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Chapter 4: self: Self-Knowledge

Why the World Stands Ready to Be Changed

One of the things that separates confident from diffident people is their sense of how feasible it might be to change the status quo. Broadly-speaking, the unconfident believe that history is over; the confident trust that it is still in the process of being made – one day possibly by themselves.

The way we enter the world carries with it an inherent bias towards an impression that the status quo has forever been settled. Everything around us conspires to give off a sense of fixity. We are surrounded by people far taller than we are, who follow traditions that have been in place for decades, even centuries. As children, our understanding of time hugely over-privileges the immediate moment. Last year feels, to a five year old, like a century ago. The house we live in appears as immutable as an ancient temple; the school we go to looks as though it has been performing the same rituals since the earth began. We are constantly told why things are the way they are and encouraged to accept that reality is not made according to our wishes. We come to trust that human beings have fully mapped the range of the possible. If something hasn’t happened, it’s either because it can’t happen – or it shouldn’t.

The result is a deep wariness around imagining alternatives. There is no point starting a new business (the market must be full already), pioneering a new approach to the arts (everything is already set in a fixed pattern) or giving loyalty to a new idea (it either exists or is mad).

When we study history, however, the picture changes sharply. Once time is speeded up and we climb up a mountain of minutes to survey the centuries, change appears constant. New continents are discovered, alternative ways of governing nations are pioneered, ideas of how to dress and whom to worship are transformed. Once people wore strange cloaks and tilled the land with clumsy instruments. A long time ago, they chopped a king’s head off. Way back, people got around in fragile ships, ate the eyeballs of sheep, used chamber pots and didn’t know how to fix teeth.

We come away from all this knowing, at least in theory, that things do change, but in practice – almost without noticing – we tend to distance ourselves and our own societies from a day-to-day belief that we belong to the same ongoing turbulent narrative and are, at present, its central actors. History, we feel, is what used to happen; it can’t really be what is happening around us in the here and now. Things have – in our vicinity at least – settled down.

To attenuate this insensitivity to the omnipresence of change and, by extension, the passivity it breeds, we might turn to some striking lines in T. S. Eliot’s cycle of poems, the Four Quartets:

                    So, while the light fails

                                                  On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel

                                                  History is now and England.

Winter afternoons, around 4pm, have a habit of feeling particularly resolved and established, especially in quiet English country chapels, many of which date back to the middle ages. The air in such chapels is still and musty. The heavy stone floors have been slowly worn away by the feet of the faithful. There might be a leaflet advertising an upcoming concert and a charity box hoping to catch our eye. Over the altar, a stained glass window of the saints (Peter and John, holding a lamb each) glows from the last of the light. These are not places and times to think about changing the world, everything hints that we would be wiser to accept the way things are, walk back home across the fields, light a fire and settle down for the evening. Hence the surprise of Eliot’s third line, his resonant: ‘History is now and England.’ In other words, everything that we associate with history – the impetuous daring of great people, the dramatic alterations in values, the revolutionary questioning of long-held beliefs, the upturning of the old order – is still going on, even at this very moment, in outwardly peaceful, apparently unchanging places like the countryside near Shamley Green, in Surrey, where Eliot wrote the poem. We don’t see it only because we are standing far too close. The world is being made and remade at every instant. And therefore any one of us has a theoretical chance of being an agent in history, on a big or small scale. It is open to our own times to build a new city as beautiful as Venice, to change ideas as radically as the Renaissance, to start an intellectual movement as resounding as Buddhism.

The present has all the contingency of the past – and is every bit as malleable. It should not intimidate us. How we love, travel, approach the arts, govern, educate ourselves, run businesses, age and die are all up for further development. Current views may appear firm, but only because we exaggerate their fixity. The majority of what exists is arbitrary, neither inevitable nor right, simply the result of muddle and happenstance. We should be confident, even at sunset on winter afternoons, of our power to join the stream of history – and, however modestly, change its course.

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