Tuesday, April 25, 2006

I believe in Church

My grandfather: “who are the four bad men?”
My dad (aged 5): “Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and the Pope”.

I was not brought up to respect authority. My dad’s family were anti-Catholics and anti-fascists who put the Pope on a par with Hitler and Mussolini. Mum was brought up as a Quaker, but has a personal and unorthodox faith.

I became a Christian when I was 16. That set me a little apart from my immediate family, but I still I retained a lot of the anarchic and iconoclastic views I’d grown up with. To some extent I still do; the attitude Jesus showed to the religious and secular authorities of his day was a long way from slavish obedience.

But since I became a Christian, I have learned that authority is not always a bad thing. To start with, I recognized at once the authority of God. God is absolute. While we may not always understand Him, He is always right. Then I learned the authority of the Bible. People change; the Church changes. God’s word stays the same. Like God himself.

At first, my attitude to church was not unlike my parents’. Some churches clearly were full of active Christians, others were just empty ritual. It would be wrong to credit any church with the same absolute authority that comes from God or the Bible. However I have realized that for all its failings, Church is an essential part of the Christian life.

God is not a personal experience or projection; God is. He has revealed himself to us through Jesus and through the Bible. We all see in part, and we all disagree. But all of us who follow Jesus are looking to find the same God. We can learn from one another! There are many who have gone before me whom I can learn from, be taught by. On occasions, I have even learned to respect authority from people I recognize as being wiser than me.

I’ve moved a bit since I became a Christian and been part of several churches, some better than others. Through the best I have come to know Christ better and been encouraged in my faith. I’ve been taught / shown things I would not have found out by myself. I have had the example of people living out bits of Christ’s character. I’ve even been encouraged when I’d got things wrong to look a bit closer and think again.

And it goes both ways. I’ve changed through being part of a church, and I’ve caused the church to change by being in it. This is good. You can’t be a Christian without being committed to change: change is a key part of repentance and is an ongoing part of growing closer to God. It merely reflects the fact that we are not yet perfect.

I don’t believe in the absolute authority of a particular Church organization. I believe salvation from God comes through Jesus, not through a priest. But I also don’t believe one can really live and grow as a Christian without being part of a church. All churches, being human organizations, are flawed; but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a crucial role to play.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

About this blog

This is a space for my political, philosophical and theological rants and musings, previously posted here. To start things off I've reposted all the old ones so that anyone interested (ha!) can find them without having to trawl through my various other postings.

Education, education, education

This is really a comment on this thread, which Bishop Hill noticed, and which is closed for further comments.

In my opinion the 11-plus, along with the elitist (i.e. selective) university system with grants, was the probably the best and most socially levelling thing the UK ever had. It meant that for the first time, children from poor backgrounds who were bright, could go to a good school, get a degree and work as teachers etc. in roles that were almost totally denied their ancestors. The changes that have happened since –comprehensive schooling where the quality of education depended on where you lived, lower standards from GCSE upwards, and wider access to higher education meaning that it is no longer free and therefore less available to the poor - have reduced opportunity and social mobility.

As for the issue of funding - given that funding for education will always be limited, would it not make sense to spend the money where it has the most effect rather than decreeing that it has to be spread evenly, or worse, thrown mostly at those who get the least out of it?

"In those days people will no longer say,
'The fathers have eaten sour grapes,
and the children's teeth are set on edge.'
Instead, everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes—his own teeth will be set on edge.” (Jeremiah 31:29-30).

Shouldn't that be the aspiration of a state-funded education system?

Originally posted 2006-02-06

In Praise of Democracy (kind of)

I don't believe that democracy is some kind of ideal to which we should all ascribe, but I can probably agree with Winston Churchill that it is "the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time". I personally reckon the test of a government is what it does, not what political system created it.

The recent Palestinian election demonstrates this point well. Some really positive points have come out of it. I think it's great that the people of Palestine have managed to hold what has been generally recognized as a free and fair election. It's also a credit to Israel that they chose to allow the elections to continue without interference, when many people urged them to intervene.

But the result has been troubling for pretty much anyone. It looks like the winners will be the political wing of Hamas, Palestine's equivalent of Sinn Fein - the political front of a bunch of terrorists.

I wonder how this will affect the US's attempts to bring democracy to the middle east? In Palestine, at least, they have succeeded; but is this a good thing? The US government have said that they will not recognize or cooperate with a Hamas-lead Palestinian authority. I can see why, but at the same time it seriously undermines their commitment to democracy. (A commitment which is already called into question by their treatment of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, also freely elected).

