Art, Features, Politics
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E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that the mark of true intelligence was “the ability to hold two opposing views in mind at the same time.” Actually, I’m not sure that intelligence is the right word. I think it is wisdom that allows us to hold opposing views in mind at the same time.

And it’s certainly true that wiser, more measured voices are drowned out as politics becomes more polarised and the internet makes debate more extreme. Balance is elusive, for all of us in our individual lives, and across society as a whole, and even when attained it is often fleeting.

The search for creative, but lasting, equilibrium is a quest as old as time.

Balance isn’t boring if the stakes are high. Balance isn’t boring if you’re walking a tightrope without a safety net, 1000ft up in the air, while carrying a priceless vase.

Each generation has to maintain the balance of society as best it can. We strive to avoid disaster. That priceless vase might be tradition, or skills, or learning, it might be a healthy planet or ancient wisdom—but we hope to pass it on to our children unbroken, and perhaps even polished up a little.

I am a children’s author and illustrator—and I think that good art can give us insights into what makes a good society. But how do I define ‘good’?

The Greeks linked goodness and beauty, and while that has obvious dangers, it can still be illuminating to think about what makes life beautiful, what makes society beautiful. After all, no one wants an ugly life, an ugly society.

Heraclitus, the most interesting of the pre-Socratic thinkers, believed that creativity, vitality and beauty sprang from the conflict between opposites, that we should actually cultivate creative tension, while at the same time striving for unity.

He used the image of a harp or a bow. A harp string is pulled in opposite directions, but it is the powerful tension that makes music. A bowstring is pulled taut, the opposite ends of the bow want to spring apart—but those opposing forces, drawn together, make the arrow fly.

A modern image of the same idea is electricity sparking between positive and negative poles.

Let me briefly explain how I think this idea applies to art, before I talk about society.

I’m focusing here on traditional art, and popular art, films, novels, etc. because they all have this in common: they aim for aesthetic unity.

(Most modern highbrow culture—art films, literary novels, visual fine art, and architecture—makes a great show of disunity. In fact, that contempt for unity in art is one of the cultural forces that have got us into our current fractured predicament.)

A good story is one of the clearest examples of aesthetic unity. Good storytellers set out to create tension and maintain it across a narrative to keep the reader hooked. That is just as true of Jane Austen as it is of A Game of Thrones.

A story must be whole, unified, yet alive with inner conflict.

Popular or traditional art, in any medium, is a quest for that kind of dynamic, sustained equilibrium.

Visual art can be seen as a three-way tug-of-war between Head, Hand and Heart—between thought, craft and feeling. Each must be at a high level, yet no one quality must dominate at the expense of the others, or else the unity of the whole is lost.

In visual art there is also tension between pattern and representation. (Or design vs realism.) Every painter is a pattern-maker. Monet’s brushstrokes, or Botticelli’s line, make a striking abstract pattern, at the same time as conjuring a compelling representation of a figure or landscape.

The beauty of their pictures is in the balancing act, the high-wire act, the unity the artist achieves between powerful opposing forces.

I am using art just to illustrate the point that polarized forces can be acknowledged as positive, as creative—as long as each is tempered by its opposite. High tension is good—thrilling!—as long as it can be maintained.

In fact, whatever destroys tension, destroys unity.

I have in front of me a ‘consultation document’ from the Mayor of London. No one would say it was thrilling. The sentiments are unremarkable—they are simply the assumptions of the liberal, cosmopolitan worldview. It talks of diversity and openness as unquestionably good, desirable and right. But not every Londoner agrees. There are socially conservative Londoners (of every ethnicity) who want less diversity, less openness. This is especially true in poorer neighbourhoods that bear the brunt of unskilled mass immigration.

I try to see both sides of that argument.

In his book The Road to Somewhere, David Goodhart analyses a value divide in British society, as revealed by countless surveys, and recently exposed by the Brexit vote. He identifies two broad groups, that he calls ‘Anywheres’ and ‘Somewheres’. Liberal, cosmopolitan Anywheres have profited from globalisation, while more rooted, socially-conservative Somewheres have not.

(He estimates that Somewheres make up about 50% of the population, while Anywheres are 25%—the remainder being less definable ‘Inbetweeners’.)

Goodhart focuses on the UK, but the pattern is replicated elsewhere—most notably in the U.S. In Goodhart’s view the balance has tipped too much in favour of the Anywheres—with Brexit and the election of Trump representing a backlash to Anywhere hegemony. Policy making, and establishment culture (including in the arts and architecture) have been dominated by Anywheres, alienating the Somewhere population. It has become a common complaint among conservatives that the diversity so cherished by liberals doesn’t allow for diversity of viewpoint.

