IT ALL DEPENDS WHAT YOU MEAN BY…


Sometime in the 1940’s, somehow, I stumbled upon a radio programme called The Brains Trust. I think my mother perhaps used to listen to it. It must have been before 1948 because I was upset by media enthusiasm when, on 12th April 1948, Professor CEM Joad (1891-1953), a key figure in the programme, was convicted of ‘unlawfully travelling on the railway without having previously paid his fare and with intent to avoid payment.’ I remember being particularly mystified by the way he was being vilified by the press; the memory is securely connected with the very moment when my mother and I, coming home perhaps from Lords Cricket Ground, passed through Clapham Junction station one evening; I think he was arrested there. He was fined £2 (£70 now!) but as a result of the conviction he was sacked from The Brains Trust team. He was also told that he had lost all chance of gaining a peerage; I wonder if that bothered him at all…

It seems that one of his little foibles, as recorded in The Testament of Joad (1944 reprint) was to see how far he could get away with railway fare avoidance! An interesting philosophical project.

The Brains Trust was a great success on the air waves and Joad had become a well-known public figure. His favourite expression when faced with a question from ‘the public’ became a popular catch-phrase:, ‘It all depends what you mean by…’

His arrest must have been a godsend to the Tory Party, who are always on a quest to sink a public figure they disapprove of with other than intellectual argument – something they are incapable of pursuing. It seems that they often complained about his ‘socialistic’ answers to questions. It is still a Tory fall-back position that any criticism of their downright inhumanity is defined as ‘socialist nonsense’.

However, I took Joad’s mantra ‘It all depends what you mean by…’ as a valuable lesson in how to think properly by taking a step back from any set of words that come your way. It has formed no small a part of my life-time thinking process; it took me through school and on to being ‘teacher trained’ (‘it all depends on what you mean by Behaviourism…’) right up to the present day – contributing to the birth of my concept of Meta-I. For Joad it was a mark of a civilised person to be able to stop to think – those who are not able to do it Joad describes as ‘decadent’.

You can hear his voice, similar to Bertrand Russell’s rasping one, on the Magic Internet. He also had a big black cat – in spite of their holding one or two opinions with which you profoundly disagree, you can always love a person who loves cats (said Mark Twain).

Joad was a Platonist, drawing a clear distinction between what he called ‘the natural order’ of experiential time & space and ‘the non-natural order’ of values, goodness & Platonic abstractions. In Decadence (1948) he laments the fact that it was no longer the fashion to say, “I think that’s right!” but, “I have a feeling of mental approval when I contemplate that!” thus making a clear separation of judgement from whatever the contemplated thing happened to be. This he called ‘dropping the object’ – taking up the philosophical idea that we depend on ‘sense data’, things that strike the senses, rather than possessing the naked apprehension of things in themselves, which are thus ‘dropped’ from philosophical discourse. For him this represented the ‘bog of controversy’. He asserted baldly that ‘there is no reason to suppose that it is only our experience and not the ‘objects’ of our experience which are significant…’

The mark of humanity is the ability to work conceptually for the future, he said, postponing immediate gratification in favour of doing ‘the right thing’; it is therefore ‘decadent’ to suppose that everything is experiential, of the moment, that there is no non-natural order. The result (of the ‘bog’) is we imagine we entertain experience for the sake of it rather than going for abstract ends and purposes: the machine-world, for instance, values speed of transport (for saving time) rather than the unique quality of the destination or what might be found by dawdling on the way – which is probably true enough, though whether the ‘unique quality of the destination’ has anything to do with a supposedly non-natural order is another matter entirely,

Joad’s thinking seems to me to be binary in nature, one thing or the other, natural/non-natural order, town or country, hedged in by space/time or transcendental, sensible people/idiots, metal/wood; his thinking lacks what Gurdjieff called ‘Third Force’, a completely other point of view. But he did believe that we all want the same thing – peace, prosperity, justice and so on, so it wasn’t necessary to argue; it was just the ‘stark staring stupidity’ of people that caused dissension, ‘worshipping machines, busily moving pieces of matter in space and thinking we enjoy it…’ People, he says, are fundamentally decent & reasonable but their thick heads make them stupid.

I don’t have any argument with that – it comes naturally to me… But it’s not so much their thick heads as their having been brainwashed by ‘associative thinking’ into assuming the inability to believe that they can make choices independently of what the Power Possessors con them into believing and thinking. The very last thing the Power Possessors want you to say is, ‘It all depends what you mean by…’

Defining the nature of ‘successful living’, Joad writes it is ‘to be found not in attainment but in endeavour…’ For him possession is static while acquisition is ecstatic; ‘enjoyment is in the act of striving… to yearn for finality is to lack vitality… There is nothing at the end of any road better than what may be found beside it…’ What about ‘the unique quality of the destination’ though? Binary thinking! Travel/destination.

There’s only one thing for it, says Joad: WRITERS OF THE WORLD UNITE: YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT YOUR BRAINS… Writers are in business to put people straight! But it does all rather depend on what they choose to write.

I have long had a sneaking regard for the concept ‘Joad’ and I’ve often wondered whether it might be worth spending some time considering his philosophical thinking but I can see that it doesn’t fit with existentialism and the idea of the intellectual construction of reality both of which seem like truisms to me: it’s not a question of ‘Essence preceding Existence’ as with Plato but quite the reverse – we spend our lives constructing a soul and all its ‘non-natural’ ordering of life. Joad’s philosophy & his life don’t seem to marry up. But I am more than sympathetic to most of his life notions.

The first part of The Testament of Joad offers a really useful template for thinking. And he defines himself as a constant seeker after what might be considered to be the Truth of Things, something which, in this age of anti-intellectualism, typified by the current (May 2019) Brexit Farce, doesn’t seem to be considered important – it’s all about the question of what will get you the most cash.

How ought I to live? What ought I to value? Which are the things that are really good? These questions, which express the typical worries of adolescence, generally cease to agitate the consciousness of middle age. It is not so much that they are answered – it is conceivable that they never are and never can be answered – as that the answering of them ceases to be important. Most middle-aged men pursuing careers, burdened by responsibilities, tied by wives and children to the trivial and the concrete, forget that they were ever questions.

