The swift flight of a single sparrow

After a couple of weeks of solid change – new house, new office, new term, new school year – I wrote to my old philosophy tutor the other evening.

He has written extensively on the ‘Episodic Life’ – a view that life as a story (the ‘Narrative Life’) isn’t actually how some people experience events; and may actually be something of a self-limiting straitjacket.

I’ve certainly found that a bit of letting go (à la Buddhism) and a bit of consciously setting out to enjoy new ‘episodes’ in life has got me through the last hectic fortnight. In fact I’ve quite enjoyed it!

Here’s what I wrote:

“After much denial I’m coming to the view there’s a lot to be said for the ‘episodic’ life. If Heidegger is right (and I think he is) that we wander as a tiny candle flame briefly through a dark, largely empty and uninterested universe – then why wouldn’t you see what every day on Gaia brings, and let the universe serve you up the answers for what fun to have next.

I’m starting think there’s a spot of hubris in my previous attachment to the ‘narrative’ life. A lot happened before us, little we do really affects the myriad lives and physical processes around us and we’ll all be gone before you know it.

I still think Aristotle’s fundamentally right; happiness is a life well lived – but maybe a slightly more eclectic approach to the journey might save me the angst of Kierkegaard and the earnestness of Bentham and Mill.

Keep writing Galen – I’ll catch up with your beautiful mind one day!”

And here’s what he wrote back – it’s rather lovely:

Thanks John. Heidegger … sounds like the Venerable Bede.

The Venerable Bede (c. 673-735) records the story of King Edwin of Northumberland at the hands of the missionary bishop Paulinus.

Edwin was willing to hear the preaching of Paulinus and to convert at once, but he called together a meeting of his council of elders, which included his pagan high priest, Coifi. Paulinus presented the gospel to him, and one of the chief advisors replied with this observation:

“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors.

In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came.

Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.” 

Here’s an article on the ‘Episodic Life’:

Rights Gone Wrong


Rights are all well and good, but sometimes they lead you to the wrong places. Generally I’m with John Stuart Mill:

“Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”

That’s the classic case for ‘negative liberty’ – i.e. freedom from interference if you’re doing no harm. And it has travelled time well; Governments: know your limits. But what Mill says before this is important too:

“The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”

And it’s this innocuous final phrase which is the tricky one: ‘impeding their efforts to obtain it.’ Does ‘impeding’ include dodging your taxes, turning a blind eye to inequality or using ‘rights’ to justify a bad status quo? As Mill said:

“A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”

Not that he was a pacifist:

“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse.”

“A man who has nothing which he cares more about than his personal safety is a miserable creature who has no chance at being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”

But as America reels from another terrible school shooting, with the prospect that the 2nd Amendment will be wheeled out again to justify inaction, surely historic rights are causing contemporary wrong.

Times change. It’s the 21st century not 1791. Give Governments too many powers and they abuse them. Give citizens guns and they do too. Two wrongs don’t make a right in a modern democracy.

I can’t help quoting Mill one more time:

“I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative.”

Surely it’s time for change on the right to bear arms.

Subway Sceptic

In amongst the standard issue ‘New York stylie’ graffiti I walked past yesterday was a quality thought. ‘Question everything’. This struck me as rather profound for a coastal Cornwall underpass. But who inspired the phantom sprayer? Was it:

1) The Sex Pistols – a call for ‘Anarchy in the UK’.
2) David Hume – there are absolute limits to what we can know.
3) Pyrrho – hold back on your judgements for a less troubled existence

I reckon a mix of 1) and 3). Two fingers to authority and a nod to the inalienable right to your own freedom to escape society’s preconceptions.

I read Wilhelm von Humbolt quoted by John Stuart Mill in his seminal ‘On Liberty’ yesterday:

From the union of ‘freedom’ and ‘a variety of situations’ arise ‘individual vigour and manifold diversity’ in society.

Mill himself goes on to say:

Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.

Graffiti is vandalism. And if we buy this weeks analysis that the cause of the UK’s ills is gangsta rap and consensual policing then the callow youth who sprayed his question (lots of assumptions here…) deserves his head cracking with a ‘zero tolerance’ truncheon.

But ‘epoché’. After Pyrrho, this week ‘I hold back’. I’ll suspend judgement and ignore Hesiod. Some questions are worth asking – and some liberties worth defending.