Quarrel of a dying empire poisoning modernity

The chasm between philosophies began in the dying days of Rome, and we have never escaped them, nor do we seem any closer to escaping them, as the same ideas reappear generation after generation, most pernicious in prosperous times.

I wrote before on The Noble Savage, Caliban, and Hobbes, and made passing mention of Augustine and Pelagius, whom Anthony Burgess made the architypes of the division, but who were they?

Pelagius was a preacher from Britain who taught in the late fourth and early fifth centuries; his name might originally have been ‘Morgan’ or similar, turned into Greek for the benefit of the Roman world. He has for sixteen centuries been condemned as a heretic. We know little of his writings, as it has come through the filter of his enemies.

Augustine of Hippo was one of the great doctors of the early church. Born in Hippo in North Africa, he studied in Carthage: his complex life is set out in his autobiographical Confessions, but he rose to be the most respected theologian of his time and is still highly regarded by all churches. In fact, even his non-theological writings pondering on such things as the nature of time, of sense, of the workings of the brain, were way ahead of their time, showing an intelligence working against the restraints of contemporary knowledge.

Pelagius who appeared to say that a man or woman may reach perfection on his own. It may be that he taught that perfection is reached by following rules – that is one version which comes down to us. It is most commonly related that he taught that man stripped of all else and in his own nature is good, and simply corrupted by society. Either one appears to render Christ’s sacrifice, and all his teaching, pointless. That latter conclusion is the point on which theological arguments hung, but the ideas behind it as as relevant today.

Augustine taught that man stripped of all else and in his own nature is sinful, evil, and to be redeemed of his original sin he must receive forgiveness from God, which is a free gift of grace, made possible by Christ’s sacrifice of himself. That is Protestant Christian doctrine in a nutshell.

Ultimately, Augustine triumphed, man’s animal nature was accepted as scripture sets out and Pelagius was declared a heretic. He disappears from the record about 410, when Alaric the Goth took Rome and Britain was lost to the Empire. Pelagian doctrines were popular – who does not want to be told that he is good really and someone else its to blame for his wickedness? However they were suppressed in the Empire. In the heretic’s native Britain though, newly ‘Brexited’ from the Roman Empire, Pelagianism flourished apparently until the mission of St Germanus which is obscured in hagiography and even Arthurian legend.

This is more than a dispute for ecclesiastical councils: the idea of man as perfectible has immense implications for public policy if it is believed. It is nonsense though: Augustine is right that man is inherently sinful, and that has its implications for shaping law and practice

A third wheel comes into this: the Sicilian Briton (whose name is not known). He wrote at the same time as Augustine of Hippo and Pelagius were disputing. Like Pelagian, the man was British and they may have met, both being in Sicily for a time. The Sicilian Briton wrote pamphlets claiming that the cause of poverty was inequality, and he concluded that “abolish the rich and you will find no more poor”. He had no idea of the dynamics of finance; that to share a cake, you cannot start by removing the baker and to fill the pockets of labourers you cannot remove their employers or the motive for their work. The “abolish the rich” idea is the most foolish and dangerous fallacy, and it was about as the Roman Empire was about to fall to the free-enterprising Goths. If the bright young things of Corbyn’s Momentum think they have a modern policy, no: it is sixteen centuries old, and as wrong then as it is now.

Today, the choice of many policies depends on the policy-maker’s ideas of how people will react: if all condemnation of society is removed and a man or a woman is handed opportunity without responsibility, will they use it altruistically as Pelagius might imagine of the man good at heart, or abuse it for personal gratification, as Augustine, and Hobbes, would assert? If a state body takes control of an activity, will the civil servants left in charge act benevolently for the benefit of the public, or lazily or corruptly as Augustine and Hobbes would suggest? In prison policy, do we treat prisoners with a light touch and let them calm down to come to their natural goodness, or break their arrogance with force and give them a rigid social structure as the only way to bring some goodness out in them? In every case Augustine of Hippo, and Hobbes of Malmesbury, win.

Conservatism generally accepts that mankind is flawed and only a stable, supportive social structure can channel the natural instincts of man. Socialism is the opposite, being based on two late-fourth century British fallacies, namely the Pelagian idea of inherent goodness, and the Sicilian Briton’s idea that wealth causes poverty.


Fifty years on, and the frontier is open

Fifty years ago, on 20 July 1969, an achievement now almost unimaginable greeted mankind: the first man to step upon the Moon. The complexity, the lack of room for error, and the precision of calculation which enabled it, are astounding, as are the courage and the confidence of the men who made it happen.