It raises another issue too. The US describe Hamas as terrorists. That was always true in the past. Is it now? They are a democratically elected government. Yes, they are killing people, mainly civilians, in another country. So are US forces in Iraq. And unlike Iraq, Israel has invaded Palestine and is still occupying parts of it. Can we still call it terrorism when a democratically elected government uses force to defend itself against invaders?

I have some views that many people would consider controversial. I believe anyone who thinks about morality in national terms is wrong and very dangerous (I'm thinking of the US, Israel and Hamas here, but also anyone who is prepared under any circumstances to say "my country, right or wrong"). I also believe it is wrong to go to war and kill people even when they are invading your country and killing your friends and family; I don't believe any war is ever just. But for now I'm in a small minority. For the rest of you - what other reason can there now be for failing to recognize Hamas as a legitimate authority and their fight as a just war?

Originally posted 2006-01-26

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

We sang "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" at church on Sunday. Not previously one of my favourites, but this time the words really spoke to me. And what they said was …

God really doesn't want us to kill each other. Rather, he wants us to tell people about Jesus.

Apologies if that sounds obvious. A particular application: that’s how he wants us to deal with Muslim terrorists (just as it is for peace-loving democratic Muslims). Tell them about Jesus, pray for them, try to reach them with the gospel and save them. He doesn’t want us to blow them up.

Yes, I know these people are dangerous. No-one is safe apparently, not even here in Leamington Spa. If we let them live and try to reason with them with the Gospel, some of us might get killed.

But is that really so bad? Did that deter St. Peter, or St. Paul, or St. Stephen – knowing that if they carried on preaching the word so boldly they might forfeit their lives? Absolutely not!

As Jesus says: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold;
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From Heaven’s all gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever over its Babel sounds
The blessèd angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife
And hear the angels sing.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet-bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Originally posted 2005-12-19

Trafalgar Day

I don’t approve of war. It’s no way to solve problems, and it’s not what Jesus would do. However I do find military history interesting, and always have. As with anything, you can learn lessons from past battles which are of use in everyday life. Today is the 200th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, so here are two lessons from history from that battle - one from each side.

Firstly, from the winning side. The British Admiral, Nelson, is the obvious hero of the battle. He came up with a winning plan; his ships were better organized and won the day. Nelson’s British fleet was outnumbered in terms of ships and guns, but had better technology: British naval guns could be fired five times as quickly, and also more accurately. Taking this into account, his force was vastly superior. His plan was one of brute force. He sailed his ships as quickly as possible, straight into the opposing force. He knew that at close range his better guns would blast the enemy ships to pieces, even in the face of superior numbers. His plan worked, and the British destroyed most of the opposing fleet without losing a single ship. From then on, Napoleon’s fleet were powerless to challenge British domination of the seas. Brute force works.

The lesson here? Nelson’s ships were superior, but his tactics made the most of their superiority. In any situation, know your strengths and play to them. My small group at church looked at 2 Kings 4:1-7 recently, the story of Elijah and the poor widow. Four words struck me from the story, which can be applied in any situation: Elijah asks the widow, “what do you have?” Nelson had better guns, and used them. When faced with difficulty, don’t fret about your weaknesses: ask yourself, “what do you have?”

For me, though, the greatest heroism of the battle was shown by a French ship, the Redoutable. It was a fourth-rate ship of the line, one of the weaker ships in the battle. It nonetheless sailed straight for Nelson’s flagship, the Victory. Although heavily outgunned, it managed to get alongside the Victory and was on the verge of boarding it when another British ship, the Temeraire, intervened and saved the day. Who knows what would have happened had they succeeded? Facing impossible odds, the Redoutable met the enemy head on and kept fighting until 85% of its crew were dead. Famously, a sniper from this brave ship fired the shot which killed Nelson.

The lesson? When the two fleets met, a British victory was all but assured. In the event the bravery of the Redoutable nearly turned the battle; and the death of Nelson took all the gloss off the victory. Sometimes you enter a situation which seems genuinely impossible. If you give up, defeat is certain. But the braver option is to give it your best, to go out fighting (metaphorically speaking). And if you do, it’s never too late to make a difference.

Thousands of people died at Trafalgar, 600 on the Redoutable alone. I hope one day we’ll learn enough to say that we will never go to war again. But in the meanwhile, those who fought and died that day can still be an example to us all.

