‘Why?’ World War One

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Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;
Some could, some could not, shake off misery:
The Sinister Spirit sneered: ‘It had to be!’
And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, ‘Why’? [i]

 

Thomas Hardy, written on Armistice Day, 1918

2014 marks the year when we will remember a war that caused a degree of suffering all too clear in the statistical record; 16 million people dead and 20 million wounded. Soon, young faces from 100 years ago, brimming with expansive optimism, will appear on our iPad 4s, our iPhones and TV screens – before the brutality and the cynicism.

In Hardy’s poem, written on Armistice Day 1918, the poet’s question: ‘Why?” is a whispered ‘Why?’ – a Why?” that remains painfully unanswered, still today. Yet it is a Why?” children will nevertheless be asking us over the next four years. It is a “Why?” we have a duty to answer, as best we can.

The First World War was the first modern industrialised war. It consumed millions of citizen-conscript soldiers in four years of apocalyptic destruction. Its legacy of mass death, mechanized slaughter, propaganda, and disillusionment swept away long-standing romanticized images of warfare. War was no longer something painted on the tops of biscuit tins, but a visceral reality, in millions of homes, torn apart by grief. [ii]

But this is narrative, and narrative is not explanation. While commentators have no problem explaining the Second World War as a victory over fascism, the First World War appears to be different.  Already, during these first few days of 2014, battles rage: Boris Johnson demanding the head of Tristram Hunt the Shadow Education Secretary for his comments about the war[iii]; Sir Tony Robinson, Private Baldrick in Blackadder, calling Michael Gove the Education Secretary, “irresponsible”, for his comments on the war. [iv]

But the ideological war about the war is not a new phenomenon. In the 1990’s, after the 80th Anniversary commemorations were over, historians observed: “It was as though we wished to understand the war more than ever before without having the means to do so”. [v] So, twenty years on, it seems we’re still struggling to understand what the First World War was all about. Yes, there is general agreement about the consequences of the war, but the causes remain contentious. This lack of consensus pervades the media today, as commentators cite an eclectic set of causes: ‘accident and slide’, ‘Serbian ‘state sponsored terrorism’, ‘tangled alliances’, ‘indolent politicians’, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s empire building, and even AJP Taylor’s ‘railway timetables’ analysis. [vi]

In announcing the UK government’s £55 million plan to mark the centenary, David Cameron said: “Our duty is clear. To honour those who served. And to ensure that the lessons learnt live with us for ever”.  [vii]But what are these lessons? To whom, and where do we look? And what of Orwell’s warning that those who control the present control the past?

Writing in the Daily Mail, Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, says any lessons to be learnt have been overlaid by ‘myths’, ‘misinformation’ and ‘misrepresentations’, reflecting: “an unhappy compulsion to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage”. Gove accuses British dramas such as “Oh! What a lovely war”, and “Blackadder”, for teaching school children, ‘left-wing myths about the war’. For Gove, the war was a ‘just war’, fought by those who “were not dupes, but conscious believers in King and Country, committed to defending the Western liberal order against the ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites”. [viii]

Boris Johnson, responding to Gove’s article, concurs, citing: “German expansionism and aggression”; [ix] while eminent historians from our most illustrious university departments, propagate the narratives of a Kaiser intent on global war, [x]and a Britain going to war “for good reasons…. the outcome must be seen as a victory”. [xi]

However, Mr Cameron’s First World War Committee, which will oversee events for the commemoration, is less explicit. They state they want: “less focus on big explanations”, and more on revisingthe myths”; [xii]  such asthe ‘myths’ that soldiers did not believe in what they were fighting for, or the ‘myth’ that the war was prosecuted by incompetent and conscience-less generals {“lions led by donkeys”}.

This ‘demythologising’ was made manifest, earlier this month, when the Royal Mint revealed its special £2 “commemorative” coin: a coin not commemorating the dead or maimed, but rather, Field Marshal Horatio Kitchener KG, KP, GCB, OM. Kitchener of: “Your country needs you” fame”; Kitchener, who commanded British artillery and maxim machine guns at the Omdurman Massacre in Sudan, in 1898, killing 10,000 Dervishes who were only armed with spears and a few rifles. Even Churchill thought Kitchener too brutal in his killing.[xiii]

Meanwhile, the BBC recently confirmed this revisionist trend, and, in its “largest programming ever”, enlisted two high profile revisionist World War One historians, in Sir Max Hastings and Niall Ferguson, to make keynote documentaries about the war. The first item on the BBC’s dedicated World War One online page follows the script faithfully. Titled ‘World War One: A Misrepresented War?’ its introduction reads: “Does the traditional tale of ‘stupid generals, pointless attacks and universal death’ give a fair picture of the war?” Dramas will include: Teenage Tommies; The Machine Gun And Skye’s Band Of Brothers, Our World War, with POV helmet camera footage, surveillance imaging and night vision, and Radio 4’s biggest-ever drama commission, and Home Front a 1914-1918 version of East-Enders. [xiv]

Of course, as historians and script writers demythologize the minutiae of imperial ambition, and indulge in counterfactual speculation of a Britain standing aside from the war, there will be plenty of narrative. But, as the recent media furore suggests, the predominant narrative will be one of ‘necessary sacrifice’, [xv]with the Somme and Passchendaele represented as titanic struggles between democracy and autocracy, between good and evil.

