Walking, Wilderness, and the Wild

On one of my first visits to the United States, I spent a few days in Yosemite. After walking a couple of miles along a trail, I came to a sign that read along these lines. ‘So far the walking has been fairly easy, but now it becomes more difficult. Are you ready for The Wilderness Experience.’ There are, of course, some pleasing ironies in such a sign. The use of the word ‘experience’, usually employed in advertising the most artificial of constructed environments: the Disney experience, the Smithsonian experience, and so on. Following a well sign-posted man-made trail in order to have the wilderness experience. (A little further on, another wayside pulpit advised the awed traveller to ‘Close your eyes. Listen carefully. What can you hear? Nothing. This is the sound of silence.’) But what struck me most was the use of the term ‘wilderness’. Nothing in Britain, or perhaps even in the whole of Europe, could really be described as wilderness. Wild places there certainly are: the English Lake District, the Scottish Highlands, the Alps, but none of these can properly be called wildernesses. Why? Because the mark of humans is everywhere. Years ago I saw a TV series on the British landscape; the programme on Sutherland showed that it had originally been forested, but bronze and iron age peoples had hewed the trees for fires and for smelting, thus dramatically and ineradicably altering the landscape.

The USA, by contrast, does have genuine wilderness (despite the Park Authority’s attempt to Disnify Yosemite). Yosemite, apart from a few lodges and camp grounds, probably differs little from the way it appeared to Lewis and Clark. The nomadic aboriginal peoples lived off the land in a way that left few marks. Whereas, in Britain, people have for millennia, settled all the available land, hewing forests, redirecting streams and rivers, quarrying, mining, farming, urbanising. In all these respects, then, the wild upland places of Britain only superficially resemble the genuine wilderness of the American West, or of Alaska. The lover of mountains, valleys, waterfalls, lakes, and crags can appreciate both, and may perhaps appreciate both in the same way. But that need not be so; my appreciation of the Lake District or the mountains and lochs of Scotland is suffused with an awareness of the long and intimate relationship between humans and the landscape, which has profoundly affected both.

In an earlier post, I mentioned a moment of epiphany when I first read Wordsworth’s Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey. The context could scarcely have been less auspicious. It was Christmas Day in Athens, Georgia, and I was suffering from bona fide influenza and running a temperature. I was on an exchange visit to the University of Georgia; looking round the house of the people I had exchanged with for something to read, I came across the Norton Anthology of English Poetry. Despite my distaste for some of Wordsworth’s poetry, fomented no doubt by an unfortunate choice of his poetry during my school years, I determined to give him another go, and the poem I alighted upon was Tintern Abbey. The whole poem was a revelation and a delight, but these famous lines, in which Wordsworth describes the change in his appreciation of nature as he moved from boy to adult, encapsulated my own experience in a way that has never found better expression.

While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. And so I dare to hope,
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all.—I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, not any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.—That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense. For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
   ‘The still sad music of humanity’ – that is not, and cannot be, what we escape to wilderness to find, but it is something one can find in the ‘cultivated wildness’ of Cumbria and remoter parts of Britain. While both wilderness and wildness appeal, it is the latter that moves me most emotionally. The skeletal form of the bare mountains, the mines and quarries that pock their surface, the stone walls that climb up and down their flanks, the pastures and hamlets, lime kilns and mill races that strew the valleys, the lakes that have been artificially increased to feed the thirst of Manchester – all these are an integral part of fell-walking. They do not deface nature, but blend with it, uniting humans and nature.
   For some writers, this is not the case. Thoreau, for example, in Walking, describes his wish to escape from all signs of cultivation.
Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him. … My spirits infallibly rise in proportion to the outward dreariness. Give me the ocean, the desert, or the wilderness! … Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture even politics, the most alarming of them all—I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape.

There is here, perhaps, a touch of misanthropy – a dislike of humanity and all its works. This is totally absent from Wordsworth’s poetry. It is not, I think, an accident that Wordsworth, the poet who describes the old Cumberland beggar and the leech gatherer, also wrote sonnets that were a paean of praise to London.

