Let me reveal my first discovery: much of the fog and intricacies we are in are the outcome of Common Wisdom itself. We have been bamboozled since our childhood. The supposed discerning knowledge that has been disseminated on us was unwillingly (let's hope) designed to make a somnambulist of each of us.
We have been imbued with a great deal of pre-cooked unproven opinions. Religion has been buttoned on us in our early years of life, as Jerome K. Jerome wrote, along with many unverified certainties of different kind. And consequent moral precepts have been instilled into our childish self and were supposed to be The Beacon for all our lifelong years. And for years most of us are walking around in the tight shoes of our infancy, tied up in the ropes of early accepted "commonsense".
My mother, a pious nice woman, always taught me that Unselfishness is the most important thing to be pursued. And then Humility. And then respect for the Old and for Authorities. Poor dear lovely woman. She herself behad strictly according to those rules, and she found inner solace in that; though her persistent sad smile let me conjecture that the life of sacrifice and renunciation she had generously embraced was hard ideed (surely worsened by her perception that other persons didn't appreciate such heroic fervour: and most disappointing among them it was me, her son, she regarded as "lost" because not at all fond of self-denial and sacrifice for the sake of it). Then when I grew up life taught me one thing or two.
First I learnt that Authorities are not to be unconditionally respected. Civil authorities are just successful politicians: those acrobats of Barnum circus who promise to build a bridge even when there's no river, as Nikita Kruschev said, who divide mankind into two classes: tools and enemies, as Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, who are held upside by pressure from all directions, who are conspicuous by their selective cowardice, who are eager to accept any strange bedfellow... Maureen Murphy wrote: the reason why there are so few female politicians is that it is too much trouble to put makeup on two faces. And public office is the refuge of the incompetent.
Politicians are experts in the gentle art of getting votes from the poor - Oscar Ameringer reportedly said - and campaign funds from the rich, by promising to protect each other from the other.
There are a few, sure, very few politicians who enter the stage moved by idealistic [utopian] dreams: these turn out to be the most catastrophic originators of our affliction. Do you want a list of examples?
About spiritual authorities, I am not competent to say anything adequate. Some of the few priests I know are nice chaps. However, as Lord Chesterfield said, religion is by no means a subject of conversation in mixed company.
As far as respect for the Old is concerned, in the early years of my professional life I stumbled across the most surprising downright bastard I ever met before or after, and he was an old man, and an aristocrat. Now that I am seventy and nearly all my acquaintances are more or less my age, I can tell you that the Old are not, per se, worthy of special veneration.
As for Humility, this is in fact one of those sure receipts for self-undoing. It is so unnatural as quitting fresh air and forcing oneself to breath chlorine. It simply doesn't work. When I was very young and earnestly tried humility I became the must unhappy, ridiculed shy boy in town.
Then I was lucky to read The Screwtape Letters, by Clive S. Lewis (published by Harper & Collins Fount, in case you want to read also other intelligent analyses by that brilliant chap): humility should be self-forgetfulness and not a forced low opinion of our own talents which would just introduce an element of dishonesty and make-believe into what would otherwise be a virtue. Thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are stupids. And since what they are trying to believe may be manifest nonsense, they cannot succeed in believing it and their minds endlessly revolve on themselves in an effort to achieve the impossible, while the ideal state of mind would be that of a man who could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoyce in the fact, without being any more or less or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another, rejoycing in his own talents as in any other gift of life, a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. Eh?
Now let's proceed through the maze to the next pitfall. The first thing recommended by my remarkably good mother was Unselfishness. Let me say openly that trying earnestly to be unselfish is like attempting to breath chlorine, like trying humility in the old fashioned way I described above. It simply doesn't work: because Unselfishness simply doesn't exist.
I realize this is quite an embarrassing verdict: what about centuries of moral behaviour built on the injunction Love Thy Neighbour?
Hmm. If those who obey the commandment are Godbelievers, they are sure their love for strangers and enemies will be rewarded after death, thus this is not un-selfishness. And an atheist who pursuing altruism and generosity is finding pleasure in doing it, is not an example of unselfishness.
Or perhaps no?
Admittedly there is much confusion about the definition of un-selfishness: it is a word used so often, especially when referring to others' selfishness.
I went yesterday to pay visit to an old sick lady living nearby: she had been assailed again by a youngster who pushed her down on the floor in front of her doorway and grabbed her handbag, injuring one of her shoulders in the process. I accepted of course the idea that my wife (not myself !! SHE, Mathilde, is the generous person in my family!!) might go shopping for her, until she would be all right again. "What awful times we live in - the lady said - I wish I died younger rather than suffering all that. The drug-addicted boy who robbed me the first time months ago was arrested by the police, but then released at record speed. The law considers him a non-punishable victim of our selfish society, the judge sentenced. And I, whose victim am I? Victim of the law? - she had the television on, where at that very moment a reportage about Hutus-versus-Tutsis massacres was broadcast - Look, she said, this is the way the world ends. We are a few unselfish decent people surrounded by the mounting flood of innumerable barbarians, up to the door of our houses. Selfishness and violence are triumphing everywhere. I regret my grandchildren will live in so savage a world".
(6.To be continued)