Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Up Hill and Down Dale

"Neelkanth at dawn, by Alokprasad at Wikimedia Commons - released under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported Licence Look at that blacksmith, for instance," went on Father Brown calmly; "a good man, but not a Christian - hard, imperious, unforgiving. Well, his Scotch religion was made up by men who prayed on hills and high crags, and learnt to look down on the world more than to look up at heaven. Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak."

G K Chesterton, The Hammer of God

I was listening to this, from The Innocence of Father Brown audiobook off Project Gutenberg, and I mused sleepily that while it was a very bad proposition about Scotland, it was a very good metaphor for one of the most useful and unfashionable liberal virtues.

In the morning, I remembered that it is not even true for me as a literal statement of perspective.

I like mountains, and looking down from their peaks. But I don't see small things from any physical eminence. What I see, presumably because I have always desired to see it since I was knee-high to an experimental locust, is a much bigger world.

When I see a human, or a sheep, or a house, I have a momentary dizziness of scale, and then I'm calibrated. I really perceive them as in their just proportion to me - and everything else by their measure. I lack any great talent at estimating sizes and distances at even the closest remove: here I'm speaking not of calculation, but of the broad mental construction of my world. Surely I'm not alone in this? But all I ever hear or read about are those hoary clich├ęs about ants toiling away below, and little china villages, and so forth. Is this view actually more than a conceit for other people here?

Where my vision of the Wide World doesn't work for me is in the metaphorical sense, which is where I should most like it to do so. Real heights don't mess with my sense of perspective at all. But my monkey backbrain is absurdly oversensitive to relative social status, even along dimensions which I personally despise as irrelevant or inverse to worth. It is a useful spider-sense but a horrible contaminant of thought and instinct, and I have to regularly, actively, override its tendency to surround me with giants and dwarfs - or to make me, variably, one or the other.

Now, when one forms an ideology from which to survey the social world, it is a moral ideology, and implicitly the surveyor is at the top of the moral scale, judging all that toils and plays below. If they are reasonably self-aware, an image of their own less Olympian works and games is included, and may not be approved. In either case, Monkey Backbrain is sitting on the shoulder, whispering subtle lies of status into the judge-persona's ear, and these all the more insidious when what one is judging from is (like mine) a stance of radical equality.

Then is when a thought like Chesterton's will be good for me. Or else, try this recasting of mine:

The peak of a mountain is an end of the earth, and a desert of the air. It is something to explore it, and so to show oneself greater than stone and snow and gasping. Having magnified the world from it, there is nothing else to do there.

But in the valleys where we were born, and to which we must return, the soils and the cities are very dear and rich; and at the bottom of all, where we gather with our fellows for the sailing, the rivers roll forever into the teeming sea.

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