But the questions persist with Joad. He has little time for the way everyday living with its cramping institutions of one kind or another get in the way of self-development: for most people a ‘jerry-built structure of code and creed… hardens by habit into a rigid framework, which is taken so completely for granted that its very existence ceases to be suspected’. This hadn’t happened to him, so he thinks, wondering if ‘perhaps the profession of philosophy does after all have some effect upon the minds of those who pursue it, making them more painfully aware than other men of their ignorance and their guidelessness…’

Perhaps I have more curiosity, or perhaps it is merely that I am more dissatisfied with my life than the majority of my contemporaries. (Yet I do not in my heart believe that this last, is the reason, for I enjoy my life well enough on the whole, and in spite of much doing of the things that I ought not to do and much leaving undone of the things that I ought to do, I am very well, thank you.) Whatever the cause, I am still concerned with the problem of conduct. How, I still want to know, ought I to live, what ought I to value, and which are the things that are really good? Nor have I yet entirely given up the hope of finding out.

So it was that Joad was excited to find My Country and My People by Lin Yutang (October 10, 1895 – March 26, 1976) where he found ‘a coherent and intelligible account of Chinese life, Chinese philosophy, Chinese values and Chinese ideals…’ Turned out to be a whale of a book: ‘…plump! it splashed into the tank of my mind and all the little fishes of ideas which were drowsily feeding there were sent scurrying this way and that in a flurry of excitement…’ This is a metaphor that works for me: it was how my mind worked when I read the opening of The Testament of Joad and it fits with the idea of removing oneself from Internal to External Considering.

Joad finds it strange that he finds an answer of sorts in Lin Yutang because he admits that most of the ideals of his professional life came from the Greeks: cultivate every side of your nature, develop the talents with which you are endowed, body no less than mind, flesh & spirit; make the best of the world and its loveliness while we can. What he calls his ‘working creed’ is to consolidate the ‘exercise upon an appropriate subject matter of our highest talents screwed up to concert pitch interspersed with intervals of recreation in art, in Nature, in the pleasures of the senses and in the conversation of our friends…’

Because he earns his keep by lecturing & writing about the Greeks, Joad has to clear the way for expressing his enthusiasm for Lin Yutang’s book by explaining how he has come to believe that the ideals of Greek philosophy are defective: in practical terms he thinks that what ‘…was all very well for the citizens of a small City State has little enough application to the needs of a unit in a modern Ant-State…’ In peace-time, being a member of a ‘community’ simply means paying taxes, serving on juries, and casting a vote. None of those things contributes towards personal development or living a good life and ‘when it makes war, I regard the State as my enemy…’

What we call ‘Democracy’ is all very well in a football stadium with 10,000 democrats in it, but it is reduced to farce when 600 miscellaneous ‘twerps’ (as my father would have called them) meet to agree on how to ditch the progress towards civilisation & World State represented by the European Union.

Joad has an arch, self-deprecating way of expressing himself in long convoluted & qualificatory sentences which I find very appealing; he is serious-minded yet jovially demolishes his claims to intellectual superiority.

I am a reforming, proselytizing, propagandist sort of person, within whose bonnet the bees of a thousand lost causes are buzzing. I believe in birth control for all, easy divorce, the legitimization of abortion, National Parks and access to mountains and moorlands for walkers irrespective of the rights of property or the convenience of sportsmen; in prison reform, in the right to euthanasia and the right to suicide, in disarmament by example, in resistance to war by individuals, in Socialism, in the world state, in the abolition of motor-cars, and in a thousand and one other creeds and causes to the propagation of which I devote no small part of my available energy and enthusiasm. I have helped to found an Organization known, formidably if cacophonously, as the Federation of Progressive Societies and Individuals; or, more precisely, having drawn up a programme by the simple process of making a list of all the creeds and causes in which I happened to believe, I have actually sought to bring together in an all-embracing Federation the thousand and one impotent societies who exist to advocate, the innumerable isolated individuals who endeavour to propagate, any one or more of them. But all this, although it provides me with entertainment and occupation, although it gives me opportunities for oratory and practice in the arts of managing men – not that I do manage them, by the way; sometimes when they are sufficiently timid, I succeed in making them do what I want which they do not, but they always hate me for it and take the first opportunity that arises of going back on the courses in which they have been made so resentfully to acquiesce – all this, I fear, does not constitute that fulfilment of the personality in social relations of which the Greeks so admiringly wrote.

Mostly, he says, his…

…playing at politics consists in seizing opportunities for giving the world a piece of my mind and in telling my contemporaries how to behave; valuable activities no doubt, but I cannot help feeling that when sadism, exhibitionism and sheer bombinating self-assertiveness have been weeded out of them, there is not much left of that harmonious co-operation with one’s fellows in the pursuit of a common good to which the Greeks looked for the fulfilment of the personalities of those who were by definition political and social beings. Nor, indeed, is such happy and harmonious activity possible for a middle-aged liberal in the world of the 1930’s.

The Greeks were not devoted to family life and, having been a bad son and a bad husband, Joad says he originally followed suit on the grounds that he didn’t ask to be born and felt no gratitude for it; automatic love for parents did not seem to be relevant: ‘..,.there seems no necessary reason why any chance pair of persons, two pebbles picked up at random from the beach of humanity, should excite the affection of one’s mind merely because they happen to have built the structure of one’s body… I have also been a bad husband. A varietist by nature, I have liked women too much to pay them the poor compliment of cold shouldering all for the sake of one…’

On the other hand he feels he has not made a bad job of being a father. ‘It amuses me to be the head of a family, and, as my daughters grow up, to see the whole business of sex as it were through the other end of the opera glasses…’ He has begun ‘…to see some value in the family… of being a member of a solid little social bloc, wherein one may sit, as it were, in one’s spiritual shirt sleeves and relax…’ It now seems ‘…comforting and pleasant to have the benefit of that united front, especially if you are a vagrant intellectual at odds with the community on almost every controversial question of the day, and permanently on guard to meet the challenge of those to whom your opinions appear a danger and your existence a disaster…’ There were families in Ancient Greece but there did not seem to be much in the way of relaxation to be had in the company of family members – at least it wasn’t written about.

