All the things I meant to do

I made a list, of those things I could get done during the lockdown. Not much has been ticked off. I did the DIY, or some of it. I never got round to writing a book but I did find some old chapters I wrote years ago when someone told me that everyone has a book inside them, and I decided that I do have a book inside me – and it should stay there.

I was going to start learning Russian – if someone is thinking of shooting at you, I should know what to yell back so Russian seemed sensible, and easier than Chinese. I might get back to Greek again instead (in case I meet Aeschylus on the street one morning). I haven’t though.

The lockdown is ending, praise be, and that end-of-holiday feeling is creeping in. I know there are things I should have done. It is not a holiday though and I am working, but with gaps, and without the commuting time to take me back and forth.

That list sits beside my keyboard, glaring at me.

I meant to read more. In fact I seem to read less – no time on a train to open a book. I meant to write up a complex report, which is the sort of thing I do for fun, but there is always something more interesting to do.

One thing I could do to make more time is not to write long blog posts.

Ah well. Now, where was I? Reading, yes: Как легко, доктор, быть философом на бумаге и как это трудно на деле!

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Scarcely a street, too few houses

Silence, even in the edge of the suburb. There’s a big town nearby, but R S Thomas comes back to me again, the silent village. “This last outpost of time past”.

I am as far from Lleyn as I could be in space and form but not maybe in mood. Here the once busy local streets (never called streets here – too urban a word – but no shortage of houses), are silent as of the tarmac were no more than one “that leads nowhere and fails at the top”.

I wander in my mind back to those little places, scarcely villages, which the poet wandered amongst, away from any road, where I automatically, without thinking switched to speaking in Welsh, before realising that I don’t actually speak Welsh enough to complete a coherent sentence, but there is no other way to speak of the bracken-clad hillsides wandering down in their own time to the cliff and the inevitable sea.

There are houses here, and neighbours, and the way between the one tavern and the one shop, both shuttered, but stillness in the way.

So little happens; the black dog
Cracking his fleas in the hot sun
Is history. Yet the girl who crosses
From door to door moves to a scale
Beyond the bland day’s two dimensions.

Take me back to Lleyn and its embracing sea.

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Mill, Calvin and Hobbes

John Calvin, and Calvinism, have drawn many interpretations, few recognisable to the Great Reformer himself. Our vision is shaped by the sight of dour ministers of the Kirk pronouncing thundering condemnations from the pulpit, and those schismatic free churches which shake the dust of their feet when they leave divide from the Church of Scotland and its over such matters as scandalously allowing music in worship. The word “Calvinist” is associated with joylessness and Christianity stripped to bare essentials.

However in theological terms Calvinism is just one of the branches of the Reformation, sitting beside Lutheranism. The Thirty-Nine Articles which define the doctrine of the Church of England, with its robed priests and mitred bishops, is Calvinist.

John Stuart Mill in On Liberty wrote of his idea of it:

It is so, on the Calvinistic theory. According to that, the one great offence of man is self-will. All the good of which humanity is capable is comprised in obedience. You have no choice; thus you must do, and no otherwise: “whatever is not a duty, is a sin.” Human nature being radically corrupt, there is no redemption for any one until human nature is killed within him. To one holding this theory of life, crushing out any of the human faculties, capacities, and susceptibilities, is no evil: man needs no capacity, but that of surrendering himself to the will of God: and if he uses any of his faculties for any other purpose but to do that supposed will more effectually, he is better without them. This is the theory of Calvinism; and it is held, in a mitigated form, by many who do not consider themselves Calvinists; the mitigation consisting in giving a less ascetic interpretation to the alleged will of God; asserting it to be his will that mankind should gratify some of their inclinations; of course not in the manner they themselves prefer, but in the way of obedience, that is, in a way prescribed to them by authority; and, therefore, by the necessary condition of the case, the same for all.

….

It may be better to be a John Knox than an Alcibiades, but it is better to be a Pericles than either; nor would a Pericles, if we had one in these days, be without anything good which belonged to John Knox.

He got it wrong – he hits the mark on how many ministers treated morals, but that is not Calvinism, properly defined. The idea Mill identifies is “whatever is not duty is sin”, and duty is in the eyes of the minister. There is no such doctrine in the Scriptures. I have not read in intense detail Calvin’s own Institutes of the Christian Religion, but though it frequently mentions duty, and it certainly emphasises the total depravity of mankind (with which Thomas Hobbes would not dissent), I can see no suggestion that he believed that a Christian must follow a script – he contradicts it.

The problem, the prescriptive idea, comes from after Calvin- from a distortion brought by fanatics so convinced of the reform that they wanted to take it further, like riding to the destination and then riding fast beyond it and away from it.

