Cosmopolitanism

Pauline Kleingeld’s article about Novalis’ cosmopolitanism has struck a note with me. It left me a little frustrated in asking myself the question – What’s the use? Will philosophy change anything? Will our personal world views change anything? Does it make any difference whether we have travelled the world, gone into space or never left the town or village where we were born?

Globalism, the “global village” and “citizenship of the world” are hot button subjects and as relevant to us today as in the 1790’s. We have technology, aeroplanes, internet, faster and faster communication of ever-increasing amounts of information. We are even presented with the possibility of doing away with human communication and all being linked to a central computer that would combine all our memories into a single artificial “person”. Naturally, this idea would be relevant to a tiny proportion of very rich individuals. Billions would have to die, if we believe some of the conspiracy theories – if they are theories.

What we face today is the full development of ideas that were produced by reactions against the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century and fuelled the revolutionary fervour of France and other parts of Europe. Present-day globalism looks like bringing about the dystopian visions of Orwell or Huxley. In the 1960’s, philosophers like Ivan Illich were identifying the means through which humanity was being assimilated into one vast anonymous machine and deterministic existence, through modern education, technology and medicine. To what degree Illich’s ideas are scientifically valid is anyone’s guess, but the idea seems cogent.

As a small boy, I felt suffocated in family life and the routine of daily school. I too was a product of the 1960’s and felt degraded by attitudes of the older people who had lived through the hardship of the Depression and World War II. We children and youngsters should have nothing to expect without suffering for it as “they” did. Should we have an economic depression and a world war every generation so that we learn to stay in our “place”? I yearned to get away from my lovely little Lakeland town which was Kendal, and be with people with more open attitudes. My father, an educated man from a distinguished Yorkshire family, sympathised and did what he could to encourage interests, hobbies and a more suitable education. I am grateful to him. At 17, I believed that my “vocation” was to be an organ builder. I joined the Durham firm of Harrison & Harrison and found some of the most bigoted and narrow parochialism among the brave men who worked there as craftsmen. After a couple of years, I went to London to do a course in harpsichord making. I would have preferred organ building in a less bigoted and narrow “working class” environment, but that was not available outside the various firms of organ builders in England. I got it all wrong.

I was alienating myself from my roots, but I needed a more open and universal word view. I certainly got it over the years as I finished the course in London. Instead of settling down and setting up a workshop, I got involved in a process of converting to Roman Catholicism and decided to go for the priesthood – through the traditionalists. Again, I was caught between the Scylla of parochialism and the Charybdis of yearning for something unattainable. On arriving in France in 1982 with a few belongings on a bicycle, I headed for my first address on my list, the parish of Fr Montgomery Wright at le Chamblac. I stopped off in the villages on the way and visited the rare unlocked churches – “pre-reformation” churches just across the Channel. They all smelled of damp and had altars facing the people. I wondered if just one diocese in the Massif Central had “survived”, like Ray Winch’s canonry. There was none. There was the possibility of monastic life, but that was another kind of closed parochialism. I tried to stick it out with a stint in one of the Society of St Pius X’s schools to learn enough French to go to Ecône. I think that it was my Aspergers (I didn’t know about it then) that prevented me from understanding people as they are in their zones of comfort, their certitudes and way of life. Who was I to expect anything else?

Normally, in life, someone is born into a given family in a given social class. His or her life is planned and determined from the beginning and you go along with it without thinking. You go to school, learn a trade or do a university course, get a job, get married and make sure your kids do the same thing. Life has no purpose other than our social life and conversations. These certitudes were broken by the two world wars and the cultural changes of the 1960’s. Up north, it took a little longer. My upbringing in the 1960’s was like the 1950’s down south.

I lived through an alternation of fresh air and closed parochialism. University was perhaps my best experience, though the Swiss leave a lot to be desired. I was best with my German friends whose faultless English compensated for my lack of German. Seminary life left me mostly in peace, just as long as I did all the things I was supposed to do. Sometimes the various prefects had a wider attitude, mellowed by their military experience, and others were butt-heads. Humans are humans – and I am one of them.

I have lived this dilemma for years: belonging somewhere yet being free to soar and experience. The only way was and is inwards, because we cannot change the world. Romanticism has helped to understand these notions better, and my old philosophical education in Rome and in my books at Fribourg stood me in good stead. Some of the things of this life utterly repelled me: competition, struggle against others for the highest places of status and power, bureaucracy, legalism, determinism, rational management, all the hallmarks of the modern workplace. English Public School was designed for this, for the Kampf and bitter struggle of being the best and the most powerful – the British Empire and the stiff upper lip. I came a little after that time, but the attitudes were still there among some of the creepy characters around me in the dorm and common room at St Peter’s. What was civic religion in all this, the pious cant of the parish vicar or school chaplain? It was just words. How can one wonder why so many lose all trace of faith and adopted materialism and nihilism?