The major reason why Greek philosophy seems defective to Joad is that there’s nothing concerning what he calls ‘spiritual vagrancy’: ‘…if my soul is to be kept in health, it is not merely that I must be allowed to sow a few bodily wild oats in youth; I must sow occasional spiritual ones as well, flirting with strange creeds and cults, dabbling in mysticism, and the occult, indulging in daydreams and fantasies, forgetting my obligations and responsibilities, falling foolishly in love and ‘going native’ in the country; and especially must I do these things in middle age…’

Joad opines that the Greeks made no space for this as the Chinese seemed to do, some proof of which he finds in the binary oppositions described in Lin Yutang’s book My Country and My People – ‘…two systems of philosophy that have dominated Chinese life, the philosophy of Confucianism and the philosophy of Lao-Tse…’

The mountainous region where he was born made a deep impression on Lin Yutang’s consciousness, and thereafter, he would constantly consider himself a child of the mountains – in one of his books he apparently commented that his idea of hell was a city apartment – a binary opposition which might have been another reason why Joad admired him. Lin Yutang’s writings in Chinese were critical of the Nationalist government to the point that he feared for his life. After 1935 lived mostly in US, a best-selling populariser of Chinese philosophy.

Joad defines Confucianism as a ‘philosophy for everyday life’, hierarchical, place and status defining the pattern of life, a network of duties & social obligation, duty to ancestors, duty to parents, duty to family, duty to superior officials with the intention ‘…of conferring the maximum quantity of contentment…’ – externally established.

Lin Yutang points out that, while the philosophers of other countries and civilizations have found the end of life in this thing or in that, contending that it is Nirvana, mortification of the flesh, salvation of the soul, communion with God, the knowledge and love of the Trinity, unlimited supplies of women and drink in a Mahomedan heaven, or unlimited harp-playing and singing in a Christian one, power, wealth, virtue, honour, fame and whatnot, and while their followers have fought, tortured, mutilated and killed one another in their enthusiasm for some One or other of these alleged ends and their repugnance for all the others, the Chinese alone have discovered what the end of life in fact is.

Joad ought perhaps to have applied his mantra to the word ‘Chinese’ – it all depends on what you mean by it, These days, except when there is money to be made, we are supposed to see China as ‘the enemy without’; we are geared to believe in ‘the enemy without’ in order to distract us from the fascistic enemy of the human race that is undoubtedly within: so we are supposed to fear The Yellow Peril again which came prior to The Red Menace, but somehow now confusingly coupled with it. It might not be possible to rely on the abstraction ‘the Chinese’. The recent geo-political history of China, as presented by Western media outlets, might not seem to stack up in the Western Mind, such as it is, with Lin Yutang’s statement that the purpose of life is ‘…the enjoyment of a simple life, especially family life, and in harmonious social relationships… The meaning of life lies in the sane and healthy enjoyment of it…’ And Joad says

…Of course it does. One has only to read, to assent. The only thing that bothers one is why this answer, so simple and so luminous, never occurred to one before? All the way down the ages philosophers have been ransacking the universe, turning Heaven and Hell inside out, scouring byways and rooting in ditches in their search for the meaning of life, and all the time it was staring them in the face.

Joad persists with the invented abstraction ‘the Chinese’ who seemingly ‘…realize that truth is not known, and that no creed is, accordingly, worth dying for. Consequently, they refuse to make themselves uncomfortable in order to avenge fancied slights upon the honour of non-existent entities, such as Nations, States, Races or Deities. The truth being unknown, to hold any belief with fervour is illogical; consequently, the Chinese have no temptation to follow the example of those who proceed as if the best way to demonstrate the truth of one’s beliefs is to inflict pain upon those human beings who do not share them. And so, if called upon to fight, the Chinaman deserts…’ I suppose that this has to be true of some Chinese just as it is of some Americans, and so on. But let’s imagine that there is a race of people somewhere whose members correspond to attributes ascribed to Lin Yutang’s supposed country persons and Joad’s identification with their qualities. Everything is imagination!

Lin Yutang:-

There can be nothing more silly, if we keep our minds clear enough to see it, than a man popping his head ‘over the top’ with gin-manufactured courage, in order to meet a lead bullet and die for a newspaper-manufactured ‘cause’. If he can use his head in reading newspapers, he will not be at the front, and if he can abstain from gin and keep a cool head, he will logically and humanly be in a blue funk…

Deserting from the army is the only thing to do. Joad suggests that the West ‘…is suffering from over-development of the will to believe and willingness to die and kill in defence of the resultant beliefs… [hastening] to supply the place of knowledge by converting doctrine into dogma, and then proceeding to persecute whoever refuses to share the dogmas…’

I can speak with Joad when he says, ‘If I were in charge of the educational system of this country, I should teach, in the sphere of the intellect, scepticism… Such teaching would, no doubt, be denounced as pusillanimous and unworthy. Nevertheless, I cannot help thinking that its results would at the present time have an almost uniformly beneficial effect upon human happiness…’

Joad summarises the Confucian pattern of life thus:-

It is

• agnostical
• realist
• humanist
• Philistine
• common-sensical
• of the earth, earthy
• the natural creed of the good bourgeois all the world over
• the only possible creed to live by at least for the six working days of the week

But it is not for the seventh day, for which there is Taoism. Confucianism fails to make provision for spiritual vagrancy. Something else is needed. It’s easy to see that Lin Yutang’s comparison of Confucianism and Taoism is a binary opposition that would appeal to Joad. Taoism does help to define spiritual vagrancy: it is

