3rd–21st May 1992
A child fell asleep and had a dream. A spirit appeared and said:
‘Come with me, and I will show you the folly of philosophy.’
The child was puzzled, and asked: ‘What do you mean?’
‘The wise have debated the same questions for thousands of years, but they have found no answers,’ replied the spirit. ‘Is this not strange?’
The child was silent, so the spirit continued:
‘What is being? You are immersed in it, but can you say what it is? Come with me, and I will show you what being is.’
So the child arose, and went with the spirit, and they flew into the air, and as they rose the earth shrank beneath them, until it was no bigger than a melon, and the spirit said:
‘What do you see?’
‘The sun, brighter than I have ever seen it before,’ answered the child. ‘It’s so beautiful, so round; it’s amazing!’
‘Now watch,’ said the spirit, and as the child looked the sun dimmed from white-gold to orange, and from orange to red, and as it dimmed it grew, until they were enveloped in a dull glow.
‘What’s wrong?’ the child asked, worried. Then, eyes widening in horror, ‘The earth,’ shouted the child, ‘it’s burning up!’
‘The sun cannot shine for ever,’ the spirit said. ‘Even while it shone, it was decaying, and now it shines no more. Nothing is permanent.’
The sun dwindled again as the spirit spoke, turning a dull blackish red. The child turned away from the terrible sight, but the spirit said:
‘Wait a little longer.’
The sun disappeared as the last traces of red faded, and it was dark, except for the stars. Then suddenly an explosion split the sky, hurling light at the heavens. As the wave of brightness passed over them, the spirit said:
‘See: a new star is born.’
The child looked, then gasped: ‘The earth’s alright again.’
‘No,’ answered the spirit. ‘The earth too has been reborn. Out of corruption comes renewal. Come, let us return.’
They began to descend, and, as the earth grew larger, the child said:
‘I’m glad the earth was born again. It looked so bare and ugly, like a tree in winter.’
‘Is a tree in winter ugly?’ asked the spirit.
‘Yes: it looks all shrivelled up without its leaves.’
Now they hovered over a forest. ‘Down there it is autumn,’ said the spirit. ‘One by one, the leaves are falling. Look at that oak; is it ugly?’
‘You can see it is. It looks all old and withered.’
Like a film being rewound, a few leaves gathered themselves back onto the tree.
‘If one more leaf fell, would the tree be ugly then?’ asked the spirit.
The child hesitated. ‘I don’t know’.
‘Then how do you know what makes the tree ugly?’
‘I suppose I don’t.’
‘You know what ugliness is, and yet you cannot say what makes a thing ugly. But look again.’
The child looked, and the bare tree now stood on its own, in a blasted wilderness of bare earth and rock, strewn with boulders.
‘Now which is uglier, the tree or the land?’
‘How do I know? They’re completely different things.’
‘You cannot say what ugliness is; you cannot even tell me if one thing is uglier than another. What is the point of calling things ugly, or beautiful, or good, or bad, when you cannot say what the words mean?’
‘But I know what they mean. Anyway, what’s the point of saying anything, if I can’t say things are good or bad?’
‘Yes; what can you say without values? And yet they are so fragile.’
The sun grew hotter and brighter, and the landscape changed, the angular rocks sinking into gentle undulations, altering from grey to yellow. A vast desert stretched away before them. To the left, a small oasis was just visible, with cacti dotted around it.
‘Can we go to the oasis?’ asked the child.
‘Yes,’ said the spirit, and they flew towards it. As they approached, the child saw that a man and a woman were sitting in the shade of some trees at the water’s edge, talking to one another.
‘It’s so hot,’ said the woman, who seemed ill at ease. ‘I wish there were a breeze.’
‘But the sun is happy today,’ replied the man, ‘and does not sigh any more for his love the moon, for she returned in splendour last night from the shadow of the devourer.’
‘There you go again, with your mystical nonsense,’ said the woman angrily. ‘I wish you’d see sense. Winds are just pressure differences, not the sun sighing. Anyway, there was a gale blowing at the last new moon. How do account for that?’
‘The sun singing to his love at her return.’
The woman was furious. ‘Your explanations are far too malleable. Whatever evidence I give you, you make up some stupid story to agree with it. And you cannot tell me whether the wind will blow tomorrow, let alone next month!’
‘Who can tell what the sun will do tomorrow?’ asked the man, unperturbed.
‘Why will you not admit that I might be right?’ demanded the woman. ‘I said last week that it would rain, and it did. I said there wouldn’t be a sandstorm today, and there hasn’t been. You can’t predict anything.’
‘But I am a good man. Evil spirits come to you and tell you these secrets. I know that you are sent to try me with your art of divining mysteries, which you call science. Well, I will not succumb to your tricks. Leave me alone.’
‘How can I discuss things with you if you won’t even admit the possibility that I might be right? You’re unbearable!’ the woman exclaimed, standing up, and walked round to the other side of the tree and sat down again.