Ours is a timid age which is taught to despise risk or novelty or achievement for achievement’s sake. Those first steps by Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin on the surface of the Moon are of another age alien to our, and which though it was fifty years ago were far in advance of our everyday society.

However engineers have since those days advanced their art far beyond what was available in the 1960s, and although nothing as breathtaking has been done since the last Apollo mission left the Moon, rockets to orbit are now commonplace and there are new entrepreneurs making new ways into space which may one day surpass the achievements of those Americans in 1969.

There has never since been a rocket anything like the size of the Saturn V which Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins to the Moon, and the Apollo astronauts who followed them, because there has been no need for one: space launches are mainly to low-Earth orbit, with small satellites sent to the higher geo-stationary orbit. The launches to Mars and beyond have been by light probes, requiring less lift and not needing to support the life of a crew. However, ultimately it is a matter of scaling up, and when Elon Musk put a Tesla car in a Falcon Heavy rocket to send it around the Sun, he set a new standard, and practically declared war on the old, limited way of thinking. The new space race is not just for government agencies.

The major government and multi-government agencies have done well – the European Space Agency in spite of the lumbering bureaucracy has actually achieved great things, by leaving the engineers to get on with it. Monopolies though cannot achieve anything beyond what they plan for, and the disruptors have stopped biting at their ankles and started beating them.

Britain has always had an honourable place in space developments, but Britain could do nothing during the space race – the land was so incompetently governed and impoverished by it all that only one satellite was ever successfully launched in a solely British project. Those days are past though. A British project, Skylon, may revolutionise satellite launches and lead the way to further advances. A new spaceport is being built in Sutherland with capability for rocket and spaceplane launches in the specification.

Before we go too far though, we can look at developments in the Commonwealth: India is many years ahead, and the opportunities and expertise in Canada and Australia are astounding. Elon Musk of course is South African. A Commonwealth co-operation begs to be tried.

When Harold Wilson appeared on television in 1969 to congratulate the Americans for their success in landing men on the Moon, he was leading a hopeless, impoverished country further into poverty and hopelessness, and he knew that Britain could not even dream of matching the achievement. That is no longer the case. When the first man, or woman, sets foot on Mars, it is possible that he will be one born and bred under a British heaven and sent their by his fellows, or by the best from around the Commonwealth. The shadow of the last fifty years should not convince us that another nation is inevitably the leader but inspire us to our own achievements and even to surpass that which was done n those days.



4IR: understanding and fear

Alan Mak MP recently wrote a series of articles on Conservative Home about the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, which its aficionados dub ‘4IR’.  The excitement and the possibilities echo through the whole piece.  The IT revolution is exciting and inviting of innovation that has transformed life as we could not have imagined not just in my lifetime but the last decade, and the next leap can make new transformations we can barely imagine.

It is a promise of the future but also the reality of the present:  we are deep within the ‘third’ industrial, revolution, the computer revolution, and ‘4IR’ is all that follows or might potential follow from it: beyond apps to artificial intellegence, robots, synthetic biology, ‘the internet of things’, augmented reality, biohacking, and more we cannot yet conceive across the world and beyond it. It is the fusion of technologies: you might say that 4IR geeks must step out from their screens and create real things in the real world.

Is it true that no new thing has been invented since the 1950s- 1960?  Then we saw the first hovercraft, lasers, maglev, the silicon chip – all since has been the improvement of existing technology.  The latest Tesla may be a revolutionary car it is a car, and nothing Henry Ford would not recognise.  Since the IT revolution, innovation has shrunk to the confines of a screen, and has changed the world from there, but it is limited.  The promise off the next stage, this ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ is to bring all the strands of technology, from Boulton-Watt to Microsoft. Together to do new things which each alone cannot achieve or even conceive..

We should not however get carried away with imagining that the new age is unimaginable.  It is called the ‘fourth’ revolution after those of steam, of electricity and of computers.  As we saw the previous upheavals, so we see this one, and we can learn not to underestimate it, nor to be afraid of it.

It is no different from the others.  This new revolution is governed by pure Adam Smith logic, as have been the preceding industrial revolutions and all innovations since man first lifted a hunting spear:  if there is incentive for an individual to innovate then he will innovate, in order to make his work less boring or more profitable.

If the system were ever established that takes from a man all that he can produce then there is no incentive to innovate and society ossifies:  Smith identified this deadening factor in the feudal states of his day.  Innovation and the motors of prosperity existed only where a man could earn more by working hard and innovating, and were strongest in America, as land rents were low. In the French countryside a seigneur would take as rent the whole increase in production, and as a result tenant farmers made no innovations, but lived from day to day. It was in the towns, freed of this system, that new machines and techniques were developed, and in Britain both town and country fizzed with innovation, leading to prosperity for all: profit for the innovator and cheaper goods for the customer.

