My Top Shelf 4


[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1945)

Folio Society, Enlarged Edition, edited by Eberhard Bethge, 2000; rebound with marbled boards, quarter in biscuit leather with sage label with gilt lettering.

Are we still of any use?

If the Almighty and I were to get back on first-name terms, it would most likely be through the agency – or grace, perhaps – of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  What a man!

Bonhoeffer was born, with a twin sister, to a family of culture and privilege that knew that the things that count come from the home.  His father was a doctor who became a professor of psychiatry; his mother was a teacher who became the nerve centre of a family of eight children and seven servants.  The family performed simple rites at home, but they were not regular church-goers.  When Dietrich found God and decided to go into theology, his family warned him against ‘a poor feeble, boring, petty bourgeois institution.’

Dietrich became involved in the ecumenical movement and he had his eyes opened in the UK and the US.  He heard the black Christ preached with ‘rapturous passion’.  But also, ‘not just separate railway cars, tramways, and buses south of Washington, but also for example, when I wanted to eat in a small restaurant with a Negro, I was refused service.’  Karl Barth called him back home in 1933:  ‘You are a German…the house of our church is on fire.’

When Hitler came, Bonhoeffer said that the church had to stand up for victims whether they were baptized or not.  When the Nuremberg Laws came, he proclaimed that ‘only those who shout for the Jews are permitted to sing Gregorian chants.’  The role of those who followed Jesus was not ‘just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself.’  He preached that the church had the right to engage in direct action against the state.  That is a complete repudiation of the relevant teaching of Martin Luther.  Bonhoeffer took his moral stand on the Sermon on the Mount.

On 1 February 1933, he was on the microphone at the Potsdammerstrasse Voxhaus in Berlin.  He was speaking of ‘The Concept of the Führer’.  Two days after Hitler came to power – a calamity for the Bonhoeffer family – Dietrich Bonhoeffer told the German people that a leader could be a misleader.  ‘This is a leader who makes an idol of himself and his office, and who thus mocks God.’  Before he could get these words out, they had switched the microphone off.  Here, then, was courage to take your breath away.  Bonhoeffer was 26 years old.

This man of God, this pacifist, was true to his word.  He was in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler.  He wanted to put a spoke in the wheel.  He was arrested, and imprisoned in various places, like Buchenwald and Tegel, after first being taken to the Gestapo Headquarters on Prinz-Albrecht Strasse.  (At this site, you can now visit a frighteningly moving museum called the Topography of Terror.)  Our book comes from his time in prison.

This book is on my shelf because of what the man did more than for what he said – as is the case with some others who are there.  We know what history tells us of the Nazis, but we can have no idea of what it was like to live under their Terror.  They regarded the church with the kind of contempt that they felt for non-Aryans.  They put Mein Kampf in place of the Bible, and the sword in place of the cross.  Hitler told Goebbels: ‘Let the churchmen dig their own grave.  They will surrender their kind little deity to us.  They will give up anything just to preserve their pitiful junk, rank, and incomes.’

We have debased privacy with a welter of laws and bureaucrats and wall-eyed zombies telling the whole carriage the awful story of their lives.  Bonhoeffer saw it coming.  He spoke of ‘respect for reticence’, ‘of a willingness to observe people more or less cautiously from the outside, but not from the inside’.  He referred to a ‘revolution from below…Anything clothed, veiled, pure and chaste is presumed to be deceitful, disguised, and impure; people here simply show their own impurity.  A basic anti-social attitude of mistrust and suspicion is the revolt of inferiority.’

We have become scared to face up to inferiority, and we are in thrall to mediocrity.  Bonhoeffer, as ever, resisted.  He was prepared to take on those ‘below’ as well as those ‘above’.  He could do so with a smile.  ‘Don Quixote is the symbol of resistance carried to the point of absurdity, even lunacy…Sancho Panza is the type of complacent and artful accommodation to things as they are.’

He knew our limits. ‘Uneducated people find it very difficult to decide things objectively and they will allow some more or less fortuitous circumstance to turn the scales.’  Did he only learn this in jail?  No.  He saw something that Keats famously remarked on in one of his letters – ‘how few people there are who can harbour conflicting emotions at the same time.’  While he feared that ‘man becomes radically religionless’, he was fond of reading Kant (‘a very rationalist rococo psychology’) and Spinoza (‘emotions are only expelled by stronger emotions, and not the mind’).  Standing by the Sermon on the Mount, he observed that ‘unlike the other oriental religions, the faith of the Old Testament is not a religion of redemption.’

