Category Archives: Philosophy

Excerpt From Kapuscinski’s ‘The Emperor’: On a Feudal Africa Kingdom and a Philosophy of Class Oppression

Extract taken from The Emperor, Downfall of an Autocrat, Ryszard Kapuscinski, 1983, Vintage International (English Translation).

Part III: The Collapse 

How, then, is one to confront this threatening creature that man seems to be, that we all are? How to tame him and daunt him? How to know that beast, how to master it? There is only one way my friend: by weakening him. Yes, by depriving him of his vitality, because without it he will be incapable of wrong. And to weaken is exactly what fasting does. Such is our Amharic philosophy, and this is what our fathers teach us. Experience confirms it. A man starved all his life will never rebel. Up north there was no rebellion. No one raised his voice or his hand there. But just start to let the subject eat his fill and then try to take the bowl away, and immediately he rises in rebellion. The usefulness in going hungry is that a hungry man thinks only of bread. He’s all wrapped up in the thought of food. He loses the remains of his vitality in that thought, and he no longer has either the desire or the will to seek pleasure through the temptation of disobedience. Just think: Who destroyed our Empire? Who reduced it to ruin? Neither those who had too much, nor those who had too much, nor those who had nothing, but those who had a bit. Yes, one should always beware of those who have a bit, because they are the worst, they are the greediest, it is they who push upward.

The EmperorThe Emperor by Ryszard Kapuściński

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have to say this wasn’t an easy read but it was certainly a worthwhile one. Other GR members have written very comprehensive reviews so won’t repeat what has been adequately said. In summary Kapuściński’s journalistic nose is definitely attuned to the investigative.
Goodness knows how far he went in his efforts to interview such a wide selection of people, many intimately connected with the palace of emperor (Haile Selassie). Probably the best passage for me is his account of a feast for dignitaries, of how the plates pass out of the palace banquet along a chain of waiters to a distant kitchen and the sighing of the hungry masses who feed on the scraps passed to them. This description of the collective is possibly one of the most evocative I can ever recall.
Credit must also be given to the nameless interviewees who he denotes simply by initials. The book would not have been possible without them. I suspect Kapuściński infused the interviews with his own writing style. One gets the sense after reading a number of consecutive chapters. This is not to detract from the readability or authenticity of the tale in any way.
In conclusion a very interesting read of a medieval kingdom and it’s omnipotent demagogue that withstood the tide of the 20th century for 8 miraculous decades before it’s (and his) inevitable demise.
For another great excerpt read this post:…

View all my reviews

Travels and the Unexplainable

Who we meet on life’s windy road and why we meet them has been pondered by many men (and women) from the time of Herodotus et al. Then again, who knows what musings preceded them and have been lost to the passage of time?

Some people like to attribute everything to a divine being whilst others purely to chance. I don’t rule out the former playing a hand of sorts but I don’t think we should overlook the importance of deliberate human interaction. By that I mean the will to step out of bed each day with a purpose of sorts. Those last 4 words are fundamental – “a purpose of sorts.” When I was a teenager this purpose centred on schooling (apparently a necessity but which held some interest too), sport (cycling chiefly) but most fundamentally, a desire to interact with the natural world.

Some people like to attribute everything to a divine being whilst others purely to chance

At some point these conflated interests unwound and intertwined with others. The desire to find love (and not just a lover) probably featuring most potently, not withstanding a desire for reconciliation with love lost (my father’s principally). I came away sourly wounded about 12 years or so back when my purpose seemed lost in the mire and conflict that life sometimes brings upon its human subjects.

Fast forward to the present and I look back at a third of my entire lifespan lived since then. It almost seems like I was born again into another life at the age of 24. On paper it would seem as though I’ve traveled far and wide in the intervening time span but it has been mostly in a rather linear pattern. Bouncing between the nations of Zimbabwe and South Africa for almost 6 years before heading north to the United Kingdom for a similar time again, notwithstanding months and weeks spent back in Africa every other year hence.