On our screens, Professors of statistics may tell us that if the British dead alone were to rise up and march 24 hours a day, past a given spot, four abreast, it would take them more than two and a half days. [xvi] Professors of Psychology may narrate a war that turned “golden schoolboys” into “figures of dreadful terror shaking, mouthing like madmen,” but regarded as “sheer cowards” by Generals.[xvii] Medical historians could talk of the fate of 250,000 British amputees, or reference Louis-Ferdinand Céline who called the war “the vaccinated apocalypse”: with ten million military personnel dead we’d become better than disease at killing our fellow man’. [xviii] Military historians may narrate, how by 1917, shelling in France could be heard in London 140 miles away; and how even today nearly half a million pounds of war detritus and soldiers’ bones are unearthed each year on the Western Front. [xix]Social historians may tell how patriotic mothers were recruited by governments to publicly shame un-enlisted young men into joining up. Media historians may tell how war-loyal British editors were rewarded with knighthoods and peerages, wryly noting the war couldn’t have lasted more than a month without the press. Professors of economics may tell us that the direct financial war-cost was £125 billion; the equivalent of God knows how many trillions today.

But narrative is not explanation. For all the hours of broadcasting, narrative will not explain “Why?” Narrative is straightforward, explanation is difficult.  “Why?” is difficult. But, we must not be distracted by narrative alone.  David Cameron’s Commission want us to avoid the “big explanations”.  But, if any war needs ‘big explanations’, it is the First World War. This was a total war that spawned evils that plagued the 20th century: fascism, communism, racism, anti-semitism, dictatorship, extreme violence, mass propaganda, censorship, mass murder, genocide, the rise of corporate power. This was an industrial war that crashed through the limits of what was thought morally permissible in warfare; a war that seasoned rulers in future wars, to use napalm, Agent Orange, cluster bombs, chemical agents, white phosphorous, nuclear weapons, depleted uranium…

The First World War was a national trauma – an international trauma – and one that has left has its imprint on the popular imagination to an extent almost unparalleled in modern history. Yes Mr Cameron, undoubtedly, there are lessons to be learnt. But we will not learn them by narrative alone. Our children will not learn them by dismissing the “big explanations”, you are so keen to avoid.

The mythologies and the misinformation of the last 100 years will continue to be propagated, and, after four years of “programming”, we may even be forgiven for believing that this was a ‘just’ war fought to preserve liberty – cognitive dissonance rendering us too uncomfortable to bear the truth.

Yet, there are other voices out there, alternative voices you won’t hear on the BBC, but voices nevertheless, deserving of our attention – voices that might help us learn some lessons – voices that might even answer our children’s’ whispered “Why?”

 “During the war, 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were created in America alone, to say nothing of the massive secret profits made by their European counter-parts. Meanwhile, in their millions, boys with normal viewpoints, fine boys, boys the pick of their generation, were forced to leave their firesides, their families, their fields and their factories, to ‘about face’ and think nothing of maiming and killing, as if they were the order of the day”.[xx]

“Today, tens of thousands of war memorials in villages, towns and cities across the world bear witness to the great lie, the betrayal, that they died for “the greater glory of God” and “that we might be free”. It is a lie that binds them to a myth. They are remembered in empty roll calls, erected to conceal the war’s true purpose. What they deserve is the truth, and we must not fail them in that duty”.[xxi]

Notes


[i] Thomas Hardy, “And there was a great calm”

[ii] Neil Faulkner, “Why the rush to rewrite World War I history as a glorious victory matters so much today”, January 6th 2014

[iii] Boris Johnson, “Tristram Hunt should resign over World War One comments”, The Telegraph, 6th January 2014

[iv] “Sir Tony Robinson hits out at Michael Gove’s first world war comments”, The Guardian, 5th January 2014

[v] Annette Becker & Stéphane Audoin, 14-18, Understanding the Great War, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2002

[vi] Sean O’Grady, “So who really started the First World War”, The “I”, 8th January 2014. The reference to railways comes from AJP Taylor’s The First World War, 1963 p. 20

[vii] David Cameron’s Speech at the Imperial War Museum, 11th October 2012, Gov.UK

[viii] “Michael Gove blasts ‘Blackadder myths’ about the First World War spread by television sit-coms and left-wing academics”, The Daily Mail, 2nd January 2014

[ix] “Boris Johnson: Tristram Hunt should resign over First World War comments”, The Telegraph, 6th January, 2014

[x] Niall Ferguson, Empire, p.313

[xi] Hew Strachan, The First World War, London, Simon & Schuster, 2006, p.43

[xii] International Security Minister Andrew Murrison MP, “Special representative for the centenary commemoration of the First World War”

[xiii] Churchill, The River War: An Historical Account of the Re-conquest of the Sudan,1899