Originally posted 2005-10-21

Petrol (reprise)

So, it actually happened. Driving back on the A14 after a weekend away, I passed a petrol station selling diesel at £1.01 a litre. Unlike a few years ago when petrol hit 84p and it felt like the world was about to end, this landmark was met with astonishing apathy. There were protests but only small ones, and no blockades. Yes, there were shortages of petrol, but only because everyone suddenly decided to fill up “just in case”.

I overheard a couple of people at work saying they’d filled their cars up with petrol ahead of the protests and were shocked how much it cost. This made me laugh. Firstly, it was clear that neither of them ever filled their cars up normally, something I just can’t understand. Secondly, they were amazed that it cost them over £60. You can’t physically fit £30 of petrol into my car let alone £60, so I’m guessing they drive gas-guzzling monster cars quite unlike my lovely 45mpg ultra-nippy Ford Fiesta. And finally, because I didn’t fill my car up but waited a week after which the price came down again. I have to say I felt rather smug.

But what’s really amazing is just how little difference £1 a litre has made. You still see 4x4s on the road making short trips into town to go shopping or take the kids to school. You still see 90% of cars on the way to work with just one person in them (including mine.)

If high prices are the economy’s way of sending us a message, it’s clear that we just don’t get it!

Footnote: for those of you in the US, £1.01 a litre is equivalent to $6.50 a gallon in US prices. However standard unleaded in the UK is 95 octane compared with 87 in the US so it's not really a fair comparison. £1.01 was the highest price I saw; at the place I go to, apart from a week or so at 94p, the price of unleaded hasn't ever gone over 90p.

Originally posted 2005-09-30

Incitement to ...

The law is an ass, as the saying goes. Laws try to ban people from doing things we consider bad, but before they can do so, they have to define what we want to ban. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes it’s very difficult; and lawyers grow fat on the ambiguity.

The recent hunting debate was a good example. Like most people, I consider making sport from the suffering of animals to be barbaric. I’d like to see foxhunting as sport banned. (Incidentally, I don’t have a problem with using packs of dogs for pest control against foxes or any other kind of pest; it feels like a good natural solution). The problem is, I don’t think it’s possible to make a law which defines exactly what I think should be banned and what shouldn’t. I deeply dislike the “Countryside Alliance” with their right-wing, “we know better” agenda. But when they say they feel the hunting ban law is stupid, unworkable, and the result of ignorance and prejudice, I would have to agree. (Ouch, that hurt!)

The same applies with the current proposals to ban incitement to religious hatred and acts glorifying terrorism. They arise from a desire to pass laws against things we find unacceptable. But how can we define these acts? I personally believe that Muslims will be condemned to eternity in hell (just like anyone else who doesn't accept Jesus as Lord, Saviour and God), but I don’t hate them as people and wouldn’t want anyone else to either. Would the law allow me that? If so, I’m sure the “evil clerics of hate” would find it just as easy to get around it by choosing their words carefully.

Glorifying terrorism is even harder to define. What is terrorism? Would those like me who admire the tradition of civil disobedience count as glorifying terrorism? What about those who celebrate the terrorist acts of Americans during their war of independence, or of the French Resistance during world war II? What about Michael Collins and the Irish uprisings of 1916? What about the SAS? They act outside the law almost by definition. And if we our definition of terrorism now includes state-sponsored terrorism, was not the invasion of Iraq a state-sponsored terrorist act?

I am a pacifist and don’t believe in killing people. Most people would disagree, and feel that at least under some circumstances, killing can be acceptable. Probably a majority would even support those like the Resistance who do so to fight against governments they feel are injust, corrupt and evil. But there’s the catch. In their eyes, the bombers in Madrid, London, New York and Palestine are all doing precisely that.

If a law is passed to allow prosecution of those who glorify terrorist acts, I cannot believe it will be used even-handedly, even if it is used at all. That cries against all my instincts of fairness. I believe the US constitution even explicitly prohibits it - equal treatment under the law.

Instead of trying to pass more stupid laws like this, they should just go the whole way and ban Islam. Now that would be REALLY stupid.


Death and Taxes (2)

The “flat tax” is a trendy topic these days. It seems most popular with right-wingers and wealthy people. No doubt they like the idea as it means them paying less.