People would raise their eyebrows of course and even with some amusement remark on the ‘traveller’s wanderings’. I think I was even regarded with envy by some of my friends, similarly unsettled or at least yearning for more than their immediate environment could provide.

One thing that travel has taught me is that we actually yearn for some semblance of familiarity, even in the exotic. For me, travel has helped me confront my own predicament yet not cure it. I understand now more than ever before that people the world over go about the mundane and humdrum as a matter of necessity for the functioning of their respective societies, yet most do not rebel against their lot. I know there are those that have done and the consequences are sometimes tragic, with a nod to Syria and other nations in severe turmoil, but people are people are people…

One thing that travel has taught me is that we actually yearn for some semblance of familiarity, even in the exotic

I love the fact that there’s a pervading desire to be interconnected, that we all love food and laughter and that we make jokes about our bodies and the shortcomings thereof. Wherever I’ve gone this has been the case and there’s no reason to believe it will be any different in China, Brazil or Alaska.

So why I am I still so fearful about the past? Why the feelings of un-belonging and sadness that sometimes assuage me in the still, early hours of the morning before the sun has risen? I’ve long looked for reason in my own reasoning and it becomes null as though I’m traveling an endless trajectory along some sort of Mobius strip of human experience. Just the thought of a certain place and time is enough to elicit a sort of reflex response of dismay or distress. It is as if I’m living in the moment again. A form of PTSD? Perhaps, but without the violent experience that precedes such a condition. No, it’s more subtle than that. The challenge is in coming to view the past differently through my experience in the here and now.

I’ve long looked for reason in my own reasoning and it becomes null as though I’m traveling an endless trajectory along some sort of Mobius strip of human experience.

Actually, that is not just a conventional wisdom or my version of it spun out philosophically but the (wise?) words of a man I met recently in Cape Town. I met Carllo whilst staying in a backpacker hostel. He originated from another South African city but had chosen Cape Town to escape some sort of family feud, specifically a protracted dispute or argument with his father whom he refered to as his ‘nemesis’. Some of what he told me sounded familiar to a younger me and it made me sad to see him at war with his own father even if it were only in his own head.

I felt the same way about mine all those years before but now that I look back I see what I perceived as an implacable fortress as just that, my perception of the man. Seen from another angle he was vulnerable and old and emotionally detached; someone to be pitied. Circumstance is everything and it was the context of our relationship that made him seem like my nemesis. If only we could step back from the pictures we paint we would see things so much clearer.

Whatever his situation Carllo elaborated at some length on his own philosophy or pursuit thereof. As one who looked to the East he believed in the power of contemplation. He spoke about an essence that seeks to reveal. I don’t know much about these things so I don’t have a point of reference to established schools of thought or theology. What he did say, which resonated with me, was that situations would keep recurring until such a time as I would be able to face them with confidence (or was it honesty?). Interesting that.

What he did say…was that situations would keep recurring until such a time as I would be able to face them with confidence (or was it honesty?)

In fact, whilst eating a late-night dinner at an oriental takeaway somewhere in the heart of the city he sought to divine my own future by consulting this apparent ‘essence’. He foretold something of a future love to whom I would run to at the appointed time, whatever that meant, but also that I should stop writing! When I queried this he shook his head quite emphatically.

“Stop writing or it will bring you trouble…big trouble”. To be honest I was more flattered than concerned. Show me a writer who doesn’t want to be noticed, avoids controversy, and fears critical acclaim. All the same I wondered if he’d done a spot of intelligence gathering beforehand? Just simply Googling my name would’ve revealed that I had self-published a while back, that I had a blog and contibuted to various social sites and news feeds. But does this classify me as a writer? I doubt it. It could’ve been an inspired guess as to my inclinations based on the several preceding hours we spent in each other’s company. We had quite a bit to drink after all and had spoken on a range of thoughts and experiences.