At Easter 1944, Bonhoeffer spoke of Bach and Beethoven, and went on: ‘Easter?  We’re paying more attention to dying than to death.  We’re more concerned to get over the act of dying than to overcome death.  Socrates mastered the art of dying; Christ overcame death as the last enemy…There is a real difference between the two things; the one is within the scope of human possibilities: the other means resurrection.’  The previous year, Bonhoeffer had said: ‘We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learned the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and stopped us being truthful and open…Are we still of any use?’

At Flossenberg at dawn on 9 April 1945, the SS hanged Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  It was a round-up before liberation.  The Fatherland stripped one of its greatest sons of his clothing so that it could put him to death naked, but they used hemp rather than piano-wire.  They burned his corpse.  He was as guilty of a capital crime as was the man whose life and teaching he had sought to follow.  It might fairly be said to have been an accident of history that one crime was defined as treason and the other as blasphemy – it was nigh on inevitable that the mission of each would end in his execution.

Perhaps Bonhoeffer inherited his great strength and power of resistance.  His mother, Paula, wrote to him in jail: ‘I have always been proud of my eight children and I am now, more than ever when I see the dignity and respect they maintain in such an indescribable situation.’  She signed off: ‘All the best, my good boy.  Your old Mother.’  Her last letter added after those words: ‘We are staying in Berlin, come what may.’’  The whole family was tough.

Paula’s mother Julie had died in 1936.  She was a resister, too.  She just walked passed the Brownshirts to shop at Jewish shops.  On the way out she gave them that in-your-face attitude that we see in people in New York and Berlin – ‘I shop where I always shop!’  When Dietrich spoke at Grandma Julie’s burial, he used words of surpassing beauty that keep coming back to us.  ‘She came out of a different time, out of a different spiritual world, and this world will not shrink into the grave with her.  This heritage, for which we are grateful to her, puts us under obligation.’

What a family!  Other members were in the resistance and they too were executed.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a great hero of resistance, is as good case of noblesse oblige as you will see.

What I believe



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.

A Great Dane, a Confession, the Cataclysm, and a Bad Day


The Dane

But for Einstein, Niels Bohr may have been seen as the greatest scientific mind ever – but he still comes out of it much better than Salieri in Amadeus. Bohr won his Nobel Prize the year after Einstein.  As well as being a genius, this great Dane was, as they say in death notices, a devoted husband and father.  He was also a great teacher.  He told his students to treat every assertion that he made as a question.  Einstein says: ‘He utters his opinions like one perpetually groping and never like one who believes he is in possession of definite truth.’

There are obvious limits on our ability to understand the universe at either end – atoms and galaxies.  The major work of Niels Bohr was to work out the structure of the atom.  He said to Heisenberg, who discovered the principle of uncertainty, that:

When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images.

This is terribly important.  As explained by Jacob Bronowski, what Bohr was saying was that when it comes to atoms, our language is not describing facts but rather is creating images. What lies below the visible world must in some sense always be imaginary, ‘a play of images’.

There is no other way to talk about the invisible – in nature, in art, or in science. When we step through the gateway of the atom, we are in a world which our senses cannot experience.

Einstein said that he rarely thought in words. What we think that he meant was that in his work and at his level, he generally thought not in words but in mathematics. His job was to find the relevant laws of the universe. He was fond of saying that ‘God does not play dice.’ One day Bohr responded: ‘Stop telling God what to do.’

Even where we think that we understand the meaning of words describing events in the universe or in history, there is a separate question of the extent to which we come to grips with comprehending the scale of what is being spoken of.  Do we really have an understanding of how an atom is made up?  Do we really have an understanding of the size of a galaxy when as far as we know, it may have disappeared millions of years ago, but it is just that news of that disappearance is yet to reach us?  Are we able to come to grips with the brute fact that more than 20 million Russians died during World War II, or that more than six million people were murdered in what is called the Holocaust, or that some historians have given up trying to count how many millions died under Mao?  Can we come to grips with the economy of China, or the fact that China builds the equivalent of the city of Brisbane every day?

To go back to the world of physics, one mathematician said that ‘I am now convinced that theoretical physics is actually philosophy.’  New ideas in physics give us a different view of reality. What we are told now is that the world cannot be fully separated from our perception of it. Newton took God’s eye view of the world. Einstein took the view of each of us – the world is what we see and is relative to each of us. We cannot know what the world is like of itself – we can only compare what it looks like to each of us by talking about it. Jacob Bronowski summed it up as follows:

But what physics has now done is to show that that is the only method to knowledge. There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy.  All information is imperfect. We have to treat it with humility. That is the human condition; and that is what quantum physics says. I mean that literally.

