English practicality, English undoing

goldThere exist different approaches to pondering life’s quotidian problems.

A thinker identifies a problem without necessarily proposing solutions. A philosopher identifies a problem in such a way that solutions propose themselves. An empiricist proposes solutions without first identifying the problem. And an English empiricist acts on solutions to a problem not yet identified.

There is running across the English character a deep distrust of first principles and last things as starting points of ratiocination. “What are we going to do about it?” is a question a typical English mind often asks before properly understanding what ‘it’ is.

Aristotelian first principles are axiomatic assumptions acting as the foundation on which any subsequent intellectual structure can be built. Yet, with notable exceptions, the English mind has no time for the normal building sequence. It forgoes the intellectual foundation, disdains the walls, then makes the roof and hopes it will stay up.

The English lexicon is variously rich in ‘was’, ‘is’ and ‘will be’, but proudly poor in ‘ought to be’. It is not for nothing that the action word, the verb, is central to the structure of the English language. A German sticks the verb at the end of a long sentence, a Russian can construct a long sentence without any verb at all, but an English sentence revolves around action like a wheel on its axis.

The English are proud of their innate practicality. We take life as it is, they say, not as we think it ought to be. Our civilisation has been plunged into enough trouble by idealists pursuing abstractions.

It has not. Our civilisation has been plunged into trouble not by the pursuit of ideals as such, but by the pursuit of false ideals. True ideals do not destroy; they – and only they – create civilisations. The success of a civilisation depends on the truth of its founding ideals.

Western civilisation has become the greatest one in history only because it was founded on the greatest ideal. By contrast, cannibalistic Carthage, to name one example, did not create a civilisation worthy of the name because its ideals were false or, worse still, evil.

Yet the English mind eschews delving into ideals and contemplating which ones are true and which ones are false. It is too busy figuring out what to do in the next minute, hour, possibly year. There is no point thinking of eternity. Eternity is infinite, but we are after finite results.

I know many extremely intelligent Englishmen whose eyes glass over the moment first principles come up in conversation. First principles are the last things they wish to discuss. Their minds, displaying a contortionist’s agility when discussing the mechanics of life, instantly turn inert when made to ponder the meaning of life. It is as if an iron gate comes clattering down: “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.”

Britain, say such intellectual self-limiters, was made great by warriors, seafarers, colonisers, scientists, engineers, businessmen, financiers and statesmen, all men of action averse to abstract thought. We managed to do without idealistic navel-gazers in the past and we shall do very well without them in the future.

Both parts of the last sentence are wrong. Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries England indeed made giant strides in organising the practical side of life. But it rode to success on the coattails of a great civilisation built on a true ideal.

The intellectual vacuum formed by forward-looking doers locked in the present and future was then filled by idealistic thinkers who looked to the past and, defying geometrical possibility, arrived at some understanding of eternity. They answered the Why and What For questions, leaving the practical men to tackle How.

It is men of thought who made men of action not only successful but indeed possible. It is not only words but also actions that without thought never to heaven go.

Marginalise or, worse still, remove men of thought with their ideals from the dynamics of life, and English empiricism begins to look crass, vulgar and self-destructive even on its own terms.

When idealists exit pursued by the bare empiricism of practical men, they take true ideals with them, leaving a void. That is inevitably filled with false makeshift ideals expected to tide us over for the time being. The time being is all that matters because tomorrow we shall die.

Yet a falsehood cannot produce a lasting truth, nor even an ad hoc truthlet. It can only produce another falsehood and then explode into a myriad of them. The gods of a civilisation on its way out are replaced by the demons of a civilisation on its way in. But demons cannot create; they can only destroy.

Men of action gradually become like a rudderless ship cast adrift without navigational tools on a starless night. They do not know where they are and where they are going, but they begin to suspect they are in deep trouble.

Civilisations, wrote Davila, perish when they begin to ignore their founding ideals. Civilisations perish even faster when they begin to despise their founding ideas, along with those who try to preserve them.

English practicality becomes very impractical indeed when operating in a spiritual and intellectual void. English empiricism may yet destroy the English civilisation, if it has not done so already.


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