Sunday, 31 December 2006

1:5 Reading this blog

I was always taught to read books from the start to the end, and with equal attention to all parts. I was therefore very surprised to come across a remark by the philosopher Francis Bacon who suggested that ‘Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested’. This applies equally well to the individual letters here.

Some you will find are already largely familiar or seem simple, and can be skimmed through. Others are deceptive. I’ve tried to keep the expression of the ideas as clear as possible. Yet beneath the surface there are often concepts which are quite complex and may be totally unfamiliar. They take time to absorb. In some letters read slowly and just read one letter and no more. The ideas are very condensed; like powder or liquid, let them mix in your mind and expand outwards.

There is obviously no need to read the letters in the order in which they appear in the blog. Start with whatever question most interests you and dot around. As a new puzzle or query occurs to you, see if I’ve written about it. You may also sometimes find it helpful to read a letter, then read other things or talk round it with friends, and then re-read it later when it will have a different meaning.

Although this looks like just another set of thoughts summarizing things, I hope it will be more than that for you. I want it to be a companion on future mental walks. Together we can explore the world in a continuing conversation long after I am old or dead. I would like to continue our walks through the woods, over the hills, along the rivers and through gardens and museums. And if you are not Lily, and I have never, and perhaps will never meet you, I hope to be your virtual companion all the same.

1:4 How lucky, yet sometimes sad, you are...

We often take this present world and our own lives for granted because it is all around us. It is difficult to imagine any other. You may believe that the science you learnt at school, the tools you use in your house, the paintings you look at, the language you speak, the wealth, freedoms and rights you enjoy are ‘natural’ and ‘universal’. It’s difficult not to believe that our world was bound to end up like this and it is the natural thing. Yet is this the case?

The visitor from the distant planet would certainly not think you were normal when set against people around the world in the past and present. You are not typical at all. If you were, you would be married and would very soon have several children. Your marriage would have been arranged and romantic love would not have been the basis for choice. You would have spent your childhood from the age of five or six working in the fields.

Now you would be trying to cope with your pregnancy and also spend many hours slaving in the cold and wet or heat and dust. You would be sick almost all the time, suffering from worms in your stomach, septic sores, coughs, diarrhoea. Probably you would have had other more serious diseases such as malaria, or AIDS. Many of your close relatives would have died when you were a child.

You would lead a desperately insecure life. Powerful people would constantly be demanding things from your family. Marauding soldiers might often be causing havoc in your village. You would have no protection from the law. You would be malnourished and often very hungry. You would be uneducated and with no chance of bettering your life. You would be considered inferior to every male you met, including your younger relatives. You might well be shut away behind a wall or a veil, your feet broken when you were a child or your genitals mutilated. You get the picture.

Then think of yourself. You have education, lovely clothes, good food, doctors, dentists and hospitals freely available, loving parents, political and religious freedom. You do not have to slave with your body and you can choose what you want to do in your life, when and whom you will marry, whether to have children. You believe you are equal to any man and that you will live to a ripe old age, benefiting from a pension in a country where there are no secret police and no extortionate landlords to live off you. Above all, you live in peace and free from serious violence and fear.

Yet even with all this, you are often anxious, lonely, confused, undecided about what to do. I hope these Letters will give you a new understanding of the ever-so-human an animal that you are, quite special but with all the fears and uncertainties that are part of being us, the people of one smallish planet circling a dying sun.

1:3 Are there any patterns in this crazy world?

We know from everyday experience that, while we cannot absolutely predict the future, we can make fairly useful guesses which usually turn out to be roughly accurate. If there were no patterns in the past that continued into the future all of the existence of humans and other animals on earth would be impossible. It is on the basis of what we have established about human motivation and what we have seen in the pattern of past events that we make endless decisions, big and small. There are no invariable laws, but there are likelihoods and tendencies.

