Thursday, 10 March 2016

Seeds planted by dead men

I am paying old debts. Old thoughts and beliefs—seeds planted by dead men—spring up in my soul and choke me.
Sherwood Anderson - Seeds (1921)

As a tiny baby, what was your most cherished belief? Something to do with the delightful flavour of your big toe? We are not born with beliefs so where do they come from, how are they induced? Ah – that’s the key word though isn’t it? Induced. Creepy word. Say it slowly - i n d u c e d.

Beliefs are induced and the induction begins from day one. As we also know but prefer not to know, we don’t do our own induction. Not all the seeds are planted by dead men either. We know that too. Just read the comments in online newspapers...

You already do? Of course you do - it's just too delicious.

Belief is another of those misleading words we are stuck with because language is essentially manipulative and the vast majority of us are not the manipulators. It is just one aspect of our tendency to focus on the individual rather than controlling environments. Those are the environments we grew into, those which induced our beliefs, where the levers are in other hands.

Belief is socially induced verbal and mental behaviour. It is controlled behaviour and once we are controlled by a belief it is not easy to escape. Neither is it easy to see the point of escaping because we don’t control beliefs but are controlled by them. Having a belief is rather like joining a club with club rules and constraints which members must accept on pain of expulsion. As with a club, belief exacts a fee for its services; the fee being our independence, our freedom to think alternative thoughts.

As with a club, the control implicit in all beliefs is usually beneficial. It is a social allegiance conferring benefits we may or may not care to identify explicitly. The nature of belief is that we rarely see the control it exerts over our thinking simply because it exerts control over our thinking. Belief has to be internalised or it might be questioned. There are things we cannot allow ourselves to know except in that strangely oblique sense where we could know but dare not know.

Belief lies somewhere on a continuum between assent and support, between active and affirmative behaviour, particularly verbal behaviour. The distinction is well illustrated by political debates which are best analysed by clarifying what each side supports.

The important point seems to be somewhat subtle but it isn’t. Instead of being adopted by a belief, we could observe allegiances and their causes. In other words we could tease out the causes of the debate, the behaviour and the history of its causes rather than the airy abstractions we so often use to hide what is essentially allegiance behaviour. But usually we don't do that. Usually we are adopted by allegiances, infected by beliefs. Or we stand on the sidelines and sneer. Neither is satisfactory... well... I suppose sneering does have its satisfactions.

Aldous Huxley’s ideal of non-attachment is essentially an ideal of unbelief but one cannot easily believe in unbelief. We are not independent, not autonomous and there is nothing to be gained in expecting mass behaviour to be a kind of rational search for the truth. It isn’t and can’t be any such thing.

Belief is what dolts and charlatans make use of to worm their way into the public arena, why they always have and always will.


Sam Vega said...

Excellent stuff, AKH; thank you. This one will join the half-dozen or so posts by you that I have saved to look at repeatedly.

You can safely believe that.

Anonymous said...

Very profound. I think I doubt most things, things seldom work out as nicely as we hope. Even putting up a shelf has long term consequences - let alone fiddling about with government. The iron law of natural cussedness.

An elderly friend is very well plugged into the social fabric around here and has been for many many years. From what she tells me the phrase 'the sins of the fathers are visited unto the third and fourth generation' is very very true literally and metaphorically. Impacts and bad choices live on and on and on, only the very mobile can walk away.

I fear those who make decisions for us are utterly careless of the consequences for any but themselves.

Demetrius said...


A K Haart said...

Sam and Roger - thanks, your comments are most welcome because these are not easy issues to get across. Grandchildren bring home just how lasting our actions can be and that in turn leads to lots of introspection.

Demetrius - too much belief!