I remember years ago when I was in fifth and sixth year in secondary school the school librarian telling us that history was a most essential subject because it taught us to review the past so that we should not make the same mistakes again. He also informed us that no matter what subject we were going to study at college that it was important to study its history. How right that old gentleman was. His name was James J. Carey and he had long retired from teaching by the time I went to secondary school in the early seventies, but he had still come in every day right up till his death at the age of 81 or so because he was paid a small stipend to run the school library. James J., as we all called him, was born in Tipperary around 1900. He was a quintessential scholar and as a young boy I envied him his scholarship. He edited many books, the most notable of which was Vox Romana, a Leaving Certificate compendium of the writings of ancient Latin authors, and also Junior and Leaving Certificate English books. He was the first person I personally knew who had a Ph. D. As young college students, a friend and I actually painted his house for a small fee. James also had a wonderful book-lined study. Again, I said to myself that I’d have such a library when I would get a job. As well as that, Dr. Carey was a good man to tell a joke – always literary in nature. He was the first man I had heard as a young student utter the phrase: “my wife does not understand me.” Another interesting fact is that his son had become a pilot, if not even a wing commander in the RAF. In fact I remember his showing us the picture of his son with his fellow officers when we were doing our very amateur painting and decorating for the old gentleman.
Anyway, I never forgot James J’s wise statement about the importance of history. While I did not study the subject for Leaving Certificate I always studies the history of the various subjects I was studying at any particular time – Theology, English Literature, Philosophy, Education, Italian, Gaeilge and Mathematics. I also come to history through biography and historical novels which I adore reading.
When one reads history one is almost literally hit in the face by the various myths which humankind creates for itself at any one time or another. Let it be the myth of nationalism in its various forms or even the myth of progress. It is the myth of progress that I wish to allude to here. Perhaps my tackling it here and now may be a little superficial as I have not done any considerable research into it of late. However, I feel that this particular myth is at the heart of the pain the world is experiencing lately with this international recession (if not depression?) from we are suffering.
One of the things that I remember from my own reading over the years is that the Enlightenment brought with it great positivity – indeed sheer hubris - about the power of human reason. It reigned supreme and one day during the quite “atheistic” French Revolution the Goddess Reason was carried shoulder high like a new “Blessed Virgin of Rational Thought” into Notre Dame and in November 1793 this metropolitan cathedral was rededicated as the Temple of Reason. The new God was now the people, and reason would be the power that would rule wisely in national assembly or government. I am not speaking, of course, per se about the French Revolution but rather about this new passion for reason. That new passion for reason, of course, spilled over into the sciences, into the empiricist principles of such scientists and into the explications of the great empiricist philosophers who would give such sciences their imprimatur and nihil obstat. In brief, my argument here is that one myth is being replaced by another – the religious/illusional (a la Freud) myth by the scientific/rational myth. Let me explain.
Now that mythical reason had dethroned the lesser myth of illusion, magic, mystery and mumbo jumbo of religion it seemingly became evident that there was nothing ahead for man but unmitigated progress. That such progress was inevitable was never doubted. Indeed such progress was even thought to be linear in nature. All of the sciences and especially the newly discovered hypothesis (which has never been disproved though many times countered) of evolution suggested a veritable solid foundation of evidence to support the myth of progress. Then technology took off with steam engines and railroads and modern transport and all that is implied in the term Industrial revolution. The era of hard facts had begun. However, there were many other less rational people who saw through the delusions of the rationalist mind. Writers, poets and scholars such as William Blake, S.T. Coleridge, Wordsworth and all those Romantic fringe voices gave the lie to unbridled reason in the UK. The German Romantic Movement also saw through the new myth of indefinite progress in the works of such diverse luminaries as Heinrich Heine, G.W.F. Hegel, Schleiermacher, Schelling and Schlegel etc. They quickly saw that the Gradgrind school of hard facts a la Dickens in Hard Times was soulless, spiritless or to put it in very similar terms that it and quite literally soul-destroying and spirit-crushing.
However, despite the timely warnings of the critics of unbridled reason and indefinite progress, of unbridled science and inevitable technology, the proponents and exponents of the latter paid little or no heed. However, it was history that was to teach the hard lessons to cold and clinical reason. Two catastrophic wars – namely World Wars I and II gave the ultimate answer to the lies of these potent myths. Okay, humankind is a marvellous project in itself – however, it is very much a work in progress and even reason has its limits. Much more is needed like compassion and love and ethics and morality and such like. The wanton and useless destruction of so many lives in less than one hundred years and the total misuse and abuse of science gave the lie to the myth of indefinite progress. Of course, reason is a marvellous faculty to have at our disposal, but uncoupled from ethics and morality it is little more than useless. And so the lie of indefinite progress died after World War I and again after World War II, but it does have a recidivist turn to its nature. Our memories are short, too short indeed. As the old saying goes - “eaten bread is soonest forgotten.” The lie of indefinite progress keeps rearing its ugly head.
And now we have a World War of a different kind, a bloodless war, but a war none the less – let’s call it a World War of Recession or Depression that is striking every corner of the globe. It is attempting to teach us that indefinite progress and indefinite prosperity (which is the result of the former) is an insidious myth that is eating away at our souls. As Pat Cox, that wonderfully bright and intelligent former politician, journalist and lecturer who has in recent years retired from the position of President of the European Parliament said some weeks ago on RTE radio 1 “there is a tsunami of greed sweeping the world.” I agree totally with him. People in Ireland, having ridden too long on the back of the mythical Celtic Tiger have got too used to their comforts and indeed to their ever increasing comforts. They see such comforts as rights and not as privileges. The bloodless Third World War has many messages for us and one of them is to get a grip on reality; to realise that we bought into a dirty myth of selfishness and greed; to ponder the meaning of our short existence as a dot on a bigger dot in an infinity of space; to get real and value other important gifts like our health, our imagination, our creativity, our laughter, our joy in small beauties; to put things in context – we are not being bombed upon; we are not being murdered or tormented by a dictator; to focus in on the important things and not to swallow whole the lies we are told. Let us go back to tending the gardens of our own souls, and this is not to despise or decry science as the enemy. No, no, no. It is to unmask the rotten greed and selfishness that lurks in each and every person in the developed world. Let’s get real and let everyone to a man and a woman pay his or her fair share for the common good.
Above I have posted Figure 6, Joseph Chinard, La Raison sous les traits d'Apollon foulant aux pieds la Superstition (Reason, in the person of Apollo, treading Superstition underfoot), 1791, terracotta model, 51.5 x 13.3 x 12 cm, Louvre, Paris. Photo: © RMN/C.Jean. by way of illustration.