The Aim Was Song.

Before man to blow to right
The wind once blew itself untaught,
And did its loudest day and night
In any rough place where it caught.

Man came to tell it what was wrong;
It hadn’t found the place to blow;
It blew too hard – the aim was song.
And listen how it ought to go!

He took a little in his mouth,
And held it long enough to north
To be converted into south,
And then by measure blew it forth.

By measure. It was word and note,
The wind, the wind had meant to be –
A little through the lips and throat,
The aim was song – the wind could see.

Robert Frost

We melodious few

Qui sont chanteurs?
Oh mon Dieu,
humans and birds
and a few
travellin’ whales.

Cricket chirruping don’t qualify

Only some species sing.

Signaling ain’t enough,
‘Yoo-hoo, hey-girl!’
or territory assertion,
‘Keep off!’
howling, hooting,
screeching, whooping,
effective for long –
distance messaging,
don’t measure up
on the melodic
scale of song.

Bird Song.

How doth that
song-bird emit
such glorious
concinnity, ‘tis
a mystery.

Magpie song with traffic imitation on the side.
( Modern Times. )


What have you, magpie, to celebrate?
Such glorious chortling in an arid landscape,
Leaves of eucalypts hanging motionless
In the breathless mid-day heat. It isn’t
That you can’t, or won’t complain in some
Scenarios, but rather that, by your very song,
You are constrained from self-reflexive musing,
For magpie, you may sing only the songs
Passed down the line by those first ancestors.

Songster extraordinaire, you are programmed
To voice liquid stanzas of affirmation,
Your concert repertoire scarcely allowing
For lamentation.

Songs for all Occasions.

Lyrical creation
for all occasions,
expressions of exultation,
reflection and lamentation,
follow in quick succession
in the human
book of songs.

The Four Seasons.

Spring, Summer, Autumn,
seasons for celebrating
renewal, ripeness and the harvest:
Winter’s the reverse.

Mendelssohn’s Spring Song.

Summertime and the living’s easy.

Those Falling Leaves.

Die Winterreise … Sadness Alert!

Love Songs.

Oh the human heart,
that gamut of responses
to l’amour, delight,
vexation, longing, loss,
expressed in songs that
mapamounde the Earth.

What is this thing called love.

La vie en rose.

And finally, songs of religious worship, humans’ giving voice to their sense of wonder at mysterious creation and the sublime.

Hallelujah Chorus.

Whale Song.




Well m’ dears, you’ve heard about pilgrimage corteges on those dear little medieval horses, travelling to Canterbury and such, … herewith it’s walking in Nay-chur, with three well known essayists, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Hazlitt and Henry David Thoreau making their thoughts known regarding the walking tour, walking, not for fitness or destination, but for less tangible things on which they more or less agree.


‘He who is indeed of the brotherhood,’ says Stevenson, in his essay on ‘Walking Tours,’ ‘does not voyage in quest of the picturesque, but of certain jolly humours — of the hope and spirit with which the march begins at morning, and the peace and spiritual repletion of the evening’s rest.

He cannot tell whether he puts his knapsack on, or takes it off, with more delight. The excitement of the departure puts him in key for that of the arrival. Whatever he does is not only a reward in itself, but will be further rewarded in the sequel; and so pleasure leads on to pleasure in an endless chain.’

Going it alone…

Hazlitt and Thoreau couldn’t agree more. For Hazlitt:

‘The soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do, just as one pleases. We go a journey chiefly to be free of all impediments and of all inconveniences; to leave ourselves behind much more than to get rid of others.’

‘I cannot see the wit,’ he says, ‘of walking and talking at the same time … Is not this wild rose sweet without a comment? Does not this daisy leap to my heart set in its coat of emerald? Yet if I were to explain to you the circumstance that has so endeared it to me you would only smile…

In my opinion, this continual comparing of notes interferes with the involuntary impression of things upon the mind, and hurts the sentiment. If you only hint what you feel in a kind of dumb show, it is insipid: if you have to explain it, it is making a toil of a pleasure. You cannot read the book of Nature without being perpetually put to the trouble of translating it for the benefit of others. I am for the synthetical method on a journey in preference to the analytical. I am content to lay in a stock of ideas then, and to examine and anatomise them afterwards. I want to see my vague notions float like the down of the thistle before the breeze, and not to have them entangled in the briars and thorns of controversy. For once, I like to have it all my own way; and this is impossible unless you are alone.’

Call of the Wild.

For Thoreau, also, walking is a solitary event. In his 1861 treatise, ‘Walking,’ he sets out how the primal act of mobility connects us with our essential wildness, it is a spiritual act undertaken for its own sake.


‘All good things are wild and free,’ says Thoreau.

‘When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall? ‘

‘Life consists with wildness… The most alive is the wildest.’

A serf sometimes feels this on a stormy day, walking with her dog along the sea-shore, a wave’s breadth from the surging ocean, feeling its spray on her face. Say, does man’s best friend feel it too, a call of the wild connecting him with his inner wolf?

Your Own Way.

For Stevenson, walking has also to be a solitary activity for the reason that ‘you must have your own pace and neither trot alongside a champion walker, nor mince in time with a girl.’ He disagrees with a comment by Hazlitt concerning exuberant movement…

‘Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet,’ says Hazlitt, ‘ a winding road before me, and a three hours’ march to dinner– and then to thinking! It is hard if I cannot start some game on these lone heaths. I laugh, I run, I leap, I sing for joy.’

‘Not wholly wise,’ says Stevenson.’ I do not approve of that leaping and running. Both of these hurry the respiration; they both shake up the brain out of its glorious open-air confusion; and they both break the pace. Uneven walking is not so agreeable to the body and it irritates the mind.’

Stevenson observes that you lose that dreaming rhythm when you abruptly change the pace. Serfs concur. I sometimes muse, walking by the river, whistling to the birds and such, that my bi-ped, four-step walking rhythm is keeping in time with my pulse.

And here’s Thoreau with a nice comment on the art of walking, not by mechanically putting one foot in front of the other hell set on a destination, but by mastering the art of sauntering:

‘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 “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander.’

And so pleasure leads to pleasure in an endless chain ….

Arriving at the Inn.

‘If the evening be fine and warm,’ says Stevenson,’ there is nothing better in life than to lounge before the inn door in the sunset, or lean over the parapet of the bridge, to watch the weeds and the quick fishes.’

‘How fine it is to enter some old town, walled and turreted, just at approach of night-fall,’ says Hazlitt,’ ‘or to come to some straggling village, with the lights streaming through the surrounding gloom; and then, after inquiring for the best entertainment that the place affords, to ‘take one’s ease at one’s inn!’

‘It is then, if ever, that you taste Joviality to the full significance of that audacious word.’ Stevenson commenting again. ‘Your muscles are so agreeably slack, you feel so clean and so strong and so idle, that whether you move or sit still, whatever you do is done with pride and a kingly sort of pleasure. You fall in talk with any one, wise or foolish, drunk or sober. And it seems as if a hot walk purged you, more than of anything else, of all narrowness and pride, and left curiosity to play its part freely, as in a child or a man of science. You lay aside all your own hobbies, to watch provincial humours develop themselves before you, now as a laughable farce, and now grave and beautiful like an old tale.’

‘I have certainly spent some enviable hours at inns.’ says Hazlitt. ‘What a delicate speculation it is, after drinking whole goblets of tea and letting the fumes ascend into the brain, to sit considering what we shall have for supper…’ recollecting with amorous precision … ‘It was on the 10th of April,1798, that I sat down to a volume of the New Elise, at the inn of Llangollen, over a bottle of sherry and a cold chicken.’

So let us leave these wanderers to their ease and heart–felt happiness in some comfortable inn and muse further upon wandering …

A Stroll may Change History.

There’s another kind of walking, the thinking walk … where something you’ve been working on, if you’re lucky, comes together, a connected-ness, as you wander.

Here’s a case significant in its consequences that I’ve recorded before. James Watt, an instrument maker out walking in the city of Glascow, one fine afternoon in 1765. For months Watt had been working on Newcomben’s steam engine trying to solve the problem of inefficiency from wasted steam. Walking up Charlotte Street, he passed by the old washing house.

‘I was thinking upon the engine at the time,’ he wrote later, ‘when the idea came into my mind that as steam was an elastic body it would rush into a vacuum, and if a communication were made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel, it would rush into it and thereby be condensed without cooling the cylinder … I had not walked further than the golf-house when the whole thing was strong in my mind.

Pied-a-terre ter every-where.

There was a time, before the advent of steam engines, or even roads, before the advent of cities or large towns, when most of the world’s human population walked. Right up to the Middle Ages, except for a few kings and queens and dukes, most everybody walked. Much of England at that time was still covered in forest, and there was only one city, London Town, a focus of opportunity to some of England’s rural population. To get to London, or any local town or marketplace, you walked.To sell wares or buy, to visit relatives, to seek your fortune like Dick Whittington, you walked, tramping the network of trails that criss-crossed hill and dale, or like Red Riding Hood, taking a winding path through the woods.

Literature is crammed with walkers, one notable even walking through the under world, another group of travelers journeying to the centre of the earth. There’s J.R.R.Tolkein’s hobbits, Frodo and Samwis, (Gollum‘s excluded, more slithering and crawling than actual ‘walking.’) Young people walked. There’s Charles Dicken’s David Copperfield. Thomas Hardy’s characters are dedicated walkers, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Gabriel Oak, Tess D’Urbervilles, hmm, might have been better if she’d stayed at home. Lots of females in literature go on walks… Jane Austin’s Elizabeth Bennett thinks nothing of a four mile walk, Jane Eliot’s always walking, over hill and dale, along sea fronts, through the streets of Bath. In Nathanial Hawthorn’s ‘Scarlett Letter’ who can forget Hester Prynne’s walk in the forest? So symbolic.

Wired for walking.

‘Man’s instincts were forged in the desert’ says Bruce Chatwin.

‘The real home of man is not his house but the road. Life itself is a travel that has to be done by foot,’ says Chatwin, who tells us in his fascinating study of nomads, ‘The Songlines.’ that his own name means ‘winding path.’

In ‘The Songlines,’ Chatwin describes the Aboriginal creation myth of the invisible thread of song lines that cross the Australian landscape, put down by totemic ancestors singing the world into existence, these Dreamtime tracks becoming ways of communication between distant tribes.

