A Certain Centenary


A Certain Centenary

As TS Eliot so poignantly expressed it in his poem ‘Little Gidding’:

And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

A re-reading of which thus led me – remembering the mistakes of my past and the suffering, even the deaths, I had personally caused or otherwise been responsible for in some way – to write, a while ago now:

“Perhaps it is incumbent upon us to now celebrate, remember, transcribe, only the kind, the gentle, the loving, the compassionate, the happy, and the personal, things – and those who have done them – and not the many things that have caused suffering, death, destruction, and inflicted violence on others. For, so often it seems, we human beings have and have had for millennia a somewhat barbaric propensity to celebrate, to remember, to transcribe, our seeming triumphs of personal pride and of victory over others – be such others some declared enemy or some designated foe – always or almost always forgetting the suffering, the deaths, the destruction, that such a seeming, and always transient, victory over others has always involved, and always or almost always forgetting the suffering, the hurt, the unhappiness, that our selfish prideful desire to triumph, to succeed, causes in someone or some many somewhere.” [1]

Now, as the centenary of the beginning of the European conflict known as the First World War approaches, I find myself, in common with many others, musing not only on that war, with its millions of deaths and its destruction, but also on the war that engulfed Europe, and other lands, just over two decades later which also resulted in millions of deaths and even more destruction. Like many others of my post-war generation I have (or had) living relatives who fought in both wars, such as the relatives who served in the trenches in the First World War (and some of whose own living close relatives died in that war) and the close paternal relative who served mainly overseas in places such as Burma and India in the Second World War; and also have (or had) non-combatant living relatives who endured the effects of those wars, such as a close maternal relative who lived and worked in central London during the blitz and who experienced the later ‘doodlebugs’. I have also personally known many people who experienced one of those wars, such as the former naval officer by whom I was employed for many years as a gardener and who had served on the Arctic convoys to Russia, and the decorated former military officer who became a monk and whom I met during my time in a monastery, although they – as so many others – were reluctant at first to speak of their war-time experiences.

But, and lamentable now to recount, such a personal knowing of such people and of the horrors and the suffering and deaths they personally encountered (and sometimes caused in the line of duty) did not prevent me from becoming a suffering-causing extremist [2] or from continuing my four-decade long career as a violent extremist and an ideologue of strife, revolution, hatred, and war itself. For I believed – I felt – I ‘had a cause’ that I was prepared to fight and even die for, and it was only a very personal tragedy, a personal trauma, that brought my suffering-causing career to a premature end; that jolted me out of my pride, my arrogance, my fanatical certitude-of-knowing.

For it was as if I, personally, was somehow in some way unable or unwilling to directly empathize with their experiences of the trauma of those two wars, and was thus unable to learn not only from their experiences, from their personal pathei-mathos, but also unable to learn from the collective pathei-mathos of the millions like them. And not only of those millions with personal experience of both those wars, but of the millions – the hundreds of millions – before them, who thousand year following thousand year experienced the trauma of, or who suffered because of, those wars, those killings, those conflicts, and the violence, which so regularly mark and have so regularly marked our human history. For there is available to us, and has been available to us for centuries, a shared human culture of pathei-mathos; manifest as this shared culture is in the memoirs, the correspondence, the aural accounts, of those with personal experience of such suffering; manifest in the history of our past wars, invasions, empires, conflicts, tyrannies, revolutions; manifest in myths and legends and ancestral folk stories and ballads; and manifest in the music, the learning, the art, the literature, the poetry, the acts of compassion, of those sensitive, empathic, enough to empathize with such suffering or who experienced the personal trauma that suffering, from whatever cause, so often causes.