Courtesy

In the light of a number of recent postings and discussions on Facebook, I have pondered whether to make a general comment about courtesy, and the lack of it, in the profession. On the one hand, this could just be moral grandstanding on my part, as Brandon Warmke has warned us. But if it makes some difference to someone somewhere, then it will have been worth it.
   When I first became a professional philosopher, exchanges were often fairly aggressive, manifesting more of a desire to score a point than to aid the speaker in improving the paper. Of late, or so it seems to me, the tone at colloquia and conferences has become more collegial and helpful – a very desirable change.
   However, there have also been outbreaks, on social media and elsewhere, of what I can only describe as, at worst, vicious personal attacks or, at best, thoughtlessly hurtful remarks. I expect I am not alone in having occasionally made snide comments about other philosophers in private conversations: something that I regret. However, snide and hurtful comments made in the public arena are another, and much more serious matter. I think it is easy (at least I have found it so) to think of what is posted on Facebook and elsewhere as merely an extension of a private chat that happens to encompass a rather wider audience. A moment’s reflection shows that this is false. Remarks posted here are PUBLIC. Even if they are not addressed to all, they can be easily disseminated to others.
   I would hope that we can do better than being merely courteous to each other; we should be friendly and supportive. But we should, AT LEAST, be courteous, especially in social media. Not only will good people be deterred from being philosophers, but those who have started out on the professional path are especially vulnerable to sarcasm, snarkiness, and worse. For many years I was unpublished, comparatively unknown, and consequently suffered from imposter syndrome (as it is now called). People in that position desperately need support and encouragement. I was lucky to get it, but one remark can cut deep. (In my case, it was a rejection letter, which I can still remember, which read, in part: What you say on p. xx is little short of disastrous. No explanation.)
   What is to be done? One obvious thing that established members of the profession, whose careers are secure, can do is to make clear to offenders that such behaviour is completely unacceptable. More needs to be done, and should be done. But this is something many of us can do without waiting for systemic changes.

Solitary walking

Five years after publishing The Wind in the Willows, Grahame penned a beautiful short essay for a commemorative issue of his old boarding school magazine. Titled “The Fellow that Goes Alone” and only ever published in Peter Green’s 1959 biography, it serenades “the country of the mind” we visit whenever we take long solitary walks in nature.

Nature’s particular gift to the walker, through the semi-mechanical act of walking — a gift no other form of exercise seems to transmit in the same high degree — is to set the mind jogging, to make it garrulous, exalted, a little mad maybe — certainly creative and suprasensitive, until at last it really seems to be outside of you and as if it were talking to you whilst you are talking back to it. Then everything gradually seems to join in, sun and the wind, the white road and the dusty hedges, the spirit of the season, whichever that may be, the friendly old earth that is pushing life firth of every sort under your feet or spell-bound in a death-like winter trance, till you walk in the midst of a blessed company, immersed in a dream-talk far transcending any possible human conversation. Time enough, later, for that…; here and now, the mind has shaken off its harness, is snorting and kicking up heels like a colt in a meadow.

Not a fiftieth part of all your happy imaginings will you ever, later, recapture, note down, reduce to dull inadequate words; but meantime the mind has stretched itself and had its holiday.

This emancipation is only attained in solitude, the solitude which the unseen companions demand before they will come out and talk to you; for, be he who may, if there is another fellow present, your mind has to trot between shafts.

A certain amount of “shafts,” indeed, is helpful, as setting the mind more free; and so the high road, while it should always give way to the field path when choice offers, still has this particular virtue, that it takes charge of you — your body, that is to say. Its hedges hold you in friendly steering-reins, its milestones and finger-posts are always on hand, with information succinct and free from frills; and it always gets somewhere, sooner or later. So you are nursed along your way, and the mind may soar in cloudland and never need to be pulled earthwards by any string. But this is as much company as you ought to require, the comradeship of the road you walk on, the road which will look after you and attend to such facts as must not be overlooked. Of course the best sort of walk is the one on which it doesn’t matter twopence whether you get anywhere at all at any time or not; and the second best is the one on which the hard facts of routes, times, or trains give you nothing to worry about.