You and I expect to hear the fish and chip van on a Wednesday evening – and it almost always comes. You couldn’t undertake the smallest action, from eating a meal to playing a game or riding a bicycle, if this predictability based on past patterns recurring, could not be relied upon.

In these Letters I would like to try to describe some of the patterns that I believe I have found. I hope that you will then be able to stand on my shoulders and see further than I have. This is not easy. It is undoubtedly true that, as the poet John Keats wrote, ‘Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced’. It is practically impossible to imagine what love or hunger are like until you have experienced them. Yet I hope that if you have this book beside you as the experiences occur, it may help to put them into context and to make you aware that you are not alone.

Since both you and I, Lily, are British, the focus is often on our particular experience and history. Some may think that there are times when I extol the virtues of British civilization too highly. Yet since I sincerely believe that the story happened in the way in which I tell it, I have left the apparent bias as it is.

Furthermore, I want you Lily to know something about your roots. These can only be explained by drawing attention to some of the oddness of British history. And I believe this is important to others too. For, by chance much of the modern world went through the funnel of British history. A great deal was contributed from all over the world, but by chance Britain became the largest Empire on earth at just the time when the industrial and scientific revolutions were shaping our modern world. This has left its stamp not only on America, Africa, Australia and India, but on many other places.

1:2 Who I am and what these blogs are.

As your grandfather I would like to help you to understand this confused and confusing world. Since I will not be here for ever, it is important to put something on paper for you now.

I have spent my life as a historian and anthropologist trying to understand how the world works. I have written many academic books. However, as I get older, I have become increasingly interested in trying to understand and explain the bigger picture in a simple and more concise way.

I write from a particular viewpoint, that of an elderly, white, British, male, academic. Yet I hope I have escaped enough from these limitations to say something that applies more widely. Furthermore I am writing to a specific person, you my grand-daughter, an English girl. You are now only seven, but I imagine you in ten years time. Yet, though this is specially for you, I hope people who are older and younger than you, and of other countries and backgrounds, will also be able to appreciate what I say. For I would like Spanish, French, Russians, as well as Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Americans and others to be able to compare their experience to yours.

I have deliberately written the letters quickly and without referring to lots of books. It seems best to speak as directly as I can from my experience. So there are bound to be gaps and there are ideas which you will question. These are personal letters written to tell you what I feel and think about certain issues. They are based on a lifetime of travel in Europe and Asia, teaching several generations of students in Cambridge University, reading and writing about the past and the present.

I can fit these thoughts into a set of short letters because, in the end, there are just two questions behind all of them. The first is what are humans really like? Are they basically violent or kind, selfish or social, creative or dull? The second is what are the origins and what is the nature of the world we live in?

1:1 Why humans are so contradictory

Let’s imagine what a visitor from some distant planet would think of human history. Let us look down on the museum of human history from afar, with you, Lily, as one of the exhibits.

The visitor would almost certainly conclude that humans are very topsy turvy. They are obviously just animals, yet they seem to think that they are special. They cannot decide whether to prefer their minds or their bodies. They cannot decide whether to prefer their senses or their thoughts. They think of themselves as immortal, yet they die. They think of themselves as lords of creation, yet they are a prey to very many other species. They have excellent minds, but this just leads them into folly and unreason. They claim to be the sole judges of truth, but spend much of their time lying. They are loving, yet they spend much time hating and undermining each other.

Humans are co-operative creatures, yet they are also intensely selfish. They can create great art, but leave the world an ugly mess. With their amazing technologies they generate great wealth, yet most of them live in degrading poverty. They enjoy peace but constantly kill. They strive to be equal, yet invent and sustain endless inequalities between classes, religious groups, men and women. They preach tolerance and understanding, yet they torture each other for their beliefs.

The distant observer might well be confused, agreeing that ‘Man is an embodied paradox, a bundle of contradictions.’ Especially puzzling is the huge gap between human potential, the ability to make a rich, lovely and fulfilling life on earth and the actual miseries human beings create for themselves and other species.