Goodhart calls for a new settlement, a new dynamic equilibrium between genuinely diverse views, so that the liberal, cosmopolitan view is tempered by more conservative voices.

‘Nothing in Excess’ was one of the commandments of the god Apollo, carved in stone at Delphi. Tension is good—as long as we aspire to wisdom, to wholeness, to unity, as long as we strive to keep both poles of the argument in mind at the same time, to not deny the validity of either view.

I want to try and make the case for temperance with simple visuals. Here is a list of virtues – and they are all desirable qualities, none is ‘bad’ or wrong. They are the virtues of cosmopolitan liberalism.

Tolerance

Change

Openness / Inclusiveness

Diversity / Variety

Equality

Freedom

But each of those virtues is only one pole on an axis of tension. Each on its own, if taken to excess, is actually dangerous. Each must be tempered by its opposite.

(You may quarrel with some of my word choices—but it is the general principle that I am trying to illustrate.)

Tolerance                                     Rule of Law

Change                                          Continuity

Openness / Inclusiveness         Closed / Exclusivity

Diversity / Variety                      Order / Coherence

Equality                                        Heirarchy

Freedom                                       Responsibility

I could take each of these pairs in turn and explain why, in each case, balance is required. But I’ll concentrate on one or two of the more contentious pairings.

Can ‘closedness’ really be good?

Think of Mecca. Mecca is the only city on earth to exclude entry on the basis of religion: non-Muslims are forbidden. Is that good or bad? If openness was a supreme virtue then Mecca must be forcibly opened to all.

Indeed any exclusive club must be open to all.

Goodhart says that any community, by definition, must have an element of exclusivity.

It is no accident that ‘exclusive’ has also come to be synonymous with luxury. Exclusivity creates value. It creates meaning. It makes things special. Membership of an exclusive club is a privilege. What offends many conservatives about the open borders movement is the feeling that citizenship is thereby devalued, rendered meaningless. The social contract is torn up.

Most people (especially Somewheres) are deeply attached to their homes and neighbourhoods, and invest time and effort over decades to sustain and improve their communities. Belonging, to most people, is a very precious thing indeed. And any neighbourhood ‘belongs’ first to those who have lived there longest.

Openness is good, until it is forced on someone. Think of an interaction between friends. You can’t demand that a friend opens up. You hope they feel sufficiently at ease to be open, but your friend always retains the right to be closed.

Goodhart describes “liberals advocating openness from within their gated communities.” Openness is presented as a supreme liberal virtue, but all too often, in practice, it is only for others. It’s rather like St. Augustine saying “O Lord, give me chastity… but not yet!

What about freedom? Freedom is often talked of in absolutist terms, as if any infringement on freedom is an injustice. The bounds of free speech can be widely drawn, but there has to be some limit. There are obvious circumstances where we put limits on violent or sexual imagery and language (my daughter’s nursery school, for example). And none of us is entirely free—we are all caught in a web of duties and responsibilities. Viktor Frankl, one of the wisest voices of the 20th century, said that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast should be balanced by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast. Freedom is never an end in itself: it must be for something. We want the freedom to grow, but growing up means taking on increasing commitments, becoming less free.

Again, there isn’t space here to make a comprehensive case that each of these virtues must be held in tension with their opposite. I’m simply trying to look at the whole problem of polarized politics from a new angle.

Here’s a different visualisation of those competing virtues as centrifugal forces vs. centripetal forces, pulling together vs. pulling apart.

The cosy, safe, parochial centre is Somewhereville, the exotic, exciting periphery is Anywhereland.

This wheel is a dynamic structure, it might even be an engine, a perpetual motion machine, actually creating energy, beauty, vitality, from the perpetual conflict between opposites, but only as long as it is working properly, as long as both sides still aspire to unity—despite the inherent tensions.

Excess in either direction leads to disaster. The centripetal tendency, if unchecked, ends in a black hole, in narrow paranoia, in the life-denying singularity of fundamentalism or fascism.

But too much centrifugal force causes society to fly apart, into a free-floating atomised individualism, a heartless world devoid of attachments, and ultimately into anarchy, ‘a war of all against all’.

