Another way to misrepresent the EU referendum result: the Charles Moore Defence

Charles_Moore,_former_editor_of_the_Daily_Telegraph,_at_Edmund_Burke_Philosopher,_Politician,_Prophet[photo by Policy Exchange – Flickr: Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph, at Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30224977%5D

As we have seen ( in Liars in public places) the usual method of misrepresenting the 2016 referendum result, as employed by messrs Rees-Mogg, Jenkin and Johnson, is to lie outright –  these honourable men equate those who voted to leave with ‘the British people’ whose voice, we are told, must be heeded, and whose will must not be thwarted. Yet if we look at the actual figures, this arithmetic is downright dishonest:

British People (total) = 65.5 million

British People (eligible to vote in 2016 referendum) = 46.5 million

“British People” (as defined by messrs Rees-Mogg, Jenkin & Johnson) = 17.4 million.

(i.e. 38% of the electorate, 26.4% of the population – a large minority by any honest measure)

This morning, Mr Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph, made another sort of misrepresentation to the people – he told us that the vote to leave was  ‘a massive vote – 17.4 million people, the largest number to vote for anything in our history’   (Today programme, BBC Radio 4, 15 February)

This is a claim I have heard before, from others who, like Mr Moore, are keen to present the 2016 referendum result as something it is not. For what it’s worth, the assertion is true (though only barely so) – but to be honest, it is not worth much at all.

For a start, we must ask ourselves on how many occasions ‘in our history’ the British people have voted on a single issue such as this*.

The answer is 3.

In 2016, as we have seen, 17,410,742 voted to leave the EU;

in 2011, 13,013,123 voted to reject the alternative vote and stick with first past the post;

and in 1973 17,378,581 voted to remain in the EU

that is only 32,161 fewer (or 0.18% less) than the ‘massive’ 2016 tally – from a substantially smaller electorate (40 million against 46.5) and a slightly lower turnout (64.67% v. 72.21%) – sufficient, I would say, to render Mr Moore’s grand-sounding claim void of any worth and confirm it as a clear attempt to misrepresent the 2016 referendum result as some sort of overwhelming landslide which it would be futile to challenge, whereas it was actually very close on the day – 51.89% v 48.11% – and in percentage terms meant that only 38% of the electorate actually voted to leave as against 34.7% who wished to stay and a further 27% who did not offer an opinion.

For comparison, the 1975 result was decisive –  67% to 33%,  17.378 million v. 8.47 million, 43% of the electorate for, 21% against with 36% not offering an opinion.

I have said elsewhere that the 2016 result would be more honestly presented by saying that 62% did not vote to leave. In case I am accused of duplicity, we should consider the 1975 referendum in the same light.

Can we say that 57% ‘did not vote to stay’ ? I suppose we could; on the other hand, since the status quo then, as now, was that we were already in the EU, then voting to leave is the vote for change; so perhaps it would be more accurate to say that in 1975, 79% did not wish to leave the EU, since only 21% expressed a desire to do so.

What is undeniable is that a number of public figures – many of them elected representatives – consistently misrepresent the 2016 result as so overwhelming that to challenge it would be futile and an affront to democracy. 

They do so because they fear that the result – which was actually very close and showed the country to be deeply divided on the issue – will certainly be reversed in a second referendum.

For them, that makes a second referendum something to be avoided at all costs. For us – the British people – it makes it a democratic imperative.

 

*There have been 11 referendums since 1973, but only 3 involved the whole of the UK. General elections, which involve multiple parties, constituency votes and complex manifestos, are clearly not the same as single-issue referendums in  which the overall vote is what counts. For information, since the war, the winning party has generally gained around 13 million votes, with the lowest being Tony Blair’s victory in 2005 (9.55 million votes giving a majority of 31) and the highest John Major’s 14 million in 1992, which gave him a slimmer majority of 10; while Teresa May’s total of 13.63 milion in 2017, though among the highest, left her short of an overall majority – which shows that the total popular vote is of little significance in these contests.

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Johnson now certain Britain wishes to remain and would reverse Brexit in second referendum

 

Screenshot 2018-02-14 14.50.48     picture: BBC Website

Boris Johnson has admitted that a second referendum would reverse Brexit and see Britain vote to remain in the EU.

In his speech today, Mr Johnson said holding another referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU – as some campaigners are calling for – would be a “disastrous mistake that would lead to permanent and ineradicable feelings of betrayal”.