[xiv] BBC Media Centre, 16th October, 2013

[xv] Max Hastings, Catastrophe: Europe goes to war, 1914

[xvi] Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars, p.173

[xvii] Philip Gibbs, quoted in Spartacus Educational

[xviii] Harry Mount, “The First World War: the war that changed us all”, The Telegraph, 11th October, 2012

[xix] Spartacus Educational

[xx] General Smedley Butler, War is a Racket, first published, 1935

[xxi]  Gerry Docherty & Jim Macgregor, Hidden History: The Secret Origins of the First World War, Mainstream Publishing, 2013, pages 360 – 361

Joe Jenkins is a teacher and filmmaker. His latest film The Racket is due to be released later this year. He hopes to continue blogging on the forthcoming commemorations of the First World War.

 

http://www.ww1racket.com

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‘Life After Death’ Article – written for Dialogue Australasia Magazine

http://www.dialogueaustralasia.org/

If ‘the only things certain in life are death and taxes’ as Benjamin Franklin suggested, it was an unknown wit who added; ‘But you don’t have to die every year!’ Unlike the tax return form, death is a climactic event, the summation of a life and the petering out of all that we know. We disarm it by humour, but it stalks us none the less.

It’s the greatest paradox of life and for many, the cruellest irony. That those who live, will die; the fullest, richest, most complex of humans reach the end of the story and already know how it will end.  Our lives, if not ‘nasty, brutish and short’, are over all too quickly and barely scratch the surface of time. We have all lost someone we love and we will all lose the thing that we most love. And over this inevitable loss, our technology, our science, our music and our masterpieces all put up some kind of a fight. But whether there is any credible, philosophical expectation of more personal, life after death, is of perennial interest and debate.

Of the three, great, monotheistic religions, it is only Christianity, that has looked death in the face; countenanced it, ingested it and spat it out. The great birth-death-resurrection cycle of the Christian year has at its heart a much older story; that of meeting a cold universe with unquenchable Energy, of the triumph of Personality over dissolution and Love over indifference. It is a tale as old as man himself; tied, umbilically, to the cycle of the seasons as winter is over come by spring, and Persephone emerges from the underworld to rejoin her mother on earth. It is both natural and supernatural; incredible and profound.

The journey to heaven is intimately related to how you’ve lived your life. But, the link that we take for granted, is actually relatively recent.  Certainly in the Western hemisphere, early beliefs in an afterlife were unrelated to moral excellence; it was status (and the access it afforded) rather than virtue that won the day. For people such as the Ancient Egyptians, entrance to the Kingdom of the Dead, depended as much upon knowing the correct passwords as having a sin-free heart, and if the soul was heavier than the feather of Truth it would be eaten by the demon Ammit.  For the Ancient Israelites and the Ancient Greeks, Sheol  and Hades respectively were dreary, insubstantial places, reserved for kings and prophets. For the ordinary ‘man in the street’, the only hope of survival lay in his children or his tribe.

It took the Axial age – that great, stirring of individual consciousness somewhere around the 6th century BC – to promote ideas about the possibility of life after death for everyone. Now, the Prophet Ezekiel, in exile in Babylon, could have a vision of a ‘valley of dry bones’ that God would bring back to life. In the depth of his misery, Job was comforted by the realisation that the God who loved him was a Just God, who would see justice done.

“I shall see God whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold and not another. Job 19:27.

Although Job’s believes that his restoration will be fleeting, he was not alone in his hope for something; Hannah’s vision of the glory of the Messiah includes that of the dead being raised, and when the corpses of soldiers were thrown on top of the dead Elisha’s bones, they were resurrected and bought back to life. Hope for personal survival was slowly gaining ground, although it seems to have taken the persecution by the Greek, Antiochus Epiphanes, for a more sustained belief to take shape.  As the Jewish faithful were massacred in the Temple and butchered in the streets, the cry went up that the Martyrs could not die unrewarded. ‘You are taking us out of this world but the King of the World shall raise us” is the defiant call of one of seven Maccabaean brothers, massacred for refusing to denounce his God. His cry was heard by many. By the time of Jesus, two centuries later, there was a well established dialogue between the Pharisees, who believed in personal resurrection in the coming Messianic age, and the Sadducees who did not.

Coming from a very different tradition and in a different place and time, Socrates drank the hemlock in his prison with confidence and good heart. His death, as reported by Plato in the Phaedo, reads as a blueprint for the calm acceptance of a man who believes that death is not the end.

The friend who mourns for me imagines I am the other Socrates. The Socrates whom he shall soon see, a dead body; and he asks how shall he bury me?’ I, Socrates – the man, is leaving you and going to the joys of the blessed… and you must do with his body what you see fit.

For Socrates, the body is a vehicle; a casing for the man, but as little to do with the real, indivisible, single soul, as the toga he could take off at night. His eternal soul was unaffected by death, being non-composite and, therefore, irreducible. His soul was of a different realm to that of the body whom his friends could bury as they would. He had no further use for it – either now, or at any time in the future. And with these two different beliefs, one Judaic, the other Hellenistic, one can discern very different ideas about what kind of being, the human being actually is. Students need to grasp this fundamental difference.

