries the Chinese, had benefited from this. The British began to enjoy the healthful effects of tea from the middle of the eighteenth century. It was largely an accidental benefit, for tea was mainly drunk for its taste and invigorating effects. Yet the accident led to the escape from one of the apparently unavoidable death traps. Even infants, drinking the phenolic-infused milk of their mothers, benefited from the practice.

What other reasons are there for the decline of disease?

England did not suffer from any successful large scale foreign invasions for almost a thousand years. It did not endure totally devastating civil wars. Famine and food shortage were less severe than in most agricultural societies. The standard of living for the majority of the population was well above subsistence level. This meant that many people in England in the past, at least compared to rural workers in many civilizations were relatively well fed, clothed, housed and did not overstrain their bodies in manual labour.

Thus, through a set of interconnected, and often accidental, features, the normal tendency to more sickness as population grows was temporarily avoided. This was not through a triumph of medical science or the accident of bacteriological or climatic change. It seems largely to have been the side effect of social, economic and political institutions which had created an unusually stable, modestly affluent, and well regulated population.

The English could still be subject to new diseases, for example cholera and influenza, just as we are subject to AIDS today. Yet England was starting to escape from an almost universal path. This path had always in the past meant that the efficiencies created by a larger number of people living close together in cities and small towns led to a health disaster.

The modern rise in population transformed a sickly, war-ridden, famine-prone world of half a billion into our present situation. In theory, it is possible for twelve times that number to live in relative peace and plenty (though perhaps only half of the world’s population actually do so). This was unimaginable in 1750. Yet it has happened. The first phase of this had occurred in England by 1800. The second would follow from the later nineteenth century when a true understanding of micro-organisms and effective treatments for many of the major killers were developed.

Yet the story is far from over. The spread of many new diseases (AIDS, SARS, MRSA), the return of old ones (malaria, tuberculosis) and the growing resistance to antibiotics reveals the continuing struggle between species. Humans are predators on many other species. They are also an easy prey for the microbes.

There is still enormous suffering from disease. Better food, better water supplies and better sewage systems, which could be installed throughout the world for a tenth of the cost of current production of weapons of war, would halve the rates of many types of illness. An observer from another planet might be puzzled. As a species we prefer to put our resources into threatening and killing each other rather than devoting our attention to alleviating the pain which blights millions of people in their disease-soaked lives.