Category Archives: literature

01 Feb

The dummy-suckers

It is a pleasure to discover a good restaurant and even better to come across a talented writer. I have been reading Alexander Boot’s books and blogs for ten years and I have always found him sustaining. He is scholarly, informed and frequently amusing. Consistently he writes what is recognisably the English language – which makes a nice change from most of the stuff we read in the national newspapers. Recently Alex was wondering aloud on his blog why 1.3 million British subjects have signed a petition to deny a state visit to Donald Trump. What is it about this democratically elected president which irritates so many people to such a degree that they refuse to extend the president the courtesy of hospitality?

Perhaps it is because Mr Trump is deficient in the qualities possessed by foreign rulers to whom we did grant a state visit? Alex names a few of these in case we had forgotten, among them Messrs Mobutu, Suharto, Xi Jinping and Ceaușescu – all of them tyrants, dictators and some of them mass murderers. Donald Trump has been in office less than a fortnight and so he may plead in excuse that he has not yet had the time to set up the apparatus of mass slaughter. The petitioners should give him a little breathing space, and then perhaps he will live up to the standard set by the tyrants and dictators who were welcomed here with little protest?

Alex goes on to ponder the wider issue of what it is that attracts the mob in their millions to genocidal tyrants. And not least of the virtues in Alex’s writing is that you can see the pondering even as he writes. Here is that rare thing: a man thinking things out as he goes along, as the thinker and the writer should. Our present literary and journalistic malaise is all owing to the fact that, though we have plenty of thinkers and writers, the thinkers can’t write and the writers can’t think.

Back on the subject of the petitioners, Alex thinks this sort are the natural consequence of society’s lapse back into paganism. I dare say there is something in this. Certainly, the case of Hitler is evidence on that score. I wouldn’t want to dispute Alex’s judgement here, but I would venture another explanation – one which is not inconsistent with paganism.

When she was a toddler, my sister used to suck a dummy which had been dipped in something sweet. My mother and father tried to wean her off this comfort, as it would not have appeared seemly for my sister to turn up at Mrs Lillyman’s dancing studio in posh Roundhay, Leeds for her grade two ballet examinations with what my dad called “that thing” in her mouth. But every time they tried to remove the dummy, my sister screamed the bloody place down.

The petitioners are like my infant sister.

Since 1945 they have inhabited a political culture much to their liking: a politics of high taxation and regulation, a dispensation in which there is the appearance of democracy but not its reality. For while it is possible to chuck out the government and put another one in its place, the new lot are the same as the the old crowd. Added to this pretend democracy there is the relatively new ingredient of political correctness which tells the infantilised petitioners what to think and, just like nanny, controls their behaviour. They want to be looked after by nanny and allowed to suck their dummies. Well now the dummies have been taken away and they are screaming the bloody place down. They want to be overtaxed and over-regulated. They don’t want personal responsibility. They want the state to tell them what to do. Moreover, they have become so habituated to this politics that they long since developed a culture of entitlement. They imagined they would be allowed to suck on their dummies forever. The last thing they want is to grow up.

Listen, and you can hear them screaming the bloody place down.

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31 Dec

Dear Arthur…

An open letter to my teacher and friend Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

Dear Arthur,

I don’t know whether you’ll be able to read this – or,. as today’s quaint phrase has it, “access this” – where you are. And, of course, I don’t know where you are or even if you are. In your great work Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, you drummed it into us that the secret of life is to extinguish the relentlessly insistent will – including the will to live. So perhaps you don’t want to be anywhere. I can’t quite get my head around this. (Another of our irritating modern phrases). You wouldn’t like it here. That incoherent upstart Karl Marx, who was only just getting going in your day, has been tremendously influential all over the world: even so-called “conservative” governments pursue socialist policies these days.

But really I want to tell you about something else. In Britain today there is a national organisation, paid for out of taxation and called the BBC, which tells us what to think and which things to regard as valuable politically, ethically and aesthetically. It doesn’t use books or newspapers to achieve this. Instead every home has a device which enables families to hear, and even see, the BBC propaganda. (I know you will find this far-fetched, but it’s true) The BBC is particularly keen on three things: that we should all be socialists and like crap – excuse my language – “music” and celebrate dead nihilists.

