King Canute

November 20, 2017

In a time when teaching history was simply telling children stories about the exploits of famous British people of the past; and many years ago when I was at junior school, one of the time-worn stories which was told to us, along with those of King Alfred burning the cakes; and King Robert the Bruce of Scotland hiding in a hollow tree, was the tale of King Canute, king of East Anglia, who being flatered by his courtiers either into a belief that he could do anything, or else because finding tiresome their insistent toadying to him; so he took his throne to the eastern seaboard of England and stood it on the sands and commanded the tide to ‘go back’ and not to encroach on his seat.

Of course the sea did not listen, but true to its nature it came in and encroached. But Canute, probably tired of constant flattery, had made his point to his courtiers.

The story is a very good and useful metaphor which is able to shed light on this human and now global adventure we have been on since the days when Voltaire and Descartes and Diderot, and Rousseau first attuned our minds towards ithe world’s present course of activity

The ascendancy of reason over faith, (this is putting that sea change which these men ushered in for our outlooks in a very reductive and populist manner) began with these men, and by their works they set into motion what they considered to be a rationalisation of human thinking and so, as it turned out, of human society.

Descartes being the ultimate doubter, was one who could begin his thinking only from a basic point which affirmed his own existence as an individual, and he was an important denier of magic, witchcraft, sorcery, miracles, anything supernatural and even merely fanciful; so much so that I believe it was a compatriot of his of the following century who said of him that his work had “cut the throat of poetry”. Certainly, given the joint contributions of the four Frenchmen I have named above, the scope for imaginative art and literature once their life-businesses had become established in the thought of mainstream of European society, became severely constricted to more workaday themes; topics like social satire and social morals; and later to appreciations of pastoral and natural beauty and the serene effects of scenery on us.

It is to these four Frenchmen we owe so much of our present day outlooks in Europe and becoming ever more and more so across the world. It is a part of what we call globalisation The success of their ideas and ideals, in their turn have allowed for the successive successes of our technology and of our science, successes which have arisen out of their philosophically-led rationalisations of our lives and ideas. And so these successes are in a direct line from those rationalisations, so as to have given to us all of those labour-saving devices, those factored medicines and cures, therapies and techniques, goods and services, transportation, roads, railways, airplanes, cars, hotels, resorts, cruises, restaurants, shops, supermarkets, imports, exports, wealth and wellbeings which generally are enjoyed now by so many; more than ever before in all human history.

Pretty upbeat stuff,eh?

Those of us who have or have enjoyed the benefits of our science and of our technologies; we should be thankful and we should be thankful in such a way that we are impelled inwardly to wish to and so act to share these boons and benefits around; most particulalry in the places wherein they have not yet brought ease, comfort, long life and good health for nearly all.

Sadly anyone with a commensurate understanding of the actuality of the situation will admit to themselves firstly that – they themselves have not done nearly enough in their lives to share out our boons and benefits in these ways– I include myself here – and secondly we should have to admit alas also that too many of us are unconcerned about sharing out these boons and benefits, and even are hostile to such an idea too often. Certainly here in the UK, a major and large economy in the world, we cannot even get a bypass or a wind farm built without high tempers and raised voices shouting about the damage to the environment and to local ambiences they will cause. There is little hope for any sacrifices of moment to themselves arising presently from such a people.

But, yes, humankind has pushed back the boundaries of knowledge and has made an utter practical use of those works and techniques which have been discovered by their scientific endeavours – so much so that in the past two or three centuries that the world in which people live has become unrecognisable, unimaginably so, by any ancestor of ours who might by any magic be recalled to life and so become able to view it. In many ways those studies of magic and sorcery and witchcraft to which The Enlightenment by its rationalisations put an end, might be said to have re-materialised in the shape of the astonishing range and depth gadgetry and achievements which humankind has now mastered. Certainly even to Rousseau and Diderot, to Voltaire and Descartes it would seem so could they view them.

This phrase I used just now ‘pushed back the boundaries’, is pregnant with meanings given our situation now and on earth. We have “pushed back the boundaries” of science and technology – for some of us – only for those who by accident of birth or luck or by just sheer persistence at great risk have been able to live in what is termed by us ‘a developed nation’.

Sixty years ago when I was a child in junior school we were aware of ‘undeveloped nations’ overseas whereabouts people lived – even in those post war austere days of rationing of foods and clothing etc, for me and my family – people overseas were then living in what was clear to me as a child to be dreadfully appalling circumstances. Sixty years later, every evening our TV is sure to carry perhaps a half-dozen charitable advertisements each from a discrete organisation – Medicines sans Frontiers; Oxfam; Water Aid, Children in Need, The Red Cross, amongst hundreds – and typically these advertisements ask for a single texted phone donation of £3 or else if more ambitious a regular gift of £3 per month from their viewers.

The difference between the current shots of ailing families and young children the TV ads use to push home the need for charity, and those shots of families and children in need of sixty years ago which I also saw on TV – is that the old days had black and white pictures, whereas today's are in colour.

And so a lifetime has been spent – by me – by my contemporaries – to no avail for these people presently crying out for food, shelter, a well, a school, electricity and services, toilets, waste disposals, and a complete range of household facilities which we ourselves like to decorate and renovate and refurbish in our own homes every few years and to the latest fashionable styles.