• mystical
• metaphysical
• animistic
• amoral

Taoism holds that

• respectability is of little worth
• the solid satisfaction of secure income and an estimable reputation is not to be valued above the freedom of the spirit to blow where it listeth.
• a rebellious hair-do and bare feet defines the Taoist.
• it stands for revolt against the artificiality and responsibilities of urban life as against the rural ideal of life and the cult of a primitive simplicity
• it stands for the world of fancy and wonder, coupled with a childishly naive cosmogony
• what we need is not to be governed and disciplined, but to be ‘let alone’ – governments which do nothing are the best governments
• the restraints and conventions of urban life and the subjection to them which a successful career entails are to be deplored
• the man who disciplines himself to worldly success is regarded as having made a mistaken choice
• periods of mourning and uniforms of State, pageants, assemblies, receptions, committees, the parade and panoply of greatness are to be avoided like the plague
• face-saving and gentility and a goodly reputation, knowing the right people and keeping in with the Joneses – in a word all the observances and rituals of society to which the ordinary man so painstakingly conforms – are to be ridiculed

Taoism offers an alternative pattern for life, spiritual vagrancy, which much appeals to Joad:-

• the game of being great is not worth the effort of playing, but it is important to avoid the enmity of the great
• the ritual of society is not worth observing, but it is desirable not to incur society’s censure.
• in your social relations avoid attention, lie low, lurk, and, when dragged from your lurking place, ape stupidity
• never be the first in the world, for those who are never first are never exposed to attack
• let well alone… let sleeping dogs lie
• great things can be reduced to small things and small things can be reduced to nothing… make yourself small
• conceal your real intentions, camouflage your motives; so will you live at peace with your fellows and escape bothersome complications.
• what is important is not to do your duty by society, but to appear to do it, in order that you may dedicate the energy which your deceptive appearance of conformity has saved you and the leisure which it has won you to the more wholehearted and unremitting devotion of yourself to your self
• self-cultivation is not to become a duty requiring energy and effort
• if you desire too much or overwork yourself without resting in time, the result will be the illness of Time
• control your passions so as not to get older and older, the result of which will be the illness of Age
• the first step for a man who becomes a candidate for immortality is to keep life easy and the body young, since both mind and body have no inherent defect or trouble
• do as little as you can; don’t press and don’t fuss; save your energy; cultivate contentment

There seem to be two favourite themes in Chinese paintings, says Joad, one being the happiness of family life: there are pictures of women and children at leisure and the other is the happiness of rural life, with pictures of fisherman or woodcutter, or a recluse sitting on the ground under a group of pine tees. Maybe the Taoist, thinks Joad, would

…object to the presence of the family, even of a respectful and harmonious Confucian family, a family of errand-runners, job-performers, ‘yes-men’ and face-savers… on the ground that it curtailed the vagrancy of the spirit. For the Taoist, it seems, naturally prefers rural discomfort to urban luxury, ‘making things do’ in the country cottage to ‘having things just so’ in the town house. He prefers a faulty home-made product to a perfect mass-produced one…

Joad wants us to regain the mystery in things which ‘…makes the world of the child at once a terror and a delight…’ For him, ringing so many bells for me, ‘Taoism keeps this sense alive, insisting upon the nearness of the unseen world to the surface of things. By providing fairies, ghosts and incantations for the peasant, mysticism and breathing exercises for the scholar, Taoism prevents [hu]man’s spirit from subsiding altogether into the ruts of officialdom and conformity…’

Joad says he has constantly attempted to toe the line in a Confucian kind of way, to keep up appearances; sixteen years a Civil Servant, but, in spite of his best efforts he couldn’t manage to conform. Lack of concern for things sartorial is his significant indicator for nonconformity. ‘My evening dress shirt inevitably becomes unstudded in front; when I ride, my gaiters face the wrong way round, and when I play tennis I support my trousers with the wrong kind of belt. I am claiming no merit for these idiosyncrasies; I regret my oddness and do my best to keep it under…’ He has worked hard at running a Confucian and a Taoist life together. In his Taoist moments he prefers ‘to look like a tramp…’ having ‘like most men a definite preference for old and used clothes…’ He turns up looking like a tramp for weekend parties at rich men’s houses. ‘I am never quite comfortable when I am properly dressed, and perhaps for that reason I am never properly dressed… If people don’t like me well enough to consort with me in spite of my appearance, that, I say to myself, only proves to me that they don’t like me very much, and I am better without them…’

I’ve always wanted to be a tramp and have managed to sleep under a hedge occasionally during the long academic summer holidays.

At school in the Cadet Force he found ‘the khaki uniforms with, which we were supplied [to be] of a peculiarly coarse texture… harsh little hairs protruded and chafed the skin…’ He became a pacifist!

I went through Grammar School in the only class never to have had one of its members in the CCF. I became a Pacifist.

Joad has a special feeling for ‘the country’ but treating it as just ‘a pleasant background to the avocations of man’, rushing around in a car or playing tennis or going to church with the natives, doing all the things that one could do less pleasantly in the town, is not Joad’s idea of ‘being in the country’ – such pursuits are ‘not the pursuits of spiritual vagrants…’

I am lucky to live far from other human habitation; the young people who live across the sluice don’t count – they might as well not be there. We are properly at home in the country.

Joad needs to make himself properly at home, ‘ill-dressed and on foot’, in the country before settling down to it, ‘eating an apple or so or a few nuts from its trees, picking one or two flowers, lying a little on the grass or under a hedge, possibly finding a bird’s nest or two, and having a drink in the local pub. To arrive in a car is to take the country by storm, raping it, as it were, before it has signified, or has had a chance of signifying its readiness to receive one. And, inevitably, from such a method of approach it withholds much of what it has to give. Health is perhaps vouchsafed to the body, but there is no refreshment or uplifting of the spirit…’

Though he admits to having started off in this way, Joad doesn’t think much of the ‘devotees of country walking’ lately joined by hearty young women complete with rucksacks, hobnailed boots and hot shiny faces, looking determinedly at maps…’ They are mere visitors to the country, playing at what they imagine to be country life – they are not spiritual vagrants, How shall we know who they are?