Since Mr Johnson presents himself as a firm advocate of Brexit, it is inconceivable that he would describe a referendum that confirmed Brexit in those terms or as having these effects; if anything, it would silence the Remainers.

His words can only mean that Mr Johnson expects a second referendum would reverse Brexit and leave the 38% of the electorate who voted for it feeling betrayed.

His words are open to no other construction.

But if he believes that the British people wish to stay in the EU, why is he intent on denying them the chance to say so? Can it be that he puts his own career above democracy?

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Reading between the lines in Boris’s valentine

Boris Johnson, whatever else he may be, is a wily creature. His Valentine’s Day attempt to woo us all to get behind Brexit is a typically guileful effort. It is presented as a magnanimous ‘reaching out’ to ‘Remainers’ along the lines of ‘let’s all pull together to make this happen’.  He wishes to persuade us ‘that Brexit is not grounds for fear but hope.’ His general style, as always, is one of bluff confidence.

Screenshot 2018-02-14 14.50.48   (picture: BBC website)

However, even the wiliest creatures do not always succeed in concealing their true feelings; sometimes they let slip rather more than they mean to.

 

Mr Johnson has done his arithmetic: he knows that when he and his cronies – the reprehensible Rees-Mogg, the unspeakable Bernard Jenkin – use expressions like ‘the voice of the British people’ (which must be heeded!) and ‘the will of the British people’ (which must on no account be thwarted!) then the expression ‘British people’ actually means ‘a large minority of the electorate.’

 

To be precise, it means 17,410,742 out of an electorate of 46,500,001 registered voters (in a country with a population 65,640,000). In other words, while those in favour of leaving the EU might amount to a bare majority (52%) of those who voted, in fact they are only 37.4% of the electorate and 26.5% of the total population. Another way of looking at this is that 62.6% of the electorate did not vote to leave the EU, and the fate of the British people – by which I mean all 65.6 million of them – is being dictated by the wishes of just over one quarter of them.

 

And Mr Johnson is convinced that a second referendum will see this arithmetic expressed at the ballot box – in other words, that this time around, the majority will find their voice and say they do not wish to leave the EU.  Consider this excerpt from today’s BBC report:

‘Mr Johnson said holding another referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU – as some campaigners are calling for – would be a “disastrous mistake that would lead to permanent and ineradicable feelings of betrayal”.
“Let’s not go there,” he said.’
Look carefully at what he is saying here, at the place he does not want us to go: another referendum ‘would be a disastrous mistake that would lead to permanent and ineradicable feelings of betrayal‘.
Does he mean it would be a disastrous mistake if it confirmed the result of the first referendum? That those who voted to Remain would, for some reason, feel permanently and ineradicably betrayed were they to lose again? Surely not – if you have been beaten twice on the same issue, you are more likely to accept the result.
No. The only sense that can be made of Mr Johnson’s words is that the 38% of the electorate who voted to leave would feel betrayed if a second referendum showed that the majority of the British people did not wish to leave the European Union and it would be a mistake to let that happen. But whose mistake would it be, and by whom would the 38% feel betrayed?
The answer to both questions is Boris Johnson and his ‘Brexiteers’.
That is what Johnson’s speech is really about: he firmly believes (as, I would suggest, do most in the Brexit camp) that a second referendum can only result in a rejection of Brexit, at which point the mob will turn and rend him. It is not any concern for his country or even his party that drives him, but a deep personal fear. Hence his desperate pretence that the matter is already settled, that there is no going back, there is nothing to see here, move along and let’s all pull together to make a success of this (and save my skin)  – and do not, whatever you do, even entertain the possibility that you, the British people,  might get another chance to have your say on the matter:
‘Let’s not go there’
I disagree, Boris. By all means, let us go there. It is the only honest course.
[The situation bears a striking resemblance to the Tories’ attitude to a second Scottish referendum, which I discussed in The curious case of Toom Tabard and the Indyref Paradox]

 

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Why Writing is like a Playtex Bra

‘It lifts and separates’ is a slogan that will be familiar to those of my generation – it was advertised as the chief virtue of the Playtex ‘cross-your-heart’ Bra. However, it also serves as a memorable illustration of my theory concerning the origin of what we think of as Language.

The conventional account presents Language, as we have it now, as evolved speech, i.e. its origins go back to our first utterance, with the acquisition of a written form for transcribing it a logical development that occurs in due course – around five thousand years ago – but only after speech has held sway as the primary means of human communication for a couple of hundred thousand years.

