I’ve been listening to an audiobook in The Great Courses series: Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It, by Prof Steven L Goldman. He takes a historical view of how Natural Philosophy evolved from classical times into Science, and how scientists have any claim to “know” what they are talking about. In the course of which he explains just enough of the thought of the great philosophers of the 16-20 centuries to understand the philosophical underpinnings of Science.
At the same time I’ve been rereading The Snow Queen, by HC Andersen. It’s a deceptively simple tale, reminding you of Tolkien at his most avuncular. All those cosy fireside chats with Gandalf.
Disney has done us all a disservice in neutering the story. Imagine some American rich kiddie buying up Trafalgar Square, smashing up Nelson’s Column and using the bits to decorate some cosy confection of motherhood and apple pie, according to what, in his preening ignorance, the monument is all about.
HC Andersen’s story is anything but a cosy confection. In terms a child could understand however, it describes the intellectual battleground of the 19th century – which is still far from played out, some of the vanquished ghosts staging a comeback. We do well to appreciate the story for what it is really all about.
As social beings, clustering together for protection, we yearn for certainty at the touch of a button. An oracle which will give us answers when we turn the handle. This yearning for certainty is why the Romans never began a war without the augurs cutting open a chicken and trying to read sense into the giblets. Why Moses had Aaron put on an ephod and rummage around in the pocket for the two stones Urim and Thummim – one signifying YES and the other NO. Why USA law enforcement and intelligence agencies persist in using lie detectors. It’s not a case of whether the oracle really works. What’s important is whether people believe it does – or it might.
The alternative is having to accept the ravings of some crazed individual who comes down from a cave in the mountainside with a book he’s been given by a heavenly being which ties up The Answer to Everything in a handy parcel.
We call the oracle Reason and the book Revelation. In time, Revelation becomes Tradition, and why we stick with it is never that clear. Peer pressure? Or because we fear the proferred alternatives?
The American colonists had no love of Tradition. They had run away from countries where Tradition had handed them a rough deal. The British Isles were governed by Tradition. The colonists wanted a firm foundation on which to build a just society.
Now at last there was a way forward – as Isaac Newton had shown them. The battle had been fought out in heaven – or at least, over the heavens: now no longer a contraption of spheres emanated by the ineffable mind of God, or (in some versions of the story) slung together by the rebellious sons of God for their own entertainment. Instead Newton had given us a beautiful piece of clockwork founded on rational principles, just like Euclid’s beautiful book of geometry. Newton, like Euclid, had called his three basic principles Axioms, from which he worked out everything he wanted to say.
Nowadays we call them Newton’s Laws of Motion, because we’ve subsequently learned that they are laws which can be broken (which axioms – “self-evident truths” – self-evidently cannot). Indeed, they appear to be routinely broken in the universe we find ourselves in, as relativity theorists such as Einstein have shown. It follows that Newton was not a discoverer of eternal self-evident axioms, but a lawgiver, like Moses. Or, if you prefer, yet another crazed individual, coming down from his ivory tower in Oxford to bring us Revelation in a book. However philosophy, especially political philosophy, takes as long as a century to catch up with the scientific leading-edge, and Newton’s achievement as a beacon to light the way were (and remain) far too spectacular and useful to discard on the basis of relativistic niceties.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Finding the British traditions of government didn’t work in their favour – all taxation and no representation – the colonists did a “britexit” – threw away the rule book and built a new one from scratch based on “self-evident truths”. What worked so nicely for the heavens ought to work on earth too.
It did – and the British Crown went feet-upwards, at least in the New World. The American experiment was enthusiastically copied in Europe. In Paris they dedicated a temple to Reason, guillotined the king and set about tearing down the old order to build a new one, as if they were writing a follow-on to Euclid. Ten hours to the day; ten months to the year. Some of their revolutionary systems are still around – the metric system for example. But soon it all went bad. For a visceral sense of the terror of those years, read Charles Dickens’s A Tale Of Two Cities.
And so it went on, in the same vein, into our own times – Robespierre, Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot – all shedding blood for the loftiest principles based on Pure Reason (at the outset, at least) with supreme disregard for human sentiment, which segued naturally into a supreme disregard for human life. When your historic task is of such enormous consequence, why let mere people stand in your way? As the Robber Girl says to Little Kay in the final chapter, “I’m keen to see what sort of a bloke is worth a gal going all the way to the North Pole to rescue!”
But some people yearned for the old certainties: Pity, Love, roses in the valley and Baby Jesus. HC Andersen was one of them.
An ordinary boy (Little Kay) and the girl next door (Gerda) grow up in friendship which starts to blossom into love. Then Kay is infected by two splinters: one in his eye and one in his heart. They come from a shattered Magic Mirror (the works of the British sceptics: Hobbes, Locke and particularly Hume) which reflected everything in the worst light and showed every man in his basest aspect. Weakened by the splinters, Little Kay succumbs to the blandishments of the terrible Snow Queen – the icy voice of Pure Reason, and she carries him off to the North Pole. In the 19th century this was the abode of terrifying forces: the Northern Lights, compasses gone mad and a never-setting sun. Also of wind, snow, bone-chilling cold – and darkness which lasts all winter. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein evokes it in all its horror as the logical final destination of The Creature.
But the Snow Queen isn’t really evil, in the folk tale sense. From a thinking man’s point-of-view she means well. She invites Little Kay to sit with her in the middle of a second-generation Magic Mirror even mightier than the first: the Mirror of Reason (the works of Hegel and Marx) and try to spell the word Eternity with runes of ice. When he succeeds he will become His Own Man, and she will give him the whole world. Queen of Reason as she is, the world is indeed in her gift.
…Plus a pair of skates – a wicked touch! To stay upright and get around on the Mirror of Reason you’re going to need something.
Meanwhile Gerda journeys north to rescue the boy she loves. Suffering great hardships she wins though, thanks to her courage and pluck, but also thanks to the kindness of strangers: a prince, a princess, old crones, robbers, crows, reindeer – in themselves anything but admirable people. But all are touched by her devotion to her Little Kay and help her magnificently. And by doing so they become redeemed (at least in the reader’s eyes). But, as we learn at the end of the story, life goes on for them as it does: the crow dies, the prince and princess emigrate, and the Little Robber Girl takes a gap year out to see the world – starting at the North Pole!
When at last Gerda arrives at the Snow Queen’s castle, the latter is not at home. She is off south on a commendable expedition: to stare into the black craters of Etna and Vesuvius and make them go white – “which will be good for them, and for the lemons and the grapes”.
Little Kay, frozen stiff, is sitting in the Speil absorbed in his task. He fails to recognise Gerda, but when she weeps upon his breast his heart is melted, tears flow and the glass splinters are washed away. And the runes dance for joy and fall down to spell the word Eternity.
It goes without saying the couple don’t stick around to collect the skates.
They go home and get on with their lives, leaving it to philosophers and scientists in their big cold empty palaces of the mind to bother themselves with the question of what it’s all about.