Chatwin converses with an aboriginal ex–Catholic priest who tells him how the songlines were created:

‘Each Ancestor, while singing his way across country, was believed to have left a trail of ‘life-cells’ or ‘spirit-children’ along the line of his footprints … the song was supposed to lie over the ground in an unbroken chain of couplets: a couplet for each pair of the ancestor’s footfalls, each formed from the names he ‘threw out’ while walking.’

A child inherits his or her totemic ancestry and stanza of the songline from where the tribal elders decide is his or her conception site, that place where the already pregnant woman feels the foetus quicken, corresponding to the moment of spirit-conception.


In ‘The Songlines,’ Chatwin also presents a controversial thesis that it is our settled life that fosters aggression, whereas nomads live in harmony with others and their world. He recounts a fascinating meeting with Konrad Lorenz, ethologist and brilliant mimic, where Lorenz, describing the inherent territorial aggressive instincts of animals and humans, gives a performance of a meeting of two conflicting male sticklebacks, both unbeatable in the centre of their own territory, progressively fearful as they stray away from it. And as Lorenz told the story, says Chatwin he became the stickleback, ‘crossed his hands under his chin splaying his fingers to imitate the stickleback spines. He coloured at the gills. He paled. He inflated and deflated, lunged and fled.’

Contrary to Lorenz, regarding instinctive human aggression, Chatwin believes that man in his natural state is not aggressive. He gives a picture of the harmonious life in a nomad tribe, the Nemabis of the Sahara and says that the world, if it is to survive, needs to return to the ascetic, nomad life.

Hmm …Inherently good or inherently evil? Difficult to make that call regarding flawed yet reflective, complex human beings. And back to a golden age? Naychur without that comfortable wayside inn?

Two Songs.



sometimes referred to as The Seven Cardinal Sins – I like that.


Serf musings regarding social engineering attempts to narrow down the complexity of individual human personality for ‘noble’ ends, noble ends often requiring a noble lie. Hat / tip to the Greek philosopher Plato in ‘The Republic,’ a blue-print for utopian engineering and an act of pride in itself.

A Sensitivity Warning: the following will include a plethora of CAP-LETTERING due to the SERIOUSNESS of the subject being discussed, SEVEN DEADLY SINS – Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony ‘n Lust. Herewith a serf haiku over-view:


No History w/out Hubris…

The Study of History and ‘Those SINS.’

History’s supposed to be a proper study of mankind, claimed Italian historian, Giambattista Vico,( 1668-1744) arguing ahead of his time that since man himself has created history and the societies which are its study, man is especially adapted to be an object of human knowledge. This meant that if history was to become a serious study of humans interacting with their world, certain misconceptions concerning its ‘purpose’ and the nature of historical explanation, had to be overcome.

One misconception that had to go was the study of the past as moral instruction, history ‘teaching a lesson’ Much of Middle Ages history was of this kind, events regarded in a providential light, God’s purpose over-ruling human action. Another narrowing of human action requiring critical review was ‘scientism’ or ‘historicism,’ involving explanation in history as the outcome of inexorable laws of destiny. Claiming that history obeyed scientific laws, arch historicists, Georg Hegel and Otto Spengler saw history driven by laws of political or cultural destiny, historicist Karl Marx, viewed humans as puppets constrained by economic laws. As discoverers of laws in history, donning the powerful cloak of science, Hegel and Spengler, however, chose to discard the scientific discipline of testing and eliminating error, any nation presently prevailing just happening to be the destined victor, Karl Marx failed the prediction test, his stages of history theory falsified by events.

A third problem to be overcome concerned bias in historical perspective, what to do to transcend the myopia of present point of view and the opacity of time and space.

Context’s the thing.

Problems of historical perspective in explanations of historical events required a broader approach to the study of the past. For historian John Dunn, the problem could only be overcome by understanding the biographical or social experience a past argument or event was designed to meet. Dunn argued that to abstract an argument or event from the criteria which it was designed to meet was to convert it into a different argument or event. To understand the argument of a past thinker, we need to ‘substitute the closure of the context provided by the biography of the speaker for that provided by the biography of the historian.’ (J Dunn ‘The Identity of the History of Ideas.’ Philosophy 43,1968 p98.)

For Karl Popper, like John Dunn, overcoming the personal bias of the historian requires contextual analysis. Popper argues a critical approach to understanding the ‘logic of the situation’ of protagonists. By locating the decisive elements in an actor’s problem situation, a historian has a good chance of understanding and explaining past events. (‘Objective Knowledge. An Evolutionary Approach.’ Oxford, 1979.Ch 4.)

Accurate situational analysis beyond reading the correspondence of decision makers may require the spreading of a large net involving geographical data and other resource data or identifying impacting events, past or present, at home or abroad.

A critical and provisional study of history, so followed, I’d argue, pursued in context and for its own sake, can reveal us to ourselves in all our variety, a panoply of human motivations, interacting and overlapping …FEAR, AMBITION, OPPORTUNISM, DECEIT, PRIDE and more, a rich and chastening experience.

The Western Literary Canon.

But what about experience gleaned from the fictional characters in literature, from the pages of the great books of the Western Canon?

In an earlier edition of Serf Under _ ground, I put forward a proposal with reference to reading literature, viz, ‘That literature, in mysterious ways, expands our human consciousness and understanding of our human condition,’

Now I know you’re likely to disagree with this in a number of ways. Considering that we’ve all experienced the difficulties of communicating with real people in the here and now, and considering difficulties in historical studies, overcoming present bias to identify human problem situations of the past, what’s to be gained from fiction?

My answer is that behind these fictional characters and plots hides a silent creator, the author, a real person. The canon of literature that avid readers turn to for enjoyment and more, again and again, books that include many points of view and modes of exploring them, are written by authors with rich imagination and perception, who turn the characters in their creations into living human beings involved with particular aspects of human experience.

Harold Bloom, in his book, ‘The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages.’ (1994.) defends the concept of a body of great literature existing through history to be read for the lustres, a concept which should scarcely need defending, but a concept under attack from Marxist and Foucault inspired anti-canonists.

Bloom examines twenty-six writers that he chooses to write about in The Western Canon, from the five hundred or so canonical writers that he names in the appendix of his book, great literature from different historical eras and countries from Homer and the Greek tragedians to playwrights, poets. novelists and essayists of the twentieth century.

So what is this thing with the writers that Harold Bloom calls the canon? The answer, more often than not, turns out to be strangeness, ‘a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange … the cycle of achievement that goes from The Divine Comedy to Endgame, from strangeness to strangeness.’ (H.B. P3)

Strangeness ‘n Originality.

Bloom argues that Shakespeare’s originality and strangeness has become so assimilated by us that we cease to see it as strange. He places Shakespeare at the centre of the Canon because he excels all other Western writers in cognitive acuity and power of invention.

Bloom argues that Shakespeare gives us most of our representations of cognition. He goes further, observing that Shakespeare largely invented what we think of as cognition, that most of what we know about how to represent cognition and personality in language was permanently altered by Shakespeare.(P46.) There isn’t anyone before him who actually gives you a representation of characters speaking out loud whether to themselves or to others, and then brooding out loud on what they have said, and in the course of pondering, undergoing a serious or vital change, becoming a different kind of character.

Where Shakespeare took the hint, says Bloom, – is from Chaucer, Shakespeare’s only precursor in reflective character; the self aware revelations of two characters in ‘The Canterbury Tales,’ the Wife of Bath that gets into Falstaff, and of the Pardoner, that gets into figures like Edmund and Iago. As to how Chaucer comes up with it, says Harold Bloom, shows Chaucer’s own startling originality.


The Canterbury Tales and the Seven Sins.

‘Here is God’s plenty,’ said poet John Drydon, speaking of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. And it is… Though no religious pilgrimage to Canterbury this, instead, for most of the travelers, a pleasure jaunt with tales told along the way, mostly secular tales of love and marriage told in popular mode, chivalry and courtly romance, satire and animal fable.

Chaucer’s tales are a witty analogy to Dante’s grim pilgrimage in ‘The Inferno’ through the nether regions of Hell. Sins there are a-plenty but Chaucer’s large consciousness, like Shakespeare’s, can’t be prescribed by constraints of the times. Though set against a world of Medieval Christian morality, Chaucer’s tales, while including moral and spiritual allegory and sermons, transcend the didactic.

Chaucer is no preacher but instead a comic ironist, who creates in The Canterbury Tales, a structure of preamble and tale told by each individual pilgrim in which they introduce and reveal themselves to us by their own words, a device exploited by later grand ironists, Shakespeare and Jane Austin.

Master of ceremonies on the journey is the ambiguous character, ‘Chaucer,’ – not the creator, ‘Chaucer,’ but another ‘guileless Chaucer,’ one of the company of travelers, and this allows readers, in the absence a guiding voice, to make their own discoveries about each character’s nature and concerns.

The two most individual and self-aware characters in the tales are the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner. In these characters, Bloom observes, Chaucer has anticipated by centuries that inwardness we associate with the Renaissance and the Reformation, a self- consciousness that Shakespeare quickens into self over-hearing and subsequent will to change. ( B. P 105.)

Lots of self awareness in the Wife of Bath. In her prologue, twice as long and more interesting than her tale, she celebrates her extraordinary vitalism and sexual exuberance. Widow of five husbands and would take a sixth, her preamble is a stream of consciousness reverie that almost seems to break lose from the tales. The Wife of Bath gives us a vivid account of her marriages and battle for sovereignty within them and also her dissent from the strictures of the church on multiple marriages, followed by a commentary on men’s moralizing about women’s vices:

‘By God, if women hadde written stories,
As clerkes han written hir oratories,
They wolde han written of men more wickednesse
Than all the mark of Adam may redresse.’

(W/B. Lines 693-696.)

And in a passage that anticipates some of Shakespeare’s characters’ introspective soliloquies, the Wife of Bath reflects on how time has transfigured her and we see her consideriing a deliberate change from her early natural vitalism to a more self-conscious cheerfulness. She can’t be what she was, but she will continue in a way suited to her heroic personality:

‘But – Lord Crist! – whan that it remembreth me
Upon my yowthe, and on my jolitee,
It tikleth me about myn herte roote.
Unto this day it dooth myn herte boote
That I have had my worlde as in my tyme.
But age, allas, that al wol envenyme,
Hath me biraft my beautee and my pith.
Lat go. Farewel! The devel go therwith!
The flour is goon: ther is namoore to telle;
The bren, as I best kan,now moste I selle;
But yet to be right mery will I fonde.’