These are the same people who talk about the benefits of “small government”. In all the discussion about the ideal size of government, people tend to forget what the point of government is in the first place. Why do we have law and order rather than chaos? Why have government rather than anarchy? The reason is simple. Government exists to protect the weak from the powerful.

Government works when it does this. If a nation’s farmers can grow crops without the fear of men with big sticks taking away the fruits of their labour, then the country will grow more food. If you can develop a brilliant piece of software without the risk of being outcompeted by an inferior product backed by a huge corporation with masses lawyers and marketing people, then everyone gets better software. Those with money and power can buy this kind of protection and have little need for government. The “little people” cannot. They have just as much to offer the world as anyone else, and it follows that the world is a richer place if they are allowed to contribute. But they can only do that if they are protected from those who would see them as consumers and workers rather than competition.

What is true at a national level is also true at an international level. This week sees discussions about the future role of the UN. I believe exactly the same principles apply. The world needs a government capable of protecting the weak against the abuses of the powerful. That can mean preventing citizens against genocide. It should equally mean protecting weaker nations against stronger. And in particular, against the most powerful nation of them all.

Originally posted 2005-09-14

Death and Taxes

I heard a fantastic comment on Thought for the Day a few months ago, reproduced here. The author was James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool. It followed on from his earlier newspaper article.

The idea is simple: don’t tax work; tax the use of non-renewable resources. There's no way I could put it as well as he did, so I won't try - have a read of the links above.

But hey - how’s that for an idea of a flat tax?

Originally posted 2005-09-14

No other gods?

This is going to start with a bit of a ramble, so if you want to the meat, skip the first couple of paragraphs.

One of the guys in the office here is a muslim. He's just finished Ramadan, and that got me thinking about things they're not supposed to eat and therefore what I'm not supposed to eat. I think meat sacrificed to idols is about the only thing in the New Testament.

As my former room-mate used to say: "'Canape, mister Bowie?' 'No thanks.' 'Canape, mister Barker?' 'No, sorry, I don't eat food offered to idols.'"

This line reminded me that God really does take idols and false gods very seriously. We are to have nothing to do with them, including not eating food sacrificed to them.

In the Old Testament in particular, the seriousness of dabbling with false religeons is made clear. In the book of Joshua, God orders genocide against the inhabitants of the promised land, illustrating the attitude we are to take towards other religeons. (Incidentally, I don't believe God demands or condones genocide in that area or elsewhere now).

Now I live in a reasonably multicultural society, so this does have ramifications. God is one, and all other gods are false. However close other religions' understandings of God might be to the real thing, if they don't recognize Jesus as God and Saviour then they are still no different from idol worshippers. While it's really important for Christians to be in contact with these people in order to show them the Real Thing - Jesus, that closeness will have limits which prevent us being involved in any of their forms of religeous devotion. Does that mean no to visiting mosques or attending Sikh weddings, for example? I don't know where to draw the line.

Most of my peers are atheistic or agnostic materialists. The gods they worship are money, family, sex, drink, self, celebrity, and posessions. These are not (all) bad things in themselves, in context. But the big question is: to what extent in my relationships with them am I guilty in "eating" the "meat" they sacrifice to their idols?

Originally posted 2004-11-25

Four more years?!? My God, My God, have you forsaken us all?

The way things are going, I don't know if the world will last for four more years.

Seriously though, the thing which upset me most about the US election result was that it seems that a lot of the people who voted for Bush were Christians. Not just liberal or nominal Christians either; devout people with living faith.

I am a devout Christian, and I voted for Kerry. I didn't think he was a great candidate (I like Howard Dean, actually), but at least he wasn't Bush. Am I starting to wonder now whether I should instead have voted with so many of my fellow Christians? Absolutely not!

I believe that in this election and any election, Jesus is looking for the candidate who will stand up for the weak, the poor, the infirm. When he quotes Isaiah in saying "The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor, ..." This isn't just a turn of phrase or metaphor. He means he has come particularly to bring hope to people with no money, people the world has forsaken. These are not the people who benefit from a Bush presidency, tax cuts for the wealthy; these are not the people who can be incentivised to stimulate the economy. These are the unemployed, the homeless, the underpaid, those scraping out a living on minimum wage.

I also believe that Jesus is appalled by the doctrine of preemption. Remember his words: "if your enemy hits you on one cheek, turn to him the other also." How could he support a government which believes that "if you think your enemy might try to hit you on one cheek, bomb his house and kill the ******". Personally I can't imagine him supporting any war - how can you love your enemy by shooting at him? But he certainly wouldn't support going to war over oil and money.