For the Hebraic mind, man is ineluctably linked to his body. Really linked. A monist conception sees “mind and matter as formed from, or reducible to, the same ultimate substance or principle of being”. There is no possibility without a body. There is nothing without a body. Hence; any survival of death means the survival of the body – or a body. And from there, it is a short step to see why, in the monist conception, the resurrection of the dead is the only possible mode of survival. Although dominant in Hebraic thought, the Greeks were not without their advocates of monism; the Stoics famously postulating the Logos, or Reason, as the central, unifying state. But Plato, in contrast, advocated dualism with the world being but a shadow of the Eternal Form. In this guise, the body is part of a material realm, whereas the soul partakes of the Forms.

It was the Neo Platonism of Plotinus, via Origen, that introduced dualism to Christianity; finding synthesis and conflation in the genius of St Augustine. Before he became a Christian, Augustine had been a Manichaean and although he rejected the Manichaean doctrines, a latent belief in their dualistic world view is often ascribed to him. In his ‘Confessions’, Augustine writes

“And, because my soul dared not be displeased at my God, it would not suffer aught to be Thine which displeased it. Hence it had gone into the opinion of two substances, and resisted not, but talked foolishly”[1].

Later, to correct himself with a more monist conception:

I saw….that Thou truly art, who art the same ever, varying neither in part nor motion; and that all other things are from Thee…… Of these things was I indeed assured, yet too weak to enjoy Thee.”[2]

Augustine wrote the Confessions in 398 AD ; that’s 1,515 years ago and yet I heard him yesterday! A Catholic friend rang to ask whether I was going to a local funeral.

“It’s at the Crem” she bemoaned. “ I hate the Crem. Can’t bear all the speed and finality! I’m just going to be put in the ground and rot slowly…. and hope that an angel comes to get me!”

However, Charlotte, if pressed, would also say she believes in an everlasting and incorporeal soul that is quite independent of what happens to the body; and the peculiar synthesis embraced by Christianity, owes most of its origin to Augustine.

It’s not been an easy marriage. It’s very difficult to imagine a soul without some ‘body’ or vehicle to house it, so the abstracted Greek thought is already demanding. What would the disembodied soul look like? How would it be recognisable to others? Most importantly, how would it know itself through memories? How would it ‘speak, move and have its being?’If we strip attributes such as memory away – and discard them as ‘ mind events’ or ‘products of the brain’ – we pretty soon come to a surviving soul that bears little resemblance to the person that lived. The soul is free – too free  – of the body it once occupied. For which the famous ‘Replica theory’ of Professor John Hick has some fascinating and controversial answers that always stimulate classroom debate.

For St Paul, and millions of Christians, men are entitled to believe in physical resurrection because of an event in history.

‘If Christ has not been raised then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain’ he writes to the Corinthian church, adding ‘ If we have hope in Christ in this life only, we of all men are the most miserable.’ The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the corner stone of Christian belief. Without it – whether one believes in a literal resurrection of a physical body, or a life changing vision of the Risen Christ – there would, for Christians, be little point in speculating about animated bodies or incarnated souls. ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ says Jesus. And, on His Passion Cross, spread out for all to witness, is the interchange between God and man, faith and doubt, hope and despair. It is the crossroads of Life meeting Death.

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

Neither Hindus nor Buddhists would mind “the Crem” of my friend Charlotte! In the great Vedanta tradition of Hinduism, the soul is liberated from the body at death. And the duty of the eldest male relative is to crack the skull to release it; allowing it to pass on. The new life the soul enters is dependent on karma – the law of cause and effect. It is the karma of a life that influences its rebirth; for every action has its response. And hence responsibility for good and bad fortune is passed back to the powerful soul.

There is a wonderful story in Plato’s Republic about Odysseus  choosing his rebirth. It’s found in the ‘Myth of Er’:

There came also the soul of Odysseus having yet to make a choice, and he happened to be the last of them all. The recollection of former troubles had disenchanted him of ambition, and he went about for a considerable time in search of the life of a private man who had no cares. He had some difficulty in finding this, but eventually saw one such life, lying about, having been neglected by everybody else. When he saw it, he said that he would have still chosen this life if he had been first instead of last, and that he was delighted to have it[3].

With the rise of technology, death is not what it was. Once it was easy; death had happened when the heart stopped beating and the blood stopped flowing but now the heart can be forced to beat, or a machine takes over and does the beating. In that case, death is related to the death of the brain. But which part of the brain? Is a man whose brain stem is dead, actually ‘dead’ and should he be treated as such, as British law presumes? Or does death entail the demise of the whole brain – as is the case in America? Can a dead man have legal rights – as in a recent British case, where a judge has ordered that a terminally ill person can bring an action in court, even though he will be dead, by the time the case is heard? And what of the near death experiences so commonly reported? How are we to treat them? Are they the deluded, endorphin-triggered fantasies of a brain that is shutting down or are they plausible events? Or the notion of cyber-consciousness, when tiny nano-robots are installed into our brains, to be uploaded on to some super-computer when we have the technology to do so. Would the ensuing ‘avatar’ be “us” in any sense? Or would we be dead – and a travesty of all we had once been? All these form part of a bridge between abstract philosophical  ideas about life after death and urgent, ethical questions and all become the concern of the Religious Studies student, especially in synoptic units.