(W/B lines 469-467.)

In her ‘likerous tale concerning dominance in marriage, there’s no surprise about who wins. There is a surprise, however, in her dissertation on ‘gentilness’ or ‘nobility’ that suggests an unexpected aspect of her nature, perhaps something that she’s unaware of herself…

‘Looke who that is most virtuous always,
Pryvee and apert, and mooste entendeth ay
To dothe gentil dedes that he can;
Taak hym for the grettest gentil man.’

(WB.Tale. Lines 113-116.)

Can’t constrain the Wife of Bath too narrowly to a mere ‘deadly sin of lust.’

The ‘gentil Pardoner’, forerunner of Shakespeare’s great nihilists Edmund and Iago, is a figure who marks the limit of Chaucer’s irony. The Pardoner’s prologue and tale, as Bloom observes, are not comic but lethal.

The most depraved of Chaucer’s characters, as he says of himself, he is’ a ful vicious man,’ he is also the most intelligent and imaginative, delighting in his mastery of persuasive preaching to deceive the gullible:

‘My hand and my tongue go yerns
That it is joy to see my busyness
Of avarice and of such cursedness
Is all my preaching for to make them free
To give their pence, and namely unto me
For my intent is not but for to win,
And nothing for correction of sin.
I reck never when that they be buried
Though that there soules go a black berried.’

(P. Lines 397-406)

The Pardoner’s theme is cupidity motive for his own calumny, trading in indulgences and fake ‘holy’ relics, ‘I preach nothing but coveitise.’ And greed is the subject of his tale. His macabre tale involves an ancient figure like the Wandering Jew, who meets with three young revelers on a drunken quest to accost and kill Death. The ancient man, who seems to be Death’s messenger, directs them to a lonely place where they will meet with Death. The revelers find a heap of gold sovereigns and plans change. Unwilling to share the spoils, they plot against each other and bring about their mutual destruction. ‘Ralix malorum est Cupiditus.’

At the end of his awesome tale, the Pardoner outrageously offers his services of mock redemption to his fellow pilgrims, arousing even the tolerant Chaucer to anger… What is he doing? It’s as though he is provoking disaster. Is he a doom –seeker aware of the emptiness of his boast that only greed motivates him? In the tale he tells he opens up the abyss of eternal damnation for sinners. Perhaps he sees a parallel between himself and the ancient stranger in his tale? Tomorrow and tomorrow…

Tinker, tailor …

Oh those aspirations to narrow down human diversity for Utopian ideals. From Plato’s Utopia to UNESCO’s Millennium Goal vision, social engineering programs, however noble the motive, don’t end well. We see Plato’s Republic- a blue-print to arrest all change, necessarily tailoring the plebs into docility requiring a ‘noble lie’ to bring it about And still these top-down efforts continue. In the name of social equity, one size fits all, Western Civilization, in its education programs is abandoning that basic individualism inherited from thinkers of classical antiquity like Pericles, Socrates , Euripides aor Cicero and from the creative geniuses of the Renaissance like Giotto, Brunelleschi, Leonardo, Michelangelo.

Transformative Learning, at Home and Abroad.

Here in Oz, not so many decades ago, before K-12 Core Curriculum began it’s social agenda transformation of State education, schools generally taught subject content, concepts and skills which, when taught by good teachers, emphasized critical thinking and developing student autonomy. Values education, such as it was, focusing on respect for self and others, reliability and honesty, was promoted separately from curriculum subjects. Now values education permeates every subject area in schools and would seem to be the education’s main goal, transformative education for pre-determined socio-political ends.

A recent social-activist program introduced into schools, the ‘Safe Schools, All of Us ‘ program is exciting some controversy, being a focus on LGBTI, i.e. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender bullying, involving radical program changes. While ‘Safe Schools ‘has as its kernel, a reasonable proposition that no one should be bullied for perceived differences, you would expect a school to deal with any bullying by promoting respect as a civic duty, even stepping up teacher presence in school recess yard duty if necessary, as in the past, But this eight million dollar tax payer funded program, introduced into schools without parental consent, goes way beyond this, involving inappropriate cross gender role play for eleven and twelve year old students, even looking to speech reforms, avoiding hetero-norm language, ‘boy,’, ‘girl’ references, ‘father,’ ‘mother,’ also targeted. Seems children at school are being made the cannon fodder of adult sexual politics.

Transformational Learning in the US.

Robin Eubanks, a US attorney and parent, writer of the blog, ‘Invisble Serf’s Collar,’ has written several posts on education in the United States, including this one, ‘Rewiring Students’ Brains at a Neural Level to Constrain, Guide and Motivate Desired Future Behaviors.’


Here are a few extracts, posted on 8th of June, 2016:

‘During the last two weeks documentable, official confessions of just how much our children’s very synapses and whether the regions used in thinking are rational or tied to emotions have come out on an almost daily basis…

The US BRAIN Initiative (which began in 2013) coordinates actively with Human Brain Project and goes to its programmes in Europe. Turns out part of that initiative included a Bioethics Commission http://bioethics.gov/ where we can locate the BRAIN 2025: A Scientific Vision report as well as the two Gray Matters reports that leave our government’s desire to interfere with internalized mental processes for political purposes in no doubt. It is also chaired by Penn Pres Amy Gutmann who was probably chosen by President Obama precisely because her 1987 book Democratic Education called on schools to shift away from the ‘well-intentioned misperception’ that schools have an “obligation to impart information.” Instead, Gutmann wanted teachers to develop the moral character of students so that they “feel the force of right reason” to reshape society.’

Citing Professor Damasio, a US partner in the HBP, Robin Eubank says:

‘There’s that ‘feeling’ hype again. I know it is not coincidental because I have a few additional writings we can survey. I have Damasio’s 2010 book Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain where he stated that “emotions are the dutiful executors and servants of the value principle.” A useful target for emphasis for planners hoping to alter the drivers of future behavior. Since Professor Damasio elsewhere mentioned “the need to manage the behaviors of humans,” forcing student thinking to be grounded in emotion would appear to be an excellent place to start. UNESCO agrees too since I located an August 2015 paper stating that the new purpose of ‘curriculum’ in the 21st century is to make sure there is no “contradiction or dissociation between the cognitive and the ethical dimension in learning.”

In order to advance the ‘concept of social justice’ and the new UN “guidelines on the meaning of education based on the ideal of building more just societies,” educational experiences must be created so that each student’s commitment to the ideals of social justice is not “an adherence that is purely rhetorical or cut off from how people actually behave.” Rounding out our support is this paper that I-Y coauthored http://iesteulada.edu.gva.es/portal/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Neuroscience-and-learning.pdf which ended with a diagram that makes it clear it is Emotional Thought, and not High Reason/ Rational Thought, that 21st century education wants to cultivate. Why? Because of its useful role in desired ” moral decision-making.” ‘

Leaving no doubt that schools are being used to force a transformational political agenda at a neural level, Robin Eubanks quottes one of the Grey Matter reports stating that ‘ one desirable goal for ethics education is ‘transformational learning’ which goes beyond cultivating cognitive learning or critical thinking to inculcate ‘habits of mind, attitudes and dispositions. ‘

Robin Eubanks concludes that this is ‘neural change and designed to motivate future behavior from a level unconscious to the neurologically reengineered student.’

The Ultimate Deadly Sin against Humanity.

So no more Socrates’ or Michelangelos’ … And nevermore a Chaucer or a Shakespeare.

Oh you Platonists!

From the confines of my
ivory tower, kinda’
like the Lady of Shallot,
but bolstered by philo-
‘I,’ no, royal ‘We’
gaze down upon
the hoi-polloi
‘n tell you what you are,
and what you need to be.

beth the serf.



‘I read for the lustres.’ -Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Serfs do too, ( some of the time). Hope you do likewise, dear reader.

There’s a scene in the film version of Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose,’ set in a Medieval monastery in the Alps, where a singed Sean Connery 🙂 (Brother William of Baskerville,) emerges from a burning library labyrinth with an armful of illuminated manuscripts. It is a poignant moment. So few books saved, so many potentially immortal works lost to the flames. One classic manuscript lost is Aristotle’s Second Book of Poesie, a book celebrating human laughter, a book central to the novel’s series of mysterious events. Aristotle’s Second Book of Poesie is deliberately destroyed by the Keeper of the Library, the Venerable Jorge, a zealot who considers it too dangerously liberating to be read by anyone other than the Library’s guardian of secret knowledge because laughter kills fear, without fear there can be no faith, and ‘without fear of the Devil, says Jorge, ‘there is no need of God.’


Preserving the writings of the past, including a treatise on the divine comedy, reminds me of a scene from another film, the spoof horror-movie, ‘The Mummy,’ where Evelyn, the female lead, exclaims: ‘Look, I …I may not be an explorer, or an adventurer, or a treasure-seeker, or a gun-fighter, Mister O’Connell, but I am proud of what I am… I …am a librarian!’ The comment invokes laughter, ‘a librarian,’ you visualize a safe career among the filing cabinets, and yet … also a field worker in the keeping of the literary canon. Western Culture salute your librarian!

Viva la librairie!

All sorts of useful books in libraries and book stores. Histories of past events, rise and fall of empires and political systems, studies of the invisible hand working in city trade and the economies of nations, and more. But what good the papery whispers of fictitious humans in literature?

In my 13th Edition of Serf Under _ ground, I put forward a modest proposal with reference to reading literature, viz, ‘That literature, in mysterious ways, expands our human consciousness and understanding of our human condition,’ a guided index to life, you might say, ambition, angst, sometimes even altruism.

Now I know you’re likely to disagree with this in a number of ways. Considering that we’ve all experienced the difficulties of communicating, in the here and now, with real people out there, and considering difficulties in historical studies, overcoming present bias to identify human problem situations of the past, what’s to be gleaned from the fictional characters in literature?

My answer is that behind these fictional characters and plots hides a silent creator, the author, a real person. The canon of literature that avid readers turn to for enjoyment and more, again and again, books that include many points of view and modes of exploring them, are written by authors with rich imagination and perception, who turn the characters in their creations into living human beings involved with a particular aspect of human experience.

Salute to the canon.

Harold Bloom, in his book, ‘The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages.’ (1994.) is defending the concept of a body of great literature existing through history to be read for the lustres, a concept which should scarcely need defending, but a concept under attack from Marxist and Foucault inspired anti-canonists.

