Complacency and Truth

Complacency and Truth

by Nigel Yates

Reading from On the Principles of Political Morality
by Maximillien Robespierre

What is the purpose of our revolution? The tranquil enjoyment of liberty and equality; the reign of that eternal justice, the laws of which are graven, not on marble or stone, but in the hearts of men, even in the heart of the slave who has forgotten them, and in that of the tyrant who disowns them.

We wish that order of things where all the low and cruel passions are enchained, all the beneficent and generous passions awakened by the laws; where ambition subsists in a desire to deserve glory and serve the country: where distinctions grow out of the system of equality, where the citizen submits to the authority of the magistrate, the magistrate obeys that of the people, and the people are governed by a love of justice; where the country secures the comfort of each individual, and where each individual prides himself on the prosperity and glory of his country; where every soul expands by a free communication of republican sentiments, and by the necessity of deserving the esteem of a great people: where the arts serve to embellish that liberty which gives them value and support, and commerce is a source of public wealth and not merely of immense riches to a few individuals.

We wish in our country that morality may be substituted for egotism, probity for false honour, principles for usages, duties for good manners, the empire of reason for the tyranny of fashion, a contempt of vice for a contempt of misfortune, pride for insolence, magnanimity for vanity, the love of glory for the love of money, good people for good company, merit for intrigue, genius for wit, truth for tinsel show, the attractions of happiness for the ennui of sensuality, the grandeur of man for the littleness of the great, a people magnanimous, powerful, happy, for a people amiable, frivolous and miserable; in a word, all the virtues and miracles of a Republic instead of all the vices and absurdities of a Monarchy.

We wish, in a word, to fulfill the intentions of nature and the destiny of man, realize the promises of philosophy, and acquit providence of a long reign of crime and tyranny. That France, once illustrious among enslaved nations, may, by eclipsing the glory of all free countries that ever existed, become a model to nations, a terror to oppressors, a consolation to the oppressed, an ornament of the universe and that, by sealing the work with our blood, we may at least witness the dawn of the bright day of universal happiness. This is our ambition, - this is the end of our efforts....

That extract was taken from a speech given by Maximillien Robespierre a few weeks before his own death at the height of the French revolution. A speech that lays out a vision for a new society.

You may or may not have heard of Robespierre, you may or may not have very much idea about what he did and did not do. You may not have understood all that have just heard. There will be some of you who sigh at the very thought about having to think about any of that and roll over mentally hoping that it will soon be over.

And that attitude and that complacency is what I want to address, and I hope challenge this morning. For those of you that know me well, you will recognise the gentle irony of an atheist taking a role in a religious service but there is no contradiction here. One aspect of all teaching, religious or otherwise is to teach students to reflect on and question their own beliefs and to take especial care in defining both the world that they would wish to live in and how best to protect that world view.

Most of us cling to rationality, that is to say we believe that we can find some sort of explanatory theory for the things that we encounter. Of course we have our weaknesses; both my younger children believe in the 'tooth fairy' and I clung to the belief that I would indeed play cricket for England well beyond the time when that wasn't simply an unreasonable belief but an utterly irrational one. But we need theories to understand and to make sense of what we see, what we hear and what we feel. We would need to understand, even at a simple level, the theories of fossil formation because being able to recognise fossils as bits of reality. Beyond that evolution is another fact that observation of the fossil record makes hard to deny but we need a theory to explain that evolution and there the arguments begin between Darwinians and their opponents.

But why we believe what we believe and how we are trained to think are obviously significantly related. My children will abandon their faith in the tooth fairy soon enough although we could, if isolated from the world, maintain the mythology for longer. Most of us adopt the belief system in which we are brought up, sometimes unreflectively. That is to say we believe what we are told by the older, and allegedly wiser. A moment's reflection will soon tell you that this is a denial of progress or change, if each successive generation simply adopt the belief systems of the previous generation then we would still be flat-earthers or still believe that the earth was created in 4006 BC. Indeed, we would still be hunter-gatherers as we were for most of human history. One of the most rewarding parts of my job, indeed the most rewarding part is watching students such as yourselves reappraise those things that they once took to be certain and undeniable 'truths'; a process that should last you a lifetime. All our theoretical understanding should be contingent and should be constantly challenged. Facts should not be slaughtered on the altar of theory and please try not to surround yourselves with people who always agree with you, however tempting these illusory and mutually reinforced certainties might be.

And teachers are no more reliable. Many of you remember those early days of AS and A2 work when you were told, rather disarmingly, that much of what you learnt at GCSE was actually wrong! It will surprise none of you that you may very well be getting the same sort of speech at university. And there is another problem; your teachers are obliged to fill you up with the necessary knowledge that will allow you to pass the examinations that are the next hurdle on your ladder to better incomes and, arguably, more content lives. But they are not able to offer as much by way of world view to help you comprehend the world in which you will all work. The English educational system has always valued detailed knowledge over theory - an English suspicion of too many 'isms', perhaps too continental, too scary. The running of an Empire and the management of the global economy demands efficiency in carrying out tasks but may not always be helped by too much reflection about the justification for these tasks. Indeed too much thought about the rights and wrongs of colonialism, slavery, the rights of women might get in the way of the efficient running of Empire.

Engineers and architects built gas-chambers and they were not necessarily wicked individuals; we must separate individuals from the appalling ideologies in which they are embedded - that is certainly a Christian message.

My hope for sixth formers in this school is that they have developed the equipment to challenge ideas and to keep asking questions - to keep asking 'Why' in that repetitive whiny voice of the small child who wants to know why the sky is blue. My particular hope is that you will become members of a 'political generation' that realise that it not enough just to be a good technician, an expert in your field unless you can place that in its social and political context in which we are all obliged to work.

Of course we need experts but we need experts who do not sell their souls for a handful of silver when what they are doing is wrong, absolutely wrong. Designing better land-mines is wrong. Working to impoverish some people whilst making oneself and one's employees wealthy is wrong.

At very few times in your very full days are you encouraged to think about the global issues that will confront you all and it would be utter folly to expect others to do this for you. You are possibly the least 'political' generation since the second world war and your complacency worries me because you are not being looked after by some benign fairy godmother who will tuck you in at night and rearrange your dream catcher. As I walk to collective occasions such as this, I am consoled by the thought you may be made to think, even if only for a few minutes. You need to ask why some people loathe us, the wealthy west so much, why 20% of the world command 86% of its resources, whether increasing corporate power is beneficial for mankind and what we should be doing within an increasingly divided British society.

Robespierre challenged the preconceptions of his day; he helped overthrow a system that was corrupt and endeavoured to build a better future. Please just keep asking 'why' and never accept a view just because 'most people think it to be true'. It is a poor guide to protecting your future well-being in a very dangerous world.

Good luck.