Some say that Gödel made illusory the notion of truth in mathematics.  These are humbling thoughts about the power of thought.  Bohr indeed was a philosopher, even if he said that they all talked nonsense.

A biography of Bohr I read after Christmas referred to a sometime priest called Steno as the only prominent scientist to be beatified who said (in Latin):

Beautiful are the things we see

More beautiful those we understand

Much the most beautiful those we do not comprehend.

Bohr wrestled a lot with his own relativity.  He understood, he thought, that whether an object behaves as a participle or a wave depends on how you look at it – what kind of experiment you use to assess it.  You may hardly be able to ‘see’ either.  He believed that you cannot always separate thought from emotion.  He used a difficult word ‘complementarity.’  He referred to old truths, such as ‘we are spectators as well as actors in the great drama of existence’ and ‘if we try to analyse our emotions, we hardly possess them any more.’  The relativity comes in when you try to try to draw the line between subject and object.

Bohr was like other great wrestlers like Michelangelo, Luther, Beethoven, or Ibsen.  And he was that most beautiful gift – a decent, modest hero.  And God bless him – he gave us a glimpse of mystery in science, at least as deep as the mystery of religion; and in so doing he stuck it right up those arrant God-deniers who want to abolish all magic – and who even claim to have the answer!

A Confession

If you promise not to tell anyone, I watched a bit of the new pyjama game final last night.  I wanted to see Jacques Kallis in what I think will be his last visit.  He is as tough as Steve Waugh.  I also wanted to see if KP is earning his money.  He is, and I have no doubt that he is enjoying his cricket and being part of a team for the first time in a very long time.  The young Australian Muslem was a revelation in correctness.  The bits I saw were therefore encouraging, but I turned it off before the end.  I am trying to acquire this technique with red.

The Cataclysm

We must brace ourselves for disaster in the U S.  On the Democrat side you have a moral disaster and a managerial trainwreck.  The other side is unspeakable.  Trump has done a deal with Palin.  I infer that there is a deal that Trump bought Palin’s endorsement with a ministry.  She chose environment.  She can stand on her Alaskan shoreline with an AK47 and see the visible disproof of global warming.  Good Republicans – and there are some – fear Cruz more than Trump.  Cruz has two things that Trump doesn’t – brains and an agenda.  In a nation that slaughters its children in the name of ideology, we are entitled to be terrified.  If this most decent nation thinks that it will be able to reel in one of these galahs – on either side – if elected, let them reflect on what happened to a people who thought that they could the same with a brutal clown that Trump so closely resembles.

Mussolini still needed their [the moderates’] help, for most of the liberal parliamentarians would look to them for a lead.  He also took careful note that chaos had been caused in Russia when representatives of the old order were defenestrated en masse during the revolution:  fascism could hardly have survived if the police, the magistrates, the army leaders and the civil service had not continued to work just as before, and the complicity of these older politicians was eagerly sought and helped to preserve the important illusion that nothing had changed.

The liberals failed to use the leverage afforded by his need for their approbation.  Most of them saw some good in fascism as a way of defending social order and thought Italians too intelligent and civilised to permit the establishment of a complete dictatorship.  Above all, there was the very persuasive argument that the only alternative was to return to the anarchy and parliamentary stalemate they remembered….Mussolini had convincingly proved that he was the most effective politician of them all: he alone could have asked parliament for full powers and been given what he asked; he alone provided a defence against, and an alternative to, socialism.  And of course the old parliamentarians still hoped to capture and absorb him into their own system in the long run; their optimism was encouraged by the fact that his fascist collaborators were so second-rate. 

Here is the myth of the strong man cleaning the stables.  Does that not seem to be word for word a correct rendition of how decent Germans probably reacted to Hitler?  Still today you will find Christian apologists for Franco, and not just in Spain, who say that his fascism was preferable to republican socialism.  Mussolini had the other advantage that for reasons we now regard as obvious, no one outside Italy could take Mussolini seriously.  As his biographer reminds us, Mussolini was, rather like Berlusconi, seen as an ‘absurd little man’, a ‘second-rate cinema actor and someone who could not continue in power for long’, a ‘Cesar de carnaval’, a ‘braggart and an actor’, and possibly ‘slightly off his head.’  There is Trump.  Churchill always took Hitler seriously; he could never do that with that Italian buffoon.