We have not shared our boons and benefits, even though it has been by sheer good luck that we have them - for most of us. By far most of us are not scientists, nor are we technicians, so we can’t make this stuff for ourselves; we depend utterly on science and scientists for what we generally have as equipment, healthcare and so on. We are not entrepreneurs most of us, and so we rely wholly on those who run businesses and commerce to make and supply these boons and benefits to us. Alone we cannot supply them to ourselves. (How many scifi scenarios are about this, stories which look at societies gone through utter breakdown, and all mod cons lost to use by the survivors? It’s a scenario which is a part of our collective nightmares)

We might work as employees most of us and earn enough to buy most of what we need or want – given that we have plain everyday appetites – but we are small fry and like little screws or springs in the massive engines of the scientific and economic systems at large. The entrepreneurs and the scientists take the rudder, the helm, the wheel, the joystick, and we are in the back in the passenger seats, accepting often with some avariciousness what comes up next for general consumption in the marketplace. We have little input, - except indirectly by what we are buying being noted by scientists and entrepreneurs - as to what is next to go on the popular marketplaces, the latest gadgetry, or products and services. We are very much spectators.

And so what have we to offer as argument that we deserve our mod cons, and what arguments can we offer which say that those families and children on the TV charity adverts don’t deserve them?

In addition we all of us are living on that capital held within the economic growth, the work and often the great hardship contributed by or suffered by our predecessors – I say predecessors and not ancestors, because so many of us can claim no ancestry in any historically-urban or developed city or nation. This is not to stigmatise such people as these might be, for those others who do have ancestry remain debtors also, and in just as much to the historical past.

There’s an old saying that ‘life’s a lottery’ - a bit like believing in Fate or like saying sai la vie. Maybe the difference in our being human beings is that we should strive to lessen the likeness of life to a lottery for all of our fellow creatures? If life is a lottery it is because we are content to let into be a lottery – and this ‘we’ I am referring to are us the people who hold the cards in their hands to be able to do something to make life more fair – by us sharing out our good fortune a little more.

As for King Canute and his salty story, the facts for the metaphor I spoke of are these.

Science and technology, hand in hand as it is with commerce and economic activity – science produces things to be sold and technology also – few ventures in science or technology are done plainly and only ‘to see why or whether it happens’. Even a space probe to the outer planets, our latest achievements, have longer term purposes which aim to forward industry and commerce.

Science (when I say science from now on I mean technology also) has “pushed back boundaries” but not just of human ignorance, also the impingements of what might be termed nature’s anarchic or chaotic elements which unsettle human life have been “pushed back”; but mainly only for the “haves” of the world. These anarchic elements, contrary to popular usage have not been “tamed” but only sent elsewhere. They remain and with all their force and danger, but are elsewhere - are “pushed back”.

As a direct result of these anarchic elements having been “pushed back”, from being within and from out of the processes which have pushed them back, there have been every time and without fail added to them in their expulsions, other anarchic and chaotic elements, being those which have been generated directly by our actual human scientific interventions themselves; and which take the forms of waste products and systemic or cyclic disruptions and suppressions, and also a zillion other changes of constraint; all of which war along with, and war against one another; in those areas (as yet) untouched by, or left outside deliberately of, the scopes of our human scientific interventions. In those places then ‘outside the boundaries which have been pushed back”

A simple example is plastics – which are dumped in large amount constantly in the seas and in fields and on building sites anywhere where a local builder or a city company is able to find an expedient way to shed itself of its personal ‘debit costs’ to the environment in general. This dumping of waste plastics as waste product is as it were an act by the dumper agency of it shedding a particular liability of its own, and shedding it beyond those “boundaries pushed back” by those technological and scientific uses this same dumper agency is itself creating by its making products from the plastics it uses as raw materials.

And all science is basically the same; and follows the very same scenario every time as does the dumper agency of the waste plastics. Science in short ‘pushes back boundaries” only so as to be able to dump its wastes and disadvantageous materials and effects, in places beyond the scope of its extent of having ‘pushed back the boundaries”. And so the general environment, wherever it falls outside the discrete scopes of any particular ‘pushings back of scientific boundaries” takes the full burden of the added chaos and anarchy, the added disruptions to cycles and of systems, in short the full weight of those messes created by the fact of our turning to human use and welfare parts of a modified natural environment which falls within any “pushed back boundary”.

Apply what I am claiming here to the situations of those families and children on TV right now, and also sixty years ago, and for all the duration in between; who for a complete lifetime now have seen no substantive extensions of “pushed back boundaries” having come their way, and who consequently have lived, and continue to live in the zones which are situated at large ‘beyond the pushed back boundaries”. It follows from my argument that these families and children are being dumped on by those of us who happily and largely are safe “within the pushed back boundaries”.

In short - once again: they suffer our wastes, they suffer disruptions to cycles and systems we have had a hand in, by us adding to them and so helping making them happen, these peoples suffer the chaos and anarchies fomented by nature and added to by our casting out into an “outer darkness” our untoward and unfriendly excess and disowned messes. Our ‘debit costs’ of innovation, production and consumption.

In short – again – we are in fact spending credit loaned to us by peoples who have very little of their own to live on.

We have no special qualifications of merit or desert to be able justify ourselves for doing this and taking up this privileged position. These peoples who have nothing; and who live “outside the zone” of “pushed back boundaries” of science working in the service of commerce industry and trade; they are living types of The Suffering Servant whom Isaiah writes of in Chapter 53 of his book.

They are bearing the sins of the many; they are not comely and so are not favourable to look upon; they are taking stripes for our sakes; yet most importantly Our Lord Jesus has them in special care because they are amongst those persons whom Jesus tells are “Blessed are the poor; for they shall see God”