Some of us are driven to push outwards, some to pull inwards. Our individual taste in ideas, our personal reading of the wrongs of the world, is very often the result of biographical factors. Our political views are often formed in reaction to our upbringing. But of course, the liberal-conservative divide is age related too. We push outwards when young, when we crave separation and autonomy, when every boundary seems like an affront, and when, for a while, we can be giddily irresponsible. We pull inward as we get older, when we want to raise our kids in a pleasant neighbourhood, where we deeply appreciate the social capital of cohesion, stability and trust.

Let’s try a different arrangement again, where each axis of tension crosses a central focal point. The centre is now the target, the bullseye, the point to aim for—the point of balance, the union-of-opposites-in-tension.

It could be seen as a graph—and it would be possible to plot where we are, as a society, on each axis. (Or alternatively, where the Somewheres and Anywheres are.)

Different societies, both ancient and modern, would be different shapes, skewed in one way or the other, each having found a different sort of equilibrium.

The diagram is an image of a centred society, and even though, as it stands, it might be just a functional, bare-bones sort of chart, some readers will see that it is actually edging towards being almost artistic(!).The basic principle here is that wholeness is beautiful—and that what is beautiful is whole. And that symmetries (i.e. balance) can be a source of delight and wonder.

(Postmodernism, in contrast, delights in fragmentation, and asymmetries – witness the postmodernists’ preference for randomness and disjointedness in architecture.)

Pattern-making in the art and architecture of all cultures is a concrete, visual expression of the core values of the society. Pre-modern civilizations, around the world, aimed for wholeness and order, and celebrated that wholeness and order in the symmetries of ornament, and symbolic imagery of cosmic order, telling a story of the culture as a harmonious, intricate, integrated structure. Think of a rose window in a medieval cathedral, or a Buddhist mandala, or the Jain cosmology reproduced here:

Balance is a matter of belief. It requires faith—faith that it is possible, and faith that it is desirable. The loss of faith in any grand narrative has left our society confused, vulnerable and weak. We’re only now, perhaps, beginning to piece together something new.

And I happen to believe it’s possible to find that union-of-opposites-in-tension in even the most bitter, or intractable disputes.

What about this axis of tension?

Could there really be any genuine unity or balance between this awkward pair?

I happen to think that the answer is yes – and that it hinges on how we define the word ‘spiritual’ —a word that sadly has become almost synonymous with woolly-mindedness. Heraclitus had an important message for us there too. But that’s for another essay.

David Lucas

David Lucas

David Lucas is an award-winning children's author and illustrator, whose books have been published in 12 languages. David left school at 16, first worked as an illustrator aged 17, and went on to study at St. Martin's School of Art and The Royal College of Art in London. He lives in Leytonstone, east London, with his wife and three-year old child.
David Lucas

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David Lucas is an award-winning children's author and illustrator, whose books have been published in 12 languages. David left school at 16, first worked as an illustrator aged 17, and went on to study at St. Martin's School of Art and The Royal College of Art in London. He lives in Leytonstone, east London, with his wife and three-year old child.

15 Comments

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  2. Hypercrite says

    What do you call “holding two opposing views in mind at the same time” ?

    If it’s holding two ideas long enough to examine them so as to chose one, yes it’s intelligence because it means enough mind space and perseverance to achieve that. Moreover, mostoftentimes, ideas are conflicting in a certain context only, and intelligence focuses not only on chosing which idea is best, but in which context each applies best. That also is intelligence.

    However, holding two opposing views without clarifying when they should apply is the very definition of a hypocrite. It’s just the rebuttal of the excluded middle principle, upon which science is built. it leads not to reason, but to bias, arbitrary, and more conflicts. And that is stupid.

  3. However, holding two opposing views without clarifying when they should apply is the very definition of a hypocrite. It’s just the rebuttal of the excluded middle principle, upon which science is built. it leads not to reason, but to bias, arbitrary, and more conflicts. And that is stupid.

    No it isn’t. Most people are quite capable of recognising that they, personally, have conflicting values and that dealing with the real world requires compromises.

    If you are, for instance, 100% Brexit or 100% Remain, it’s because you are incapable of recognising that self-determination and open markets both have positive qualities.

    It’s the inability of Remainers (Anywheres) to recognise this that drove the Somewheres to Brexit.

    • Hypercrite says

      Yes, I maintain, holding two opposing views without clarifying when they should apply is the very definition of a hypocrite”, that is: hypo- under, before, and -crite, choice, decicion. It’s that you have not decided yet. Either you acknoledge it and try to make up your mind or you don’t and are subject to incoherence.

      The Brexit exemple is one to find which idea fits best the given context, which is akin to find which context is better for the two conflicting ideas. Also, the context may encapsulate a given point in time.