Life after death is a topic that divides people profoundly.  The language of ‘passing’ is interesting – in all that’s implied but not said. And, whether you fill those implications, or leave them empty, is something very quiet and personal. But I am reminded of the story of the Waterbug who spent his life puzzled that his friends all disappeared.

“I don’t know” he said, “They grow wings and float to the surface and then – pop – they’re suddenly gone! If that ever happens to me I promise I will come down and tell you all how I did it!”

One day, the water bug did indeed grow wings and found himself making the journey he had watched so often, before. “It’s happening” he told himself “Soon I will be able to go back and tell my water bug friends exactly how I did it”. But to his great dismay, when his new wings had unfurled and dried, he found he could not go back. Try as he might, he couldn’t penetrate the water, but bounced back up to the sky.

“Well I can’t tell them” he said sorrowfully. “But one day they will know. It’s a journey each bug does for himself” and with that he flew away.

Just like the isolation of the water bug, death is a journey we all make alone, in a reverse of the journey we first made at birth. The journey may not be very long – or it may be eternal. And neither the atheist nor the theist can know anything other than what they believe.

“The real question of life after death isn’t whether or not it exists, but even if it does, what problem this really solves.” said Ludwig Wittgenstein[i], continuing “Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean, not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end, in the way in which our visual field has no limits.”

It is a neat argument; satisfying and robust. Zeno – the Ancient Epicurean would have agreed with him and told us we have nothing to fear. Death cannot happen to a living man. There is never a state of non-being because death only happens when one’s dead! One can certainly see what he’s saying. But For the water bug, and for millions of people around the world, death paradoxically does happen to a living man. It happens when one’s still alive, and embarking on a different road or journey. And that might not be a failure to embrace the reality of death, but an expectation and a hope that one lives by.


[1] Confessions of St Augustine Book VII, Chapter XIV, Vs 20

[2] Ibid Chapter XX, Vs 26

[3] Plato The Republic Book X


[i] Tractatus 6:431

Classroom Activities to Accompany Teaching on Life after Death (to go along with Ethicsonline.co.uk film resources)

  1. Anagram Race: In teams or individually, race students against each other to unscramble the following anagrams – all mentioned in the Resurrection film

CASEBAME

LEOSH

UTONCHIAS  HISANEPPE

KICH

TIMSON

ARUZSAL

KEELIXE

MOAS TIMEKOPUNNA

MOAS SYPIHCOKN

(Macabees, Sheol, Antiochus Epiphanes, Hick, Monist, Lazsarus, Exekiel, Soma Pneumatikon, Soma Psychikon)

  1. A Resurrection Activity that is good for kinaesthetic learners

Make the following cards (they can be scraps of paper or something more durable) and hide them around the room – in fairly obvious places if you don’t want this game to last too long! Invite students to team – and record – the correct assertion with one or even several possible criticisms.

Assertions:

  • Jesus had a Hebraic concept of what a man is. He was a monist.
  • It is not logically impossible for God to recreate a resurrected body in a different realm at the moment of our death or sometime after it
  • Personality depends on memory – so in order to be the same person, the resurrected person would have to have memories.
  • Heaven could get too crowded
  • The idea of resurrection cannot be thought of as ‘literally true’.

Criticisms

  • If this were true why did he say to the thief beside him on the cross ‘Today, you will be with me in Paradise’.
  • If Jesus was not literally resurrected, there seems to be very little grounds for anyone believing in an afterlife, let alone resurrection.
  • A space/time concept is a human construction. It is just limitations in our understanding and imagination to suggest this might be a problem.
  • Maybe it doesn’t need to be thought of as ‘literally true’ in order for it to be true in some other way. As Hamlet said to Horatio “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.
  • Why does God have to follow what’s logically possible?
  • ‘As Terence Penulham would say ‘ If such a being was recreated, how would that replica be us and not a fake of us?’
  • We are a process rather than a fact, which ‘us’ would God resurrect – at what stage of our lives?
  • When is this resurrection supposed to happen? If later than immediately after death, where does that person go? For the monist there is nothing without a body, so if there is no simultaneous resurrection, that person ceases to exist.
  • We don’t know much about Jesus and can’t make assertions like this.
  • If personality depends on memory, is the person with Alzheimer’s, or in a coma, or even someone asleep, still a person?
  • If resurrected beings didn’t necessarily have memories, how would they recognise each other?
  1. Corrupting the youth of Athens’ sounds like a serious offence. In our day we would expect it to mean a teacher having a relationship with an underage pupil – or any pupil. Indeed, teachers who do so are imprisoned. There is a particular responsibility placed on those in authority. Invite students to come up with a list of ‘crimes’ that they imagine have changed over time – they don’t need any particular knowledge, but it is easy to imagine that ‘blaspheming against the gods’ or ‘treason to the king’ was once more serious than it is today. Or was it?
  • Did Socrates deserve to be put to death?
  • If the soul is immortal, does this make a difference to our views on capital punishment?
  • Does the concept of karma have any relevance here?
  1. If, as Plato believed, the Forms exist and there are Perfect versions of Truth, Beauty and Goodness, what difficulties might you encounter with the following statements

a)    Female circumcision is a good thing to do.