As for adventures, if they are the game you hunt, everyone’s experience will remind him that the best adventures of his life were pursued and achieved, or came suddenly to him unsought, when he was alone. For company too often means compromise, discretion, the choice of the sweetly reasonable. It is difficult to be mad in company; yet but a touch of lunacy in action will open magic doors to rare and unforgettable experiences. But all these are only the by-products, the casual gains, of walking alone. The high converse, the high adventures, will be in the country of the mind.

First published in Brain Pickings 

 

 

 

Landscape and Sehnsucht

I am one of those for whom, as Eve Garrard wrote in her piece on Landscape that I recently posted ‘landscape is much more than a source of pleasing aesthetic or nostalgic experiences; as one of its most famous, and longwinded, representatives noted, it’s a haunting passion, it’s something which shapes a whole life. For these people, every natural scene, every fall of land or changing colour of the sea, speaks its own unique, intense, significant word – as they keep telling us, at frankly tedious length. The word in question seems always to be in a foreign language whose translation manual we’ve permanently mislaid, but nonetheless this unknown language seems to be experienced by landscape devotees as being utterly, overwhelmingly, filled with meaning and beauty, of a kind which induces an intense and nameless longing for who knows what.’

Not only the word that the landscape speaks, but the word most fitting to describe the experience induced by it, is in a foreign language, in this case German: sehnsucht. In seeking help in translating the word, I came across the following extract from an interesting blog.

‘The Germans have a word I’ve long admired: sehnsucht. There is no easy English translation, although it is generally translated “longing” or “yearning.” The German idea goes a good deal deeper into the quasi-mystical.

One author translated it as the “inconsolable longing in the human heart for we know not what.” Another compared it to “a longing for a far off country, but not one which we could identify”. C.S. Lewis called it [in his autobiography Surprised by Joy]

“That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”‘ (Tyler Huckabee, https://tylerhuckabee.com/2013/10/23/sehnsucht/ )

Lewis famously used Joy as a technical term for this experience, and it is Joy that will be the focus of my next few posts.

After the war, my parents decided to buy an hotel in the Yorkshire Dales. (They had both been evacuated at the start of the war, with the children and the other teachers at Gateshead Grammar School, to Askrigg in Wensleydale, and had fallen in love with it.) They found what they were looking for in Reeth in Swaledale: the Arkleside Hotel. Swaledale is wilder and bleaker than Wensleydale; the story goes that the Romans never conquered it, but merely bypassed it. The hotel was not a commercial success, given the exhausted state of the economy after the war, but I spent my formative years there – from three to seven years old. It was very remote. All children between 5 and 11 were taught in the one room village school, to which we walked in all weathers. Reeth is enclosed by fairly rugged fells, and these gave me my first experience of Joy. Indeed, in my case the longing took a concrete form; I ached to explore them. I don’t recall that I ever did. I was too young to be left to wander on my own, and my parents were very busy at the hotel. Our annual holidays were spent on the North Yorkshire coast in Whitby. Selective memory is supposed to colour one’s childhood summers with sun and warmth. My abiding memory of Whitby was that it was cold, windy, and wet. Watching the fishing boats in the harbour, and climbing up the steps to the Abbey soon began to pall, and the view of the grey menacing North Sea aroused only the most mundane feelings of longing – for a warm café or even a hospitable shop.

No, it was those fellsides, denuded of trees, pocked by mine shafts, and sprinkled with rock that gave me my first glimpse of Joy. Once we had moved to Nottingham there were other Joyful moments, and not all induced by country scenes. But it was the hills of the North that called to me, and played a large role in making me who I am. So when, after reading each of the Chronicles of Narnia as they were published, I read Surprised by Joy, I knew immediately that here was someone who understood. Lewis describes First Friendship as a meeting of minds; the discovery, amazing though it is, that you are not alone in what you feel and care about. In a way, Lewis was my first friend, though an absent one.

There are two great interwoven themes in the early part of his autobiography: Joy and Northernness. For Lewis, Joy was found in many things, but especially landscape, literature, and music. And so it is with me. My second ‘first friend’ came much later: if reading Surprised by Joy was my first epiphany, reading Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey was my second.
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Landscape

This is the first in a series of posts about the role landscape has played in my life and in that of others. It begins with a piece by a friend and co-author, Eve Garrard, which gives a wonderfully accurate and evocative account of a certain kind of experience that many have when looking at, and indeed when actually walking in, and absorbed in, the landscape. Since she rejects the Platonist and Religious explanations, she is left puzzled by her reaction. For what she experiences must be an illusion. I, however, have much less difficulty in taking the experience to be of something real and transcendent.