  4. John Dickinson says

    Another axis: truth vs BS. This particular axis provides the creative tension that causes me to write this.

    The article is great; up to the point where the atheism religion is introduced. At this point the writer seems to have been seduced by some sort of new agey feel good inhaling of a multiculture potpourri mythology spliff.

    Each of the axes introduced earlier in the piece are grounded in reality. Atheism vs religion may well offer creative tension, but the tension is between truth and BS. What the author intimates, though, is perhaps a tension between thinking and reasoning grounded in reality, and the more “spiritual” sense of awe, wonder, mystery, felt intuition, transcendency and the like. That is a valid axis within the author’s schema, and doesn’t throw away the life enriching art and occasion that religion can produce; but it allows us to keep pushing against the religious hijacking and pollution of such experience with its divisive and regressive sanctification of the supernatural, the parochial, and the silly.

    So, atheism religion can be separated into two, orthogonal axes:

    Truth BS

    Spirituality (some word encompassing reason, logic, grounded practicality)

    The first axis does not belong in the author’s schema; the second does.

    Critically, the term “spiritual” needs to be liberated from religion, and to be continually protected from religion’s monopolistic claim on it.

    • I like the idea of a Truth vs BS axis! But perhaps a better way of thinking about it is Quantifiable vs Unquantifiable? Eric Voegelin wrote about us all being caught between the Finite and the Infinite. As I say in the article, people will quarrel with my word choices – it was the underlying principle I wanted to talk about.

    • Warrick says

      John Dickinson.- The tension is not between truth and BS within atheism and religion. You are projecting onto this axis your own seduction. For you the axis seems to be more atheism/science and religion.

      Science is concerned with what things are, religion is concerned with how to be. Science has empirical truth and religion has moral truth. In other words the Bible can no more give you a quantum physics explanation than a microscope can tell you how to live.

      The argument between science and religion is unfortunately centered around a claim of the existence of God and his creation. People on both sides often think that their answer to this question invalidates the whole of the other.

      As Terence McKenna once said of the Big Bang and scientists: “Give us one free miracle and we will explain the rest.” Secondly, if God preceded the creation of the Universe and its laws, and science thus being bounded by these laws, it cannot empirically disprove the existence of God. God falls outside its domain of inquiry.

      Religion in turn must also accept that evolution is a fact and try reconcile this with its teachings. Further study and understanding that the will of God can be expressed contrary to their expectations and dogmas is required.

      Christianity also needs to be separated out from other religions. It is remarkably different to the other two Abrahamic religions which have a tribal focus among many other differences.

      Instead of a rejection of one of the cornerstones of your culture, a deeper look is required. I recommend Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies as a start to unpick many of the popular myths and disinformation that surround Christianity due to the war between itself and science.

      Jordan Peterson’s Youtube series on the Bible Stories is a wonderful addition to the debate. He removes the metaphysical and focuses on the psychological analysis of these stories. Christianity for the modern mind. Interestingly, some people in his comments on Youtube have started to refer to themselves as Christian Atheists as they begin to have a deeper understanding of the function of Christianity.

      In this way we can move forward within the spirit of understanding that the author of the piece is trying to convey to us.

      • John Dickinson says

        @Warrick,

        No. As I said, I separate the atheism / religion axes into two
        orthogonal axes. Truth vs BS, and Spirituality vs some word encompassing reason, logic, grounded practicality. That word could be “science”, but I wanted to avoid it for reasons I won’t go into. You want to exclude “how to be” from science. But science, including its constituent, reason, can inform “how to be”. We can investigate spirituality scientifically; the objective analysis of subjectivity. And we can investigate causes and effects on well being. That can inform “how to be”.

        Religion certainly is concerned with telling us how to be, but it certainly is not the best source of wisdom (though it has a pretty good claim on being a good mechanism for control of behaviour, just not being a good judge of what behaviour to have).

        Religion is a broader phenomenon than a structure for divining and telling us “how to be”. It is not an axiomatic concept that can lie on an axis to be incorporated into the author’s schema (refer to his graphic where “where each axis of tension crosses a central focal point”). That is why atheism vs religion should be separated into different axes of opposing axiomatic concepts. What you may wish to do is change my suggested two orthoganal axes, perhaps replacing my pejorative “BS” with “faith” (whose opposite is now less clear).

        Ultimately, the author’s schema, where each axis of tension crosses a central focal point, is very well built; using opposing axiomatic abstract concepts. Things such as science, faith, BS, religion are not so clearly abstract, axiomatic concepts. The author’s final observation about atheism vs religion, though well intentioned and promoting more thought, continues the problem that he is identifying: that “[whether there really is any genuine unity or balance between this awkward pair] hinges on how we define the word ‘spiritual’ —a word that sadly has become almost synonymous with woolly-mindedness”. Religion is a source of that woolly-mindedness; not part of the solution.