Hobbes lived through the Puritan revolution. He observed:

these took upon them not only a Divine right, but also a Divine inspiration. And having been connived at, and countenanced sometimes in their frequent preaching, they introduced many strange and many pernicious doctrines, out-doing the Reformation, as they pretended, both of Luther and Calvin; receding from the former divinity or church philosophy (for religion is another thing), as much as Luther and Calvin had receded from the pope; and distracted their auditors into a great number of sects, as Brownists, Anabaptists, Independents, Fifth-monarchy-men, Quakers, and divers others, all commonly called by the name of fanatics

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Propitiating the gods, like the Romans

We have come a long way since the Enlightenment, but much of it is backwards. The philosophers of that age, both the wise and worthy and the dunce and disgraceful, believed that an age of reason would enwrap humanity, but they forgot that humanity is necessarily human and of the same clay that first looked with new eyes over his lone, primaeval Eden.

We accept rulers but we want to hear the feet of God walking in the garden, or since that is to terrifying, any little gods to make it all go away. We expect our rulers to entreat these plaster gods by whatever ceremonies and incantations are required; certain forms of words to be spoken on any topic, or requiring us to bang pans at 8 pm on a day so instituted. Who the new Numa Pompilius is, receiving these ceremonies at Egeria’s spring, I have not determined, but there is public expectation that these things must be done, all in proper form and order, failing which disaster will befall us all. Reason and measure have no place here.

To a classically educated Prime Minister, as we have today, it must all seem familiar.

Hobbes wrote:

“The Designes Of The Authors Of The Religion Of The Heathen And therefore the first Founders, and Legislators of Common-wealths amongst the Gentiles, whose ends were only to keep the people in obedience, and peace, have in all places taken care;

“First, to imprint in their minds a beliefe, that those precepts which they gave concerning Religion, might not be thought to proceed from their own device, but from the dictates of some God, or other Spirit; or else that they themselves were of a higher nature than mere mortalls, that their Lawes might the more easily be received: So Numa Pompilius pretended to receive the Ceremonies he instituted amongst the Romans, from the Nymph Egeria: and the first King and founder of the Kingdome of Peru, pretended himselfe and his wife to be the children of the Sunne: and Mahomet, to set up his new Religion, pretended to have conferences with the Holy Ghost, in forme of a Dove.

“Secondly, they have had a care, to make it believed, that the same things were displeasing to the Gods, which were forbidden by the Lawes.

“Thirdly, to prescribe Ceremonies, Supplications, Sacrifices, and Festivalls, by which they were to believe, the anger of the Gods might be appeased; and that ill success in War, great contagions of Sicknesse, Earthquakes, and each mans private Misery, came from the Anger of the Gods; and their Anger from the Neglect of their Worship, or the forgetting, or mistaking some point of the Ceremonies required.

“And though amongst the antient Romans, men were not forbidden to deny, that which in the Poets is written of the paines, and pleasures after this life; which divers of great authority, and gravity in that state have in their Harangues openly derided; yet that beliefe was alwaies more cherished, than the contrary.

“And by these, and such other Institutions, they obtayned in order to their end, (which was the peace of the Commonwealth,) that the common people in their misfortunes, laying the fault on neglect, or errour in their Ceremonies, or on their own disobedience to the lawes, were the lesse apt to mutiny against their Governors. And being entertained with the pomp, and pastime of Festivalls, and publike Games, made in honour of the Gods, needed nothing else but bread, to keep them from discontent, murmuring, and commotion against the State.

“And therefore the Romans, that had conquered the greatest part of the then known World, made no scruple of tollerating any Religion whatsoever in the City of Rome it selfe; unlesse it had somthing in it, that could not consist with their Civill Government; nor do we read, that any Religion was there forbidden, but that of the Jewes; who (being the peculiar Kingdome of God) thought it unlawfull to acknowledge subjection to any mortall King or State whatsoever. And thus you see how the Religion of the Gentiles was a part of their Policy.”

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Out to the blue remembered hills

Ordered to exercise. That’s what it comes down to, and I am happy to comply. All that “stay at home” has a big proviso – “go out to exercise once a day”. Fortunate to live where the countryside still laps the lanes, I can head out far to the blue remembered hills, or at least the country lanes threading between the farms – this is not Housman country.

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

Oh, but I can come again, and will do so. Those days I have spent on distant hills, basking in the closer sun or the driving sleet are what I dream at night, but closer to home I have the happy highways where I went when first treading the parish, and now I can go there every day finding new ways, commanded indeed to do so. No more the hours wasted in commuting to London, yet awhile, and the evenings drawing longer and opening those remembered lanes where I could not tread during the working week.

I have never walked so much in the week in all my life.

Yes, it is a pity that the whole kingdom has to go bankrupt just so I can stretch my legs. I just will not think about that.

The same paths are coming up again and again, but there are new twists and combinations, and maybe I can find new ways through to further and more exotic paths as I go, or run the path one day instead of walking it. There is a small but steep hill too, up from the river – if I climb that enough times it will be the equivalent of Ben Nevis.

This sounds too much like gloating. I resisted the clamours directed at me to fix my abode in the city and I live where these walks are possible from my own doorstep. Most do not – they live clustered in flats and townhouses with no escape from humanity swirling about around them, in the close, plague-ridden city stepping out straight into the crowd. London is quiet, but never far from anyone. We who are more fortunate in these times should not criticise those who live in gardenless apartments and grasp their last lot of freedom in the parks and riverside.

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Books