Joad admits that his whole conception of spiritual vagrancy may be ‘a will-o’-the-wisp born of much reading about Chinese culture…’ When he’s in the country he likes to

• stay in a farm-house
• be in the stirring of the farmyard
• take an occasional and inexpert hand in the work of the farm
• hear farm gossip
• experience the farm as a little world of its own
• open the paper in the morning to see what particular sort of a beast the world proper has been making of itself in one’s absence and, as one reads of wars and preparations for wars, of robbery and snobbery, of vanity and silliness and cruelty, one suddenly realizes that these things have ceased very much to matter
• fall into the mood in which one says to oneself, ‘Even if the whole of London and everyone and everything in it were to disappear from the face of the earth, I shouldn’t much mind
• get local food, peas and beans from the garden, honey from the hives and cream.

Second to staying in a farm, Joad is content with inns or cottages like a peasant who has been out in the sunlight all day, because they are dark. ‘I like the little windows set in deep embrasures that let in so little light, and look out only upon cabbages and a hedge…’

I consider that a copse with a little stream running through it, or a meadow set with trees, or even a kitchen garden, are better worth looking at and living with than the grandest view in the world, and so I have no temptation to give up darkness, privacy and the sense of being indoors which one enjoys in cottages in exchange for a wide prospect; nor for it would I sacrifice a single tree.

For me, study & learning are most comfortable in some dark cluttered place rather than in neon-lit computer halls with tidy desks.

Though he gets on quite well when he frequents them, Joad does not have much time for organised parks or country houses; he prefers wild country:-

…Let there be a valley in the foothills of an upland country; let it be strewn, with great boulders, and through it let there be running a small stream; beside it grow bushes and little twisted trees; the ground is not very fertile, but, as the valley broadens, there are hedges and copses, and presently cultivated fields. And all along its length there is a profusion of wild life. Such a place I feel to be native to me, and when I come upon it I have a sense of return. From it I feel I have at some time in the remote past been inexplicably parted; to it I hope one day in the not too remote future to come back, and for ever… you cannot get out of the country all that it has the power to give, unless you too have mixed your spirit with it, working in it or playing in it; and again working is the better. The best thing of all, I imagine, is to sow, to plough and to reap; the next best to plant and to tend trees, or to hedge and ditch; and the next best to attend to beasts.

The feeling of closeness to Nature proper has something of the mystical about it; it’s what James Hackett, American haiku man, used to call ‘interpenetration’: the mind/body is absorbed into natural surroundings, trees, rivers, the ocean and the stars; while those things are taken up by the spirit with no gap between. The dichotomy of thinker/thing thought ceases to have a hold over us. But Joad says he’s pretty well, if not entirely, a rationalist and is therefore supposed to wince at such things, for that is what rationalists do. I think of the dead philosopher of our village who scorned anything in philosophy but the close analysis of words – he can no longer answer for himself unfortunately but I do not think that he thought there was anything more in heaven and earth than practising what he might have called the scrupulous analysis of words. In Decadence, Joad, who elsewhere entertained rather curious beliefs about the occult, rather grudgingly admits that there may be another way of understanding reality, but is only prepared to concede that it consists of ‘an austere and elevated nature’ ; it consists for example, of ‘the non-natural order’, immutable entities, of values, goodness & Platonic abstractions – goodness, truth and beauty. That is his professional stance – the thing he has to teach.

The binary oppositions of rationalism/mysticism come to the surface of Joad’s consideration. It has been pointed out (by those who dabble in Binary Oppositions) that it is often the case that practitioners weigh them in their scales and come out in favour of one more than the other so that the inferior one is neglected. Joad is prepared to admit that it’s possible that even his professional enthusiasm will ‘…reveal to our remote posterity larger areas of the universe than are at present known… & likely to be of the same general type as that into which the artists and mystics have already penetrated…’ If they have then, unknown to the rationalist, it is already there, this larger area of the universe! Mystics, says Joad, ‘are biological sports on the spiritual plane, who, in virtue of their precocity are in receipt of advance intimations of those experiences which the deepened and quickened apprehension of posterity may make available to all human minds…’ But whatever the truth of the matter, Joad insists that mystical experiences can be nothing other than an ‘austere, exalting and elevated… foretaste of what the human race may one day become, rather than a harking back to what it once was…’

Logocentrism is the belief that there’s an ultimate reality or centre of truth which exists to serve as a basis for all thought & action: we have the words ‘centre of truth’ therefore it must exist. It’s one side of a binary opposition, the other side of which says there is no ultimate reality (or purpose). A Logocentric rules out one side of the opposition. Joad opts emotionally for ‘spiritual vagrancy’ but cannot see it from any other point of view than his professional teaching role which is super-rational. Not only are we 3rd Force blind as Gurdjieff says but we don’t even put Second Force on to a pendulum which might enable us to progress. It’s much more comfortable to stick with the existence of the first thing you thought of, not to have to bother with an alternative.

How does Joad deal with this? Well, he says he’s leaving rationalism for the moment and entertaining a kind of Wordsworthian notion of ‘indwelling presences’… who wouldn’t be seen dead in a chartered park.

I find that the best way to make contact with these creatures, or rather with their essence, for alas, I have never seen them, is to lapse into the completest emptiness of the spirit that I can compass. When I am alone and at large in the country, I try to make my mind a complete blank. I do not, that is to say, meditate great works, ponder the state of the world, or anxiously consider my own affairs. I think of nothing at all. I look at flowers, listen to birds, climb into the branches of trees, and mentally and spiritually ‘play truant’. The concrete manifestations of mental and spiritual truancy are keeping off roads, avoiding people, and loping discursively across the country, through fields, into copses and over gates; they are also lying under hedges, messing about with streams…

This strikes me as subscribing to ‘interpenetration’ without paying the subscription or working on it. It’s an escape from the arduousness of explaining such an intellectual position by turning the familiar literary concept of ‘spirit of place’ into the feebleness of anthropomorphism.

Joad is afraid that his dislike for cars & machines & hikers and those who merely escape the town to bring their obsessions with them, is going to alienate because it will be constructed as just ‘the personal expression of a commonplace desire for an occasional escape from a highly artificial civilization…’

What does Joad do in the country that represents his spiritual vagrancy?