A Bad Day

If I say that of tomorrow, I will just sit back and wait for an Abbottism about what I might wear on my arm.  So I won’t.  From 2015, 26 January will be looked back on as the day when Tony Abbott came out.  It was on that day that the Prime Minister of Australia formally announced that he was crackers.

In the meantime, Australians like me are resigned to popping up daisies before this nation reaches the stage reached by the United States on 4 July 1776.

Religious Violence – Not in God’s Name

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is a man of astounding learning and, at last count, sixteen honorary degrees.  When he writes a book with the above title, and the sub-title Confronting Religious Violence, we really should take note.  Not least because his conclusions will frighten you out of your wits.

…the world will be more religious a generation from now, not less…It has to do with demography.  The more religious people are, the more children they have.  The indigenous populations of Europe, the most secular continent on earth are committing long slow suicide…..Within religion, the most extreme, anti-modern or anti-Western movements will prevail.  This is happening in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  The old marriage of religion and culture has ended in divorce.  Today the secular West has largely lost the values that used to be called the Judeo-Christian heritage….Losing its religious faith, the west is beginning to lose the ideals that once made it inspiring to the altruistic…..The moral relativism that prevails today in the secular West is no defence of freedom…..In a world of relativism, what talks is power….So there will be more terror, more bloodshed….The West, indeed the world, has never faced a challenge quite like this.

As it happens, although I am as unreligious as you can decently get, I agree with every word.  As I think the author says elsewhere, the threat is not so much between the religions as within them – or at least the three that we most focus on.

The book looks at the origins of violence among humans, develops a theory of sibling rivalry, and offers explanations for some unsavoury parts of the bible.  I offer a few comments.

First, in looking at history, theology, philosophy, sociology and psychoanalysis – Freud is prominent – not to mention the huge literature of Judaism, it is not surprising if we get spread a bit thin.  For example, the author finds that we are subject to ‘two sets of instincts, honed and refined by many centuries of evolutionary history’ – the readiness to co-operate within our own group and to fight those in another group.  Darwin’s theory of evolution supplies the answer.

Let us put to one side that some people – a substantial part of the US Congress – do not accept that theory, what part does God have to play in our propensity for violence, whether we started in the Garden of Eden or in the backblocks of Africa?  It is a little disconcerting that when the author comes to Nazi ideology, he says it was pagan and propped up by ideas thought at the time to be scientific – including ‘social Darwinism’ the theory that the same processes operating in nature operate in society also.  The strong survive by eliminating the weak.’

It is not surprising that the process, whatever it is, continues in us, since we are its current end product, but it is a little worrying that the author’s starting point on human violence is the same theory.  Similarly, the author flirts with the suggestion that violence does not come from religion – religion comes out of violence.  That is a dangerous place to go for a man of God.

Secondly, Muslims are not the only ones with long memories when it comes to the Crusades.  The author dates the massacres of Jews before the first crusade as the time when Jews became a scapegoat leading, for example, to the Black Death.  ‘That period added to the vocabulary of the West such ideas as public disputation, book burning, forced conversion, Inquisition, auto-da fe, expulsion, ghetto and pogrom.’

Thirdly, Freud figures largely in the theory about sibling rivalry being at the core of the problem of violence.  Any parent of more than one child knows about this.  When she was about three and her sister about twelve months, our number one, a propos of nothing, picked up a handful of sand and pushed it firmly into the face of number two on Green Island, and number two let the mainland know.  A few years later, on Christmas Day, I heard number one pick up a broken toy ukulele and say ‘that one’s buggered – it can be Amy’s.’  But how do you verify the theory that this rivalry is at the core of violence between groups?  And where does it lead you?  Well, one thing it tells you is that it is madness, moral madness, for a parent to treat one child differently to others without good reason

That leads to the next point.  To deal with the complaint that God plays favourites by doing special deals with people he likes, Lord Sacks develops a distinction between the universality of God as Creator and Sovereign, and the particularity of the covenant with Abraham, Moses and the Israelites.  There are two covenants – one with Noah and the rest of us, and the other with Abraham and one particular people.  One represents universality and justice; the other particularity and love.  There is a dualism – a spectre elsewhere for the Rabbi – in Hebrew spirituality.  ‘It accepts the inevitability of the here-and- now.  We are not all the same.  There is an Us and Them.  But God is universal as well as particular, which means he can be found among Them as well as Us.  God transcends our particularities.’

Why in heaven’s name does He bother?  I had thought that excessive, sense-defying intellectualism was a virus peculiar to Christianity.  If it is silly for me to second-guess Einstein, why should I try it on with God?  Does the ordinary member of the congregation understand or accept any of this?