The deathly feudal system is in vogue today: its idea of taking from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs, is a cornerstone of Marxism to which Messrs Corbyn and McDonnell are devoted, and a large section of the unthinking population too.

There is fear over the new industrial revolution.  This too is nothing new. The Luddites, Captain Swing, and all machine-breakers did what they did convinced that machines would take their jobs and leave them to starve.  Today, identical fears are heard, and those most vocal about it will tell the world on Twitter and Facebook, while sending out for online pizza.

The lesson of all revolutions in innovation has been that it can produce unexpected prosperity in all society, with new jobs arising where others are lost:  as less work is needed, there is time and energy to do more work, and new prosperity opens up new opportunities.  If a ship once took a year to build from timber and can now be built in two months, then that is not five out of six workers on the scrapheap – it is building six ships in place of one, or building them bigger for new cargoes, or building them of steel.

When robots take jobs, as they will and must, it is to make consumer goods more affordable and industrial processes cheaper, and it creates more jobs, and ones less backbreaking.

Each sudden change produces fear and protest – when the mines closed in the 1980s commentators thought the mining villages lost to poverty forever, but they throve, with more jobs there now than ever before, and jobs that do not involve crawling through a mine in the blackness waiting for a cave-in, and retiring with lung disease.

The future is good.


Liberals, conservatives and the Jordan Peterson thesis

Why Liberals are always wrong about everything but cannot see the error of their ways nor even accept that there are other opinions, is a constant frustration for the right-thinking man.

Jordan Peterson provides the answer, in part, in a number of his online videos.  You might want to sit down for this:  they are not wrong as such but seeing the world through different eyes.  This has implications for how we consider the choice of our political leaders, but more fundamentally how we treat our neighbours in a fractious society.

Peterson suggests the difference between “liberals” and “conservatives” may even have a biological element, which would be eye-opening; biologically determined socio-political views would take some swallowing.  His thesis needs serious consideration.

I am not a psychologist and am not the great Hobbes himself, so a take a great deal on trust from Hobbes, Smith and Peterson. I want to say “essentially, Peterson is not talking about our political parties but about…” but I here in my voice echoes of Cathy Newman saying “So what you are saying is…” and getting it wrong every time.   I have no right to reinterpret his words, but I can say what I think in accepting them.

The thrust of Peterson’s thesis is that liberals and conservatives have come to their positions not so much from different axiom and reasoning, but from having very different personality types. It is even possible, Peterson suggests, that part of that difference is inherent in our biology rather than learned.  (It would be a radical change in our usual view if we found that socio-political views are genetically determined.)

In essence:

  • Liberals have a personality trait of “openness,” which is to say that they have an affinity for abstraction and aesthetics
  • Conservatives have a trait of “conscientiousness” but not creativity.

Putting it as bluntly as Peterson does suggests two a human race cut in two, but it is obviously not that and it is instead a sliding scale between two extremes. Perhaps social expectations cause any individual to gravitate to one side of the divide and identify himself or herself there, deserting the centre.

(Incidentally, it is not at all a male-female split:  each sex exists in strength on both sides; otherwise there would be a shortage of conservative brides for conservative men and vice versa:  a conservative will prefer to marry a conservative and a liberals to shack up with a liberal. If there is a genetic element, this would sharpen it.)

It is natural to lack respect for someone who obviously has the wrong approach to life.  However if that is because they see the world through different eyes, and theirs is not a wrong view but a different view, then we are committing an injustice.

Naturally conservatives see conscientiousness as key to reliability and trustworthiness, and naturally liberals see conservatives as repressed and dull.  We cannot live without each other though.  The world does not work without conscientious people to keep it running, and it runs into the ground unless there are open-minded, creative people to find the new ideas to keep it renewed.

In politics we need both, but we tend to have small-c conservatives in dominance. Liberal-minded and conservative-minded voters alike value reliability and trustworthiness, and a lack of surprises, in those entrusted with government, so this dominance by those of conservative-temperament in all main parties is to be expected.

Sometimes we need a different approach, and liberal-temperament rulers.  Whenever the system of government becomes moribund, a new, creative approach is needed. Whenever there is a crisis which the normal way of doing things cannot solve, then we need an original mind which thrills to take risks.  It may be a disaster or it may be a roaring success, depending on the individual.  Benjamin Disraeli, David Lloyd-George, Randolph Church, Winston Churchill – they achieved through creativity and abandoning timidity.

I have got all the way through so far without mentioning Brexit; here is a situation where a tunnel-visioned approach has brought an impasse, and it needs someone who can step back outside the tunnel and fix it a new way.

See also