Bloom examines twenty-six writers that he chooses to write about in The Western Canon, from the five hundred or so canonical writers that he names in the appendix of his book, great literature from different historical eras and countries. He arranges the canon into periods he labels, * The Theocratic: e.g. Homer, the Greek Tragedians The Bible, Virgil; *The Aristocratic Age, spanning the five centuries from Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy ‘to Goethe’s ‘Faust,’ * The Democratic, a period when the strength of Russian and American literature begins, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Melville and Whitman, a number of great English and French writers, and * The Chaotic Age, writers as yet untested by time, among them poets, Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, dramatists, Samuel Beckett, Berthold Brecht, novelists, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, essayists Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Primo Levi, the list goes on. Bloom omits the writers of the Theocratic Age from this study, you’ll find some of these discussed in his later book, ‘Genius,’ another term not favoured by anti-canonical critics.

So what is this thing with the writers that Harold Bloom calls the canon? The answer, more often than not, turns out to be strangeness, ‘a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange … ‘the cycle of achievement that goes from The Divine Comedy to Endgame, from strangeness to strangeness.’ (H.B. P3)

Strangeness ‘n Originality.

None stranger than Dante Alighieri, powerful and polemical creator of ‘The Divine Comedy.’ Wonder is that the New Historicists and allied schools of resentment, attempting to undo the Canon have not yet gone after him. As Harold Bloom observes, Dante’s Divine Comedy is a work of heresy, his exaltation of Beatrice, sublimated from an image of desire, to an angelic status and crucial element in the Christian hierarchy of salvation, is the poet’s most audacious act, transforming his inherited faith into something that is particularly his own. And here’s hubris for you; as an instrument of Dante’s will, Beatrice’s apotheosis necessarily involves Dante’s election as well. Harold Bloom calls Beatrice the canon’s most daring invention, even surpassing Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Lear.

Bloom places Dante with Shakespeare at the centre of the Canon ‘because they excel all other Western writers in cognitive acuity, linguistic energy and power of invention.’ ( P 43.) But it is Shakespeare, Bloom argues, who sets the standard and limits of literature. He makes the case that Shakespeare gives us most of our representations of cognition and that Shakespeare’s originality has been so assimilated by us that we cease to see it as strange. Bloom goes further, observing that Shakespeare largely invented what we think of as cognition, that most of what we know about how to represent cognition and personality in language was permanently altered by Shakespeare. Bloom’s principal insight in teaching and writing about Shakespeare is that there isn’t anyone before Shakespeare who actually gives you a representation of characters or human figures speaking out loud, whether to themselves or to others, and then brooding out loud, whether to themselves or to others, on what they themselves have said, and then, in the course of pondering, undergoing a serious or vital change, becoming a different kind of character or personality and even a different kind of mind. Bloom says we take for granted this process of reflection in representation, but it doesn’t exist before Shakespeare. It doesn’t happen in the Bible. It doesn’t happen in Homer or in Dante. It doesn’t even happen in Euripides.

Where Shakespeare took the hint, says Bloom, – is from Chaucer, Shakespeare’s only precursor in reflective character; the self aware revelations in ‘The Canterbury Tales’ of the Wife of Bath that gets into Falstaff, and of the Pardoner, that gets into figures like Edmund and Iago. As to how Chaucer comes up with it is the question, says Bloom, part of Chaucer’s shocking originality as a writer. But Chaucer does it only in fits and starts, and in small degree. ‘Shakespeare does it all the time. It’s his common stock. The ability to do that and to persuade one that this is a natural mode of representation is purely Shakespearean and we are now so contained by it that we no longer see its originality’.

Harold Bloom describes a moment in King Lear, an example of this reflective process invoking change, that he finds fascinating, Edmund, the coldest, and most intelligent villain in all Shakespeare, a manipulator so strong that Iago seem minor in comparison, overhearing himself and electing to change. Edmund as a sophisticated consciousness runs rings around anyone else on the stage in King Lear, he is so foul that it takes Goneril and Regan, to match up to him. He’s received his death wound from his brother; he’s lying there on the battlefield. They bring word that Goneril and Regan are dead-one slew the other and then committed suicide for his sake. Edmund broods out loud and says, “Yet Edmund was belov’d.” As soon as he says it, he starts to ponder out loud. What are the implications that, though two monsters of the deep, the two loved me so much that one of them killed the other and then murdered herself. He reasons it out. He says, “The one the other poison’d for my sake / And after slew herself.” And then he suddenly says, “I pant for life,” and amazingly, “Some good I mean to do / despite of mine own nature,” and he gasps out, having given the order for Lear and Cordelia to be killed, “Send in time,” to stop it. They don’t get there in time. Cordelia’s been murdered. And then Edmund dies. But that’s an astonishing change. It comes about as he hears himself say in real astonishment, “Yet Edmund was belov’d,” and on that basis, he starts to ponder. Had he not said that, he would not have changed. There’s nothing like this representation of inwardness, in literature before Shakespeare.

Some other firsts in Bloom’s twenty-six writers from the canon. Miguel de Cervantes, the first novelist, with his masterpiece, ‘Don Quixote.’ Michel de Montaigne, first essayist, and inventor of the term ‘essay,’ as a trial or test of judgment founded upon oneself. Dr Samuel Johnston, first and greatest literary critic of the canon in literature. While literary criticism can be traced back to Aristotle’s Poetics, one of which got lost, Dr Johnston is the first canonical critic, says Bloom, and unmatched by any critic after him.

‘Don Quixote,’ if we take it literally, is a book about a comic-hero crazed by reading. But lots of lustres and strangeness in Cervantes masterpiece. There’s the status of its principle actor, mad or not, the nature of the novel, comedy or what, a fiction-novel or something else?

Seems Don Quixote is only mad north by north- east. ‘I know who I am and who I might be.’ He is neither a madman or a fool, but chooses to play at being a knight errant. Being involved in play, Don Quixote observes what Harold Bloom identifies as the principles of play, faithfulness to his own freedom, to its disinterestedness, its seclusion and to its limits, which he only abandons at the end of the novel.

What Cervantes brings to the creation of his knight apprentice is quixotic courage, literal, moral and visionary. Is he a comic hero in a comic novel? Lots of humour in the quarrelsome exchanges between Don Quixote and his squire, Sancho Panza, both, beneath the surface, enjoying the intimacy of equality. But then there’s the punishments Don Quixote endures and cruel jokes played on him, which he bears with a knightly and poignant courage. And there’s this. Observing some peasants carrying carvings of the saints for an altar decoration, Don Quixote is moved to state the difference between the saints and himself: ”’they …fought in God’s wars while I am a sinner and fight in humanity’s.’

There’s an added strangeness in the novel; that everyone that matters most in Part 2 of the novel is accredited with having read Part 2 and knows he is a character in it. Says Don Quixote in Part 2, commenting on Part 1:

‘One of the things most pleasant to a virtuous and distinguished man is to see himself , while he is still alive, go out among the nations and languages of the world, printed and bound, and bearing a good reputation.’

Not only are the Don himself and the novel’s structure, difficult to categorize, but as Bloom observes, so also Cervantes’ relation to his enormous book. ( P 135.)


‘Montaigne certainly is an original;’ observes Harold Bloom, ‘self-consciousness had never before been expressed so fully and so well.’ ( P 142.) ‘Self conscious’ here is not used in the current negative sense. Michel de Montaigne, following Socrates, whom he calls the wisest of men, eloquently presents his own wisdom of self-acceptance, based upon profound self-knowledge.’ I myself am the subject of my book,’ writes Montaigne, and he tells the reader to ‘play the man well and duly,’ that ‘it is an absolute perfection and virtually divine to know how to enjoy our being lawfully.’

The sanest of men, Montaigne advises us on almost every page, to humanize our idealism and is distrustful of transcendental humours, even in Socrates, his mentor.

‘They want to get out of themselves and escape from the man.. That is madness: instead of changing into angels, they change into beasts; instead of raising themselves, they lower themselves. These transcendental humours frighten me, like lofty and inaccessible places, and nothing is so hard for me to stomach in the life of Socrates as his ecstasies and possessions by his daemon.’ ( Essay ‘On Experience’.)

Any strangeness in his writings.? Perhaps sometimes somewhat shocking in candid views expressed, for example, on love and marriage, but in Montaigne’s essays I’d say we’re in the presence of canonical wisdom you don’t find too often elsewhere.

Dr Samuel Johnston and Agon.

Dr Samuel Johnston, like Emerson, his follower in America, is a moralist altogether idiosyncratic, anxious about finalities. Strangeness, you bet, but like Montaigne, he is also a wisdom writer, an experiential critic, arguing that, ‘Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representation of general nature.’ As an experiential critic he will not make aesthetic judgments on ideological grounds:

To an experiential critic,’ Bloom observes, ‘wisdom is the ultimate standard for judging imaginative literature, and Shakespeare provides Johnson with the critic’s supreme test; how can one’s response be adequate to the central writer in the Western Canon? ‘ (P174.) Harold Bloom calls Dr Johnston the canonical critic proper, unmatched by anyone after him. ‘On Milton, whose politics he dislikes, or Shakespeare or Pope, Johnson is everything a critic should be; he directly confronts greatness with a total response, to which he brings his whole self.’ (P 173.)

Regarding ‘one’s whole self,’ Johnson is well aware of the treachery of the human heart. In his Rambler Essay, 93, he somewhat grimly observes that while ‘ there is indeed some tenderness due to living writers,’ ‘this is not universally necessary, for he that writes may be considered as a general challenger whom everyone has a right to attack.’

Johnson’s canonical sense of literature as agon, and his credo as critic is expressed in the following statement:

‘But whatever he decided concerning contemporaries, whom he that knows the treachery of the human heart, and considers how often we gratify our own pride or envy under the appearance of contending for elegance and propriety, will find himself not much inclined to disturb; there can surely be no exemptions pleaded to secure them from criticism, who can no longer suffer by reproach, and of whom nothing now remains but their writings and their names. Upon those authors the critic is undoubtedly at full liberty to exercise the strictest severity, since he endangers only his own fame, and like Aeneas when he drew his sword in the eternal regions, encounters phantoms which cannot be wounded. He may indeed pay some regard to established reputation, but he can by that shew of reverence consult only his own security, for all other motives are now at an end.’ (P 173.)

Their Puissance Their Own?

Bloom argues in the opening analysis of the Western Canon that strangeness may exist in canonical writers without that shock of audacity we find in Dante’s Divine Comedy, but there will always be some originality as an inaugural aspect of any work that incontestably joins the canon.