A very rare occurrence: you, dear Arthur, got a mention on the BBC yesterday. It was like this…

There is a feature on the BBC called A Good Read in which celebrities – usually ones who know nothing about literature – talk about the books they are reading. Yesterday, one of the participants mentioned a book by a psycho-thoroughpissed. (It was about death, so I thought you would be interested). The participant was impressed by this book and he praised the thoroughpissed author in  words such as the following, (I paraphrase, but here’s the substance of what he said):

“This is a wonderfully interesting book. The author writes about philosophers such as Nietzsche (worth reading, Arthur) and Sartre (a nihilistic narcissist and not worth reading) and…Schopenhauer. He provides a superb three pages summary of Schopenhauer’s writings. It might encourage you to go on and read Schopenhauer for yourself. But you don’t have to read him: these three pages are adequate in themselves for an understanding of him.”

So, Arthur, finally I come to my reason for writing. I want to apologise. You see, the BBC is not only full of socialists with bad taste in music, it is also – to use another of our tiresome modern expressions, irretrievably “dumbed down.” The very idea – the offence! – that your many thousands of penetrating and entertaining insights in Die Welt  and Parerga und Paralipomena can be distilled into three pages written by a throughpissed is a travesty and an insult.

So, wherever (or if) you are, please accept my renewed thanks for all your glorious works and my embarrassed apology. For I know you won’t get an apology from the BBC. There the philistines are proud of their ignorance and casual in their rudeness

With the best will in the world, I am your devoted pupil and friend

Peter

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31 May

Darkness Visible

We have a terrific capacity for producing trash: nearly everything in Tate Modern, so-called Britart, “poetry” so banal it wouldn’t even serve to be adapted for the chorus in a happy-clappy “worship song”; voyeuristic nuts ‘n’ sluts shows and such as Britain’s Got Talent and Strictly Come Dancing for pleb telly; and, as a constant backdrop – like a toothache – to daily life, ubiquitous audible filth in the form of amplified electronic pop music; and everybody in thrall to self-promoting narcissists such as Prince and David Bowie.

All this is bad enough, but what is truly satanic is our penchant not just for producing wall-to-wall muck, but infiltrating work of outstanding quality and perversely appropriating it to the general junk culture. This is the gesture – akin to sprinkling a Rembrandt painting with bleach or pissing in the chalice – which turns out a version of Don Giovanni with a cast of leather-clad punks and druggies in a New York skyscraper apartment or importing pop and rock into The Promenade Concerts.

Here, for example, are a few extracts from a review by Vicki Power, The Daily Telegraph’s TV critic, of a recent BBC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

“The director has re-invented the play as a children’s action adventure full of scary fairies, chase scenes and rousing Indiana Jones style music…Theseus is rebranded as a dictator and the warrior Hippolyta is his prisoner rather than his willing bride…he has also taken a scythe to the text and reshaped lines…the action fizzes along…the verse-speaking is uneven…”

Now what I find interesting about this review is that the Telegraph’s critic doesn’t conclude: “So it’s crap then – an atrocity.”

She entirely approves of this scurrilous travesty: “It is a production that might well direct a younger generation to the Bard.”

How could it possibly do that, except by false pretences? Ms Power thinks that we might be attracted to Shakespeare by what is not Shakespeare; by something to which Shakespeare is the antidote.

This sort of corruption is everywhere perpetrated by those who think it clever – charlatans who, being unable to appreciate and give thanks for the wonderful creations of artistic genius, resort to doing dirt on them instead.

Waste and void, waste and void. And darkness over the face of the deep.

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20 Feb

The death of the American dream

The death is announced of the American literary divinity Lee-Harper Salinger, author of The Mockingbird in the Rye Sh*thouse, aged 487. In Harper-Salinger, also known as Dylan “Adenoidal” Bob Kerouac and, in some southern states, Martin Luther Ginsberg, American littricher achieved its greatest right-on-ness. Ms Ginsberg-Burroughs – who occasionally liked to be known as Malcolm X (and on Sundays Christopher Hitchens) – was the only American fraud never to have been interviewed by John Humphrys who commented on hearing the news, “S/he was truly iconic, like where it’s at, right on and the true spirit of the millionaire American protest industry.”  Once, when described by some fawning media groupie as unique, Ms Mailer-Vidal replied with characteristic modesty, “No way. There’s f****** millions like me in the States! That’s what makes America the greatest nation on earth. Goddam! I did not have sex with that coyote.”