Just then, another appeared from among the trees, and came and sat down by the woman.
‘Hello,’ said the woman grumpily.
‘What’s the problem?’ asked the other.
‘I’ve just been talking with that stupid religious fanatic. He won’t even accept the possibility that I may be able to predict the weather by scientific methods. He says an evil spirit tells me what the weather will be. It’s ridiculous!’
‘Well, maybe he’s right.’
‘What do you mean? All that rubbish about the sun “sighing for his love”?’. The woman mimicked the soft, calm tones.
‘I don’t know…you’ve got to keep an open mind, haven’t you? I mean, don’t you ever think it might be you that’s wrong?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
‘But you might be. I mean, how do you know for certain that you’re not just the butt of some cosmic joker trying to convince you that science works?’
‘Well, really. Anyway, if you’re so clever, then why do you think the wind blows?’
‘I don’t know. Like I said, I keep an open mind.’
‘But if you won’t say anything, then you’re just as bad as him. I’m off.’ With that, the woman rose again, and stormed off among the trees.
‘That woman wasn’t very nice,’ said the child. ‘She was cross with everyone.’
‘But she is right,’ said the spirit. ‘Without admitting the possibility of things, there can be no discussion; yet if you believe nothing, then too discussion is impossible.’
‘But she wouldn’t admit that she might be wrong either.’
‘Yes; she was as inflexible as the first. You must be flexible, ready to discuss your own position as well as that of others.’
The spirit fell silent and looked into the distance, an endless progression of dunes rolling gently to the horizon.
‘What are you thinking about?’ asked the child.
‘Do you believe in God?’ the spirit responded.
‘I’m not sure. I mean, I don’t believe all those silly arguments that say God must exist because otherwise how did the universe start, or how did the eye happen, but…’
‘Well, if there’s no God, then what’s the point of everything? And what’s going to happen when I die? It’s scary, thinking the universe is just there, and that when I die, that’s it.’
‘I think you mistake yourself,’ said the spirit, and immediately the child was alone in a limitless black void, dotted with points of light. The child blinked, startled by the sudden change, and vision returned with wonderful clarity; the dots which had seemed stars were in fact galaxies, each containing billions of suns which individually traced their paths across the child’s awareness as they revolved slowly in their endless dance. The child gazed, terrified, at the awful vision.
‘Behold the measure of your conceit!’ boomed the spirit. The voice seemed to come from everywhere at once, and yet speak inside the child’s head. ‘Would you compare yourself with the whole universe? Because you feel unhappy without, must the universe have a God? Look at yourself! Can you command the universe?’
‘But…if all this is for nothing, then it’s a shame!’ cried the child.
‘Does the universe care what you think? Does it know what you mean by “shame”? You assume too much. There may be races on other planets which do not even have the idea of “a shame”. The universe exists, and that is all. To impose your notions of purpose and tragedy on it is sheer arrogance.’
The child trembled, and said nothing.
The spirit’s voice softened. ‘Besides, how can you say that the universe would be a sad place without a purpose? Have you seen its wonders?’
The galaxies vanished, and the child was washed by a sea of mysteries: towering mountains, whirling particles, searing thoughts, slow, haunting music, exuberant birds, gently wafting smells, sparkling clouds; wave after wave crashed around, leaving an overwhelming feeling of inexpressible joy. At last it was dark again, and the spirit was there once more.
‘Thank you,’ whispered the child, and wept.
‘It is well that you weep,’ said the spirit. ‘Few people see what you have seen. Such beauty does not need a purpose.’
The child looked up, and saw that they were back outside the bedroom window.
‘Is that the end?’ asked the child.
‘Yes; for you must understand that reason alone cannot teach you anything: however much better you are for reasoning, you must always discover the truth for yourself. Only then will you appreciate it.’
‘But you’ve taught me so much.’
‘If I have taught you anything, I hope it is that being is inextricably bound in paradox. To live we must accept death; to prove our beliefs we must suspend them; to judge we must accept that we cannot. Never become cold and rigid: that is worse than death. Keep a warm and open heart; remember that there are no complete and final answers, only temporary and partial ones. The final lesson is this: philosophy by itself is useless; you must live. Go now, and learn what I have taught you.’
‘Wait,’ said the child, ‘there’s something you haven’t told me. Who are you?’
‘Surely you know now,’ said the spirit, and at that the child awoke, lips still moving.
Thanks to everyone who read and commented on the essay: Honza Lochmann, Paul Phillips, Christopher Insole, Mark Cheng, and, as always, Jeremy Douglas. Lina Christopoulou and Eugenia Cheng made comments which led to the revision. I do not know whom to acknowledge for their influence on the writing and ideas; they are many, and I thank them all.
This essay was entered in its original form for the 1992 Warden and Fellows’ Prize for English Essay at Winchester College.
This document was translated from LATEX by HEVEA.
Last updated 2017/10/12