I began my career as an academic philosopher, and am often asked what philosophers do. ‘Philosophy’ means ‘the love of wisdom’, but what is wisdom? Does the person with wisdom turn things to advantage when the one with mere knowledge is stumped? In my own case philosophy has involved accepting little or nothing at face value, and wanting to pursue each question to the end. But what use has that been, either to myself or to anyone else? Is it not one cause of the storms of hostility that I encounter and one reason why, earlier this year, I was judged by some not to be an acceptable choice for a public appointment? Should I not practise the art that the Druze and the ‘Alawites call taqiyya, and hide behind a veil of ludicrous orthodoxies, while inwardly scorning the people who repeat them?
A lady contemptuously said to Carlyle over dinner, ‘what is the use of this philosophy of yours?’ He replied that the same question was asked of Rousseau’s Social Contract, and the second edition was bound in the skins of those who had dismissed the first. The French Revolution was a drastic case of bad philosophy. But if bad philosophy can lead to mass murder and political collapse we stand greatly in need of the good philosophy that will point us in another direction. The problem is that bad philosophy is attractive and optimistic – why else would you be taken in by it? – whereas good philosophy is sceptical, with nothing to recommend it besides its truth, which is also its most depressing feature.
However, Christmas is a festival of gratitude, and the right time to express my heartfelt thanks to this vocation that has both guided me through life and brought consolation in my times of darkness. To have answers, I acknowledge, is a wonderful thing. But more wonderful by far is to have questions, and to recognize that these questions lie buried in the simplest things, waiting to be watered into life by our curiosity. This last year I have been tending such a question, encouraging it to fill my mind with its fertile offshoots, to become something that I can take to bed at night and wake up with in the morning. The question is this: Why do we distinguish the pure from the polluted, and why do we think that it matters?
Our prevailing bad philosophy is the philosophy of liberation, which tells us that all forms of self-expression are legitimate, and that happiness means letting it all hang out. The old notions of pollution and taboo, our philosophy says, have no bearing on how we should live now. Such is the orthodoxy: straightforward, attractive and optimistic as bad philosophy always is.
In fact, however, although we may banish the concept of pollution from our thoughts, it cannot be banished from our feelings. It did not need the MeToo movement to tell us that sexual encounters can be felt in retrospect as contaminations. The entire literature of humanity points in that direction. In the weird hysterical society now emerging it is barely permissible to discuss this topic, certainly if you have my disadvantages: white, male, heterosexual, conservative and cultured. But I can’t refrain, since philosophy is my calling.
Ritual purification is a feature of both Judaism and Islam, and cleanliness is regarded in both religions as the avenue to an inner purity. This inner purity is at stake in sex and love. But it also has a profoundly religious connotation, being a readiness towards God, a self-presentation to the Lord of creation, from whose grace we might otherwise irrecoverably fall. This thought struck me vividly when writing a novel (The Disappeared), indirectly inspired by the dire events in Rotherham and by my reading of the Koran.
I saw the concept of purity as crucial to what had happened. The abusers in the Rotherham case regarded their victims as being in a state of pollution or najāsa. Losing their purity the girls had nothing more to lose. Abuse, in such circumstances, ceases to be considered as abuse and becomes instead a kind of ritual re-enactment of the victim’s loss of status. The story I told was about purity – the story of one girl’s bid to retain it, another’s to regain it, and of their abusers’ sister, in her bid to defend it to the death.
Most people in our society have moved on from the simplistic vision of purity as chastity. But what, in that case, does purity mean? There is one great work of art that wrestles with the question, and which has therefore been pre-occupying me throughout this year – namely Wagner’s Parsifal. This tells the story of the ‘pure fool, knowing through compassion’, who is called to rescue a derelict religious community from the dire effects of its king’s transgression. Wagner’s Parsifal is a simple person who can neither exploit nor manipulate others, but who constantly surrenders his interests, endeavouring to restore right relations wherever he can. Purity, for Parsifal, means the recognition of the other as the true centre of attention, so that compassion takes over from every other form of power.
Wagner’s drama took me into some of the deepest questions of philosophy, including that of the self. I am an object, a thing of flesh and blood. But I also know myself as a subject, who relates to others as ‘I’ to ‘you’. How are subject and object connected? By what right do I claim this body as mine and this ‘I’ as the very thing that looks from these eyes at you? It is exactly here, I came to see, that purity resides – in the I-to-you relation, which acknowledges complete equality between us.
You too are a subject, addressing me freely with looks and words, and therefore not, for me, a thing to be exploited. If nevertheless I treat you as such a thing I have abolished the barrier between us. I have desecrated what is otherwise sacred, the untouchable centre of the will. I have reduced us both to objects and that, in the end, is what pollution amounts to. Explaining the thought is difficult, and Wagner presents it not with words but with music that wells up from the depths of his miraculous imaginative powers. But by reflecting on pollution in this way I began to understand why the girls in my story so intently and tragically flee from it.
That kind of meditation shows, I hope, why philosophy has been, for me, both a therapy and a consolation. I agree with the great Socrates that ‘the unexamined life is not a life for a human being’. And I look with gratitude on philosophy, which was not a way of life that I chose, but a way of life by which I was chosen, and from which I have never turned back. And if I ask myself what good that has done for others, I can only reply that the joy I take in understanding things is also a joy that I seek to communicate. If others, reading the result, are consoled by it, then that is the best I can do; and if they dislike it, as so many of them do, Happy Christmas to them anyway.