Landscape junkies

Landscape – mountains, seas, moors, valleys – evokes markedly different responses in different people. Some find it all totally uninteresting: just so many tons of rock, gallons of cold salt water, acres of wild or domesticated vegetables. This is not an unreasonable response, since landscape clearly is these things. The question is whether it’s more than that, and a second group of people, perhaps more aesthetically alert, think it is. To them it offers an abundance of sensory and associative pleasures: they find in it beautiful shapes and colours; pleasing intimations of childhood; images of the land of their forefathers; or romantic stories about adventures in the wild. This response is also not unreasonable, since aesthetic features are worth responding to, and such associations are indeed present, as literature and history constantly show us. But there’s also a third group of people, whose response to landscape is rather different, and really much stranger. For this group, landscape is much more than a source of pleasing aesthetic or nostalgic experiences; as one of its most famous, and longwinded, representatives noted , it’s a haunting passion, it’s something which shapes a whole life. For these people, every natural scene, every fall of land or changing colour of the sea, speaks its own unique, intense, significant word – as they keep telling us, at frankly tedious length. The word in question seems always to be in a foreign language whose translation manual we’ve permanently mislaid, but nonetheless this unknown language seems to be experienced by landscape devotees as being utterly, overwhelmingly, filled with meaning and beauty, of a kind which induces an intense and nameless longing for who knows what. Now really this response isn’t reasonable at all, especially not for people of a sceptical, rationalist, materialist cast of mind – as I am myself. How can the impersonal physical world possibly breathe forth meaning, in the way in which these fruitcakes insist it does? There’s no decent secular sense to be made of this at all, as far as I can see. The best we can do is look for some plausible socio-biological explanation, in terms of adaptive value, of how this response might have arisen.

However in spite of my believing all the above to be true, and to my considerable chagrin, I find myself irrevocably part of this third group of people, the ones who bore on about the transient sunlight on the shoulder of the hill, the beauty of the cold upland plateau, the remote loveliness of the island on the horizon. Like the rest of this bunch of junkies, I’m helplessly moved by, and addicted to, such scenes (especially the ones in Scotland, where I come from: the whole world is beautiful, but some beauties are more equal than others.) And I can’t for the life of me see why I feel like this. What on earth is going on here? Why does it all seem so significant?

Not that we can assume that all of us junkies share exactly the same kind of experience of landscape. For some, so I’m told, it’s the particular scene itself, in all its individual beauty, which is the terminus of contemplation; and this is a source of delight and comfort, since the fact that this miserable world contains features of such superb surface beauty helps counter-balance its more depressing aspects. But for others the particular display of natural beauty, though absolutely irreplaceable, is not the end of the matter. The experience of landscape is one not only of delight but also of intense longing, and that cries out for further explanation. What is it we’re longing for? We already have the landscape there in front of us, what else is it we want?

Sometimes the longing is reflexive: what we long for is actually to feel the longing itself more strongly, since it often seems to us that we felt it more strongly in the past, and that our receptivity to these experiences has faded over time. Wordsworth is the most famous chronicler of this experience:

‘There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream……
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?’

But many of us know it intimately – I remember standing in the middle of dark Glencoe, surrounded by those great glowering heights, thinking sadly to myself that beautiful though it undoubtedly was, I wasn’t responding to it as keenly as I had done the previous year. I was all of 16 at the time!