However, I think that is not what happened; in particular, the notion that speech was the original and primary means of human communication, occupying a position analogous to what we call Language (both spoken and written) today, is an erroneous backwards projection, based on the status that speech only now enjoys.

The conventional account could be summed up briefly thus: ‘First, we learned to speak, and that is what made us human and marked us out as special; then we learned to write down what we said in order to give it permanent form, and that enabled us to store the knowledge and wisdom which has enabled us to achieve our present pre-eminence.’

However, there are good reasons to suppose that the eminence currently enjoyed by speech actually results from the invention of writing and its impact on human expression – what I would call the Playtex Moment, because the effect of that impact was to lift speech above the rest of human expression, and separate it.

Prior to the invention of writing, and indeed for a good time after it, since its impact was far from immediate, speech was, I would say, simply one aspect of human expression, and by no means the most important. By ‘human expression’ I mean the broad range of integrated activity – facial expression, gesture, posture and bodily movement, and a range of sounds, including speech – which human beings use to express their thoughts and feelings. Bear in mind that up to the invention of writing (and for a good time after it) speech was always part of some larger activity, to which it contributed, but did not (I would assert) dominate.

My ground for supposing this is that it is only through the effort to give speech a written form (which probably did not start to happen till writing had been around for a thousand years) that we come to study it closely, and to analyse it. I suggest there are two reasons for this – the first is that it was not possible to study speech till it was given a permanent, objective form; the second is that the need to analyse speech is part and parcel of the process of giving it written form. Crucially, it is only in writing that the notion of the word as a component of speech arises; speech naturally presents as an uninterrupted flow – rhythm and emphasis are of significance, but word separation is not. Word separation – which not every writing system uses – is a feature of writing, not speech.

In the same way, the whole analysis of speech in terms of the relations between words – grammar – arises from writing (for the good reason that it is only through writing that we can become aware of it). It is the understanding of Language that arises through the development of writing as a tool to transcribe speech that elevates and separates speech from the other forms with which it has hitherto been inseparably bound up.

The notion that we invented writing expressly to transcribe speech does not bear examination*: it was invented for the lesser task of making lists and inventories, as a way of storing information. It was only very gradually that we began to realise its wider potential (the earliest instance of anything we might call literature occurs a good thousand years after the first appearance of writing). Rather than writing being a by-product of speech, speech – as we now know it, our primary mode of communication and expression – is a by-product of writing.

And that is why writing is like a Playtex bra: it lifts and separates speech from all the other forms of human expression – but also (to push the analogy to its limits, perhaps) offers a degree of support that is only bought at the expense of containment and subjugation.

The interesting corollary is that if our present mode of thinking is Language-based – in the sense of ‘Language’ that is used here, a fusion of writing and speech – then that, too, is a relatively recent development**; however much it might seem second nature to us, it is just that – second nature: our natural mode of thought – instinctive and intuitive, developed by our ancestors over several hundred thousand years – must be something quite other, with a different foundation (which is, I would suggest, metaphor).

*if you doubt this, examine it: ask how such an idea would first have occurred, that things should be written down and given a permanent form – to remember them? people had been remembering without the aid of writing for thousands of years – why should they suddenly feel the need to devise an elaborate system to do something they could do perfectly well already? Ask also why, of all things, they would select speech as the one thing to make a record of – only if it were the sort of speech we have now – very much formed and influenced by writing – would it seem the obvious thing to record. Finally, ask how they would go about it – devising a script for the purpose of recording speech requires the sort of analysis of speech we can only acquire through already having devised such a script.

**do not underestimate what I mean by this: it is more than using words to think with. It is the complete model of the world as an objective reality existing independently and governed by logic and reason and all that stems from that; all that can be shown to derive from Language, which in turn arises from the impact of writing on human expression, a process that is initiated about two and a half thousand years ago, in classical Greece, by Plato and Aristotle.

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Liars in public places

‘die breite Masse eines Volkes… einer großen Lüge leichter zum Opfer fällt als einer kleinen’ – ‘the broad mass of a nation will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one.’ (Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf)

‘These are people who are bent on trying to reverse the substance of Brexit and if we finish up with Brexit in name only there will be a terrific backlash in the country because the country voted overwhelmingly to leave.’ (Bernard Jenkin MP, broadcast on the Today programme, 7 July 2017)

As big lies go, it would be hard to find a more consummate piece of public dishonesty in recent times than that.