The funny thing is that I would never have divulged that I had written anything notable without remembering that I’d done so, nor do I remember talking about writing in any shape or form. I’m intrigued but since I never did learn Carllo’s second name and am not living in Cape Town it is unlikely that I will ever get the chance to ask him again. Perhaps the essence of life intends it to be so…

I never did learn Carllo’s second name and am not living in Cape Town it is unlikely that I will ever get the chance to ask him again

In Search of My Generic Self

Extract from Taken on Trust by Terry Waite (Paperback, 2010, 496 pages, Hodder & Stoughton):

‘Why?’ someone once said to me. ‘Why do you think Europeans are so distant from Africans?’
‘Fear. They are afraid of Africa, afraid it will swallow them. It’s too vast, too mysterious, too earthy. Many Africans prefer to walk barefooted – to be in direct touch with the earth. Europeans wear shoes and cover the ground with concrete. One day Africa will be covered with concrete, and the spirits which fail to escape will be entombed forever.’
I remember standing on the bank of a lake in Buganda feeling vulnerable, frightened, alone. There is a great silence – a huge silence. The lake stretches out as far as my eyes can see. Why do I feel so vulnerable, so threatened by the magnificence of my surroundings? I sense the spirit of this place, a restless consuming spirit seeking to draw the unwary back to the earth from which they came. A small breath of wind stirs the gnarled branches of a dying tree. A wisp of woodsmoke spirals high into the sky. I smell the damp, dark atmosphere of this place, and it disturbs me.

Conceived and born in metropolitan London but raised in Africa from the tender age of several months is it any wonder that I grew up with a conflicted sense of who I was and where I belonged? It is my most sincere hope in the whole damn world – yes, MOST – that a satisfactory answer to this question will be found one day. By me? Of course that would be ideal, but not likely.

No, when I say ‘answer’ I refer to the fruits of scientific rigor married with real psychological insight: in pursuit of the ‘generic’ Leo A Passaportis. I do exist to myself and to others, perhaps quite insignificantly in the vast scheme of our universe, but significantly enough (or so I believe) to be able to conform to one generic model or another.

From what I have just written you could immediately lump me in the following category, for instance: white, British, male. To my mind that is an inadequate level of categorisation. I feel as though a lot more could be said of me.

Returning to my initial query, I believe this is in large part due to an anomaly involving place of gestation/birth and place of upbringing. (How comforting it would be to feel sufficiently defined in being called a white, British male.)

I became quite excited when I first read about the field of epigenetics. I have a feeling this emerging area of research will give us some of the answers I have long sought: Early childhood experiences can influence the brain for a lifetime [extract from Cerebrum online article, The Dana Foundation, 2011].

What I imagine would cloud the view of any would-be-researcher, were there one looking into the generic me, would be the overprint of a complex societal and familial influence. In fact just thinking about all those so-called influences makes me woozy! Yet there were some ‘symptoms’ exhibited by the younger me (<15) that might be of interest to this hypothetical researcher:

an unusual affinity for old, European architecture exhibited in buildings like the main school building at my high school, St Georges College (SGC), which gave me a very powerful sense of deja vu; a sense of clarity and unambiguity in matters of a moral sense which often left me feeling strongly at odds with sentiments of others: church, politics, racial discourse etc; and a general, difficult-to-clarify sense of just being different and, though I despised the implications, more sensitive than my peers.

I know that I wasn’t completely alone but I had so few encounters with other children who may have had similar thoughts and feelings that I can’t be sure. When I was a senior at SGC I recall a far younger boy, James Jackson, an English-raised lad who had evidently been in the country from a later age, identifying with me. I was his class prefect. I don’t know what prompted it but he confided in me that it was the worst school he had ever been to, that he felt like an outsider, alienated. It struck a chord with me.

Actually my strongest conviction from when I was still a young chap concerned environmentalism. I was a very vociferous advocate of protectionist-type conservation as was practised and advocated in Zimbabwe at that time. One of the biggest perceived threats came through the poaching of our native rhinoceros of which the country has two species, the black and the white (misnomers actually because they do not conform to a simple colour-coded distinction).