It’s a real puzzle why we long to feel the longing itself, why this bittersweet pain is one that we actively seek out. But whatever is the answer to that bit of the puzzle, it’s clear that there must be something else going on: we may long to feel the longing more intensely, but what is the object of that longing which we desire to experience? Since we can’t long for something we already have, it seems that there must be something else we want lying behind the immediate experience of landscape, something of which the beautiful land or sea in front of us is a reminder, or a premonition, or some kind of introduction or echo or faint or faded copy, which speaks to us most urgently of its great original, whatever that is. That is, the phenomenology, for at least some of us landscape junkies, is thoroughly Platonist: it’s shot through and through with intimations of something beyond the scene present to our contemplation, something even more beautiful and compelling, even more itself, than the particular wave or mountain or glowing sunset. It’s that which we long for, it’s that which explains how ready we are to say that a scene is ‘so beautiful it would break your heart’. (Break your heart? What can this possibly be about? Why should inanimate beauty be heart-breaking, and if it is, why on earth would we go looking for it? It’s just ridiculous!)

The experience seems Platonist in spirit (though for some reason which I totally fail to understand Plato himself didn’t actually spend much time, or indeed any time, on the subject of landscape and the romantic longing it produces). Its spirit is Platonist because one way of accounting for the experience would be to say that the particular scene in all its beauty reminds us of the great Form of which it is a faded copy. Through the transient empirical phenomenon we catch a glimpse, so to speak, of the timeless universal which it exemplifies. And it’s that which we long for, whose splendour draws us to itself. The remote mountains of the far northwest of Scotland, with their beautiful names – Suilven, Canisp, Quinag, An-Teallach – are all poor and partial copies of the great Form of the Mountain, in all its abstract and unimaginable beauty. And it’s that which explains the unassuageable longing, and also the heartbreak – never in all our days will we be able to see the Form itself; the closest we’ll ever come is to gaze upon its instantiations, and, in hopeless desire, be reminded of just what it is that’s so inadequately realised in front of us.

Now I do not believe one word of this, not one single word. The whole story of the Forms is wonderful literature but hopeless metaphysics, as far as I’m concerned; the history of philosophy is chock-a-block with criticisms of Plato’s views, and quite right too. But as far as the phenomenology goes – that is, when I consider what the experience of landscape is actually like – then the Platonic approach seems to me to be streets ahead of any of the competition. And one splendid feature of a Platonist account is that it needn’t be restricted to the experience of sublime landscape – other similar experiences are ripe for the same treatment too. It isn’t just great mountains and illimitable oceans that we’re talking about here: a line of poplars on the flat horizon, a quiet pool in a small wood; a branch of cherry-blossom against a blue sky; dusk falling on a field of snow – all of these can be seen with the same visionary intensity. Even arable farmland is more than its mundane sublunary self: for Traherne, ‘The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting.’ (We’re told by C.S.Lewis that those who are really sensitive can see even cabbages in this transforming way, but I can’t speak from personal experience about that.) The appeal to the Forms will cover all of that, and more.

At this point, however, we sometimes have to fend off vulgar Freudian accounts adverting to displaced sexual urges. Fortunately this kind of explanation is fairly discredited these days, so much so that it’s often inverted – think of the feminist insistence that rape is really about power, with sex being viewed as the appearance rather than the reality. We’re now quite ready to believe that some of the time sex is a displacement activity expressing drives whose origin is elsewhere than in our gonads. And it really isn’t plausible to suppose that landscape appreciation is a substitute for sex – for a start, why doesn’t the longing for mountains and the sea disappear when our sex lives are going well? The Freudian story, in its vulgar version at any rate, is remarkably weak and crude compared to Plato’s metaphysical profundities.

Nonetheless, maybe saying that Platonism is way ahead of any of the competition is too strong. There is one other putative explanation of this unaccountable pain and longing that saves the phenomena as well as or better than Plato does, and that’s the explicitly religious one. Each of the infinitely diverse and wonderful landscapes to which we respond so intensely shows us one of the infinitely varied aspects of God, on this account. The Creation is beautiful because it reflects its divine Creator, and it induces in us an intense longing because we long to have that which we were made for, union with God. The green earth itself provides us with intimations of immortality: the longing it generates, though hopeless in this world, is not for the theist ultimately unsatisfiable, because this world reflects a better one, and we weren’t made for this world alone.