The country voted overwhelmingly to leave

Did it really, Mr Jenkin?

I do not think that (not quite) 52% to (slightly more than) 48% can be construed as ‘overwhelming‘ in any sense of that word; furthermore, a total of 17.4 million out of an electorate of 46.5 million is 37.4%: that is a considerable minority, not an overwhelming majority; an overwhelming majority would be something like 62.6%the percentage of the electorate who did not vote to leave the European Union.

But you know this, Mr Jenkin. You know that every time you make claims like this you are deliberately misleading the public and fostering a lie, just as Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg does when he speaks of ‘the will of the British people being thwarted’ if people have the temerity to  speak against leaving the EU.

Yet you do it, day in and day out. You try to silence your opponents by what the psychologists call ‘projection’: attributing to others the very faults of which you yourself are guilty. Thus, anyone who dares raise any difficulty that Brexit might entail (and as you know full well, there are many) is said to be advancing phony arguments for an ulterior motive; their real intention is to ‘reverse the substance of Brexit’, and that will incur ‘a terrific backlash in the country because the country voted overwhelmingly to leave.’

The truth of the matter – as you know – is that it is your arguments that are phony, and that you are determined to hustle the British people into accepting the views of a vociferous minority despite the fact that an overwhelming majority do not agree with them.

There will be a terrific backlash: but it will be against you and your like, the liars in public places, and against the craven parliamentarians and ineffectual journalists who meekly accepted your lie and did not robustly challenge it every time you uttered it.

Shame on them, and shame on you.

 

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The Actual Colour of the Sun

‘The sun is actually white, it just appears yellow to us through the Earth’s atmosphere.’

This is a line that appeared on Facebook a while ago, courtesy of my friend Else Cederborg, who posts all sorts of curious and interesting things.

It is a common form of argument that most will readily understand and generally accept without thinking too hard about it. Yet the sun is not actually white, nor does it just appear yellow, facts you can easily check for yourself.

Depending on the time of day and the atmospheric conditions, the sun is variously deep blood red, orange, dusky pink and (behind a veil of mist or thin cloud) a sort of milky white; much of the time it has an incandescent brilliance which can hardly be called a colour since we cannot bear to look at it directly. Though it may appear yellow, the usual place to encounter a yellow sun is in a representation of it: a child’s drawing, for instance (against a blue sky above the square white house, surrounded by green grass, with its four four-paned windows and red triangular roof with single chimney belching smoke) or else in the icons used in weather forecasting.

How we come to accept an argument that runs counter to all experience, and perversely insists on a condition for actuality (being seen outside the Earth’s atmosphere) which few of us will ever experience, is a case worth examining.

At the heart of it is that curious human thing, a convention (I say ‘human’ though it might be that other creatures have conventions, but that is for another time). A convention, effectively, is an agreement to treat things as other than they are – it is a form of pretence. This definition might seem surprising, since what is usually emphasised in conventions is their arbitrary character – the typical example being which side of the road we drive on, which varies from country to country.

However, what makes the rule of the road a convention is that we endow it with force, a force that it does not actually have: we say that you must drive on the left (or the right); that you have to – even though any one of us can show this not to be the case. Of course, if you engage in such a demonstration, you might find yourself liable to a range of legal sanctions, or worse still, involved in an accident. The fact that the rule has to be backed by force proves that it has no intrinsic force; on the other hand, the risk of accident shows that the pretence is no mere whim, but sound common sense: conventions are there because they are useful.

A great deal of human behaviour is conventional if you look at it closely: things are deemed to be the case which are not, actually (international borders is a good example – again, these are arbitrary, but it is the power with which they are endowed that makes them conventions). In this regard, it is worth recalling a remark that Wittgenstein makes somewhere (Philosophical Investigations, I think) to the effect that ‘explanation has to come to an end somewhere’. In other words, despite what we tell children, ‘just because’ is an answer. Conventions are so because we say they are so.

So what colour is the sun?

That takes us to the boldest and most fundamental of conventions, the one that underpins our standard way of thinking about the world, for which we have Plato to thank. Plato insists at the outset on discrediting the senses, saying that they deceive us, giving us Appearance only, not Reality.