Western literature, as Homer taught us, is a poetics of conflict that we see, not only following Homer in Greek tragedy, but also in Plato’s incessant conflict with Homer himself, Homer exiled from Plato’s Republic in vain, since he, and not Plato, became the school book of the Greeks.

The literary canon acts as both challenge and stimulus to other writers by what Bloom calls the ‘anxiety of influence,’ an influence that may cripple weaker talents but not canonical genius:

‘The burden of influence has to be borne if significant originality is to be achieved and re-achieved within the wealth of Western literary tradition,’ says Bloom.’ The agon and aesthetics are one.’ ( P8.)

Readings of precursor writers are necessarily defensive for if they were appreciative only, fresh creation would be stifled:

‘Poems, stories, novels, plays come into being as a response to prior poems, stories, novels and plays and that response depends upon acts of reading and interpretations by the later writers, acts that are identical with the new works.’ (P 8.)

That conflict cannot be settled by the judgment of any particular generation of impatient idealists in the name of social harmony and remedying social injustices:

‘Our educational institutions are thronged these days by idealistic resenters who denounce competition in literature as in life … Pragmatically the ‘expansion’ of the Canon, has meant the destruction of the Canon, since what is taught includes by no means the best writers who happen to be women , African, Hispanic, or Asian, but rather the writers who offer little but the resentment they have developed as part of their identity.’ (P 6.)

Bloom says that he feels quite alone these days in defending the autonomy of the aesthetic, but its best defense is in the reading of King Lear and seeing the play well performed.:

‘King Lear does not derive from a crisis in philosophy, nor can its power be explained away as a mystification somehow promoted by bourgeois institutions. It is a mark of the degeneracy of literary study that one is considered an eccentric for holding that the literary is not dependent upon the philosophical, and that the aesthetic is irreducible to ideology and metaphysics.’ (P 10.)

Say, regarding aesthetic criticism, I have to agree with Harold Bloom, perhaps our canonical critic following Samuel Johnson:

‘Aesthetic criticism returns us to the autonomy of imaginative literature and the sovereignty of the solitary soul, the reader not as a person in society but as the deep self, our ultimate inwardness. That depth of inwardness in a strong writer constitutes the strength that wards off the massive weight of past achievement lest every originality be crushed before it becomes manifest. Great writing is always rewriting or revisionism and is founded upon a reading that clears space for the self, or so works as to reopen old works to our fresh sufferings.’ (.P10.)

Oh yes! For lovers of literature, some of them serfs, ‘let us read for the lustres.’


For Belinda

Through a glass darkly, very darkly.

Welcome to the latest edition of serf under _ ground journal – do not be put off by the title for it’s not all doom and gloom in the ensuing … things get brighter as you go along, though the beginning’s sombre.


On the question of human vision, no such thing as the innocent eye, and no such thing as an unproblematic act of seeing via the organ of sight. Direct transmission of what’s out there? Nope. Plato was sort of on to this with his allegory of the cave and human perception. What we ‘see’ are mere flickering shadows of ‘what’s out there,’ reflected on a cavern wall; and that process, why, there’s more to it than even Plato dreamt of in his philosophy.

Nothing simple about seeing. Our fraught vision comes to us via an electrical rendition of those parts of the world outside ourselves on which we focus by way of light hitting the human eye This light, focused and adjusted in the eye’s cornea and in the iris and lens, travels to the retina, imbedded with cone and rod cells that convert light into electronic signals. These signals, as colour and depth of field information, are then transmitted through the optic nerve to the brain.

There’s a TV film you can watch by neuro-scientist David Eagleman, that throws light on how the brain interpret a physical reality of air, compression waves, aromatic modules et al, as colours, shapes, sounds, or as other sensory data. Not a faithful experiencing of reality, human vision, but a process subject to illusions, given the apparatus and need to select what we see quickly.

And more on our flawed senses. When it comes to sensory apparatus, you find animals with better sight and hearing than us. Whales and bats with sonar hearing, eagles, even shrimps, with better vision. The retina of an eagle’s eye is more deeply coated with cones and rods than a human eye and has a deeper structure at the back of the eye, allowing it to see five times further than us and, what’s more, in glorious technicolour, including ultra violet.

Imagine if we had eagle-eyes? From the roof of a ten-story building we would be able to see an ant crawling on the ground. And consider the human art of reading facial expression, why, our new-look, piercing eagle-eyes would give a whole new meaning to a Mona Lisa smile or a Rembrandt self-portrait.

Despite all the above, we have to acknowledge, nevertheless, that our sensory apparatus is sophisticated enough to help us get around our world, most of us surviving long enough to produce and take care of progeny, ensuring survival of the human race, … and, further-more, there’s a lot to be said about the human brain …

Mental as anything.

Oh what a busy ‘b’ the human brain, such a control freak, registering, interpreting, censoring, commanding, nothing goes in or out without its say so, – yes – no – maybe.

There’s nothing passive about the brain, it’s constantly building up inter-connecting neural networks, creating mental sets and expectations that enable us react to the outer world quickly – fight or flight?

These reactions often seem to us to take place seamlessly, but David Eagleman demonstrates, in his TV film, that they are less seamless than we think. There’s necessarily a gap between transmission and response to signals, as he shows at a sport’s event where sprinters respond to a starting signal. In a second demonstration, where some of the sprinters respond to a starting pistol and others to a light flash, the time study shows that complex vision entails a longer processing time than hearing.

How a mental set, i.e. ‘what we know,’ affects ‘what we see,’ is explored by art historian, Ernst Gombrich in ‘Art and Illusion. A study in the psychology of pictorial representation.’ (Phaedon 1995.)

As a demonstration of mental set, Gombrich suggests standing in front of a steamy mirror in the bathroom and examining your own reflection then tracing around your head on the surface of the mirror. It’s a fascinating exercise in illusionary representation to discover how small the image which gives the impression of seeing oneself face to face.

Gombrich presents a cartoon of an Egyptian art class as a comment on mental set and styles in art. The cartoon is a witty juxtaposition of a physical act of ‘seeing’ conflated with a cultural act of ‘knowing.’ It sums up how different ages and nations have represented the visible world in such different ways, a problem that Gombrich studies in ‘Art and Illusion,’.


Like an Egyptian … psychology and the riddle of style.

Those Egyptians, embalmers extraordinaire, of course they knew what the human body looks like, animals and plants likewise. – Thing is, what they’re doing in their funerary art is not trying to capture a particular likeness but what is general; with the human figure, what’s most familiar and clearly legible, profiled face and frontal eye, four human limbs in full view. They’re making pictograph landscapes, not transitory events but scenes of the unchanging, cycle of seasons, ploughing, sowing, harvesting – perhaps weaving a spell to enforce eternity – perhaps a source of joy for the dead.


The Greek Revolution in Art.

What needs explaining is not so much this long tradition of conceptual art from the archaic to the Egyptian, but rather, the revolution from making to matching of Greek and Renaissance art, a long process of trial and error, motivated by a belief that fidelity to nature matters.

No one knows why this change took place, but it had already happened with the epic poems of Homer transforming the ‘what’ of Greek myths to a possible ‘how,’ some particularity concerning events, the thoughts of the heroes before battle, even the reactions of minor characters like Hector’s young son who takes fright when he sees the plumes of his father’s helmet. Gombrich considers that it was this stimulus from Homeric narrative that may have begun that process in the visual arts of schema and correction to represent the natural in place of the typical.


From this to that, long history of schema, and correction involving fore-shortening and shadowing to achieve the illusion of perspective and depth, brush-strokes to suggest the visual effects of light on figures and in landscape, because the conquest of appearances, convincing enough to imaginatively reconstruct an event, was thought important.


The tyranny of the framework.

As in real life, in art the perceptual framework built by the brain imposes the patterns and shapes the artist has learned to handle on to new experiences seen and recorded in terms of the familiar. Here is an example, about 1250, AD, Villard de Honnecourt’s ‘Lion and Porcupine.’ ‘Know well,’ says de Honnicourt, ‘that it is drawn from life.’ (G. P68.)


We are all aware of our tendency to project when we look at clouds or ink blots. Even primitive sticklebacks project, any red-coloured object, no matter how unlike another stickleback, is viewed as a living rival, triggering a fight response.

Projection has its uses. It may even be exploited by an artist to overcome the tyranny of the stereotype. Leonardo de Vinci, in his ‘Treatise on Painting,’ recommended using ‘the power of confused shapes, ‘… clouds. muddy waters or walls stained with damp, ’to rouse the mind to new inventions.’ G. P 159.)

Artists also rely on a capacity and willingness to project by those looking at their work, for example, a beholder’s preparedness to interpret hazy effects of light or to step back and read brush-strokes that only assume a legible form at a distance. We don’t have to have everything complete as in Egyptian art, we’re willing to take hints in reading an artist’s images.

Significations of Mental Set.

Neuro-scientist Eagleman and art historian Gombrich both demonstrate the pervasiveness of mental set on human activity. We can’t be passive. Whenever we receive a visual impression of the natural world or a work of art, as Gombrich says:

‘We react by docketing it, filing it, grouping it in one way or another, even if the impression is only an ink blot … it is the business of the living organism to organize, for where there is life, there is not only hope, as the proverb says, but also fears, guesses, expectations which sort and model the incoming messages, testing and transforming and testing again.’ (Gombrich, P 251.)

Regarding the business of the human organism, there’s a nice study by Henri Bergson on laughter, ‘Laughter; An Essay on the Meaning of Comic.’ (See. 19th Edition of Serf Under – ground for discussion.) We know that laughter is behaviour unique to humans. So why do humans laugh?

Bergson argues that laughter is an, involuntary, human social corrective of rigid and inattentive behaviour such as someone bumping into a door or slipping on a banana skin, not paying attention or acting in a mechanical manner. In literature, comedy pokes fun at fixed behaviour … Moliere’s ‘Miser’ or ‘Bourgeois Gentilhomme.’ In cartoon drawings we laugh at an implied inelasticity of character depicted as a grimace rather than the mobile expression expected of a flexible living being. We laugh at absurdities in language, lots of ways something illogical is fitted into a well established phrase to surprises us into laughter…. ‘If that’s the way Queen Victoria treats her convicts, she doesn’t deserve to have any.’

Bergson’s view of the comic focuses on human behaviour, it is human absurdity we laugh at. If we laugh at an animal or lifeless object, it is because of some resemblance to us, or some stamp or some use to which we put it. Seems laughter is a survival mechanism, a reminder to be on the alert, to be flexible.