Well, this is another wonderful story. But I don’t believe a word of it either, and neither do many of my fellow landscape junkies. Some find theism and Platonism equally implausible on metaphysical grounds, while for others of us it’s the problem of evil that rules out belief in a benevolent Creator, of the kind needed to make the religious account of our response to landscape actually work. But the remarkable thing is that none of this theoretical inadequacy in any way erodes the nature of the experience that so resists rational explanation. It remains in all its intensity, perhaps in even greater intensity (especially in Scotland), in spite of the fact that what it delivers seems to flatly contradict what I actually believe about the world we all live in. When I first learned about visual illusions, I slowly ceased to be deceived by them, and even when (as with the Muller-Lyer illusion) the illusory perception remains, I give no credence to it. But my persistent scepticism and materialism just make no difference at all to my experience of landscape – it continues to haunt and shape me, to provide some of the most significant aspects of my life, and to prompt me to bore my friends and acquaintances with lengthy and tedious descriptions of what to many of them are at best pleasant views, at worst incomprehensible wastelands of unreclaimed northern peat-bog.

Not that I’d really want things to be any different, of course. Who would willingly give up the ability to see how transcendentally beautiful the moonlight is on the far northern waters of the Atlantic, how breathtaking the severe austerity of the high desolate moors, how forbidding the dark heights of the mountain massif, and so on and on and on and on…

Eve Garrard
Centre for Professional Ethics
Keele University
October 2005

Sauntering

This guest blog is by none other than Henry David Thoreau, from the beginning of his little book, or pamphlet, Walking (1862). It illustrates beautifully the connection I was earlier drawing between walking and life.

“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, – who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived ‘fron idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going a la Sainte Terre‘ to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, ‘There goes a Sainte-Terrer,’ a Saunterer, – a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without a land or house, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea. But I prefer the first, which, indeed, is the most probable derivation. For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels.”

Serendipity, Structure, and the Backward Glance

Serendipity: the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for; also: an instance of this.

In my previous blog I said that I love to wander down various byways, constantly attracted by new things that interest or excite. I then asked: “Isn’t this a description of an aimless, purposeless, life? Part of me wants to say No, in loud and indignant tones. A better response might be: Yes, but not in a bad way. To explain why I think that will be the purpose of a subsequent blog.” Now is the time to make good on that promise.

What gives a life a shape and a purpose? At the minimum, it must have some structure. We need, in retrospect, to be able to see what the life is, or was, about. What values did it embody? Can we discern some coherent narrative or story? Did it have a pattern? I say ‘in retrospect’ because we cannot know in advance that a life will have a certain structure, because of all the vicissitudes to which each of us is subject.

One obvious way of imposing shape and purpose is to plan: to have a clear goal and a strategy for executing it. If all goes well, that life will have the very shape and purpose the agent intended it to have. Here are two striking examples. In the early 1950s, Alfred Wainwright decided to write a comprehensive guide to the fells of the English Lake District. What is more, these books were to be entirely hand-written and illustrated; as someone rightly said, maybe the first time someone had attempted such a project since the Middle Ages. Meticulous to the point of obsession, he divided the district into seven areas, each of which was to be the subject of a separate book. He then looked at each fell (or mountain), assessed all the possible routes of ascent, and calculated how long it would take to survey the whole area. He estimated the task would take him eleven years, ending in a particular week in 1963. Each weekend he walked, regardless of the weather; each evening he wrote and sketched. After eleven years of unremitting labour he finished one week early. His is a momentous achievement: an act of homage to the mountains he loved, a work of art, and an inspiration to generations of fell-walkers. The other example is Richard Swinburne who, when young, confided to a fellow graduate student that he wished to rehabilitate natural theology, laying out a plan that started with working on philosophy of science and confirmation theory, and then moving on to discuss the nature of God, the arguments for his existence, the nature of the soul, and much more. The result, as everyone in the field of philosophy of religion knows, is a body of work that has been compared to Aquinas’s in terms of both depth and breadth. Since both Wainwright and Swinburne carried out their plans, and were not deflected by circumstance or change of heart, the shape of their lives was prefigured in those plans.

There is, however, another, perhaps less obvious, way in which a life can have shape. What may look at the time like a series of disparate and unconnected interests, excursions, and meanderings – may later be seen as exhibiting a pattern. Looking back, we may come to see all kinds of interconnections that illuminate, structure, and deepen the significance of what once seemed wholly unconnected. What appeared to be a turning aside from some beaten path may turn out to be part of the path itself.