Of course, these aren't the issues which have prompted so many of my fellow Christians to vote for Bush. They're concerned about abortion, gay marriage, etc. I believe in the sanctity of marriage and the sanctity of human life (including, incidentally, the sanctity of the lives of doctors who perform abortions - but that's another discussion). To what extent can I enforce my beliefs in these areas on others, in a country which guarantees freedom of religion in its constitution? I don't know. But I believe that the issues of the poor, of economics, of taxes, and particularly of war, are every bit as much ethical issues of these.

For years, right-wing politicians have cynically exploited Christian views on topics which don't cost the wealthy money, while pretending that poverty (for example) is not an ethical issue. Rubbish! Jesus was one of the most radical, dangerous, left-wing and anti-establishment figures in history. That's why Pilate put him to death.

No matter what my fellow believers do, I will never be ashamed to be a Christian or to count them as my brothers and sisters. But I do feel very sad for them, that their genuine faith has been twisted and abused to support such un-Christlike policies and politicians.

What would Jesus do? Well, whatever he'd have done, it wouldn't have involved tax cuts for the rich, colonial wars, and giving billions of tax dollars to his friends.

Originally posted 2004-11-05

This is my truth, tell me yours

I believe in things. I believe Jesus is the only way to God, I believe that war is ethically wrong, lots of things.

I live in an era where this kind of belief is unfashionable. It is wrong to force one's views on others, the argument goes. How dare I claim that my opinions are more valid than anyone else's? Everyone has the right to their own opinion, and what's right for one person need not be right for another.

Well, I think this is soft-minded rubbish. Although most people preach tolerance and relativism, I think when it comes down to it they don't believe it any more than I do.

It's easy to claim that religious faith is a personal thing, that no one faith can be right. It's easy too to claim that people with strong views on abortion, sex outside marriage or pornography are trying to enforce their views on others who have equal right to their own, more liberal views. But what about when it comes to pedophilia, rape, the holocaust? Are pedophiles and Nazis equally entitled to follow their own moral code? Very, very few people would accept this, and rightly so.

Moral relativism is a nice creed to follow liberally, as it frees you from the pangs of conscience and allows you to justify your own self-gratification. But taken seriously, it's a far harder faith to follow than absolutism. I had a friend who was a Taoist. Taoism eschews moral absolutes, and he recognized the difficulties of this. He commented that the true Taoist response to suffering gay rape (his choice of example, not mine!) might be to comment, "ah, this fellow appears to have taken a shine to my bottom," since moral judgments about the action were inappropriate. I have a lot of respect for him in trying to get to grips with the consequences of relativistic teaching, but it's not something most people could ever accept.

So, while relativism seems to be a common theme these days, most people who talk about it don't really believe it. Rather it serves as an excuse for a lack of concrete belief, a lazy alternative to having to think through and justify ones own, disjointed, prejudiced moral judgments. Why bother to question your own lifestyle and beliefs, when you can just say "that's fine for you, but it's not for me?"

Coming back to an earlier question, I think there are two reasons why I might sometimes dare to believe that, yes, my opinions might be more valid than someone else's. The first, and the big one for me, is that at times I am merely reiterating the doctrines espoused by Jesus. This will clearly not carry much weight with a non-Christian, and understandably so. To them I'd point to Jesus' teachings and persona, which hopefully they might find attractive enough to add weight to some of his harder sayings. But secondly, I would hope that my opinions might be more likely to be valid simply because (like my Taoist friend) I've actually bothered to think them through.

As a Christian, I believe that Jesus is God, and that all faiths which don't accept this are fatally flawed, however much of their teachings I might otherwise agree with. But I also feel closer to Muslims, Taoists, or even Atheists who take their faith seriously and dare to think through and live out its consequences, than with the vast majority who simply use moral relativism as a cover for their own laziness, ignorance and apathy.

Originally posted 2004-08-24


I voted in the European elections yesterday. That puts me in a minority (nothing new there then) - only 40% of people bothered.

The EU parliament which I helped to elect is responsible for passing laws which affect all sorts of things across Europe. It's not as if they are things no-one cares about; a common theme of British life is people complaining about the latest EU directive. But it seems that here as in so many areas, British people would prefer to whinge about the situation than to actually do something about it.