• when I am in the country, I go happily for weeks without bathing at all
• I grow a beard, not because I wish to appear assthetic or odd, but simply to absolve myself from the need for perpetual resort to the appliances for shaving… the secret of happiness in the diminution of wants.
• I eschew fountain pens, write upon inadequate slips of paper with the scrubby stumps of pencils
• I refrain from automatic cigarette lighters, and distrust every machine at sight. Metal, I am sometimes tempted to think, is the source of all evil. If metal had not been discovered, there would be no guns, no ironclads, no aeroplanes, no bombs, no factories, and no cars.
• I do what I can to eliminate the use of metal from my own life and contrive to manage, whenever possible, with wood.
• I react against advertisements. It is enough for me to see a commodity advertised to refrain from buying it.
• I cheat the railway company whenever I can, returning on the next day with a cheap day return ticket or alleging, when I arrive ticketless at my destination, that I entered the train at a station nearer to it than was in fact the case [but] in my Confucian mood, into which I all too readily relapse, I do my best to make it up to the cheated company, taking tickets to stations beyond that to which I propose to travel.

When he was caught and fined, I don’t suppose that the officials of British Railways as it had just become would have accepted this as an excuse or justifiable compensatory activity. To have offered in his defence that he was suffering from a bout of Taoism while his alternative bouts of Confucianism would already have amply made up for any loss to the railways would cut no ice with those who will never be able to understand such things.

Thus I at last lay a ghost from my past…

Joad never recovered from the ‘disgrace’ and the BBC sacking: by 1953 he became bed-ridden and died of cancer.

Though I failed to make any kind of advance in the career that I have never owned up to having had, I think I must have been rather more successful at toeing the Confucian line than Joad while harbouring all the characteristics and beliefs of the Taoism he so often slipped into. I certainly kept quiet about myself while occasionally going the whole hog (including the postage) on a minor iconoclastic spree or two. In terms of leading anything, for me it’s always been from the rear like the baggage-handler in Journey to the East.

To be safe means to do the things that others do and to give the world the answers it expects, not once or twice or for a time, but always. Now although I can do these things for a time, I cannot, as I have said, keep them up. When I conform, it is as if I am playing a part which at any moment I may forget, and it is their instinctive realization of this which, I suppose, causes other people to withhold from me their confidence. With what pertinacity do they refuse to elect me to committees, to include me in deputations, to nominate me for appointments. With what regularity do they pass me over… At Balliol College, I met for the first time other spiritual vagrants. They were, for the most part, of a more normal and recognized type than myself – straightforward artists and Bohemians who made no pretensions to social advancement and had no aspirations for leadership or power. Open despisers of society, they lacked my Confucian element altogether.

Joad refers to his time as a Civil Servant. I have been one of those 55/56, 58/61 – just four years though it seemed like an eternity. Like Joad, ‘…I was a ludicrous misfit. I did not dress appropriately…’ I arrived at the office on my bicycle. Though I strove to understand the nature of the daily task, I really didn’t take anything seriously. There was no future that I could imagine. Though days kept passing, time was at a halt. Joad found that his Taoism, ‘expressing a preference for the Red Flag over the Union Jack, asserting that lawyers and judges ought to be abolished, prophesying the end of organized Christianity owing to the failure of the churches to pay any attention to Christ’s teaching, or even advocating taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously…’ got in the way of ‘success’ in his working life. ‘…In middle age I have learnt to keep my Taoism to itself. I am now rigidly departmentalized, a Confucian all the week and a Taoist only on spiritual holidays and Sundays…’

There are three circumstances which tend to keep my Taoism alive. The first is the acquisition of substance, responsibility and dependants. The very fact of increasing substance, while it stabilizes, also irritates me. As my position becomes more assured, as wealth and respectability increase, so do the efforts which I make to escape their effects. The fugitive impulse, in fact, grows with the growth of that from which it is fugitive. Let us suppose that I stay at home and do my duty; I must clear up a mess of over twenty letters a day; I must manage the affairs of a turbulent and importunate family; I must pay the wages and check the depredations of dependants; I must correspond with house agents and landlords and municipal authorities and London stores and women as well as with educational establishments, University authorities, students, publishers, editors, fellow-writers, reviewers and literary ghosts; I must see ‘callers’ or contrive to defend myself against them… address meetings, give lectures, support causes, to be photographed, to be interviewed…

Off to the country!

Secondly, Joad suffers from the framework of our lives being

…increasingly machine-made, that we live a press-the-button existence, doing fewer and fewer things for ourselves, and delegating more and more of the activity of living to the machines which, having already taken over the business of working for us, thinking for us, and playing for us, will presently save us the trouble of living altogether, that our towns increasingly encroach upon our country, and that the Englishman is every year harder put to it to find the country sights and sounds, the solitude and the quiet for which the Taoist in him instinctively craves… we have robbed the world of wonder and destroyed the sense of mystery. Surprised by nothing, awed by nothing, the contemporary young person is suffering from an atrophy of the sense of wonderment. The achievements of science may have enabled us to conquer the world, but they have robbed it of much that made it worth the conquering.

That was in the 1930’s. Goodness knows what he’d think now! Off to the country!