We can’t be passive. Some connotations and positive consequences.

Nope, no such thing as the innocent eye or passive learning. Neuro-scientists and art historians demonstrate it, human laughter implies it. Whenever we receive a visual impression, we react by classifying it, one way or another. We – just – can’t – help – it.

So it seems there’s no such thing as inductive learning, (Hume’s problem,) the passive reception of sense data, as Karl Popper argues in his book, ‘Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach.’ (Oxford 1979.) Popper calls induction ‘the bucket theory of learning,’ and formulates instead, a deductive ‘search light theory’ of active learning.

Popper questions the ‘bucket theory assumption in theory of knowledge and scientific method, the postulate of an unbiased eye demands the impossible. The problem of what comes first, the conjecture / hypothesis or the observation is somewhat of a chicken and egg scenario. Bucket theory asserts observation first, searchlight theory asserts the disposition to act comes first. An observation, says Popper, is always preceded by a particular interest or question, however basic, or by some problem within the horizon of our expectations, for example, a baby picking up a piece of paper from the floor, and putting it in its mouth, unspoken question, is ‘this’ is part of my food stuff, yes – no?’ Even Pavlov’s dog responding to the dinner bell it’s heard before.

Appreciating some of the positive consequences of the brain’s interaction with sense data, well, it gave us the revolution from making to matching in Greek art from 6th century BC, developments in illustration on black and red pottery ware, to 5th century BC, sculptures by Pheidias and the friezes of the Parthenon, on to the artistic masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance by Leonardo and Michelangelo, and later, by artists in 17th century Holland.

There was another Greek Revolution as well, a development of the descriptive and argumentative functions of critical language beyond subjective functions of expression and signaling. ‘It is to this development of the higher functions of language,’ says Popper, ‘that we owe our humanity, our reason. For our powers of reasoning are nothing but powers of critical argument .’ (P. P120.).

We see the beginnings of the evolution of something like a scientific method in the 6th-and 5th centuries BC, a parallel to what we saw in art, a new attitude towards the myths, departing from the tradition of handing on myths unchanged, to a more critical approach. Doubt and criticism were not something new but what was new was the development of schools of teaching with a practice of criticizing theories. Popper offers the example of Thales of Miletus, who is said to have argued that ‘everything is made of water, his disciple Aniximander developing a theory critical of Thales’ theory, then Aniximander’s follower, Aniximenes, also diverging from his master’s doctrine.

From schools of critical discussion of physical matter to history of human events as an enterprise, the Greek historian Thucydides, 460-395 BC, conducting the first rational historical investigation, studying events of the Peloponnesian Wars with the expressed intention of investigating events with the greatest possible accuracy.

From Thucydides, a journey involving ‘purposes’ of history, problems of rear-vision-window perceptions to explain what ‘really’ happened, the need to look for contextual clues and seek to understand the problem situations of the actor(s). Regarding historical explanation, says John Dunn, ‘substituting the closure of the context provided by the biography of the speaker [or actors] for that provided by the biography of the historian.’ (‘The Identity of The History of Ideas’ 1968.)

The Greek Revolution in expanding the critical function of language led to the evolution of Science. Only with the development of a descriptive function of language that is able to develop outside the subjective self, as statements, arguments, theories, the contents of libraries, what Popper calls a linguistic ‘world 3,’ was the idea of a description that fits the facts able to emerge. Science, the tentative hypotheses we ask nature, and refutation by tests, became possible out there in the public domain, to be examined and take on a life outside their maker.

The important thing about deductive argument, Popper says, is that it cannot be immunized against rational criticism or refutation. It is through falsification that science progresses. So this process of elimination of weaker theories by better, says Popper, is ‘the way we lift ourselves by out bootstraps.’ (P P121.)

‘Thus we reach a point from which we can see science as a magnificent adventure of the human spirit. It is the invention of ever new theories, and the indefatigable examination of their power to throw light upon experience. The principles of scientific progress are very simple. They demand that we give up the ancient idea of certainty, [or even a high degree of ‘probability’ in the sense of probability calculus] with the propositions and theories of science [an idea which derives from the association of science with magic and of the scientist with the magician]: the aim of the scientist is not to discover absolute certainty but to discover better and better theories [or to invent more and more powerful searchlights] capable of being put to more and more severe tests, and thereby leading us to, and illuminating for us , ever new experiences.’ (P. P361.)



Something ter take a serf’s mind off the problems of our times.

Feel-good movies for hard-times.

It is the decade in the Western world emerging from the Great Depression. Film is taking over the production of costly stage musicale productions. Popular Warner Brother films feature comedies light in plot but big on spectacle, Busby Berkeley show girl chorus displays of intricate dance patterning and simple movements in sync, lots of montage effects. Lavish entertainment to take your mind off your worries for a while…

In the mid-thirties you get the Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movies, similar light plots but the dance scenes are different, complex choreography created by Astaire that draws the film audience into the frame to see every nuance of the dance performed by these two artists.

Then there’s the music. The 1930’s were one of the great periods for song writers and Ginger and Fred, dancing to the music of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter or Jerome Kern, far exceed the dialogue of the movie in their range of emotions. Take a look at their performance in this scene from ‘Swing Time,’(1936.) ‘Pick yourself up, start all over again,’ music by Jerome Kern. It’s one of Ginger and Fred’s dance routines that go way beyond the script in its joyous lyricism, though from the clash of their initial meeting, it starts out as mocking motivational advice by dance instructress Ginger Rogers to down on his luck gambler Fred Astaire, who pretends he can’t dance.

Oh those Ginger and Fred dance routines! Oh those Cole Porter and Irving Berlin songs and lyrics! I’m sticking my neck out here, comparing them favorably with the witty poetry of Shakespeare’s high comedies that adds such depth to the somewhat trivial plots.

Plots and the Poetry.

Not much difference between the improbable plots of the Ginger and Fred movies and the improbable plots of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ and ‘As You Like It,’ between the lovers’ clashes on Hollywood fake sets and the lovers’clashes in mythical kingdoms or the fairy-tale forests of Ardenne. In the Shakespeare comedies, plots involving mistaken identity and romantic folly are lifted by the plays’ inspiring poetry and insights into romantic passion and mature love. In a Ginger and Fred movie it’s the song and dance sequences to the music of the maestros that does the lifting. In ‘The Gay Divorcee’, Ginger and Fred transcend the banality of the plot as they dance to Cole Porter’s ‘Night and Day.’

Cole Porter does as much with the four-four beat as Shakespeare does exploiting the possibilities of the iambic pentameter. The song ‘Night and Day’ begins with just one note repeated over and over with changes of key, words and metre combining to express a sense of incessant longing:

‘like the beat, beat beat of the tom tom
when the jungle shadows fall
like the tick, tick tock of the stately clock
as it stands against the wall
like the drip, drip drip of the rain drops
when the summer shower’s through,
a voice within me keeps repeating
you, you, you.’

Metrical stress falls on the words, ‘you’, ‘me,’ ‘night and day,’ and inverse, ‘day and night’ to convey the lover’s state of mind , captured so well in Ginger and Fred’s dance sequence.

‘ Night and day you are the one-
only you beneath the moon or under the sun
whether near to me or far it’s no matter darling
where you are
I think of you
day and night, night and day …’

Shakespeare’s sophisticated comedy, Love’s Labour’s Lost,’ explores the darker aspects of romantic attraction, the narcissist love of Berowne who seeks his own reflection in the eyes of women he encounters, ‘His eye begets occasion for his wit…’ but meets his own defeat in the dark eyes of the formidable Rosaline. No happy ending there:

Berowne: ‘Our wooing doth not end like an old play,
Jack hath not Jill, these ladies’courtesy
Might well have made our sport a comedy.

King: Come, sir, it wants a twelvemonth and a day,
And then ‘twill end.

Berowne: That’s too long for a play.’

In ‘As You Like It’ the witty and bewitching Rosalind is in love with Orlando, but aware of the absurdities of romantic love, must take on male disguise to tutor Orlando in the ways of adult love:

Rosalind: ‘Come woo me, woo me, for now I am in a holiday humour and like enough to consent…

Rosalind: Well, in her person, I say I will not have you.

Orlando: Then in my own person, I say that I will die.’

Rosalind: No faith, die by attorney. The world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicet, in a love cause.’

Naturally in a play called ‘As You Like It, ‘ the action ends happily with Orlando a graduate in Rosalind’s non-pastoral school of love.

Likewise in the romantic comedy ‘Top Hat,’ with its of featherweight plot of marital mix up and mistaken identity, there’s an ‘as you like it’ ending. The evocative scene, Ginger in that feather dress, ) dancing to Irving Berlin’s ‘Cheek to Cheek,’ is perhaps on of the Rogers’ and Astairs’ loveliest dance sequences.

The choreography reflects the complexity of their emotional misunderstanding.The pair turn and weave past each other before dancing as partners, with Ginger’s gradual surrender to her feelings in the graceful back-bending movement. Only then do the couple dance cheek to cheek in that final dream like sequence.

What you get in these dances to the music of the masters, like ‘Cheek to Cheek,’ danced so lyrically, their patterning so flowing and erotic, is a kind of tongue in cheek celebration of the delights of romantic love, – ‘I’ve got you under my skin,’ as well as the ironic reverberations,’ – it was just one of those things.’ But the dancing of Ginger and Fred always conveys the possibilities of a positive outcome.

Scent of tea roses wafting
in the air, coupes of sparkling
champagne at the bar, art deco
lighting creating a golden
atmosphere for the tea dance.
Tinkling piano, ‘I’ve got you
under my skin,’ couples gliding
across a parquetry floor,
doing their best to emulate
Ginger and Fred’s perfect

B t s .


Conservatism, fuddy-duddy it is not, in fact it is the opposite.

36th Edition! I must be a glutton fer punishment and any reader who’s come along with me must be, as well. Warning, this is my longest yet. Perhaps stop fer refreshments or take a nap half-way.

‘Fuddy-duddy.’ Serf definition – ‘stick-in-the-mud resistance to change,
–anti-dynamic, unable to adapt, non-innovative.’