Let me illustrate by two stories from my own life. Like most British school children, I had some minimal exposure to the poems of Wordsworth. Besides Daffodils I remember reading The Old Cumberland Beggar. Subsequent rather desultory exploration of his poetry led me to such disasters as Harry Gill and Peter Bell, and with all the arrogance of youth, I thought Wordsworth worthless. Indeed, to my shame, I remember telling a class that John Stuart Mill had been cured of his depression by reading sentimental novels and the poems of Wordsworth – “probably the only recorded occasion on which reading Wordsworth produced anything of value.” In 1982-3 I was on an exchange visit at the University of Georgia, where I managed to contract influenza over the winter break. I spent Christmas Day wrapped in blankets, looking for something to read. I came across the Norton Anthology of English Verse and, idly turning the pages, read Tintern Abbey. Not only did I instantly identify with Wordsworth’s vision but it shed a backward light on much in my earlier life, weaving together what had hitherto seemed separate: my preference for wild but populated landscape over real wilderness; the spiritual exultation evoked by mountains; my sense, previously unarticulated, that goodness was unitary – that beauty and morality were, at some deep level, one; the shock of recognition I experienced when I first encountered C. S. Lewis’s description of what he called Joy: “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” These, I discovered in Wordsworth’s poem, were not isolated experiences and convictions but were indissolubly interlinked.

The second narrative springs from a response, some years back, to the irritating insistence by University administrators that we let them know what our ‘research programme’ was. For some reason, ‘answer whatever philosophical question seems most interesting at the moment’ did not answer, as far as they were concerned. So the search was on for something that would satisfy them. Over the previous few years, Eve Garrard and I had written three papers together. In each case, the stimulus had come from reading some work that seemed profoundly misguided. Our first paper was on forgiveness, as a result of my writing a response to Swinburne’s views on atonement. The second was on hypocrisy, a topic on which I did not know I had views until I read a paper that seemed to me wildly off the mark. The third, on humility, evolved because it seemed to us a virtue, but on modern understandings of the nature of humility, that made no sense, since it had become associated with being a doormat. (On a wayside pulpit outside a church, the text of which read “The meek shall inherit the earth”, someone had written: “if that’s all right with the rest of you.”) All interesting topics, but did they constitute a research programme? It suddenly dawned on me that they did. What, after all, did these topics have in common? They were all virtues (or vices) that played an essential role in a religious – more specifically a Christian – understanding of the moral life. But in a post-Christian world, it became more difficult to see that they were, or at least should be, so clearly morally central. And what we had done in each paper was to attempt to rehabilitate their status by showing that, suitably understood, each still had an important place to play in our conception of the good (and the bad) life. At this point, I recalled that when I first read Iris Murdoch’s ethical writings, I had been struck by her claim that this was (part of) what she was trying to do. There! We had our research programme that we could triumphantly put on an administrator’s form with a good conscience. But we had set out with no such programme in mind; we had simply followed our noses. It was only in retrospect that the thread which tied these papers together was revealed.

What I think these reflections show is that there are two ways in which the serendipitous may help us make sense of the shape of our lives. Sometimes, as with my reading of Tintern Abbey, the significance of what we have found is immediate. In a moment of epiphany, all is made clear. At other times, we come across an attractive byway and are tempted to explore it, without seeing clearly how it connects with our predominant concerns. Sometimes, of course, it is merely a diversion – a form of relaxation or renewal that may help us to return refreshed to our projects, but does nothing to further them. However, more often than I think most people admit, it will turn out that the seeming byway is indeed part of the main path, as was the case when I turned aside to think about forgiveness or hypocrisy, although originally having no intention of doing so. If we are too directive, if we try to determine in advance what the shape of our lives will be, we run the risk that we will miss out on deeper and more resonant ways in which they can come to have coherence.

There are here, I believe, lessons about our modern obsession with lists, projects, and plans. Eleven Ways to Organize Your Life; Ten Tips for Success, etc. There are also lessons both about the nature of philosophical reflection and about the manner in which the profession is organized. But these will have to wait for another time.