Thirdly, there is the danger of war. Surveying the European situation in 1936, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that one’s chance of dying in one’s bed is small, My chance admittedly is greater than that of the young mem and women coming to maturity. For some years after the last war when the chance of another conflict seemed remote, men embraced what they took to be Epicureanism enthusiastically enough, and dancing, drinking, drabbing and ‘sleeping around’ were the order of the day. Today, when the sands are running out and their prospects of leisure for enjoyment are fast vanishing, young men show no disposition to make the most of the little that remains. On the contrary they are serious, puritanical, credulous and seem far more inclined to keep step in the barrack-yard with a million others than to tread the primrose path with one. They are, or so it seems to me, a generation of potential listeners and followers… they will sacrifice themselves with uncomplaining ardour. Well, that is their business; not mine. For my part, I want to enjoy myself before the end comes, and since I am too old or too sophisticated for the dancing, the drinking and the drabbing I take it out in spiritual vagrancy. Why, after all, should I spend my life and break my spirit in attempts to conform to a society that seems bent on its own destruction? And so I let my vagrancy have its way…

Joad’s books on philosophy were criticised for the result of the Confucian/Taoism spilt that was said to mar their construction: he’d successfully keep going for many pages in an austere kind of way and then suddenly break into ‘spiritual vagrant mode’ with doubtful taste and attacks on capitalism (something I’d never do when writing… Hoho!) Academics refused to notice his books at all. In later years he took to writing two books at once, one where he allowed himself ‘…all the expressions of irritation and outpourings of spleen, all the overflowings of Taoist bad taste and spiritual scallywaggery…’ and the other more po-faced. He says he has ‘…a very serious and most Confucian book on hand at the moment which is why he decided to write The Testament of Joad…!

I suppose that my own binary opposition – YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED TO BE SERIOUS UNLESS YOU CAN ACT THE CLOWN and YOU MUSTN’T ACT THE CLOWN UNLESS YOU CAN ALSO BE SERIOUS – is roughly congruent with Joad’s own flippancy/earnestness syndrome.

Appendix I

Brief Outline of Joad’s Life

• 1891-1953. Father an Inspector of Schools, the family moved from Durham to Southampton, where he received a very strict Christian upbringing. After attending Oxford Preparatory School (later called the Dragon School) until 1906, and Blundell’s School, Tiverton, Devon, until 1910, Joad went up to Balliol College, Oxford. He became a Syndicalist, a Guild Socialist and then a Fabian. He achieved a first in Honour Moderations in Literae Humaniores (1912), a first in Greats (a combination of philosophy and ancient history, 1914.
• worked in the Board of Trade (1914) after attending a Fabian Summer School. His aim was to infuse the civil service with a socialist ethos.
• as a pacifist, along with George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell he became unpopular with many who were trying to encourage men to enlist for the Great War.
• breakdown of his first marriage in 1921 led him to the [absurd] belief in the ‘inferior mind’ of women. He said it lacked objectivity, and he had no interest in talking to women who would not go to bed with him.
• described sexual desire as ‘a buzzing bluebottle that needed to be swatted promptly before it distracted a man of intellect from higher things…’ [!]
• job interviews proved a great difficulty for Joad, due to his flippancy
• left the civil service in 1930 to become Head of the Department of Philosophy and Psychology at Birkbeck.
• popularised philosophy, and many other philosophers were beginning to take him seriously. With his two books, Guide to Modern Thought (1933) and Guide to Philosophy (1936), he became a well-known figure in public society.
• argued for the destruction of the Capitalist system. He joined the No More War Movement and the Peace Pledge Union. [of which Iam a member…]
• outspoken controversialist; he declared his main intellectual influences were George Bernard Shaw and HGWells. He was strongly critical of contemporary philosophical trends such as Marxism, Behaviourism and Psychoanalysis.
• crusaded to preserve the English countryside against industrial exploitation, ribbon development, overhead cables and destructive tourism.
• organised rambles and rode recklessly through the countryside.
• wrote letters and articles in protest against decisions being made to increase Britain’s wealth and status, as he believed the short term status would bring long term problems.
• hating the idea of nothing to do, Joad organised on average nine lectures per week and two books per year. His popularity soared and he was invited to give many lectures and lead discussions. He also involved himself in sporting activities such as tennis and hockey, and recreational activities such as bridge, chess and the player piano.
• after the outbreak of the Second World War he became disgusted at the lack of liberty being shown (he was a founding vice-president of the National Council for Civil Liberties from 1934).
• January 1940 selected for a BBC Home Service wartime discussion programme, The Brains Trust, which was an immediate success, attracting millions of listeners. Shortly afterwards Joad abandoned his pacifism and placed his support behind the British war effort.
• opposed the continuation of conscription into peacetime, writing the pamphlet The Rational Approach to Conscription, published by the No Conscription Council, 1947. [I’m glad I was conscripted because it turned me into a pacifist!]
• interested in the paranormal, went on ghost-hunting expeditions,
• involved himself in psychical research, travelling to the Harz Mountains to help find out if it were possible to turn a male goat into a handsome prince at the behest of a maiden pure in heart; it was not possible.
• argued against the ideas of immortality and spirit communication, preferring to believe that bundles of ideas which were formerly regarded as the mind of the dead person may survive death for a short period of time.
• published articles on how extrasensory perception may fit into a Christian framework.
• famous through The Brains Trust, consisting of a small group including Commander ABCampbell and Julian Huxley.
• fund of anecdotes and mild humour brought him to the attention of the general public who considered him the greatest British philosopher of the day; celebrity status followed.
• members of The Brains Trust fielded questions posed by listeners, ranging from ‘What is the meaning of life?’ to ‘How can a fly land upside-down on the ceiling?’ Joad became the star of the show, his voice being the most heard on radio except for the news. When responding to a question, Joad nearly always opened with the catchphrase ‘It all depends on what you mean by…’.
• the humiliation of being caught fiddling the railway had a severe effect on Joad’s health, and, having been sacked from The Brains Trust, he soon became bed-confined with thrombosis at his home in Hampstead and developed cancer.
• renounced his agnosticism and returned to the Christianity of the Church of England, which he detailed in his book The Recovery of Belief, published in 1952. [Ah, well!]
• once one of the best known British intellectuals, as well known as George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell in his lifetime, he popularised philosophy, both in his books and by the spoken word.

Appendix II
THE PROGRESSIVE LEAGUE

In 1932 CEM Joad founded The Progressive League (Federation of Progressive Societies and Individuals) an organisation for social reform.

On 20 August 1932 the New Statesman published a call from HG Wells for a Federation of X Societies, ‘open conspirators to change the world…’ It was suggested to Joad that he contact Wells.

