I was born a human being. This means a lot to me. I can think and talk in a way that cats or dogs can’t. That is a comfort when you live on a planet that revolves around one of the millions of stars in creation. And I believe that the idea of humanity means a lot.
I believe that human beings evolved from animals on earth. I am told, and I believe, that this process of evolution was completed round about 200,000 years ago in Africa, in that part of Africa that is now one of the most backward parts on earth. Being first is not therefore everything. I believe that humans started moving out of Africa about 70,000 years ago. I forget when they first arrived down here in Australia, but I believe that two of the main things that distinguish us from the gorillas are cutlery and courtesy.
My part in time is therefore minute – much less than a drop in the Pacific Ocean or a grain of sand in the Sahara Desert. If you reflect on the inconceivable vastness of the universe, my part in space is even smaller.
If there is a God, He or She must have a very big filing cabinet. I do not believe in God as most people understand that word. The idea of God does not answer any questions for me. But if I could, I would pray that there is no God with the personality that most of the religions seem keen to describe. The Bible and the Koran both speak of atrocities by or in the name of God.
When I say that I don’t believe in God, I mean just that. I am not saying that there is no God. It is, if you like, a matter of personal choice. Whether you follow Arsenal or the Storm is a matter of choice, and people usually arrive at a choice of God in a similar way to choosing their footy team – by inheritance or by chance. The most devout Muslim may have been an equally devout Hindu had she been born next door.
Others have a different view about God. That is their perfect right, and good luck to them – as long as they don’t try to inflict their view on me. I, for my part, find it handy to use the term God when I am talking, even though I personally do not believe in one.
For example, there is a fire station on the peak of Mount Victory in what white people call the Grampians in Victoria. I like to visit it at least once a year. If you look down and out over a valley between three ranges, you will see our bush as God made it, or as the blackfellas saw it. And at dawn or dusk, you will see our bush move through the kinds of colour changes that bedazzled Monet.
I certainly do not believe in any afterlife. The idea now sounds fanciful to me. I have no wish to keep going when I die. I agree with Einstein – once is enough for me, too. Or, as a Tolstoy character said, when you die, you either get the answers to all your questions, or you stop asking them. I fancy the latter.
I was therefore liberated by the observation made by Wittgenstein and others that you do not live to see your own death. This suggestion may look self-evident, but not many people accept what follows from it After you’ve gone, you have nothing to worry about – you are not here, or anywhere else. Turgenev wrote a fragment reflecting on death. Its title is ‘Enough’. Its last words are those of Hamlet: ‘The rest is silence.’ What more can we say?
So I am a human being here and now, once and only for a brief moment in time, and as less than an atom in space. What follows?
I believe that God laid out a very handsome table for us all, and that courtesy requires that I should do what I can to enjoy what is on offer. I should try to see as much of the world as I can and to understand as much of the human story as I can. I should enjoy the fruits of what others have done – what we call art, which is a lyrical reflection of the human condition, as well as all as our learning. Art in history and theatre is therefore vital. I wonder what human life may be like without, say, El Greco, Shakespeare, Mozart, or Gibbon – I have little idea. I believe that art can reveal to us more truth or insight than history or science can. History as art is therefore golden.
The great minds and artists make and discover things that arouse our sense of wonder and remind us of our limitations. It is not just the genius that we admire, but their courage to go on with it. What is it that makes a genius? How were people like Churchill, Gandhi and Mandela able to do what they did? Why does the mere name Abraham Lincoln make my bottom lip flutter? Why do I respond so warmly to the suggestion that to read Shakespeare is to touch the face of God, or to be at home with our own humanity?
It is a source of real comfort to me that men of strong minds who have looked deeply into things – like Spinoza, Hume, Kant, or Einstein – have died happy in their own skin as a result. But I believe that I have to try to see how we forgot our humanity under people like Cromwell, Robespierre or Napoleon, or how we just lost it under people like Stalin, Hitler or Mao. The big lesson of history for me is how shallow is the veneer of civilisation. As I write this, that veneer is being blown away at the highest level in the United States.
I should therefore carry myself in the faith that you only get one go, and that it will be over before you realise – and that you are, in the words of Isaiah, as nothing.
How should I deal with others? I was brought up in the tradition of the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. It is wrong to say that I have no religious belief. I regard the Sermon on the Mount and the man who preached it as sacred. My life is still affected by the teaching of the man they called Christ. I am humbled by his life.