Am I, in that my failure, the exception or the rule? I would like to believe that I – and my extremist kind – are the exception in this failure, this inability, to learn from the pathei-mathos of others. For I know, in all honesty from decades of experience, that extremists like me are: (i) by nature indifferent to the suffering of others, or (ii) have by means of their chosen ideology or faith hardened themselves to the suffering of others or (iii) been indoctrinated by others, or because of the ideology of others become indoctrinated enough, to be harsh and unfeeling, or (iv) in the case of most extremist leaders because they believe they are ‘special’ or have some sort of ‘special destiny’ or have somehow in some way ‘been chosen’ by fate/god/the gods. For how else could we, our extremist kind, virulently hate and be violent toward – even kill – our perceived enemies and those who opposed us? How else could our leaders, our heroes, our ideologues, virulently incite hatred, strife, war, atrocities, terrorism, and even genocide? How else could we be indifferent to personal love or deign to place our cherished faith, our ideology, our cause, before such love and before the personal happiness that such a love can so often engender?

If I and my extremist kind are not the exception in our personal inability to be able to learn from the pathei-mathos of others, are we then examples of what many human beings still have the potential to be and, indeed, have shown themselves capable of being, given certain circumstances, certain conditions, or given some leader to rouse them or some mob to follow? Or has the pathei-mathos of recent events – such as the remembering of the immense human cost of and of the traumatic suffering caused by the First and the Second World Wars – changed us, or can it change us, sufficiently for us as individuals to be more empathic, more inclined to value love and less inclined to cause suffering; less eager to follow some demagogue and more inclined to object to the violence and the killing and the dehumanization that are the basis for all wars and all armed conflicts and all invasions and all deportations with their ‘us’ and their ‘them’?

I do not have the answers. Yet I do feel that such a remembering is important; that the First and the Second World Wars have greatly contributed to our shared human culture of pathei-mathos; and that, especially in respect of extremism, tyranny, and demagoguery, the Second World War has valuable lessons to teach us. But whether we, as a species, will learn or can learn from this culture of pathei-mathos is of course another question, although if we are to learn then my personal (admittedly fallible) view is that it can only realistically be individually by each one of us appreciating our own lives in context: in the context of the millennial nature of the culture of pathei-mathos and the wisdom it provides. That is, in the context of the millions upon millions whose suffering and whose violent deaths, over thousands of years, have given us the treasures, the gifts, of that culture and so provided us with an opportunity to understand ourselves and so change ourselves, thus enabling us as individuals to avoid making those suffering-causing mistakes that so many have made over and over again for so long. These are the cultural treasures of written history and memoirs; of music, of art, of literature, of poetry; of myths and legends; of ancestral folk stories and ballads; of the aural accounts of our own relatives and ancestors; of acts of compassion and loving-kindness, and especially of a remembering of just how humanizing, how wise, personal love can be. And it is a personal love, loyally shared, that our common human culture of pathei-mathos reveals is the most human thing of all and which love we should, therefore, perhaps cherish most of all.

For are we just talking primates prideful in ourselves, ready (sometimes eager) to engage in persistent conflict given some provocation or none, with ‘might is if not right then at least the only way to win’ our raison d’être? Or are we beings gifted with the faculty of consciousness, of reason, and thus possessed of the ability to consciously change ourselves based on what we can learn for ourselves and from others, from the wisdom enshrined in our shared, thousands of years old, culture of pathei-mathos?

David Myatt
January 2014

This is an extract from a written reply, in January 2014, to a personal correspondent. It has been slightly revised for publication, with some footnotes added post scriptum..


[1] The quotation is from my essay A Slowful Learning, Perhaps, written in 2012.

[2] As described in my Understanding and Rejecting Extremism, by the term ‘extreme’ is meant to be harsh, so that an extremist is a person who tends toward harshness, or who is harsh, or who supports/incites harshness, in pursuit of some objective, usually of a political or a religious nature. Here, harsh is: rough, severe, a tendency to be unfeeling, unempathic.

Hence extremism is considered to be: (a) the result of such harshness, and (b) the principles, the causes, the characteristics, that promote, incite, or describe the harsh action of extremists. In addition, a fanatic is considered to be someone with a surfeit of zeal or whose enthusiasm for some objective, or for some cause, is intemperate.

Article source: http://davidmyatt.wordpress.com/one-centenary/