S/he also enjoyed the approbation of her distinguished contemporaries. The long dead Ernest Hemingway was distraught upon hearing the news and went out and shot himself – again. The young Tom Eliot was so overcome that he simply put his head in his hands and exclaimed, “Oh the moon shines bright on Mrs Porter – and on her daughter!” Henry “Circumloction” James was last heard saying, “If, peradventure, Miss Salinger-Dylan-King had never existed, and the issue, even in the great chain of serendipity, must remain in doubt, for perforce, even the elements which men mostly ascribe to chance have their own inner momentum towards necessity, then I myself, in a fit of syntactical periphrastics. would have been obliged to invent her.”

Through her tears, Norman “Napalm” Sontag issued a statement, “ Hey! Little Rock, Easy over with grits. I have a nightmare, the civil rights movement, where it’s all at, tell me about it at this moment in time. Put your pecker away Bill and – Hey, right now – pass me that joint brother Barak.”

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31 Jul

Rite me a poim, Megan

“Now then Megan, I want you to write a poem. And when you’ve finished, please compose a forty-part motet, cook me a cordon bleu supper and show me your designs for a new cathedral.”

If it weren’t so depressing, it would be risible to note that anyone – borderline illiterates included – are expected to be able to write poetry. What is a poem? I recall C.H. Sisson’s definition of its meaning today in the schools: “A composition in which the words do not quite extend to the margins.”

But never mind the dumb schools, this is what The Spectator offers us as an example of a poem:

“None of the teachers who taught us

Were around that final afternoon at

Grammar school – probably frightened

Of being assaulted after giving us so

Much grief for five years, no more of

That though. We sat around unsupervised

Playing cards and smoking a bit and then

It seemed so simple, so absurdly easy to

Just walk down the drive and out of the front

Gate for the last time.”

I thought it must be by poor Megan who is troubled by learning difficulties and dyslexia issues, but it turns out to be by Paul Birtill, a contributor to The Morning Star. Before we get started on thinking about your “poem”, Paul, do you mind if we just deal with something pretty basic? I mean it’s not frightened of but frightened by. It’s afraid of, as any poet no. They don’t teach you that at grammar school – ‘cos it’s grammar, innit? And, while I’m at it, none takes was not were. 

There’s no call for dogmatism when it comes to saying what counts as poetry. There is room for all sorts: for Homer, for Alexandrian metre, Augustan austerity, lyrical ballads and Uncle Tom Eliot’s inability to make connections on Margate Sands. And the sentiment doesn’t have to be hifalutin or sham antique, as in gay Hesperion’s golden whatsit. It can be slight, light-hearted, whimsical. Let me cast the net as as widely as possible and say that a poem is just a few words in a particular rhythm.

Birtill’s poem has no discernible rhythm. Dare I suggest that a poem should also be about something? It doesn’t have to be the Trojan wars or the salon of Madame Sosostris but, for crying out loud, it shouldn’t be utterly banal. Birtill’s poem doesn’t say anything except the blindingly obvious. It’s a ten-lines cliche.You go to school for a few years and then you leave.. There is no insight, nothing produced by an actual imagination, no verbal facility. In fact, it isn’t a poem. It’s prose pretending to be verse – and lousy prose at that.

Poetry is not, as the modern educashernists vainly believe, about expressing yourself. You have no self to express until you have ingested something, until you have been taught something. The true poet is usually to be noticed with the works of the great  poets of the past in his hands, not filling notebooks with verbal trash. The composition of poetry requires also concentration and, above all, practice.

You can no more write a poem without at least some understanding of what will go into ordinary English than go out and score a century against the Aussie pace bowlers when you’ve never wielded a cricket bat in your life before.

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09 Nov

The cloud of witnesses

I have never been much  of a one for praying to the saints. Not that anyone should pray to the saints anyhow, but instead ask for their intercession. I do say the Marian prayers, such as the Ave Maria gratia plena. And I take much encouragement from the verse in the Epistle to the Hebrews which says, Wherefore, seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses.