Joad was President of the Federation. The Vice-Presidents included Wells, A. S. Neill, Bertrand Russell, Barbara Wootton, Miles Malleson, David Low, Vera Brittain, Cyril Burt, Norman Haire, Aldous Huxley, Kingsley Martin, Harold Nicolson, Beverley Nichols, Olaf Stapledon, Geoffrey West, Rebecca West, Leonard Woolf and J. C. Flügel.

On 4 October 1932 The Guardian published a letter from Joad announcing the formation of the Federation. In his letter Joad noted the existence across the country of a huge number of groups of people of ‘advanced’ opinion. However, they were ‘…small; they preach only to the converted: their literature is read only by their members, and not always by them; and they are politically and socially completely impotent. The influence which they exert upon legislation is negligible, and the cerebrations of statesmen proceed to their indifferent ends unaffected by their activities…’

According to Joad, progressive opinion had ‘crystallised’ around a set of positions:-

That the economic arrangements of the country should be planned and not haphazard; that war debts should be cancelled, tariff barriers removed, national armaments abolished, and armed force pooled in a collective international police controlled by the League of Nations; that the divorce laws should be changed out of all recognition, birth control information and appliances made available for all, the congenitally unfit sterilised; that the censorship should be abolished, Sunday rescued from the dead hand of the nineteenth century; that rural England, what is left of it, should be preserved; that national parks should be established and citizens be given access to mountains and moorlands, irrespective of the needs of ‘sportsmen’.

The Federation, Joad announced, had been formed out of agreement with these propositions. Joad’s letter went on to note that this progressive agenda was not reflected by the ‘old-fashioned’ media, but that ‘the times… are serious’:-

Economic breakdown and international anarchy threaten to destroy civilisation, which, if it persists, seems increasingly likely to pass into the control of those who regard the traditional ideals of democracy – freedom and equality and the right of citizens to live their lives without moral, religious, or political interference – with amused contempt. If democracy were to founder, the intellectuals would be the first to go down in the wreckage. Either Communism or Fascism would give them short shrift, and social and civil liberties… would be swept down the drains of the Corporate or the Communist State as the discarded refuse of an outworn social structure.

Joad identified ‘vanity, the lack of discipline, the overdeveloped individualities of progressives’ as obstacles to organisation, but ‘danger may affect union where common sense has failed…’ He concluded: ‘it is precisely this danger which has called into being a Federation of Progressive Societies to give unity and cohesion to those woefully impotent forces…’

The Federation of Progressive Societies and Individuals soon found itself without any federated organisational members. Faced with this failure, Joad and JC Flügel (a Freudian psychoanalyst) proposed closing the organisation. However, at the urging of Jack Coates, the AGM voted to continue on an individual membership basis. Some of those involved in the League, realising that it was not to become the umbrella for the left that it was intended to be, found their way back to the Rationalist Press Association. The name Progressive League was adopted in 1940.

It was wound up as late as 2005.

The Progressive League provided a platform for the advocacy of ideas such as world government, Freudian psychology, sex, free love and nudism (hence it was nicknamed by opponents the ‘Federation for the Promotion of Sexual Intercourse’.

Its programme was set out in a ‘Charter for Rationalists’, published in 1932 in Joad’s autobiography:-

• repeal of the divorce laws
• repeal of discriminatory laws against homosexuality
• diffusion of knowledge on birth control
• legalisation of abortion
• sterilisation of the feeble-minded
• abolition of censorship on plays, films and books
• abolition of all Sabbath restrictions
• disendowment and disestablishment of the Church of England
• conservation of the countryside, curbing urban development, creation of national parks
• prohibition of exhibitions of performing animals
• abolition of licensing restrictions
• unilateral and complete disarmament

The Federation of Progressive Societies and Individuals had an official programme:-

• World government
• Socialisation
• Worldwide education: ‘humanistic, scientific and cosmopolitan’
• Individual freedom
• Humanisation of criminal law and procedure
• Control and optimal distribution of the world’s population (including eugenics)
• Town and country planning

The Federation’s programme was essentially HGWells’ ‘open conspiracy’. The Open Conspiracy (1928) was reprinted with the title WHAT ARE WE TO DO WITH OUR LIVES? (1931)

One thought on “IT ALL DEPENDS WHAT YOU MEAN BY…

  1. Thank you this contemplation… I know of Joad only from your writing, even though I have a distant memory of The Brains Trust, I hadn’t heard of him until you mentioned him sometime earlier.

    Whilst burrowing into something seemingly unrelated I happened upon some clear writings on Taoism, something I am intuitively drawn to and have come to be drawn to from an intellectual perspective, although that is not the point, the point is to act accordingly.

    I don’t know if you recall Colin but my first, now distant, “exchange” with you was via Linked in, when you responded to some comment or question I had posed, I thanked you for your Sage like answer – you responded with what I now know to be your fall back position, yes sage and much, much more, not word for word but close enough for my purpose.

    My burrowings confirm what I have felt for some time, which is that I am what might be called an intuitive Taoist, and from my understanding of the words written I see many similarities in the way you consider and live your life.

    Here are the links to the two sets of writings about Taoism I found very clarifying – I have numerous books on the subject, but often they can appear to be written with some hidden code lying deep within the text – sometimes I get some times I just don’t.

    Here however, the writer is very clear, (and not at all afraid of long sentences) the first is a set of 6 articles on the fundamental principals – Called Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World, it contains this phrase.

    “life constitutes an organic whole, a web of interconnectedness; the one constant in life is change; and there is within nature a dynamic movement towards a state of balance.”

    http://www.taoistsanctuary.org/ageless-wisdom

    The second is a set of 22 questions, submitted by a student of Taoism – some of the answers could be you writing

    One of the answers contains this phrase – “the ability of Taoism to recognize the limitation of words which enables a person to participate in multidisciplinary practices each of which seeks to acknowledge and recognize the Divine Infinite Source that gives rise to every tradition.”

    I think you will be particularly drawn to the answer to question 13.

    http://www.taoistsanctuary.org/22-questions-on-taoism

    Sage, it appears, is appropriate still…

    Many thanks for sharing once again

    Like

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