b)    There are many religions in the world but only one is correct

c)    Capital punishment should be ‘brought back’ for people who abuse children

d)    War is never right

(aim of the exercise to discuss the differences between absolutism and relativism)

  1. Gilbert Ryle talks of the ‘team spirit’ as a “category mistake”. Make a list of institutions/places/clubs/groups known to the students where there is a definite ‘spirit’ or team feeling. Sometimes these are very different eg. A meeting of Hitler’s Nazi Party and a meeting of the League against Cruel Sports.

Answer the following questions of one of their nominations.

a)    Is there a joining or initiation ceremony?

b)    Is there a uniform?

c)    Is there a regular place and time of meeting? If so when?

d)    Are certain rules enforced?

e)    What are the overall aims of the group?

f)     Is there a ‘spirit’ to the thing that is anything other than all those factors put together? If you took one of those factors away, would there still be a spirit? If you took all of those factors away would there still be a spirit? Is the spirit of the team anything more than how it holds itself together as a group?

In the Myth of Er, Plato records how the soul of Odysseus spent time in the afterlife. What kind of soul would the students chose for their next life? Would it be ‘the life of a private man’ or something else? What would make them chose one soul rather than another?

Article on ‘Hell’

A man is driven to a wall by a huge wooden stake. Immobilised and helpless, he long ago gave up even trying to move. Any effort in this place is futile and everywhere people are screaming. To his left, a woman sits bound, while around her, assailants crouch near.

If it sounds like a scene from hell; it is. When Hieronymus Bosch painted The Last Judgement, he visited every possible torment on the unworthy. With its cartoon style and fantastical creatures, scholars have wondered whether Bosch was quite serious. Was his hell not a little fanciful? Surely hell could not be as bad? But Bosch was a member of a conservative Christian group; and, as such, his hell was no joke.

Bosch’s hell fell on a receptive audience. By the time he made this painting somewhere around 1482, the late medieval mind was accustomed to the concept of hell. Preached from every pulpit and driven into every peasant, it was the certain fate to which the majority were doomed. Life on earth was hard enough; people were used to suffering. To a certain extent they were inured to it, which is why medieval punishments were so particularly gruesome and why the corresponding image of hell had to be even worse.

800px-Bosch_laatste_oordeel_drieluik_wenen

As the victims twisted on the rack, burnt on the stake and were flayed in the market place, the onlookers shuddered and blanched. If this was a foretaste of what could be expected in the great beyond, then what lay in store was not pleasant. And for the ordinary man and woman, the prospect was so real and terrifying, so imminent and final that it dominated the way they lived the only life they actually knew they possessed.

The reality and eternity of hell had strong scriptural backing. Jesus had been distressingly adamant. The story of the Rich Man was tough.  Having ignored Lazarus in life, he pleaded from the gates of hell to send a warning to others.  And Jesus quoted Isaiah saying; ‘If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It’s better to enter eternal life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.[i]The word he used was ‘Gehenna’ which was an actual place; a smouldering rubbish pit running on the south side of Jerusalem. In Isaiah’s time, children were sacrificed here to the pagan god, Moloch.  Historically it reeked of death, idolatry and taboo. In Jesus’ time it still smelled, though by now only of excrement and animal carcasses. What is interesting is that the fires of the child sacrifice became first the fire of a municipal dump – and then the eternal fires of hell.

The Church Fathers had reinforced a particular reading of Jesus’ message. In The City of God, Augustine explains it further. Firstly, the Bishop of Hippo sees hell as eternal. While the righteous will be resurrected at the last day, the unworthy will be judged, only to suffer a second death and continue their punishments for all time. To the gentler natured Origen, who believed in the Platonic idea of the pre-existence of souls, suffering on earth was a reflection of past mistakes. To him it was inconceivable that an all-loving God could willingly ordain eternal punishment for a fleeting sin. But Origen’s position was unpopular. The idea that all men and women would one day be reconciled to God was declared heretical and he was posthumously excommunicated.

