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.
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, www.letters2lily.com , 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 (www.alanmacfarlane.com) 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.