And when I seek help from this cloud of witnesses, I don’t confine my search to the saints who occupy the Red Letter days. I talk to a great variety of dead people and I believe they talk to me and that:

The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

I have talked to Mozart since I first heard one of his piano sonatas when I was thirteen. And the music answers. I feel certain that Mozart is always close by and that he has been very close on many occasions in my life, for example at my Ordination in 1970. This took place in my own parish church of St Bartholomew, Armley, Leeds with 800 people in the congregation including many of my family and friends, people I had grown up with. It was, to say the least, an affecting occasion. All the more so then when I was handed a chalice brimful and told to administer it to a section of that vast congregation. I had to walk from the altar, down through the chancel and into the nave. I was doing pretty well until the choir began Mozart’s Ave Verum K.618 – the motet he composed in Baden, where his wife was taking the waters, in the afternoon of 5th July 1791. Fear and trembling. I managed somehow not to spill the sacramental wine.

I talk to St Augustine and he answers in the words of his Civitas Dei which are as pertinent to our age as they were in his for, as C.H.Sisson wrote, Augustine  attracts us because he lived through times which were very much like our times – and rejected them.

Dr Johnson tells me about the fear and love of God. R.G. Collingwood taught me metaphysics. Coleridge reassures me regularly that I am not alone in feeling frail. Schopenhauer comes along now and then and shows me how to make philosophical jokes. Shakespeare for terror and pity. Giotto for making visible what otherwise would have remained invisible: Christ on the cross. Eliot for holy dread in the rhythms of the English language: Come with me under the shadow of this red rock… 

Eliot for pretty much everything actually.

By the way, the original Greek word translated as witnesses in that Epistle to the Hebrews is marturwn – martyrs.

And not one of them a suicide bomber.

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18 Oct

Escape from the ideas factory

Recently I wrote a piece about the impenetrable pedant Peter Strawson and received a comment from a friend, a literary critic. He said he had some history with Strawson who had once told him he shouldn’t write about the jargonising linguistics guru Noam Chomsky because he, my friend, is not a professional in the study of linguistics. I shall refer to this as the Academic Fallacy – the notion that those formerly referred to as “scholars” but now as “academics” each has his own “field” or “specialism” and he should not stray beyond it. Well, I admit there are specialities: quantum physics for example or endocrinology. But if a man writes about the use of words – as Chomsky does – then anyone else who is a competent user of words must be allowed to comment on what is being said. The test is not based on what academic faculty a commentator hails from, but the sense of what is being said.

The definition of an academic is someone whose mind is so fine that it has never been penetrated by a single idea, and consequently academic prose is the death of thought. There is a widespread superstition that some people are so clever that no one can understand them. Rowan Williams’ groupies frequently give him as an example. But Williams deserves the Regius Professorship of Obscurantism or to be head honcho in the Circumlocution Office. It is said of him that he speaks ten foreign languages; and indeed he writes English as if it were one of them. This belief that some people are so clever that they are beyond our ken is part of the Academic Fallacy: for the mark of cleverness is the ability to make oneself understood. It is erroneously imagined that there are such objects as “ideas” which may subsequently be “put into words.” Not so. The words themselves, in the order in which they are spoken, are  the ideas – because the choice of words determines what is being said. There is no distinction between the substance of a piece of writing and the style in which it is written – as if style were some sort of additional ornamentation.  A good style simply means clarity and immediacy of expression. Style and idea are one and the same. the word made flesh. And you can achieve style only by the constant effort to think clearly. Williamsese exists because the former Archbishop’s mind is a muddle.

Orwell – he was talking about politics but what he says applies to literary endeavour in all its forms – satirised academic prose. He took the sparse line from Ecclesiastes: “I looked and saw…” and translated it into academy-spk: “Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion…” Too many people aspire to write in the putrescent style of that translation.