For the majority of Church fathers, only two positions were possible; either God creates a fresh soul for every human being at conception (Immediate Creationism), or the soul was transmitted by one or both of the parents to the unborn child – a theory known as Traducianism.  There was some concern over the idea of God having to be ‘on watch’ for the “lust of two brutish persons” in order to insert a soul into the product of their liaisons.[ii] But St Augustine is clear that, as all men inherit Adam’s Original Sin from the loins of lust, a wicked soul is a default position. Evil and suffering are man’s fault and not God’s. God is only acting in his Infinite Justice when he condemns some (most) men to hell. As Philip Almond puts it `Sin against an Infinite Being, of necessity, merits infinite suffering’.[iii]

With this dismal prospect in mind, pilgrims all over Christendom gathered at shrines, fought in Crusades and established oratories to mitigate both the sins they had inherited and the ones they picked up of their own free will. But at least sin and eternal damnation had a comforting, corporate feel. As Chaucer’s pilgrims and thousands like them trudged along the rutted tracks of imperfect Europe, they knew they were not alone. And, if they performed enough good deeds or paid for a chantry where priests would sing sufficient masses, then who knows? Maybe you would find the gates of hell barred and those of heaven opened wide, to greet you in your final hour.

Although Augustine was clear that prayer could do nothing for the damned, he prayed fervently for his mother whom he had loved. Later, he was to recount his feelings at her death; “My soul was wounded, and my life….torn in pieces, since my life and hers had become a single thing.” He could not help but pray for her; “Lord, forgive such trespasses as she may have been guilty of…….. Forgive them Lord, I beseech Thee.”[iv] But if reward or damnation was fixed at the minute of death, what was the point of these prayers? What effect could they possibly have?

According to Jacques le Goff in his book The Birth of Purgatory, the idea of a third state, somewhere between heaven and hell, first appeared around 1170. With it came three possibilities; the wicked would go straight to hell, the good straight to heaven and the vast majority would extend their earthly life in Purgatory where they would be cleansed of their sins immediately after death and prior to the Last Judgement. This immediate post-mortem judgement argues Goff, gave rise to a complicated system of proportionality where sins could be atoned. True, it was still a passive state. The soul could never alter its final result, but purgatory could shorten its time of punishment and hasten it towards a state of grace. And the good thing about purgatory was that it would not last forever. “Thus there came to be established in the hereafter a variable, measurable and, even more important, manipulable time-scale,”[v] And, as Philip Almond puts it, it was “the Church that was in charge of the calculations.”[vi]

It was the abuse of these calculations; the sale of indulgences – scraps of parchment letting people off a specified time in purgatory, dished out by semi-literate priests for a bag of jangling coins – that were among the practices that so enraged Luther. His anger was such that he denied the intermediate state altogether, and gave rise to a whole new way of thinking about Sin and Hell. For Luther, Calvin and subsequent Protestantism, ‘sola fide’ or ‘Justification through faith alone’ offered a new and terrifying prospect for the newly dead. ‘So sinful was man,’ argued Luther, ‘so tarnished by the Sin of Adam that nothing could save him other than Christ’s atoning love.’ It mattered little what a man did in life – no amount of good works, pious acts or anxious alms giving could buy him eternal life. Only God’s grace through the death of his only Son could expiate a man for his sins.

During the course of the English Reformation, the idea of predestination affixed itself to many a terrified psyche. Under this banner, not only could a person do nothing to further his cause with his Maker, but his fate was eternally predestined. He had only to live out his life like a river flowing down a gully – his eventual destination – either in Heaven or Hell – was as inevitable as the water one day reaching the sea.

Neither was anyone in any doubt about the numbers destined for hell. In his book Heaven and Hell in Enlightenment England, Philip Almond quotes a certain Tobias Swinden, and his reaction to a calculation that there would be 1,000,000 souls in one square mile of hell. ‘T’is a poor, mean and narrow Conception both of the Numbers of the Damned, and of the Dimensions of hell’ he fumed[vii] The more charitable Matthew Horbery re-read the New Testament and declared that ‘half would be damned and half would be saved.’[viii] This sounds promising; until he went on to say that infants who died before they had sinned could reasonably be expected to escape punishment. But then he calculated that, as half the population dies in infancy, the vast majority of anyone surviving into adulthood is doomed by their very survival to hell.

Hell was the intensifying of every possible pain, hurt, stench and darkness. Though fires burned perpetually, the bodies they burnt never disintegrated. Moreover, the fires gave off no light. The miseries of life were but ‘flea-bites’ compared to that which was to come. It is unimaginable how many countless human beings lived their lives under such a frightful spectre, and the charge that hell was a device constructed to keep social order was one posited before either Dostoevsky or Marx.

It is tempting to straitjacket hell into a cloud that has loomed over men and woman through the ages, darkening their lives and steering their actions. Tempting but unfair. And the unfairness has something to do with the fact that it is actually not fear, but love that has been the dominant force behind Christianity. The[BH1] early Desert Fathers, who, in the 5th and 6th centuries lived lives of extraordinary goodness, were motivated not by hell, but by the desire to be like Christ, to see Christ in other people and to love ‘as he loves us.’ The story of one monk who, robbed by thieves of everything he had, ran after the thief to also offer him his tunic – was an action driven by both love and fear.[ix] But the fear was not that of hell. It was of something both more powerful and more personal – the fear of letting himself down, of being less than he was capable of being. Of being less like the Christ that he loved.