The Sermon on the Mount is routinely ignored, but I believe that its prescriptions accord with the teaching of Kant that every human being has his or her own dignity or worth – merely because he or she is a human being. This for me is axiomatic – just as it was self-evident for Jefferson that all men are created equal – but it is a proposition that is very far from being adhered to, much less regarded as axiomatic, elsewhere. You can feel the weight of the notion of the dignity or inner worth that each of us has by looking the way that all of the regimes that we least admire set out to destroy that very notion. This lesson of history is very important to me.
Indeed, I believe that we may look for the character of a people by the way they seek to respect the dignity of themselves and others. For Kant, this notion of inner worth was tied up with the idea that people must never be treated as a means to an end, but as an end in themselves. In the result, the first article of the German Constitution expresses my view when it says: ‘Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.’
I believe that most of my moral propositions derive from that one axiom – as does our commitment to what we know as the rule of law. It says that all of us are equal in the eye of the law and that no one should harm any of us except under the due process of the law. To paraphrase St. Augustine, if there is no justice, is government any more than daylight robbery?
There is one other proposition about dealing with others that is not self-evident. Long experience tells us that people as a whole get on better in say clubs, teams, or towns when the people who have been blessed or fortunate give back to others. In the language of logic, this proposition is more inductive than deductive, more empirical than rationalist – if you have to resort to Latin, we are not talking a priori. The notion of noblesse oblige is in my view fundamental to what we call civilisation. It is I think integral to what we see as the dignity of humanity.
If I had to source this obligation, I would again look at what it means to be human. Most animals are protective parents, and some look after their own wounded – just as dogs know the difference between being tripped over and being deliberately kicked. The animals or humans who neglect their sick or reject their young or aged may be at a different phase of evolution – I believe that persons and peoples are evolving all the time. But I believe that humans have a more refined sense of an obligation to look after others of their kind than, say, vultures or weasels. This generalisation is, of course, slippery. Ants and bees are much more constructive for everyone than black holes in humanity like Adolf Hitler or Donald Trump. Whether we are evolving for the better or for worse is in dispute; it may be a matter of faith.
If a blind man or a young toddler falls over in front of me, I go to help them. You would be revolted if I did not do so. In 1909 a Welshman brought up by a cobbler, who was a lay Baptist preacher, told the English Parliament that these ‘problems of the sick or infirm or unemployed are problems with which it is the business of the State to deal’. He and a lapsed Tory led a social revolution that brought them close to a civil war to get that view passed into law.
Of course that has to be right in any decent people. This is part of what I regard as civilisation. The rest is degree or detail – and I often wonder at the mess that we make of it. A community run by the ideology of the Tea Party would be a living denial of the Sermon on the Mount, and a very cold and heartless place.
Then there is what Sir Lewis Namier finely referred to as ‘plain human kindness.’ We don’t talk about things like kindness, or even compassion, under the heading of philosophy, much less the law, but anyone who said that they had turned their back on it would be someone that you would not want to turn your own back on. I’m not sure why we are so skittish talking about compassion or kindness – life without them would give a fair view of Hell.
What about dealing with others en masse – what we call politics?
I would like government to have as little to do with me as is decently possible – but I believe that the people who are better off (including me) have obligations to those who are not so well off. Neither political party in any way helps me to resolve that tension, and I’m afraid that I don’t trust either of them. My fading faith in party politics is very common across the western world now.
If you combine the notions of respect for the dignity of the individual with the obligation of the more fortunate to look after those not so well off, then you get close to what I regard as a decent community – or, if you prefer, civilisation.
Someone once said that you could test the civilisation of a people by looking at how they run their jails. A more contemporary test is how people treat those others who are less fortunate than us and are fleeing from oppression. As of now, some of our thuggish deceit on our obligations to refugees defies belief.
There is a level of inequality in opportunity, standing, income and wealth in Australia that I regard as disgraceful in such a young and prosperous nation. I see that as a failure to observe the dignity of each human being and the need for the better off to look after others. It follows that I believe that we are falling short on both of my ideals.
It is worse than that. Any community must ultimately rest on some sense of proportion or reasonableness. People who are accustomed to wield power who flout all sense of proportion will incite regime change – just look at the nobility and the church in Paris in 1789 and St Petersburg in 1917. One example now is a bank paying one of its managers a thousand times as much as it pays one of its tellers. Another example is that a blackfella can be thrown into jail for stealing a loaf of bread because it is his third time up, which takes us back to the law of crime and punishment that led to the penal colony in which this nation was conceived, while people at the other end of town lie and cheat and ruin millions of lives and get away with it.
My instincts, and no more, suggest that the indignation of people at inequality is behind much of the rebellious rejection of the establishments and their political parties in the West today. This rebellion may be the first step toward regime change.