This is a move of breathtaking boldness, since effectively it dismisses all experience as ‘unreal’ – as a starting position for philosophy, it ought to be quite hopeless, since if we cannot draw on experience, where are we to begin? If reality is not what we actually experience, then what can it be?

However, there is a different angle we can consider this from, which makes it easier to understand how it has come to be almost universally adopted. What Plato is proposing (though he does not see this himself) is that we should view the world in general terms: that we should not allow ourselves to be distracted by the individual and particular, but should see things as multiple instances of a single Idea or Form; or, as Aristotle develops it, as members of a class which can be put under a single general heading: trees, flowers, cats, horses, at one level, plants and quadrupeds at another, and so on.

Implied in this is the elimination of the subject: the world is not as it appears to me or to you or to any particular individual (since particular individuals exist only at the specific level) the world is to be considered as objective, as it is ‘in itself’, i.e. as a general arrangement that exists independently of any observation.

This is a very useful way of looking at things even though it involves a contradiction. Its utility is demonstrated by the extraordinary progress we have made in the 2.500 years or so since we invented it. It is the basis of science and the foundation of our systems of law and education.

Effectively, it starts by accepting the necessary plurality of subjective experience: we see things differently at different times – the sun is sometimes red, sometimes pink, sometimes incandescent; different people have different experiences: one man’s meat is another man’s poison. In the event of dispute, who is to have priority? That problem looks insoluble (though the extent to which it is an actual problem might be questioned).

So, we must set subjective experience and all that goes with it to one side, and rule it out as the basis of argument. Instead, we must suppose that the world has a form that exists independently of us and is not influenced by our subjective observation: we posit a state of ‘how things actually are in themselves’ which is necessarily the same and unchanging, and so is the same for everyone regardless of how it might appear.

This is how we arrive at the position stated at the outset, that the sun is ‘actually’ white, and that its ‘actual state’ should be taken as ‘how it appears from space,’ even though we live on earth and seldom leave it.

There is a confusion here, which has surfaced from time to time in the history of philosophy since Plato’s day. The strict Platonist would dismiss the whole question of the sun’s true colour in terms akin to Dr Johnson’s, on being asked which of two inferior poets (Derrick or Smart) was the greater: ‘Sir, there is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea.’ Colour belongs to the world of Appearance, not the world of Forms or Ideas.

However, as the insertion of the argument about the earth’s atmosphere shows, we feel the need of a reason to dismiss the evidence of our own eyes (and this is where that little sleight-of-mind about ‘just appearing yellow’ comes in – so that we are not tempted to look too closely at the sun as it actually appears, we are fobbed off with a conventional representation of it that we have been accepting since childhood). The argument is that the atmosphere acts as a filter, much as if we looked at a white rose through coloured glass and variously made it appear green or red or blue: so just as we agree the rose is ‘actually’ white, so too the sun’s ‘actual’ colour must be as it appears unfiltered.

This, however, is specious. Leaving aside the fact that the rose is certainly not white (as you will soon discover if you try to paint a picture of it) at least our choice of default colour can be justified by adding ‘under normal conditions of light’ which most people will accept; but ‘as it appears outside the earth’s atmosphere’ can hardly be called ‘normal conditions of light.’

What has happened here is that the subjective ‘filter’ which Plato wished to circumvent by eliminating the subject – ‘let us ignore the fact that someone is looking, and consider only what he sees’ – has reappeared as an actual filter, so that the whole appearance/reality division has been inserted into the objective world by an odd sort of reverse metaphor. The need to give priority to one of the many possible states of the sun is still felt, and it is solved by arbitrarily selecting ‘the sun as it appears from space’ as its actual state, because that seems logical (though in fact it is not).

The subjectivity of colour in particular, and the subject-dependence of all perception in general, is like a submerged reef that appears at various periods in the sea of philosophy. Locke is troubled by colour, which he wants to class as a ‘secondary quality’ since it evidently does not inhere in the object, as he supposes the primary qualities – solidity, extension, motion, number and figure – to do. Colour is ranked with taste, smell and sound as secondary, which is just a restatement of Plato’s rejection of the senses in other terms.

Berkeley, however, sees that this is a specious distinction and gets to the heart of the matter with his axiom esse est percipi – ‘to be is to be perceived’. Everything we know requires some mind to perceive it: a point of view is implicit in every account we give. There can be no objective reality independent of a subject (as the terms themselves imply, since each is defined in terms of the other).