In the 13th century Aquinas had used the language of Aristotle to explain the ‘telos’ or ‘end’ of man as the fulfilment of his God given nature. Whereas for St Thomas, evil had no substance in itself – being only the privation of good – so by extension, hell could be the absence of that which a man needs to become all that he is capable of being. It is a state in the making as well as a state after death, because it is the denial of one’s inner reality or God given potential[BH2].

With this in mind, it should be stressed that a literal understanding of hell has never been the whole story. With the conception of God as Infinite Goodness whose nature lies at the heart of man’s being, comes the commensurate understanding that hell is less something literal than metaphorical or symbolic.

With roots in Origen, Aquinas and even Augustine; it is this view of hell as an ongoing psychological perception of the nature of man, and his real and radical freedom, that has been the prevailing view of hell among modern theologians. In the 19th century, the clergyman Wathen Call was so haunted by the thought that “a great part of the human race… (are) kept everlastingly alive, to be the victims of… insane, concentrated malignity on the part of God,”[x] that he resigned his orders. He would not have had to resign them today.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury has said;

‘My concept of hell, I suppose, is being stuck with myself forever and with no way out. Whether anybody ever gets to that point I have no idea. But that it’s possible to be stuck with my selfish little ego for all eternity, that’s what I would regard as hell’.[xi]

It is a long way from Bosch’s vision of tormented limbs, but it does speak clearly of the psychological – and spiritually awful – vision of hell that modern theology asserts. The Anglican theologian Richard Bauckham writes

‘Human beings are made to find fulfilment ultimately only in God. Salvation, both now and after death, is in knowing God.  If this is the destiny for which God has made us, hell cannot be a kind of parallel, alternative destiny. Hell is the result of refusing the one destiny for which we were made and the only way in which human life can find eternal fulfilment’.[xii]

His words are not dissimilar to those of Pope John Paul II;

The images of hell that Sacred Scripture presents to us must be correctly interpreted. They show the complete frustration and emptiness of life without God. Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy’[xiii]

This disembodied, poetic view of hell is rich both spiritually and psychologically, attesting as it does to the reality of the choice and the goodness open to God’s creations. And yet the visceral and more twisted vision of hell is never very far away. A survey conducted byreligioustolerance.org has some surprising results. According to this, only 37% of Christians believe hell to be separation from God, while 85% of people polled thought it would be a real place with tangible suffering[xiv]

‘Alright then, I’ll go to hell,’ remarked Huckleberry Finn when he decided not to tell Miss Watson where her runaway slave could be found. “It was awful thoughts and awful words. But they was said. And I let them stay’d said and never thought no more about reforming,’ Huck says as he decides which path his eternal life should take.[xv]

“If you are going through hell, keep going,” said Winston Churchill, drawing on a  cigar whilst broadcasting to wartime Britain. It is good advice. It remains good advice wherever one should find oneself in times to come. And for those who assert “hell is dead,” there is the chilling realisation that one can never be sure. One would go far to find a Christian – even a modern secular Christian – who would deny the concept of hell altogether. They might agree with Oscar Wilde that “We are each our own devil and we make this world our hell,’ but hell as a concept still speaks profoundly to the spiritual psyche. Even – perhaps particularly – St Augustine, who could write; ‘In that day …. Happiness shall be the lot of…. the good, while deserved and supreme misery shall be the portion of the wicked’ would certainly have understood, and perhaps even have smiled. Some understanding of Hell is as real as it ever has been, and it is not impossible that – paradoxically – the world would be a meaner, poorer and ultimately more restricted place without it.

 


[i] Mark 9:47

[ii] Rust, G. A letter of resolution concerning Origen and the chief of his opinions. London : C.L., 1661.

[iii]  Almond, Philip. Heaven and Hell in Enlightenment England. Cambridge : Cambridge Universty Press, 1994.

[iv] Augustine, St. Confessions 9.12.30.

[v] Goff, Jacques Le. The Birth of Purgatory. s.l. : University of Chicago Press, 1986.

[vi]  Almond, Philip. Heaven and Hell in Enlightenment England. Cambridge : Cambridge Universty Press, 1994.

[vii] Ibid  p.73

[viii]  Ibid p.74

[ix] Williams, Rowan. Where God Happens – Discovering Christ in One Another. s.l. : New Seeds, 2007.

[x]Rowell, G. Hell and the Victorians. s.l. : Clarendon, 1974.

[xi] Beckford, Martin. The Daily Telegraph. 13th August 2009.

[xi] Bauckham, R. Short Essays: Hell. Richard Bauckham – Biblical Scholar and Theologian. [Online]http://richardbauckham.co.uk/index.php?page=short-essays

[xiii] Pope John Paul II. Heaven Hell and Purgatory Pope John Paul II. EWTN Global Catholic Television Network.[Online] 1999. http://www.ewtn.com/library/papaldoc/jp2heavn.htm.

[xiv] Beliefs about Heaven and Hellwww.religioustolerance.org[Online] September 2003.http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_poll3.htm#salv.

[xv] Twain, M. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 1884


 [BH1]It is actually not fear, but love that has been the dominant force behind Christianity.

 [BH2]Hell could be the absence of that which a man needs to become all that he is capable of being.