I’m making a case that trial and error conservatism, compared to other political processes, has proved to be adaptable to challenge and supportive to innovation. Take a walk through western history, compare the evolutionary development of Britain with those clean-slate, blue-print attempts, in the 18th and 20th centuries, to create Utopian societies or fascist dynamos based on myth. See where they get ya’

So what makes for fuddy-duddy-ness? If we’re going exploring, might as well begin with land and sea, discover how geography impacts on a country’s development. There’s a book by Thomas Sowell, ’Wealth, Poverty and Politics,’ (NY. 2015) that examines the see-saw of dynamic societies and what Sowell calls ‘lagging groups’ in history, development disparities of place and time, sometimes anomalies even within national borders.

Mountains, rivers and over the sea.

In the first chapter of ‘Wealth, Poverty and Politics’, Sowell looks at the kinds of geographical factors that limit or stimulate innovation. Happens a common handicap of lagging groups around the world is geographic isolation, whether separation from access to the rest of the world by desert, or by living on an island or a mountain. Living on a mountain in hill-billy isolation has severe negative impact. There’s a Catalan saying –‘always go down, never go up.’ Seems apt, even in the 21st century most of the mountain peoples of the world still practise subsistence farming. Switzerland, with its wide valleys, mountain passes and deep lakes is a notable exception.

Waterways, important for agriculture that makes city development possible, are also vital as arteries of trade. Lack of navigable rivers and of animals suitable for transporting people and goods from place to place impede the human interactions that stimulate innovation. Western Europe’s deep navigable rivers that flow to the sea and its twisting coastline that provides safe harbours for ports were an impetus to development and trade. Africa’s few navigable rivers or safe harbours were a handicap to development and trade. No level playing field where Nature’s concerned.

Once oceans, like deserts, were a barrier to communication, but with the development of ship building and navigation by the stars and by compass, the sea became an open gateway for maritime societies.


Historically significant in the evolution of western development is the heritage derived from maritime Greece, two and a half thousand years ago. When the Greeks took to the sea and began to trade and build colonies around the Aegean Sea, coming into contact with other cultures, the old tribal certainties began to break down. The philosopher Heraclitus developed the idea of change, that all things are involved in some form of movement. Another philosopher, Democritus, formulated the doctrine that human institutions, language, customs and laws are man-made, a sea-change from the belief by tribal societies that social customs are god-given immutable regularities.

In the revolutionary 5th century B.C. Athenian experiment in democracy, the philosopher Socrates taught that we are responsible for our individual actions and argued in the spirit of scientific criticism, that we should have faith in human reason but avoid dogmatism. While this noble open-society experiment did not survive long, attacked by Sparta and enemies within Athens and by an outbreak of the Plague, from these beginnings in Greece evolved philosophic and scientific traditions unique to Western civilization.

One of the enemies of democracy in Athens was the philosopher Plato, who rejected the faith in an open society expressed by earlier philosophers. Born into a period of political turmoil, the Peloponnesian Wars and their aftermath of civil war and epidemics, Plato sought to arrest all change. Through his theory of immutable essences, Plato was able to extract something permanent from the Heraclitean process of flux and historical corruption. In his ‘Republic’ Plato argued for a return to a golden age of the past that might stem the tide of change through leadership by a philosopher king and an entrenched hierarchical social system based on Plato’s necessary ‘noble lie’ of the metals in men.

Utopianists since Plato have similarly argued for clean-slate political change, revolutionary overture to create blue-print, static societies stuck in a centrally directed golden age, well, stuck in the mud, really, so a fuddy-duddy experiment, you might say. I’d call it philosopher-king hubris. Those societies based on Marxist ideology have not encouraged their citizens’ freedom to innovate.

Nature – Nurture – Culture.

While natural landforms and waterways play a significant role in economic development of peoples, geography as an influence is not predestination. Even physical advantages are of little use without the cultural prerequisites to exploit and maintain them. We’ve just seen the clash of cultures, open society versus closed society in fifth century B.C. Athenian Society, despite the shared geographical environment. Some cultures encourage innovation, and some inhibit, or prohibit innovation.

As Thomas Sowell argues, ‘nature’ doesn’t rule, culture is a significant player. A country’s development cannot simplistically be attributed to geographic or genetic factors. Northern Europe now leads the south in dynamic development but once it was the opposite. Remember Athens – same people, changed culture. Then there’s Spain, today one of Europe’s poorer countries, once one of its richest. The vast wealth that poured into Spain in its ‘golden age‘ could have been invested in its economy or its people, but it wasn’t. Spain’s economy is now surpassed by natural resource poor countries like Norway and Japan.

Decision Making from Above.

Japan was a lagging economy in the 17th and 18th centuries under governments that enforced isolation policies, but quickly adopted new practices after Commodore Perry’s warships broke down the barriers of isolation. Within a century Japan had achieved economic parity with leading Western nations.

Cultures that enable free interchange of ideas and experiment are key to a nation’s development. There was a time when China, a lagging economy on the 20th century, might have engaged with the rest of the world. In the period when the Tang Empire came to an end, and the Five Dynasties and the Ten Kingdoms fought incessantly China experienced its most spectacular burst of development. By the late 11th century, Chinese were masters off silk, tea, porcelain production, paper and printing and made coke from coal to smelt high grade iron. Industrious peasants were working for cash as well as subsistence and using their cash to buy goods.

Then came the calamity of the Mongol Invasion. The Ming Emperors nationalized industry and created state monopolies for salt, iron, tea, foreign trade and education. The first of these emperors, Hong Wu, forbade all trade and travel without official permission, forced merchants to register an inventory of their goods and permitted peasants to grow food only for their own consumption.

Before the Ming period China had been extending its sea power for three hundred years. Chinese merchants had developed a trade network in spices and raw materials with Indian and Muslim traders. By the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, China ad reached a peak of naval technology that was unsurpassed in the world. The second Ming Emperor, Yong Le wishing to impress Ming power on the world, had a massive treasure fleet built, greater than the Spanish Amada, which made seven voyages, sailing as far as East Africa.

The Chinese people were ready to trade with the world but Yong-Le’s successor brought an end to China’s maritime history by banning ship building and trading abroad. This was steered by the Emperor’s officials who instinctively distrusted innovation as a threat to their own positions. Henceforth, China’s sophisticated bureaucratic civilization, while periodically challenged by peasant rebellions that substituted one dynasty for another, remained an inert hierarchical social order that was never able to free itself from the historical fabric of a society opposed to change.

Isolation is a negative, closes the door to the potentialities of change. Freedom‘s a positive – opens the door to trial and error problem solving.

Trial and Error, Nature’s Way.

If you’ve read Nassim Taleb’s book, ‘Antifragile, Things that Gain from Disorder,’ you’ll recall his advice to us to follow nature regarding adaptive response to stresses and information in the environment. Nature, the epitome of trial and error, non-fuddy-duddy evolution, making do with what’s to hand, like fins to legs, ( or wings ) four legs to two legs and arms, claw into hand evolution, so empiric, so dynamic.

Following Nature’s mode, you see trial and error development at work in cities, in Jane Jacobs’ insightful analysis of innovation and the rise of cities, in two books, ‘The Economy of Cities,’ and ‘Cities and the Wealth of Nations.’ ( Vintage Books, 1970 and 1985. ) Jacobs describes, after the fall of Rome, the significant development of Venice in the marshes, from a humble beginning, trading with Constantinople what was at hand, salt and timber, then later manufacturing sophisticated import replacements, Venetian glassware, lenses, telescopes. (Ch 10. J.J. 1985. ) Unexpected developments evolved from this small beginning, chain growth of new Italian import replacing cities, creation of the Renaissance, artistic achievements of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, Galileo and the beginning of the scientific revolution.


Jacobs’ analysis of the development, in the twentieth century, of the car industry in the United States, had similar modest trial and error beginnings. When Henry Ford began his successful firm in 1903, he had already failed as a car manufacturer. This time he changed his strategy assembling parts that other people were manufacturing elsewhere, then starting to manufacture repair parts himself, part after part, until he was ready to put the first Model T Ford into production.

The repairing of things is often the older work to which the newer work of making the same thing as added. The Japanese used this method when they began imitating western goods imported into Japan in the nineteenth century. Bicycles were enormously popular in Japan. Repair shops sprung up to repair them in the big cities. In Tokyo the repair work was done in one-man, or two-man shops. Imported spare parts were costly and many repair shops thus found it worthwhile to make particular replacement parts themselves. In this way, groups of repair shops were doing the work of manufacturing entire bicycles. Far from being costly to develop, bicycle manufacturing in Japan paid its way through its own development stages.

The Japanese got more than a bicycle industry. Its method of manufacture via repair shop was soon adapted to the production of many other goods. Sony, the enormous Japanese manufacturer of communications equipment began in a similar way as a small parts shop. (Ch 2 .J.J 1970. )

Take away message – seems that a culture that enables people the freedom to adapt in trial and error ways to their environment, by definition is not fuddy-duddy. Let’s take a look at Great Britain, regarded as a conservative nation, see how Britannia meets the criteria of fuddy-duddy-ness.

Constitutional Monarchy, Liberty and Conservativism.

After the last Roman soldiers departed England in 407 AD, the polytheist tribes gradually began to consolidate into larger groups and adopt Christianity as a religion. Monks sent from Rome converted the king of Kent, and later, the kings of Mercia and Sussex to the Catholic religion. Invasions by pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes did not prevent the spread of Christianity through the land.

Battle with invaders from the north, and among competing kingdoms were a way of life, but in 927AD a gathering of British monarchs recognized Aethelstan as king of the English. By 954 AD unification of England had been achieved. A way of life was established, a monarchical Christian society that was to continue to modern times.

Under a monarchical system of government the king usually must consult and seek a measure of acceptance for his polices if he is to maintain broad acceptance by his subjects. Following the Norman Conquest of 1066, the laws of the Crown could not have been upheld without the support of the nobility and clergy. To gain this consent, kings called up their Great Council consisting of barons and earls, archbishops, bishops and abbots. This Great Council was to evolve over time into the Parliament of England.

Chameleon Conservatism.

’Conserve,’ as in conserve your energy – not to be confused with Plato’s idealized Utopia ‘to arrest all change.’

There is no single conservatism but rather a spectrum in British history. The spectrum includes classical liberal, free market, libertarian, Christian evangelical and other varieties, fifty shades of grey, you might say.. What is common to all is respect for liberty and the individual protected by non- arbitrary rule of law for all and respect for the trial and error evolution of the British institutions that underpin these values – a political order under law allowing the exercise of freedom from arbitrary coercion.

Reflecting on the French Revolution – etcetera.

