Scrooge’s economics

In our house, to get into the Christmas spirit, we have been reading aloud from A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas (to give the full title to a familiar tale). It’s a story that is so well loved and has so entered our cultural DNA that pretty much everyone has “read” it, even if they haven’t actually read it. Reading books that everyone has read without realising it can be fascinating – you see what’s been forgotten or left out in the popular retellings.

The answer is not much in the case of Dickens’ short story – it’s short and has been picked over many times in many different adaptations after all. (This is our favourite.) But in last night’s reading, Scrooge refers puzzlingly to his holding of American bonds. The puzzle was easily solved, but while Googling I also came across this rather fascinating piece on Scrooge’s economics. Its critique chimes with my current interest in free markets and is worth a read.

But it does rather miss the message. Surely the point of the story is that the high value Scrooge places on money and accumulation is grotesque in a world where he is very well placed to alleviate human suffering – particularly that of his clerk, Bob Cratchit, and Bob’s child, Tiny Tim. Dickens doesn’t so much misunderstand economics, as the Mises’ Institute insists. It’s just that Scrooge’s placing a higher value on accumulation than on alleviating suffering is shown for what it is – inhuman. To put it another way, using words from another tradition than the Christianity Dickens draws on, the story shines a light of awareness on a spiritual truth: that “true happiness is rooted in peace, solidity, freedom, and compassion”, and that realising that we should be “determined not to accumulate wealth while millions are hungry and dying nor take as the aim of our life fame, power, wealth, or sensual pleasure, which can bring much suffering and despair”. Not a bad thing to be reminded of as the year draws to an end.

Happy Christmas, one and all. And God bless us, every one.

This morning’s Tolstoyan moment

This morning, while reading War and Peace when I should have been getting on with other things, I got increasingly absorbed and excited about the message of two particular chapters – those of chapters 12 and 13, volume IV, part IV. These tell of Pierre Bezukhov’s new life in Moscow following the expulsion of the French and his revelation about the key to a good and happy life. While reading, I marvelled that these wonderful two chapters had not struck me more forcefully in my previous readings of the novel, so I resolved to commit them fully to memory. To do that, I turned to the back of the book, where there is a one or two line summary of every chapter. I would mark the chapters that had moved me so much so I could remember where they were and return to them regularly. And what did I find when I went to do that? That I had long ago already marked those very chapters!

Readers of Tolstoy will recognise this human foible. A resolution to live a better or more rewarding or more active or more-whatever life gives way, sometimes even in the very next moment of life, to a complete forgetfulness about one’s previous resolution. I believe in Anna Karenina, if memory serves (doubtful, I admit!), somewhere near the end of the book, a similar determination by Levin to live a more patient and less angry and more Christian life is spoilt in the very second following the one in which he makes the resolution by an impatient and angry remark directed at his wife or servant. Why should this be so?

Is it because what Thich Nhat Hanh calls our “habit energies” and unmindful behaviour and forgetfulness are so much stronger than our good intentions. It’s why Hanh says that Tolstoy’s stories (he’s talking in particular about this one) are perfect but for their lack of advice about the skilful means whereby we might turn our good intentions into a life lived well. This is the meaning and purpose of meditation.–Stuart

Warriors for peace

Shortly after Jeremy Corbyn’s election victory as leader of the opposition, we said that the predictable response would be to whip up fear. Less than a week later, we have a serving army general saying that there would be a military coup in the wake of a Corbyn general election victory.

We also said that the only hope for Corbyn in the face of such fear is for the electorate to grow up. What we mean is that all those people, including ourselves, who see hope for the future in a Corbyn-led Labour movement must learn how to smile in the face of such threats. We must much rather take on the responsibilities of peace than live in fear and tolerate wars. For how childish is it really to propose to establish peace from behind the barrel of a gun, to slaughter those we see as threats, to sincerely believe that nuclear weapons could be the answer to anything?

To steal some imagery from a book we are reading, we must be prepared to walk a tightrope over the abyss, to summon up the courage to stare right into that abyss and keep walking, to transcend our everyday humanity and become the very best it is possible for a human being to be. We must become warriors who can smile at fear and walk the path of peace.–Stuart&Dave

The art of suffering

A few careful and thoughtful readers have pointed out that my previous posts on happiness and consciousness were undialectical. There is no prospect of achieving pure happiness in this world since living involves us in a contradictory process that includes both happiness and suffering, peace and anger, hope and fear.

They are, of course, quite right. As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, there in no realm on this earth where you can have happiness without suffering. Even to mention the one is to bring the other into being. But this need be no counsel of misery or despair. It’s just how things are. The art of happiness is not the achievement of a state or of a world where there is no suffering, but to learn how to take good care of suffering – our own, and that of other people. To do this well and wisely is to bring happiness into this world. Happiness, like everything else, is impermanent. So we nurture it and help it come into being and to grow, and we are aware and take good care of all the suffering within us and around us –this should be work and pleasure enough for a lifetime–Stuart

What’s it all about?

What is it all about really – this life? What are we after? What are we searching for? Why do we so often suffer with feelings of disconnection, incompleteness, anxiety? Sometimes it’s overwhelming, and darkness descends. At other times you must really pay close attention to discover it at all – and yet, there it is, a gnat bite of unsatisfactoriness. For what do we hanker?

What it comes right down to, in the end, is happiness – isn’t it? That somehow doesn’t sound serious or upright or ambitious enough, so we may find ourselves saying instead that what we want is more money, more fame, more power. Or perhaps, hoping to sound more noble, we lust after freedom, or truth, or to do good. We struggle for some great reform, start a revolution, dig in and bank up the sides of the status quo, fight for the reaction. Some of us hanker for more money; some to do more good work for others or to save the world. Some, in the case of the “effective altruism” movement, do both. But why would we want any of these things if not to be happy? Surely we only want money to be happy; to help others so that we feel ourselves to be good and useful and hence happy?

Maybe, but happiness alone is not quite enough. In his great novel, Wolf Solent, John Cowper Powys presents two visions that represent the extremes of what fate might hold in store for human beings. The first is the “face on the Waterloo steps”, glimpsed by the book’s protagonist at the railway station. Just to look at such a face is to enter yourself into the very depths of misery and despair. It is life without hope. It is the plain, unadorned struggle for existence – and the eagle digs his claws into your shoulders.

The second extreme, also glimpsed by the book’s protagonist on his literal and philosophic wanderings, is self-satisfied “happiness”. There, sitting in a neat garden, retired from life’s struggles at last, puffing contentedly on a pipe and enjoying his property and the passing show, is the face of a man with the look of a cat lapping up the cream. Contentment and indulgence. Perhaps this vision might sound more appealing to you. And yet, just think, how could you sit there lapping up the cream while you know that there is yet in this world that face on the Waterloo steps? It’s grotesque. Unworthy. Could we think of a better word than inhuman?

We arrive, then, at a tentative conclusion. The aim of existence is to be happy while pursuing a human life, a noble life. Except that this is not so much a conclusion – not something to be decided and resolved upon and that’s that. It’s more like an art, something that demands study and practice. What’s delightful about it is that it’s art we can all play a part in creating; no credentials nor any particular talents are required. If you are a human being, practising the art of living – whether it’s for one minute or one day or the next 40 years – is something you can actually do, every minute of your life. The result can be great happiness – for ourselves, and for our fellow creatures.–Stuart