  5. Carl Sageman says

    Another excellent article. I also thoroughly embrace the value of commentary from other readers.

    There is a major issue in this that has plagued our society in recent years, inconsistency.

    What does equality mean? All people are the same? All outcomes are the same? The term is meaningless as it is applied inconsistently, depending on who benefits. Hierarchy is not the opposite of equality, equality is most probably opposite to merit.

    A similar argument can be made for diversity. Diversity has come to mean one gender, one skin colour and a narrow age group. Search through mainstream newspapers for articles on diversity. The theme of one gender, one skin colour and a narrow age group appears almost consistently. I’d argue the opposite of diversity is difference (ie. being different). This seems counter-intuitive until you recognise that diversity is double-speak.

    For this diagram to be effective, terminology must be defined. For example, equality is “equal opportunity” (not outcome) and diversity means “random gender, race, age, sexuality or any other physically defining characteristic.”. Then and only then, you can define opposites.

    Both of these terms (equality and diversity) are the tools of an intersectionalist. The more vague the terms, the better for intersectional politics.

    • Ugly Kid Joe says

      Equality and diversity are perfect examples of Orwell’s doublethink (see below). Words with conflicting meanings you cannot use without precising more, and, since most people do not take the trouble to precise or define,(they assume the words are obvious), it leads to misunderstanding, qui por quo and self-inflicted error.

      Equality means both “identically equal” (as if mathematically) that’s egalitarianism, and “equality before the law”, which is equity. However, since people’s performance are very different from one another, you cannot have equity with egalitarianism (it’s unfair to reward hard work the same you reward no work at all from able men). Equity is equality in the process, equality as in egalitariasnism is equality in the outcome. Most people are unaware of the ambiguity.

      Moreover, some langages have more equivocal expressions than other, and I believe having a huge number of such terms leads to problems. It allows too many people to elude responsibility, to reverse their own disingeniosity, when caught, and attack who ever tries to expose them. Trust is very difficult to build when such words are very numerous and widespread. Search “addad word” if you are interested.

      In 1984, Orwell wrote:

      “To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself—that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word—doublethink—involved the use of doublethink.

      The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them… To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies—all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.”

      Have a nice day.

      • sestamibi says

        I’m surprised it took this long for someone to raise the doublethink perspective. Thank you.

  6. DiscoveredJoys says

    I liked the general thrust of the plea for balance, but I suspect many people are quite comfortable holding opposite beliefs in mind – because they use them as templates for deciding actions and behaviours in different circumstances.

    So ‘killing’ is wrong yet ‘killing in self defence’ is (generally) acceptable. ‘Killing is wrong’ and ‘Killing is Acceptable’ are only in tension if you try to act on both of them at the same time. Similarly people are generally expert at ‘justifying’ their behaviours even (or perhaps especially) when the justification isn’t rational. When you risk being set upon by wild animals or people you want to have those instinctive predispositions to hand and there is little penalty for carrying opposing ones around.

    I suspect that it is only within a civilized society that we might have the luxury of wondering about our conflicting motivations.

    • But it’s an interesting exercize to think what word is actually the opposite of another. I read a psychologist recently say that the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference.

      But you can also think “What pairing creates the greatest tension?” In a novel or film the writer aims for maximum tension. William Faulkner said the true subject of fiction was ‘the heart in conflict with itself’
      So what would be most interesting in a story – an inner conflict between freedom and conformity, or an inner conflict between freedom and responsibility? Personally, I think an inner conflict between freedom and conformity would be less interesting. Conformity sounds like a negative, like a lack of courage or lack of imagination. Who would wage war with themselves over that? The choice seems pretty obvious. Most people would choose freedom.
      But responsibility is a positive. And much harder to reject.

      Think of “It’s A Wonderful Life” – the hero yearns for freedom, yet keeps being saddled with responsibility. At crisis point he nearly kills himself – he feels so trapped that the only freedom seems to lie in death. But then the angel shows him that he has made good choices. By taking responsibility he has made the world a better place. It’s such a moving film because most people have sacrificed freedom for responsibility (or duty) at some point in their lives – and nothing is more moving than self-sacrifice.

      Viktor Frankl’s book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ is a brilliant book btw – he wrote it after his release from Auschwitz – so he knew what freedom meant.

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