Edmund Burke, writing in 1791, his cautionary letter ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France,’ saw threats to the basic principles whose observance sustained western constitutional government and free society. Burke recognized the problem of cavalier exercise of authority demonstrated by events in Paris that were based on Rousseau’s doctrine of natural rights, a doctrine that Burke perceived as gaining ground in England. Burke wanted to shake the complacency of those who believed that the French were simply imitating the modest English Revolution of 1688, which he argues was restorative of constitutional and established rights and very different from the clean-slate reconstructing of society from scratch, which was taking place in France.

Wary of the untutored and unsocial impulses that lie beneath men’s acquired civility, Burke considered that the social institutions that have evolved in a complex, historical process and have stood the test of time are what allow men to live together in any degree of peace and freedom. The political creed to which Burke subscribed, an off-shoot of the ‘Glorious Revolution of 1688,’ was united by hatred of arbitrary power and by a wish to be guided by and governed by the certain rule of law. The Revolution of 1688 did not seek to overthrow constitutional law but to preserve ‘ancient indisputable laws and liberties, and that ancient constitution of government which is our only security for law and liberty.’ (‘Reflections,’ Oxford Press, P31.)

Burke argues that without the means of some change the State is without the means of its conservation. Without such means of correction it might even risk the loss of what it most wishes to conserve and these ‘two principles of conservation and correction acted strongly at the two critical periods of the Revolution and the Restoration.’ (R. P22.)

In the famous law of Charles 1, called the Petition of Right, the parliament says to the king, ‘Your subjects have inherited this freedom, ‘claiming their franchises, not on abstract principles ‘as the rights of men,’ but as a patrimony derived from their forefathers, whereas,’ says Burke, ‘ the revolutionaries in France, operating from first principles rather than empiric study are so taken up by their principles that they totally forget man’s nature. To legislate on the principle of human rationality is to present a one dimensional picture forgetting that men may also be irrational, self serving and violent.’ R. P32.)

With regard to the excesses and social misery brought about by the revolutionary government’s ad hoc decisions, Burke argues that ‘if the parliament had been not been dissolved, it may have acted as a balance and corrective of the excesses of the National Assembly and its judiciary owing its place to the National Assembly, not knowing by what law it judges nor under what authority it acts. ( R.PP 208/9.) .

From Burke to modern conservatives, these concerns of conservation and correction by trial and error are found in the writings of British and other conservative thinkers.

Modern day British conservative Roger Scruton, (Quadrant, ‘The Philosophy of Roger Scruton,’ ) describes the May Day event in Paris when anarchic leftist students took to the streets. Scruton watched transfixed as a violent battle between students and police unfolded beneath his attic window until abruptly “the plate-glass windows of the shops appeared to step back, shudder for a second, and then give up the ghost, as the reflections suddenly left them and they slid in jagged fragments to the ground”.

In this moment, at the centre of an archetypal 1960s event, it appears that Scruton experienced a sudden intuitive insight into the advent of the nihilistic postmodern era, characterised by the collapse of representation, and the fragmentation, violence and iconoclasm that Scruton later claimed in A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism (2006), provided the context for the conservative philosophical response of which he has since propounded.

Earlier that day, reading de Gaulle’s Memoires, Scruton had been struck by the Gaullist insight that a nation is defined “by language, religion, and high culture [and that] in times of turmoil and conquest it is those spiritual things that must be protected and reaffirmed”, and now he saw this sacred dimension under threat by the profane Dionysian forces that had been unleashed below him, “throwing away … all customs, institutions and achievements, for the sake of a momentary exultation which could have no lasting sense save anarchy”.( Q P 2.)

Later, Scruton was visited by a friend, who had spent the day on the barricades. The May events appealed to her as the high point of an anarchic assault on the absurdity of bourgeois life. She and her comrades were convinced, “the Old Fascist de Gaulle and his regime would be begging for mercy” as the student insurrection escalated into a new French Revolution. In fact, she was wrong although for a few critical months it appeared that the bourgeois world they so despised was about to be overthrown But what, Scruton asked his visitor, do you propose to put in its place? “What vision of France and its culture compels you?’ To which she replied with a book, Foucault’s ‘Les mots and les choses’ the avant-garde of social theory for radicals, despite the fact that Foucault’s structural determinism reduced people to ’the status of elements in a gigantic system ’ and justified any transgression as rebellion against bourgeois power. Now treated by former friends as a pariah, Scruton went on to explore the law, and discovered the answer to Foucault in the common law of England, which he saw as proof that there is a real distinction between legitimate and illegitimate power, that power can exist without oppression, and that authority is a living force in human conduct. (Q.P4.)

Scruton abhorred the modernist reduction of life to abstract categories and insisted on the centrality of contextual and localised “social knowledge” once embodied in the common law, political and social conventions, manners, customs, morality and civility of traditional English culture, and which arose as by an “invisible hand” from the innumerable social transactions, age-old negotiations and compromises perpetuated by custom to restrain and channel conflicting interests and passions. In this he found support in Burke, who celebrated the thriving variety and uniqueness of traditional life but also explored its political implications, persuading Scruton that “the utopian promises of socialism go with a wholly abstract vision of the human mind … that has only the vaguest relation to the thought and feelings by which real human lives are conducted”, a theme he explored in The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope (2010).

Burke persuaded him that “societies are not and cannot be organized according to a plan or a goal, that there is no direction to history”, while all attempts to pretend otherwise must decline into “militant irrationality” as the proponents of such visions struggle to impose their abstract template onto an intractable world.

These views, common to conservatives, belief in trial and error reform to achieve non-arbitrary protection of rights under the law and respect for individual liberty are demonstrated in the evolution of Magna Carta to modern parliamentary democracy.


Case Study of Magna Carta.

From conservative empirical Britain came the Magna Carta, the founding institution of democracy world-wide, beginning the process of securing the rights of the people under the rule of law against the power of kings and/or executive.

The first of several versions of the Magna Carta was signed by King John in June 1215. Faced with rebellion that he couldn’t suppress, brought on by his exploitation of revenue raising powers, the king agreed to a negotiated peace with his nobles and affixed his seal to the Magna Carta. The rights set out in Magna Carta were not expressed in a codified way but came and went in new versions of the Great Charter and also the important Forest Charter, both revoked, but surviving in amended form.

Though a king’s promises were not usually kept, the Magna Carta was a significant document in establishing the fundamental precepts of Britain’s constitutional monarchy. It lays the claim that the king is not above the law. He is obliged to keep his executive actions in line with the law, and to respect the rights of the people. If the king is subject to law, so is everybody else in society, society is therefore ruled by law and not men. Magna Carta is the constitutional moment when the rule of law enters the modern world.

The other source of contention, the Forest Charter, was a significant example of a sphere where the king exercised his royal prerogative to the detriment of society. The Royal forests were established for hunting by William the Conqueror irrespective of prior rights on the land. By the time of Henry 11, up to a third of England, encompassing arable land and villages, public commons, lands held by barons and free men, were subject to the Forest Charter. Such land could not be used for productive purposes without the king’s permission. Negotiated promises by various kings to return some of these lands to their owners were not kept, but in 1301, King Edward 1, needing funds for war campaigns, was obliged to reconvene parliament. Parliament refused further grants until prior promises to return land were kept. Edward was obliged to surrender what he called his hereditary rights’ under great stress of necessity.’ ‘When the Charter was enforced, says James Spigalman in Quadrant, ( July/August 2015.) thousands of acres were returned to their communities, probably the most significant single restraint on the exercise of the royal prerogative in the medieval era.’

Other reforms were to come. Magna Carta is the focus of reform. Much of the document restores specific liberties like fishing rights, for example, that the king had usurped in earlier periods but from the Magna Carta evolved a society based on liberties, the trial and error creation of British democracy, Reform Acts of 1832, 18647and 1884, extending manhood suffrage, 1864 Bill enacted by Benjamin Disraeli and the Conservative Party, the others by Liberal Governments of Earl Grey and William Gladstone. The vote for women had to wait until later, universal women’s suffrage was first enacted in British Commonwealth countries, New Zealand, in 1893, and South Australia the following year, and in Britain at the end of the First World War.

Science and Technology.

How to explain the vigorous enquiry and investigation of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Great Britain? Maybe the inheritance law of primogeniture had something to do with it, the swelling of the gentry, middle-class by the educated younger sons and relatives of the landed aristocracy. In philosophy there are the empiricists of the Scottish Enlightenment, John Locke’s and David Hume’s enquiries into human rationality, Adam Smith’s enquiry into the wealth of nations, gentleman farmer James Hutton studying the geology of his region to question the biblical age of the Earth, Charles Darwin on ‘The Beagle’ studying species in the context of Malthus and coming up with his evolutionary theory. Common to all investigators is the empirical approach. A giant among scientists, Isaac Newton,’ in 1687, who published his ‘Principia Mathematica,’ formulating the laws of motion and universal gravitation, developed the mathematics of Calculus to assist his measurement. For his discoveries in optics he built the first reflecting telescope, solving problems of materials and shaping and grinding his own mirrors.

Second Test Case Study. The Industrial Revolution.


The Industrial Revolution that revolutionized human productivity and within decades put an ended seasonal famine in the West, owed less to scientists than to solutions to problems by workers on the factory floor. John Kay’s flying shuttle, James Hargreaves’ spinning jenny and Richard Arkwright’s water frame were responses to speeding production in spinning and weaving cotton and linen. The three inventors were all of humble origin, Arkwright, an entrepreneur who revolutionized the factory production system became Sir Richard Arkwright. Invention leads to invention. The developer of the work engine of the Industrial revolution, James Watt was an instrument maker in Glasgow who adapted the model of Thomas Newcomben’s steam engine to solve the problem of inefficiency from wasted steam. Watt laboured over the engine problem for more than a year. Then out walking one afternoon, in 1765, he passed by the old washing house.

‘I was thinking upon the engine at the time,’ he wrote later, ‘when the idea came into my mind that as steam was an elastic body it would rush into a vacuum, and if a communication were made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel, it would rush into it and thereby be condensed without cooling the cylinder … I had not walked further than the golf-house when the whole thing was strong in my mind.’ ( ‘ The Scottish Enlightenment. The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World.’ Arthur Herman. Ch 12.)

Invention leads to invention. Trevithick’s locomotive on rails, Stephenson’s steam engine …

I’m stopping now, I’ve run out of steam … but trial and error conservatism does not. Like Nature, it keeps on keeping on, no fuddy-duddy in evolutionary terms.