The response to this is illuminating. Berkeley’s dictum is rightly seen as fatal to the notion of an objectively real world, but instead of accepting this and downgrading Plato’s vision to a conventional and partial account employed for practical purposes, every effort is made to preserve it as the sole account of how things are, the one true reality.

Berkeley’s own position is to suppose that only ideas in minds exist, but that everything exists as an idea in the mind of God, so there is a reality independent of our minds, though not of God’s (a neat marriage of philosophy and orthodox christianity – Berkeley did become a bishop in later life. The Californian university town is named after him).

Kant’s solution is to assert that there is an independent reality – the ding-an-sich, or ‘thing-in-itself’ but logically it must be inaccessible to us: we know it is there (presumably as an article of faith) but we cannot know what it is like.

Schopenhauer’s solution is the most ingenious, and to my mind the most satisfying. He agrees that we cannot know the ding-an-sich as a general rule, but there is one notable exception: ourselves. We are objects in the world and so are known like everything else, via the senses – this is Plato’s world of Appearance, which for Schopenhauer is the World as Representation (since it is re-presented to our minds via our senses). But because we are conscious and capable of reflecting, we are also aware of ourselves as subjects – not via the senses (that would make us objects) but directly, by being us. (To put it in terms of pronouns: you know me and I know you, but I am I; I am ‘me’ to you (and in the mirror) but I am ‘I’ to myself)

And what we are aware of, Schopenhauer says, is our Will; or rather, that our inner nature, as it were, is will: the will to exist, the urge to be, and that this is the inner nature of all things – the elusive ding-an-sich: they are all objective manifestations of a single all-pervasive Will (which happens in us uniquely to have come to consciousness).

This idea is not original to Schopenhauer but is borrowed from Eastern, specifically Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, which belongs to a separate (and possibly earlier) tradition than Platonic thought does (it is interesting to note that a very similar way of looking at things has been likewise borrowed by evolutionary biologists, such as Richard Dawkins, with the notion of ‘the selfish gene’ taking the place of Schopenhauer’s ‘Will’ as the blind and indifferent driving force behind all life).

I find Schopenhauer’s account satisfactory (though not wholly so) because it is a genuine attempt to give an account of the World as we experience it, one that reconciles all its elements (chiefly us as subjects with our objective perceptions) rather than the conventional account of Plato (and all who have followed him) which proceeds by simply discounting the subject altogether, effectively dismissing personal experience and reducing us to passive observers. Although the utility of this convention cannot be denied (in certain directions, at any rate) its inherent limitations make it inadequate to consider many of the matters that trouble us most deeply, such as those that find expression in religion and art; and if, like those who wish to tell us that the sun is ‘actually’ white, we mistake the conventional account for an actual description of reality*, we end up by dismissing the things that trouble us most deeply as ‘merely subjective’ and ‘not real’ – which is deleterious, since they continue to trouble us deeply, but that trouble has now been reclassified as an imaginary ailment.

*perhaps I should say ‘the world’ or ‘what there is’. There is a difficulty with ‘reality’ and ‘real’ since they are prejudiced in favour of the convention of an objective world: this becomes clearer when you consider that they could be translated as ‘thingness’ and ‘thing-like’. The paradigm for ‘reality’ then becomes the stone that Dr Johnson kicked with such force that he rebounded from it, i.e. any object in the world, so that the subject and the subjective aspect of experience is already excluded.

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‘Like, yet unlike.’

‘Like, yet unlike,’ is Merry’s comment in The Lord of the Rings when he first sees Gandalf and Saruman together: Gandalf, returned from the dead, has assumed the white robes formerly worn by Saruman, who has succumbed to despair and been corrupted by evil and is about to be deposed. So we have two people who closely resemble one another yet are profoundly different in character.

Scene: a school classroom. Enter an ancient shuffling pedagogue. He sets on his desk two items. The first depicts a scene from the days of empire, with a khaki-clad officer of the Camel Corps holding a horde of savage Dervishes at bay, armed only with a service revolver.

Teacher (in cracked wheezing voice):The sand of the desert is sodden red,—
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; —
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
‘Play up! play up! and play the game! ‘

Cackling to himself, he unveils his second prop, a glass case in which a stuffed domestic tabby cat – now rather moth-eaten, alas! – has been artfully disguised to give it the appearance of a (rather small) African lion.

Teacher (as before) The lion, the lion
he dwells in the waste –
he has a big head,
and a very small waist –
but his shoulders are stark
and his jaws they are grim:
and a good little child
will not play with him!