The best writers never were or are academics. They were learned and wise, which is not at all the same thing. In better days, we referred to them as men of letters. Francis Bacon in his Essays; George Berkeley in Three Dialogues; Newman in his Apologia. T.S. Eliot, R.G.Collingwood and Ian Robinson in everything they produced. Women of letters too. Jane Austen; George Eliot (except when she is tempted to write the positivist utopia); Christina Rossetti; Janet Frame and Muriel Spark. But not Elizabeth Anscombe who complicates and so corrupts the obsessively subtle Wittgenstein or Hilary Mantel who renders Thomas Cromwell as if he were already the leading man in a Sunday night adaptation on BBC2.

In The Book of Common Prayer, truth is delivered with sublime simplicity: “With this ring I thee wed”; “Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live…” The divine economy in words of one syllable.

Here’s a bit of Robinson to end with:

“The world is not the same as planet earth; astronauts take the world with them. The world is made by and made up of human beings, in co-operation, I believe, with the divine. About that, Professor Hawking has nothing to say. He has therefore no grounds for declaring either any particular thing, or everything, either significant or insignificant.” Holding the Centre by Ian Robinson.

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29 Sep

Lefties, letters and lit crit

Why the persistence of this delusion that good writing flourishes when there is a left wing government?

In a recent article about Anthony Burgess, Irvine Welsh writes, “There are notable exceptions, but generally speaking the embracement of a reductive conservative political philosophy seldom heralds an era of flowering for an artist.”

I can attach no meaning to his use of the word “reductive,” but Welsh is certainly right about the notable exceptions. Plato under the rule of a strict oligarchy. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in Tsarist Russia. Nietzsche under Bismarck. Eliot, Pound, Wyndham Lewis and T.E. Hulme all wrote in a very conservative period. Sisson says somewhere that, in paying due respect to such fine writers as these, the lefty critics always feel somehow they have to make excuses for their politics as if this were some sort of inexplicable lapse. Do the lefties never notice that it was these conservatives who did the really original work in the English literature  of the 20th century? They don’t come much more conservative than Pound and his slogan was “Make it new.” There is a good reason for the fact that it is the conservatives who are actually the avant garde. For conservatives are traditionalists and it is only those who understand tradition who can develop the tradition. Has Welsh not read Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent – an essay which discusses precisely this truth?

Most of the world’s great literature – and its music and visual art – was published under “reductive” dictatorships. Or are we to imagine that Bach lived on hand-outs from The Arts Council?

Welsh says, ”Burgess read, wrote, drank gin… lambasting socialist Britain with its high rates of taxation. For this we must forgive him.”

These are words spoken from a very great height and I must say it is unusual to hear absolution pronounced by a leftie lit crit with such a restricted awareness of what actually goes on in the world of English letters.

One thing is clear though: Welsh, as a writer, is the living refutation of his own argument.

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23 Jun

Prophets & Visionaries, a new book by Peter Mullen

Prophets & Visionaries: Writers of Judgement by Peter Mullen (Published by RoperPenberthy £9.99)

Prophets & Visionaries consists of eight extended critical essays on eight acknowledged thinkers and masters of English prose: Samuel Johnson; S.T Coleridge; John Henry Newman; G.K. Chesterton; T.E. Hulme; T.S. Eliot; R.G. Collingwood and C.H. Sisson. (2014 is the centenary of Sisson’s birth). Each chapter is an introduction and commentary on its subject’s contribution to English literature, philosophy and theology. But these essays are not merely historical studies detailing things which belong in the past. Rather they bring out the extraordinary relevance of these great writers to contemporary life, thought and politics.

“This is a book written by one who has so mastered the material that he can go to the heart of the matter. In truth, learning worn lightly” – Rev’d Dr Aidan Nichols OP

“In his own perceptive and inimitable way, Peter Mullen has produced a compendium of British thinkers of the first rank. All of these, in one way or another, have upheld the vital importance of the Judaeo-Christian tradition for all that is true and good about these islands and the people who live in them. The distortions of the tradition, over the course of history, and its more recent abandonment, should not blind us to its reality as the ground and informing principle of the State, Law, values and virtues in this nation. Its reaffirmation is undoubtedly needed for the moral and spiritual renewal which is so necessary if we are to resist the dangers with which we are beset” – The Rt Rev’d Dr Michael Nazir-Ali