I campaigned to raise money, as many of us kids did at the time, for anti-poaching initiatives in national parks which held the majority of the animals. There was also much awareness being generated around the conservation of African elephants, under pressure from ivory-poaching regionally. But because of the geographical and practical limitations of my situation – living in the capital city, a relatively young scholar, parents who worked) – I only got out into the surrounds, the ‘bush’ as we called it, episodically.

I loved the bush and the farms that surrounded Harare, where we lived. After graduating from junior school to senior school (SGC) I decided to channel my energy as regards conservation (and nature-loving in general) towards a local initiative, the Greystone Nature Preserve. At the time we lived in Greystone Park, a doleritic suburb of Harare, and the nature preserve was actually a greenbelt and former bridal route through that part of suburbia.

Some years later I wrote an overview of my activities in the GNP in tandem with a teacher of mine, Rob Burrett, as part of a broader recollection. But that belongs in another post on my sister blog, These Archived Memories.

Returning to Mr Terry Waite and his rather prescient observation on being a European in Africa, the fact is that Africa is a land of vast spaces long removed from written history and thus undefined in the sense that much of Europe is by what happened when and where, and to whom. The African people have their oral traditions and there is the archaeological heritage as well, but it is a continent of wild places and, I would venture to say, many lonely spaces.

I found my ‘lonely space’ there in the GNP – a place I could escape to from the various strictures of my other-worldly existence. I was happy there for a while and I still ardently believe that, had I been allowed, I could have made my transition to some other lonely corner of Africa, sub-Saharan of course, perhaps a bit of farmland to call my own.

I certainly fantasised about it and the woman I would take as my wife: a complex hybrid of Catholic attributes, fortitude and beauty. There was no real-world equivalent. In retrospect it was a crazy, mad place to find myself in, in all possible ways. I’ve kept going back, again and again, looking for an answer that’s as elusive as the wind itself….

What is this thing called Belief? A Humanist’s perspective.

It is the end of the Easter weekend and the beginning of the northern hemisphere summer (although the temperatures belie it). It is difficult to determine which event is more important to the people of Britain: the notion of summer or Easter, the most essential event of the Christian calendar?

A few days ago I would have unashamedly sat squarely in the summer camp but right now I’m not so sure. In years to come will I recall this winter as being particularly glum and seemingly unending as it does now? I fancy it will blend with the other three consecutive northern winters I have experienced before it. When was the deepest snowfall, the coldest day, the most persistent frost? I won’t be able to say whether it was 2009 or 2013. What I will remember is that during the Easter of 2013 something took hold in my head with regards to the meaning of faith, perhaps even of God (and yes I deign to use a big ‘G’).

Like many others in the modern world I am an occasional Christian: when the occasion suits I declare myself one for the sake of the peace, or more likely because I lack the courage to take the atheist corner. After having not set foot in a church on Easter Sunday for a few years I felt it was time to join the faithful. I chose an old Anglican establishment in the centre of Luton, the English town where I live. I freely admit that it was as much the allure of the old stone church, some 830 years old, with its stained-glass windows and cavernous interior,  as the thought of a charismatic celebration of Christ’s resurrection that drew me there. This was in spite of the fact that I was raised a Catholic and if pressed would label myself one rather than a Christian. Still, the last time I had set foot in a Catholic Mass I found it a little wearisome and disconcerting – the tried and tested hymns sung fairly tunelessly to an organ accompaniment, the responses to the liturgy uttered routinely by some and a forced emphasis by others, perhaps keen to impress upon the congregation the strength of their religious zest.