Once recovered from his self-induced paroxysm of mirth, almost indistinguishable from an asthma attack, he resumes what is evidently a familiar discourse.

Teacher: We remember, children, that whereas the simile (put that snuff away, Hoyle, and sit up straight) says that one thing is like another, the metaphor says that one thing is another, in this case that the soldier was a lion in the fight. Now in what respects was he a lion? it can scarcely be his appearance, though I grant that his uniform has a tawny hue not dissimilar to the lion’s pelt; certes, he has no shaggy mane (did I say something amusing, Williams? stop smirking, boy, and pay attention) and instead of claws and teeth he has his Webley .45 calibre revolver. Nonetheless, he displays a fearless courage in the face of great odds that is precisely the quality for which the King of Beasts is renowned, so that is why we are justified in calling him a lion. What is that, Hoyle? Why do we not just say he is like a lion? Ha – hum – well, you see, it makes the comparison stronger, you see, more vivid.’

Hoyle does not see, but dutifully notes it down, and refrains from suggesting that ‘metaphor’ is just a long Greek word for a lie, since he knows that will get him six of the belt in those unenlightened days.

[curtain]

But young Hoyle the snuff-taker has a point. Aristotle, it will be recalled, writing in his Poetics, says that the poet ‘above all, must be a master of metaphor,‘ which he defines as ‘the ability to see the similarity in dissimilar things’.  But this definition is as problematic as the teacher’s explanation: why is a comparison between two things whose most striking feature is their dissimilarity made stronger and more vivid by saying that they are actually the same?

The best that people seem able to manage in answer to this is that the literary metaphor has a kind of shock value. To illustrate the point, they generally allude to the conceits of the metaphysical poets, such as Donne, where what strikes us first as outrageous, is – once explained – redeemed by wit and ingenuity:

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.   
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;   
Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met,   
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.

The best metaphor, it seems, is one where the dissimilarity is more striking than the resemblance.

But mention of the metaphysical poets recalls a different definition of metaphor, one provided by Vita Sackville-West in her book on Andrew Marvell:

‘They saw in it [metaphor] an opportunity for expressing … the unknown … in terms of the known concrete.’

That is in the form that I was wont to quote in my student days, when it made a nice pair with the Aristotle quoted above; but I think now that I did Vita Sackville-West a disservice by truncating it. Here it is in full:

‘The metaphysical poets were intoxicated—if one may apply so excitable a word to writers so severely and deliberately intellectual—by the potentialities of metaphor. They saw in it an opportunity for expressing their intimations of the unknown and the dimly suspected Absolute in terms of the known concrete, whether those intimations related to philosophic, mystical, or intellectual experience, to religion, or to love. They were ‘struck with these great concurrences of things’; they were persuaded that,
Below the bottom of the great abyss
There where one centre reconciles all things,
The World’s profound heart pants,
and no doubt they believed that if they kept to the task with sufficient determination, they would succeed in catching the world’s profound heart in the net of their words.’

If I had my time again (for indeed that ancient pedagogue described above is me) and wished to illustrate this, I would go about it rather differently.

Let us suppose a scene where a child cowers behind her mother’s skirts while on the other side a large and overbearing man, an official of some sort, remonstrates with the mother demanding she surrender the child to his authority. Though she is small and without any looks or glamour – a very ordinary, even downtrodden sort – the woman stands up boldly to the man and defies him to his face with such ferocity that he retreats. I am witness to this scene and the woman’s defiance sends a thrill of excitement and awe coursing through me. In recounting it to a friend, I say ‘In that moment, I seemed to glimpse her true nature – I felt as if I was in the presence of a tiger, defending her cubs.’

This is a very different account of metaphor. It is no longer a contrived comparison for (dubious) literary effect between two external things that are quite unlike, in which I play no part save as a detached observer; instead, I am engaged, involved: the metaphor happens in me: the identity is not between the external objects, but in the feeling they evoke, which is the same, so that the sight before me (the woman) recalls a very different one (the tiger) which felt exactly the same.

The first point to note is that the contradiction implicit in Aristotle’s account has disappeared. There is no puzzle in trying to work out how a woman can be a tiger, because the unity of the two lies in the feeling they evoke. And as long as my response is typically human and not something unique to me, then others, hearing my account, will feel it too, and being stirred in the same way, will recognise the truth expressed by saying ‘I felt I was in the presence of a tiger.’