I've voted in every election here since I've been eligible. I feel it is not just a privilege but also a duty. I owe it to myself and everyone else who lives in this country, since the election affects everyone.

Moreover, though, I feel I owe it to all of the people in the world who have spent so much effort trying to get what we take for granted: a vote.

At the last elections, my wife didn't really like any of the candidates. But nonetheless she felt she had to go cast a vote, even if only to spoil her ballot paper. She remembered the story of Emily Davison, a member of the suffragette movement. She threw herself under the King's racehorse and was killed. That's how important voting was to her.

And in South Africa, elections are still a matter for national celebration, because so many people there were not allowed to vote for so long.

So as I walked from the polling station, I closed my eyes and pretended I was in South Africa.

I wonder what Emily Davison would say now. She gave her life so that half the population here could vote, and now half the population aren't even willing to give up their seat on the sofa for ten minutes.

Originally posted 2004-06-11


There is talk in the news here about the possibility of more petrol protests. A few years ago there was a huge scandal when petrol reached 84p a litre. Petrol depots were blockaded and no-one could buy petrol. Then everyone started going to shops and panic buying bread and milk.

Personally I totally opposed the fuel protests: I totally object to the idea of a bunch of truckers holding the country to ransom. Moreover, I don't have a problem with paying 84p a litre or £1 a litre or more for petrol, and I strongly support increases in fuel tax. My car gets 10 miles to the litre (45 miles per UK gallon) and I drive less than six thousand miles a year. I know it's hard on people who drive 50 miles a day in 4x4s or luxury saloons, but that's their choice.

The few days of the blockades were a very interesting time. People started sharing lifts to work. Mothers started walking their children to school instead of driving them. With fewer cars on the street as well, it made walking into town a much more enjoyable experience.

So here's hoping that fuel duty will continue to rise.

Originally posted 2004-06-02

Thoughts on thought

I did a short philosophy course at university. It covered the history of philosophical thought starting with ancient Greece up to the current century. What struck me about the course was that pretty much all of it came down to the argument between two Philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. Their conflicting viewpoints were first expressed in classical Athens and the argument has raged ever since. The argument is about which is more important: reason or experience?

Plato's viewpoint was that the world of ideas and reason is "real", and that what we see is just a dim representation of those ideals.

Aristotle's opposing viewpoint was that the world you see and experience is "real", and that any expression of ideas is just an attempt to express reality in an inexact manner.

Before Plato (who predated Aristotle), the big debate in Philosophy was between Protagoras and Socrates. Protagoras suggested that right and wrong were not absolute but were subjective - that "man is the measure of all things". In other words, what's wrong for a Greek isn't necessarily wrong for a Persian. Protagoras had travelled extensively (for his day) and in particular commented on the Persian practice of eating dead relatives, which appalled the Greeks.

Sokrates in contrast felt that there were absolute standards of right and wrong, whether or not the Greeks or Persians understood them or chose to follow them. It occurred to me recently that this too is just the Plato versus Aristotle argument: Protagoras was arguing from experience, whereas Sokrates was arguing from logic.

I came across these two arguments on the philosophy course, but since then I've seen them more and more in everyday life. As an example, when I worked for the department of transport, I went to a conference on the "value of time". We discussed the question: what is the value of a small time saving? The argument split into two factions. One said that small time savings have no value, because if you ask people what it's worth to them getting home thirty seconds quicker, they say "nothing". The other said that obviously small time savings were proportionately less valuable than large time savings, so thirty seconds are 1/120th as valuable as an hour. During the debate it occurred to me that this was an example of Aristotelian versus Platonic argument.

Some more examples. Christianity is stronly Platonic. What's the point of "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" if really that just means "I am the truth for those who follow me, others have their own truth and that's ok?" Who'd die for that?

Democracy is inherently Aristotelian: it is based on the balance of individual perception, rather than searching for absolutes. That said, it's possible to argue for democracy from a platonic viewpoint, as given the nature of humanity it's a pretty good "least bad" political system in most situations. [Memo to self: Maybe I should write something about democracy?]

Modern postmodernist culture is similarly Aristotelian. Where once we had "any colour you like as long as it's black", we now have 57 varieties of everything, and everyone's viewpoint is equally valid - excepting of course paedophiles, islamic terrorists and illegal immigrants.

So it seems to me that pretty much the whole history of human thought hinges on these two Greek chaps from over two thousand years ago. There truly is nothing new under the sun.

Origially posted 2004-05-27