Monday, March 16, 2009

In Two Minds

In Two Minds is a book I could never write. It would be a fictionalised biography with touches of autobiography. The fictionalised subjects would have been Roger Scruton and John Gray, two very great and two very English thinkers. They started at more or less the same place - on the dissident, academic right - and then diverged. They are both vivid and extraordinary characters and both now regard each other with wary respect. I could never write the book because they're both friends.
Yesterday I watched Nature's Great Events and I read this. The first was wonderful and moving in the grand tradition of BBC wildlife TV. It induced respect and awe and, because of the quality of the filming, it showed nature as she is in our absence. The only role we had in this spectacle was to watch and be moved. The Scruton book - I haven't read it and I haven't spoken to him for some time so I'm trusting the reviewer - puts man in a privileged place at the centre of nature. This is an aesthetic point rather than a scientific or political one. It is, at heart, Christian in that it could sustain the idea of man's stewardship of nature. It requires environmental sensitivity, but its emphasis is on humans not nature. Gray regards Christian stewardship and any idea that man is the point of nature as wrong and dangerous. It is these concepts, especially when embraced by secular, humanist ideologies such as Marxism or Neo-liberalism, that have landed us in our current predicament with a warming planet that will, in time, refuse to sustain a human population of anything like the 9 billion to which we are heading. We are neither stewards nor privileged actors, we are in and of nature. We are here, like one of the BBC's cameras, simply to see.
I am blurring boundaries. What Scruton is saying is not precisely opposed to what Gray is saying. The categories are different. Nevertheless, his emphasis would be impossible for Gray and vice versa. Roger is concerned with our differences from animals; John with our similarities.
I am well-placed to write that book I could never write because I have sympathy with both - or perhaps I just can't make up my mind, my default posture. I am in two minds, see? But, on the whole, though I can lose myself in Roger's aesthetics, I am closer to John. I don't think the earth will continue to sustain us and I think that fact raises questions about Christian stewardship and entirely invalidates humanist fantasies of control.
PS And here is Scruton in The Times.


  1. At the risk of sounding like I believe more than I do, I wonder whether two further and related Christian concepts might bridge the gap, namely sin and redemption. John G's work could be said to highlight the profound sins of humanity. Roger S's work the possibility of redemption. The question would then be whether believing in the former, you can in the latter?

  2. Nice point, Mark. I've often found more in common in their work than they do themselves. John now accepts the power of the concept of original sin, more than he once did I think.

  3. I'm an American traveling through Rome, and I've been struck by the extent to which American stereotypes of family being the most important thing in life for Italians have proven true. I mention this because I agree with you, Brian, that ultimately the argument that we humans are not the point of nature will be proven when we exhaust the carrying capacity of at least our own environmental niche on this planet. And I much prefer the notion of man having evolved to WITNESS nature. But everywhere around me, in the teeth of environmental over-exploitation, I see families of humans celebrating the birth of more and more humans in geometric proliferation! What can we do but laugh to keep from crying? It seems relevant to the post to note that even as highly intelligent and educated intellectuals fight out the question of humancentrism to the point of stalemate in academic fora, humancentrism has already won in the piazzas of Rome.

  4. Man is only part of nature; man is special. Nature is beautiful, but only to man. Nature is also immensely horrible and repulsive. I'm finding it harder and harder to watch lions bringing down juvenile gazelles and whatnot. Is this because I'm getting older and more sentimental?

    And what if you find man-made structures (Notre Dame; Sydney Opera House; a Michael Vaughan front-foot cover drive) more beautiful than natural beauty?

    And did you know there is a BBC 4 programme tonight about Wabi Sabi - the Japanese concept of the beauty of the broken?

    Have you thought about calling the book "In 6 minds" or "In 83 minds" - might make it easier to write.

  5. Johnny

    It's slightly surreal that you write your comment from the one place - Italy - where "celebrating the birth of more and more humans in geometric proliferation!", is not taking place. With a birth rate of 1.2 per female, Italians are on the road to extinction, if anything.

    Bryan, doesn't John Gray have a bit too much of the old Malthusian pessimism to him? Or is it just straight, bog-standard pessimism. I found that I couldn't continue reading any of his books because of the unrelenting grey mood he creates. Pessimism and hopelessness are not valid responses to anything.

    I loved The Radetzky March however.

  6. Recusant: Hahaha, I guess it IS slightly surreal! It's true, the Italian families I'm seeing everywhere ARE little; Mom, Dad and a baby, Mom, Dad and a baby. But there's a huge REVERENCE for the act of procreating here. The low birthrate seems like a pragmatic compromise with economic realities, as though everyone would have eight children if they could. So much of the Italian worldview, from formally and informally socializing several important living expenses to frowning upon immigration, seems to flow from their love of intergenerational family togetherness, that I haven't NOTICED the low rate of births, just the celebration of family and neighborhood life. 1.2 babies per table at the trattoria is all you need to keep the Italian Dream alive, and I suspect it is a tap of the demographic brakes, anyway. Like the anti-contraception stance of the Catholic Church, it's like there's a secular humancentric ideology emanating from Rome, of love of family intertwined with love of patria, that has the power to always eclipse concern for...the health of Nature (what to call it?). This humancentrism comes from the piazzas instead of the Vatican, but I feel it equally gives encouragement to the people out there who ARE having eight children, if such people do still exist. I don't know, maybe I'm being too hard on Rome! The sense of priorities here is just striking for me, as an American and a traveling intellectual without a wife or kids!

  7. The usual line I hear from (right-leaning) Americans, Johnny, is that secular Old Europe is doomed because it has given up on the family and procreating and the replacement rate, while the future belongs to religious America because it's all about the kids.

    I'm not saying they're right and you're wrong. Probably they're wrong and you're wrong as well. But since everybody is always wrong about everything, that's nothing to be ashamed of.

  8. Brit: I love it! "Everyone is always wrong about everything is a credo I'd be willing to claim as my own! But yeah, having grown up around a bunch of big American families, some with money, some with religion, some with neither, I can say with confidence that no matter what the right-wingers say, no American family could handle one AFTERNOON of this Italian togetherness I'm seeing without some seriously wabi-sabi results a la William Faulkner or Tennessee Williams. So I'm really grateful to be travelling and seeing things for myself. Next stop: Israel!

  9. And we're all yearing to return to that lost Eden/Utopia. Perhaps Scruton and Gray aren't so far apart, just looking at things from opposite ends of the telescope.
    PS - Michael Frayn in 'The Human Touch' has some rewarding things to say about human centrality in the observable universe.

  10. I have half a mind to agree with one of Brit's comments - "Man is only part of nature."

    It's his next statement that causes most of the mischief and I think he knows it too.

    It's all so very wrong.