“The kind of modernity here scrutinised through the eyes of some of its most mordant and insightful critics, from Coleridge to Sisson, claims to be self-consciously reflective, creative and boundary-breaking, whereas it is in practice a new Establishment peddling its own taken for granted assumptions by rote and setting limits on the things one is allowed to think and say. The word for this is hegemony and Peter Mullen’s lively and engaging study, by judicious selection and wide-ranging quotation, provides a thematic index or aide-memoire on how to puncture its pretensions” – Professor Rev’d David Martin

Rev’d Dr Peter Mullen in a Church of England priest with experience in town, country, schools and university, most recently as Rector of St Michael’s Cornhill in the City of London. He is Chaplain to several City livery companies. The author of more than forty books, including poems, novels and short stories as well as theology, philosophy and music criticism, Peter Mullen is available for interviews and may be contacted through his publisher or directly at: 3 Naomi Close Eastbourne BN20 7UU

Phone: 01323-655832 peter77mullen@gmail.com

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08 May

Government-sponsored Nihilism

Russell Brand, Caitlin Moran and Dizzee Rascal are to be added to the A-level syllabus. Brand’s 2012 testimony on drug use to a House of Commons committee will be in an A-level in English language and literature course in a development dreamed up by the exam board and the educational charity, The English and Media Centre. It will sit alongside Caitlin Moran’s Twitter feed, the BBC Newsnight interview with rapper Dizzee Rascal and the work of former Guardian columnist The Secret Footballer.  News of these innovations has already provoked members of the Department for Education to denounce the new syllabus: “It is immensely patronising to young people to claim that they will only engage with English language and literature through celebrities such as Russell Brand”, said a senior source in the department.

I read about all this in The Guardian which, in a spot of dumbing down all of its own, asked its readers to email and tweet to say whether they think these additions to the A-level are “a rubbish idea or a total genius.”I’ve no doubt that the journalist who “wrote” that phrase would defend himself by claiming he was being “ironic.”

The Guardian went on to say that accusations of dumbing down are “hysterical.” (I wonder if they meant that word to be taken in the ironic sense too?) Of course there has been relentless dunbing down for forty years and more. The A-level examining boards know it. I have some experience: some years ago when I was commissioned to write an article for The Times Educational Supplement on the subject, I had the very devil of a job trying to get the various boards to let me – purchase, not borrow – past papers for comparison. That was twenty years ago. I thought things were bad then but, to imitate The Guardian’s faux-proletarian “irony,” the syllabus was “total genius” in those days, but now it is “a rubbish idea.” If I may go back to the olden days, when I was studying for English literature A-level, we were required to have detailed textual knowledge of three Shakespeare plays – and if you were after top marks, you had to show a background acquaintance with the whole canon. Candidates were expected to be able to quote poetry from memory. And we were asked to read the whole of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall as well as verses by the metaphysical poets John Donne and Andrew Marvell.

Standards were incomparably higher all across the curriculum at primary as well as secondary stages. I attended a sort of Bash Street junior school in Leeds in the 1950s. There were forty in the (working class) class and we were learning clause analysis at the age of ten. In O-level maths we studied the binomial theorem and the beginnings of the differential calculus. In O-level RE we had show an understanding of the synoptic problem involving the first three gospels

Most teachers couldn’t do this stuff nowadays, let alone the pupils.

The government and the mass media go in for dumbing down for two reasons. First, they are pretty dumb themselves and know nothing of the intellectual tradition of the West – and what little of it they have stumbled across (in the interstices between pop music and fashion) they despise: “Shakespeare not ‘accessible’ to ‘kids.’ Eliot ‘elitist’ and so on.” Secondly, they have a vested interest in doing as little as possible to sharpen the critical faculties of the barbaric drones who constitute the underclass. Nobody has described the chronology of our demise better than R.G. Collingwood:

“From Plato onwards, Graeco-Roman society spent its life in a rear-guard action against emotional bankruptcy. The critical moment was reached when Rome created an urban proletariat whose only function was to eat free bread and watch free shows. This meant the segregation of an entire class which had no work to do whatever; no positive function in society, whether economic or military or administrative or intellectual or religious; only the business of being supported and being amused. When that had been done, it was only a question of time until Plato’s nightmare of a consumers’ society came true; the drones set up their own king and the story of the hive came to an end…”

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