I have to accept that my country will probably not achieve full independence from the English monarchy in my lifetime – because, as chance has it, the Queen will probably outlive me. This is my biggest regret. The downside of our being so uncaring and laid back about politics is that we just refuse to grow up – and, my God, it shows. The capacity to leave your own tram-lines without feeling lost should be one of the great gifts of mankind. We don’t have it yet in Australia. I cannot help feeling that the ghastly mediocrity of our politics is related to our inability to shed our borrowed past and to stand on our own two feet.
In professions, politics, business, or sport, I believe that you take a certain amount of ability as given, and then the rest is character.
I believe that the worst vice of people in a group is intolerance. It frequently comes with what is called ideology, for which the Oxford Dictionary splendidly gives ‘visionary theorising.’ Mercifully, we tend to reject that vice in this country. It does not sit well with our Anglo-Saxon preference for experience over logic, which we sometimes call common sense, or with the common law. Think tanks in Australia forget that we dislike and distrust ideology down here – the failure of Americans to see this is one reason why we find their politics so awful. People who put theory above evidence are bloody dangerous.
Intolerance is often related to labels, or putting people in boxes. George Bush Senior said that labels are what you put on soup cans. Labelling is just another failure to respect human dignity – it is also how people start to see others just as means to an end.
I am cautious about people claiming the label of ‘libertarian’, or admitting to an ideological obsession with freedom of speech, or any other ‘right’ they say they cannot compromise. Some of these people are zealots who hunt in packs and who spend far too much time on the internet, and who have neither the time nor the inclination to be tolerant. They attack people rather than look at their ideas. We may be looking at an internet fuelled failure of the western mind – the collapse of courtesy is already well under way.
I believe that we should use our minds to stare down demons, but I suspect that our most important decisions are taken outside of logic. If there is a completely logical human being, he or she would be cold, unnatural, and unloved. The people who worry me most are those who say that they have the answer. Sense and experience – let alone plain human kindness – usually trump bare logic. In truth, emotions commonly do so as well – otherwise we could hand ourselves over to computers.
You also need time and space to be deliberately irrational and at large – that is where sport and the bush come in, hand-tied dry flies and grain-flow forged wedges, slow cooked oxe-tail and long held red, Ferrari and the Storm, Miles Davis and The New Yorker, French bread and French actresses, Paris and Berlin, and an annual pilgrimage to our primeval Australian bush.
I believe that a sense of humour, including a refusal to take yourself too seriously, is essential to sanity.
I’m very suspicious of those who mock faith. These people are often selfish intellectual bullies. I believe that faith is an essential complement to the ability to think that comes with our being human. In truth, I have to take so much on faith – how the atoms of my body hang together, how the stars of the universe hold together, or the state of my bank account, or the contents of my tax return – they are all just about as far beyond my comprehension as God is.
I am ill at ease with that form of intolerance that is called atheism. These people claim to have the answer, but they don’t. It is after all hard to prove a negative. And I think a lot of these people are cold, arrogant intellectual snobs who are content to kick in the guts people they see as less clever.
When Darwin was asked to receive some atheists, who had wanted to claim him as a soul-brother, he asked why they had to be so aggressive. He had come to the view early that law rules the earth, and heaven, and that to believe anything else was to demean God. What were miracles but God interrupting himself? His early belief was like that of Spinoza, Kant, or Einstein – our innate knowledge of the Creator had evolved as a consequence of his most magnificent laws. Darwin’s views on God would shift, but he was never guilty of dogmatism or absolutism.
A world without wonder would not be worth living in. We should be wary of any people who want to banish our sense of wonder. We should also be wary of the deniers or the negators – those narky, neurotic put-downers, the leerers, jeerers, and sneerers, the smiling assassins who are the sad victims of their own insecurity – the Bazarovs of this world. They take but they do not give. As Stefan Zweig said, ‘negation is sterile.’ So much is obvious.
As for me in time and space, I believe that I am one of the luckiest bastards alive – to have been born in 1945 in Australia. My luck was compounded by loving and caring parents, two good schools (state then private), a decent university, and the chance to go into a learned profession and to learn how to try to look after others. I have been especially fortunate to be able to spend so much of my professional life inquiring into that mystery that we call the common law. I believe that it is one of the greatest achievements of mankind. I have also been blessed by being able to do some good for other people now and then.
So, I believe that you are born, you raise your children, you bury your parents, and you die. You arrive, you take, you give back, and then you go. Life has a symmetry, and that’s all there is to it.
I may not be very far away, then, from Kant, who said that the two things that filled him with wonder were the moral law inside him – which I take to include our inner human worth – and the starry firmament above him.
But I suppose that that would sound more than a little pretentious coming from me – if not downright bullshit.