Amongst the Anglican congregation of St Mary’s I felt a spirit of unity and passion that had been lacking at the other service. It wasn’t the first charismatic service I had been to; I use to go along to an evening Presbyterian service with a friend back in Zimbabwe where there had been much singing and waving of arms and flags, but something crystallized in my mind during this service. Perhaps the environs of the old building appealing to my sentimental self played a part; or perhaps it was the presence of Bishop Richard, the bishop of Bedfordshire, who presided over the service; or the happy faces of the children waving coloured flags to the side of the altar; or the assorted instruments on the other side of the altar – trumpets, guitars and a cello amongst them – giving a joyful harmony to the songs of praise and celebration. I think that word celebration is the one that best sums up the nature of that Easter service. People celebrating a new beginning, and not just the fact that this Easter coincided with the beginning of summer and the psychological notion that warmer weather was imminent. Here were people rejoicing because they could, because the prime intercessor of their faith, Jesus Christ, had died for their sins and risen again to give them a second chance. It was a reaffirmation of their own desire to be good people: good fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. Sitting here I’m thinking that perhaps it is easier for those of northern temperate climes to feel this renewal at the end of winter and all that it represents – the coldness, the leafless trees, the feeling of austerity and sombreness.

Reading these words you are probably assuming that I am indeed a Christian, never mind what I may have said about my seasonal worshipping habits. The truth is that I am not, have not been for some time. Perhaps I never was. What bothers me? Besides the usual doubts of someone with a scientific and evolutionary disposition, the Bible itself, principally the Resurrection and Jesus Christ revealed as the Son of God i.e. the essence of Easter and the religious service I was attending. If you see an inherent contradiction it’s not lost on me either! I imagine that like many experiencing the first bitter pangs that come through ‘losing their religion’, and by that I mean those inherited beliefs, written and oral traditions, back then I had to cast aside everything I had been told and ingested, step back and reassess my beliefs. I still didn’t label myself an atheist, an Unbeliever, but by the most literal of definitions I was. Not that I was necessarily uncomfortable with my position; I just felt no need to adjust it from the position of closet doubter. At that time I was living in a fairly conservative society at university in South Africa or at home in Zimbabwe, many of best friends being professed Christians, and I felt it best not to rock the boat.

My best friend Ben was the earliest professed atheist I can remember. His argument against  God was simple but powerful: there are x number of religions in the world, each professing to be the true path to enlightenment – if there really was a God of one faith why would he tolerate such a situation? This is the argument of a rational person and it sat uneasily with me for many years but to the religious zealot his or her belief is paramount, fundamental and all conquering. Given the fullness of time the world will become either an Islamic caliphate, a unified global community of Christian worshippers or something else, depending on their particular brand of religion. Ridiculous as that may seem to many progressive, worldly individuals living in Western nations today, most other Believers (and I use a big ‘B’ here to signify anyone of formal religious affiliation) don’t seem unduly bothered by this, the religious paradox. No, in recent years the pendulum has swung, in the West at least, towards what has been dubbed in some circles as militant atheism. The Unbelievers have stood up and asked the question of the Believers: Why do you believe in God in the face of empirical and scientific evidence, amassed year-on-year? 

I for one stand with the scientific camp. Scientific endeavour underpins all our material advances and much of our understanding of the world around us. Our inherent curiosity compels us to continue to question and to discover. Where the so-called militant atheist camp has overstepped the mark in my mind is in their desire to remove the moral underpinnings of religion and decry them as misguided, naive, or even dangerous. There is a ‘God-shaped space’ in our brains or so I read in a New Scientist magazine edition last year (the God Issue, 17 March 2012). We are predisposed towards belief in supernatural entities. This is backed up by studies, especially with babies and young children; all very interesting stuff. I suppose this is where I want to tie-in my own experience of Easter this year: people believing in something bigger and better than themselves. Jesus of the Gospels was an amazing man even if he wasn’t the definitive, one and only Son of God. His sermon on the mount has been referred to as the first recorded declaration of  Human Rights I read somewhere. Because of who he claimed to be and the nature of his proclaimed mission on Earth he is a controversial figure, but nonetheless enduring. I don’t think we have had a truly inspired discussion on the nature of this man and his legacy between the two camps – the Believers and the Unbelievers. I think it’s time.