If they do, where does it take us?  God still does a special deal to single out one child from others and that is what inflames sibling rivalry – which the author says is the fount of all our problems.  And if you want to see sibling rivalry in action here it is in the author’s own words:

For all the natural pride we feel in being part of our group – the people of the covenant, a holy nation we are brought face to face with the fact that others may respond to the word of God better than we do.

If I may say so without offence, that remark gives a whole new meaning to the word ‘patronising’.

It seemed to me that a chicken-and–egg issue runs through a lot of this.  You shift the problem back one stage, but the problem or question remains.  Take the wars of conquest.  The author has to confront the problem lawyers know so well: ‘Whatever else a verse means, it means what it says.’  The Promised Land was taken by people like Joshua with appalling slaughter of men, women, and children, what today we call ethnic cleansing, ordained by God.

As I understand Lord Sacks, he says two things.  First, the victims were offered peace but refused it.  Secondly, the nation of the sword became the people of the book.  It is not hard to envisage a Palestinian response to either suggestion; indeed, as to the nation of the sword becoming the people of the book, I can imagine the reaction of most of Tel Aviv – most of them have to work for a living and help to defend the same nation; neither is within the contemplation of the people of the book.

So, we need some good news, and the author has it.  He refers to the changed relationship between Jews and Christians after the Holocaust.  He might have referred to the remark of Angela Merkel that the state of Israel is part of Germany’s raison d’etre, but he does quote the present pope: ‘God’s fidelity to the close covenant with Israel never failed, and… through the terrible trials of these centuries, the Jews have kept their faith in God.  And for this we shall never be sufficiently grateful to them as Church but also as humanity.’  The author says that ‘this may be the first time that a pope has publicly recognised that in staying true to their faith, Jews were being loyal to God, not faithless to him.  That is a statement capable of changing the world.’

People outside the religious circle may not be so optimistic.  The author elsewhere describes the exodus of Jews from across Europe – largely, as it seems to me, in response to Muslim migration, to put it softly, and the inevitable demographic consequences.  It is not a world that I will be sorry to leave.

May I conclude with perhaps just another example of Us versus Them?  I could hardly claim that Immanuel Kant is a mate of mine, but I will certainly look up if he is attacked.  Having referred to a throwaway line by Voltaire about the Jews (‘Still, we ought not to burn them’), Lord Sacks says that Kant ‘spoke of the Jews as ‘the vampires of society’ and called for ‘the euthanasia of Judaism.’

Kant is revered as a leader of the European Enlightenment, and is widely seen as the best placed to fill the ethical void left by the decline of religion.  We know that Konigsberg, where Kant lived, was the home of a large and successful Jewish community, and that Kant was very proud of the width of his friendships across the city.  (His best friend was an idiosyncratic English merchant.)  We know that Kant had almost a life-long and amicable correspondence with Moses Mendelssohn, a prominent Jewish philosopher and theologian, and the father of the composer.  We know that Kant conducted this correspondence and publicly defended Mendelsshon in a major controversy out of a deep intellectual respect – Mendelssohn had beaten Kant for a big prize.  We know that Kant backed Jewish students to overcome their disability with the establishment, and that he expressed his admiration for the achievements of Jewish students.  We know that Kant was warned off by the Prussian Establishment for his dangerous views on the state religion.  We know that Kant said that both sides would seek to make something out of the preservation of the Jewish people and religion.

One man sees in the continuation of the people to which he belongs, and in his ancient faith which remained unmixed despite the dispersion among such diverse nations, the proof of a special beneficent Providence saving this people for a future kingdom on earth; the other sees nothing but the warning ruins of a disrupted state which set itself against the coming of the kingdom of heaven – ruins, however, which a special Providence still sustains, partly to preserve in memory the ancient prophecy of a Messiah arising from this people, partly to offer, in this people, an example of punitive justice visited upon it because it stiff-neckedly sought to create a political and moral concept of the Messiah.

Kant was a supreme moral and intellectual heavyweight, and is not to be reduced by some gnat straining at a camel.  It is therefore disappointing that Lord Sacks does not give any context at all for the words alleged against Kant, and this in a book which labours the obvious point that context is indispensable in looking at statements that are controversial, and it is more than disappointing that when we go to the notes at the end, it appears that the author is not relying on the primary German source, but a citation by someone in Princeton in 1990 in a book about revolutionary antisemitism.  Really, my lord, third party sledging is not smiled upon in the universities that we most admire.  This might fairly be said to be a sample of the loose thinking and casual smearing that lie at the heart of the whole bloody problem.