Further, the very point that seemed problematic at first – the dissimilarity – is a vital element now. It is the fact that the woman appears as unlike a tiger as it is possible to be that gives the incident its force: this is an epiphany, a showing-forth, one of those ‘great concurrences of things’ that seem like a glimpse of some reality beyond appearance, ‘the World’s profound heart’.

Yet that description – ‘some reality beyond appearance’ – is just what pulled me up short, and made me think of the Tolkien quote I have used as a heading. Is not this the very language of Plato, whose world of Forms or Ideas is presented as the Reality that transcends Appearance?

Yet the world as presented by Plato is essentially the same as that of Aristotle, which has become, as it were, our own default setting: it is a world of objective reality that exists independently of us; it is a world where we are detached observers, apprehending Reality intellectually as something that lies beyond the deceptive veil of Appearance. It is the world we opened with, in which metaphor is a contradiction and a puzzle, perhaps little better than a long Greek word for a lie.

Though both accounts – the Platonic-Aristotelian world on one hand, and Vita Sackville-West’s version on the other – seem strikingly similar (both have a Reality that lies beyond Appearance and so is to some extent secret, hidden), there are crucial differences in detail; like Gandalf and Saruman, they are like, yet unlike in the fundamentals that matter.

The Platonic world is apprehended intellectually. What does that mean? Plato presents it in physical terms, as a superior kind of seeing – the intellect, like Superman’s x-ray vision, penetrates the veil of Appearance to see the Reality that lies beyond. But the truth of it is less fanciful. What Plato has really discovered (and Aristotle then realises fully) is the potential of general terms. A Platonic Idea is, in fact, a general term: the platonic idea of ‘Horse’ is the word ‘horse’, of which every actual horse can be seen as an instance or embodiment. Thus, to apprehend the World of Forms is to view the actual world in general terms, effectively through the medium of language.

This can be imagined as being like a glass screen inserted between us and the landscape beyond, on which we write a description of the landscape in general terms, putting ‘trees’ where there is a forest, ‘mountains’ for mountains, and so on. By attending to the screen we have a simplified and more manageable version of the scene beyond, yet one that preserves its main elements in the same relation, much as a sketch captures the essential arrangement of a detailed picture.

But the Sackville-West world is not mediated in this way: we confront it directly, and engage with it emotionally: we are in it and of it. And our apprehension of a different order of reality is the opposite of that presented by Plato; where his is static, a world of unchanging and eternal certainties (which the trained intellect can come to know and contemplate), hers is dynamic, intuitive, uncertain: it is something glimpsed, guessed at, something wonderful and mysterious which we strive constantly (and never wholly successfully) to express, in words, music, dance, art.

The resemblance between the two is no accident. Plato has borrowed the guise of the ancient intuited world (which we can still encounter in its primitive form in shamanic rituals and the like) and used it to clothe his Theory of Forms so that the two are deceptively alike; and when you read Plato’s account as an impressionable youth (as I did) you overlay it with your own intimations of the unknown and the dimly suspected Absolute and it all seems to fit – just as it did for the Christian neoPlatonists (in particular, S. Augustine of Hippo) seeking a philosophical basis for their religion.

I do not say Plato did this deliberately and consciously. On the contrary, since he was operating on the frontier of thought and in the process of discovering a wholly new way of looking at the world, the only tools available to express it were those already in use: thus we have the famous Simile of the Cave, as beguiling an invitation to philosophy as anyone ever penned, and the Myth of Er, which Plato proposes as the foundation myth for his new Republic.

And beyond this there is Plato’s own intuition of a secret, unifying principle beyond immediate appearance, ‘the World’s profound heart’, which we must suppose him to have since it is persistent human trait: is it not likely that when he had his vision of the World of Forms, he himself supposed (just as those who came after him did) that the truth had been revealed to him, and he was able to apprehend steadily what had only been glimpsed before?

It would explain the enchantment that has accompanied Plato’s thought down the ages, which no-one ever attached to that of his pupil Aristotle (‘who is so very nice and dry,’ as one don remarked) even though Aristotelianism is essentially Plato’s Theory of Forms developed and shorn of its mysterious presentation.

So there we have it: a new explanation of metaphor that links it to a particular vision of the world, and an incidental explanation of the glamour that attaches to Plato’s Theory of Forms.

Like, yet unlike.

 

 

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