Novalis suggested trying to build a society on Romantic and spiritual values, but it has never happened in this world. The only that did happen was that a few individual persons were prophets in a way, through philosophy and art. They tried to fly the flag even if it would be shot down by the mob.

What of the little community? What about the idea that has been coined as a “Benedict Option”, not the monastic life but a community of a priest and a few lay people inspired by that general idea? There are “intentional” communities that life according to a diversity of theme from Christianity, Tolstoy-style anarchism, hard-core environmentalism and veganism. Others exist in large houses with other buildings for the core community and paying guests, and are more or less restrictive as institutions. For each to choose his poison! What of a little community living according to Romantic ideas? There would have to be some ground rules to make it work, otherwise it would be all over from the first dispute! There has to be a point of balance somewhere. I am open to the idea.

Romanticism isn’t realistic! Nor is religion except as a moralising and controlling political ideology. Yet, the Church canonises saints all through history, and many of them were far from respectable like the beggar St Benoît Joseph Labre or “air-head” nuns like St Thérèse de l’Enfant Jésus. Romanticism isn’t on the same plane as the “world”, and that is why any effect on the world is only a long shot, a little like killing a gigantic monster with thousands of pea shooters. Perhaps world leaders can be influenced by such ideas in such wise as they seek truth, beauty, the common good, justice, humility. There are sainted kings in history and inspired statesmen. If a sufficient number of persons with Romantic ideas can contribute to a common cause, then some change can come about and a little bit of heaven can be seen on earth. It might have been like this in America for the first years under the founding Fathers in the 1790’s. Even until World War II, anyone could make a good life for himself and his family in America. That being said, there was the great Depression and massive unemployment. It was the New World. This influence comes from imagination, creative writing, opposition to the “machine”, prophecy in its biblical meaning. There are no more new worlds, only beyond this earthly life beyond the grave.

I have no faith in politics or competitive struggle. If might is right, then we are no better than a pack of dogs fighting over a scrap of meat! Such humanity should not survive, and any number of things could bring it to an end: an asteroid from space, a really big volcano, a pandemic of a disease like Spanish Flu or something manufactured in an underground laboratory, a nuclear war, any number of things. I consider the planets around earth. Not one can support life from earth, and we are not sure that there is any life of any form on them. Other solar systems are too far away, and our present technology couldn’t get a human being anywhere near them in a single lifetime. The material universe is as bleak as those planets and bits of rock flying about around the sun. Only the earth, a tiny speck in the emptiness, shows any sign of life, and mankind is ungrateful.

Perhaps in parallel universes, Mars is the planet with life and Earth is a blackened waste. The Romantic looks to other worlds that are inaccessible to us in this universe. Do they really exist? There are elements of evidence or the ability of the human spirit to have some experience of another world. Perhaps, I am the pilgrim who has to go on through the unknown, recklessly and without knowing or belonging. Just pressing on…

Down from the gardens of Asia descending radiating,
Adam and Eve appear, then their myriad progeny after them,
Wandering, yearning, curious, with restless explorations,
With questionings, baffled, formless, feverish, with never-happy hearts,
With that sad incessant refrain, Wherefore unsatisfied soul? and
Whither O mocking life?

Ah who shall soothe these feverish children?
Who justify these restless explorations?
Who speak the secret of impassive earth?
Who bind it to us? what is this separate Nature so unnatural?
What is this earth to our affections? (unloving earth, without a throb to answer ours,
Cold earth, the place of graves.)

Yet soul be sure the first intent remains, and shall be carried out,
Perhaps even now the time has arrived.

Walt Whitman

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One Response to Cosmopolitanism

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Pauline Kleingeld’s discussion of Novalis’ distinct sense of cosmopolitanism was very interesting (though I ought to reread it and ponder further). Trusting Wikipedia’s details, it is interesting to think of the time of Novalis’s sickening in August 1800 until his death in March 1801 as including the Treaty of Lunéville which declared that “there shall be, henceforth and forever, peace, amity, and good understanding” among the parties (!): something like a taste, a hopeful spark of possible good ‘cosmopolitanism’?

    Meanwhile, I enjoyed discovering a performance new to me of Eliot’s Christmas sermon, with its meditation on ‘peace’, spoken by Thomas Becket in Murder in the Cathedral, by the original actor:

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