3 Minute Theologian

Words about God and Life for the Attention Deficit Generation

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The delights of group working

In its search for a leader the [small therapeutic] group finds a paranoid schizophrenic or malignant hysteric if possible; failing either of these, a psychopathic personality with delinquent trends will do; failing a psychopathic personality it will pick on the verbally facile high-grade defective. I have at no time experienced a group of more than five people that could not provide a good specimen of one of these.

W. R. Bion, Experiences in Groups and Other Papers (London: Tavistock Publications, 1961), p. 123

Change and the Brigadier Belt

How do we experience change, in society and its groupings? Wilfred Bion, with his experience as an officer in the First World War, and his training as a psychoanalyst, had some ideas:

Change can take place, but society needs to defend itself from change that takes place too rapidly, the catastrophic rate of change. The new ideas have to be appropriately contained and represented so that they can become accessible to the non-geniuses who represent the vast majority of any society. They have to pass the test of what Bion called the Establishment, persons whose established rôle it is to preserve the existing status but at the same time to allow for the slow incursion of new ideas. In the church this would represent the assembly of bishops, in the army what has been called the brigadier belt, that is, those persons whose ability does not fit them to rise above this relatively high rank but whose experience and capacity for testing new ideas is relied on to protect the army from wild ideas but at the same time foster steady change.

Malcolm Pines, ‘Bion: A Group-Analytic Appreciation’, Group Analysis 20, no. 3 (September 1987): 251–62,. p. 253

Trammelled by the otherness of the others

My last post was Gregory of Nazianzus’s advice to avoid assemblies of bishops. Carl Jung was even more pessimistic. He thought we should avoid all assemblies of any kind:

When a hundred clever heads join in a group, one big nincompoop is the result, because every individual is trammelled by the otherness of the others. There used to be a funny question: Which are the three largest organizations, the morale of which is the lowest? Answer: Standard Oil, the Catholic Church, and the German Army. Especially in a Christian organization one should expect the highest morality, but the necessity to bring into harmony various factions requires compromises of the most questionable kind. (Jesuitic casuistry and distortion of the truth in the interest of the institution!)…

Real virtues are relatively rare and constitute usually the achievements of individuals. Mental and moral laziness, cowardice, prejudice, and unconsciousness are dominant. I have behind me fifty years of pioneer work and, therefore, could tell a few things about these: there is, perhaps, scientific and technical progress. However, one has not heard yet that people in general have become more intelligent or morally better.

Individuals can be improved because they let themselves be treated. Societies, however, let themselves be seduced and deceived, temporarily even for the good.

Hans A. Illing, ‘C. G. Jung on the Present Trends in Group Psychotherapy’, Human Relations 10, no. 1 (1957): 77–83.

Avoid all assemblies of bishops…

For my part, if I am to write the truth, my inclination is to avoid all assemblies of bishops, because I have never seen any council come to a good end, nor turn out to be a solution of evils. On the contrary, it usually increases them. You always find there love of contention and love of power (I hope you will not think me a bore, for writing like this), which beggar description; and, while sitting in judgement on others, a man might well be convicted of ill-doing himself long before he should put down the ill-doings of his opponents. So I retired into myself; and came to the conclusion that the only security for one’s soul lies in keeping quiet.

Gregory of Nazianzus, Letter 130 (to  Procopius), cAD 382, in Creeds, Councils and Controversies: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church Ad 337-461, ed. James Stevenson and W. H. C. Frend, Rev. ed. (London: S. P. C. K, 1989).

Bullets and Dancing

This is lovely.

Clive James, the poet, critic, novelist, was diagnosed with terminal cancer (leukaemia) in 2010. In 2015 he published what was advertised as his final book, a collection of poems called Sentenced to Life. It was very well received.

Unaccountably, he is still alive, and it has just been announced that he will publish another book of poems in May. In an interview with The Guardian today he said, about the slow progress of his cancer:

“I felt like I’d dodged a bullet, and when you’re dodging a bullet the best thing you can do is turn it into a dance.”

Isn’t that great?

Best ever reason for not writing

Who would’ve thought that John of the Cross could’ve turned neglect in communication into a spiritual lesson?

To the Discalced Carmelite Nuns of Beas, from Granada, November 22, 1587

…My failure to write to you was not due to any unwillingness, for indeed I desire your great good, but to my belief that enough has already been said and written for doing that which is important; and that what is wanting, if anything is wanting, is not writing or speaking—rather these usually superabound—but silence and work. Furthermore, speaking distracts one, while silence and work recollects and strengthens the spirit. Once a person knows what has been told him for his benefit, he no longer needs to hear or speak, but to put it into practice, silently and carefully and in humility and charity and contempt of self. He must not then go in search of new things that serve only to satisfy the appetite outwardly—although they are not able to satisfy it—and leave the spirit weak and empty without interior virtue.

My silence was so that you might learn wisdom (<= my new Twitter strapline!)

Letter 7, Saint John of the Cross, Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, ed. Kieran Kavanaugh, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1973), pp. 688-689

The immense parlez-vous of American government

In the early summer of 1941, John Maynard Keynes was sent by Churchill to negotiate with the American government the developing terms of the Lend-Lease agreement between Britain and the USA. The war was not going well for Britain at the time, and money was short. It wasn’t helped by American insistence on Britain selling UK-owned assets held in America, to American businesses, at knock-down prices. The American government, especially under the suspicious leadership of Henry Morgenthau, secretary to the Treasury, wanted Britain to continue fighting the war, but not be in any position to use American aid or money to rebuild economic capacity for after the war.


Morgenthau and Keynes at the later Bretton Woods Conference, 1994 (Morgenthau uncharacteristically using a bit of paper)

With this unstated aim, the Washington system of government proved to be an absolute asset. Keynes, bewildered by his need to negotiate simultaneously with three different officials, four different departments, and 23 separate political players, spent much, much longer in Washington that he expected (he said in a letter to a friend after his return to England “I always regard a visit [to the USA] as in the nature of a serious illness to be followed by convalescence.”1. Keynes wanted to brief his employers, so on 2 June 1941 he wrote a long letter to Kingsley Wood, Chancellor of the Exchequer. In the middle of advising Wood about the status and content of negotiations, he warned that the American way of doing things would hamper his efforts:

The other main criticism which must strike one’s attention here relates to the organs of government. To the outsider it looks almost incredibly inefficient. One wonders how decisions are ever reached at all. There is no clear hierarchy of authority. The different departments of the Government criticise one another in public and produce rival programmes. There is perpetual internecine warfare between prominent personalities. Individuals rise and fall in general esteem with bewildering rapidity. New groupings of administrative power and influence spring up every day. Members of the so-called Cabinet make public speeches containing urgent proposals which are not agreed as part of the Government policy. In the higher ranges of government no work ever seems to be done on paper; no decisions are recorded on paper; no-one seems to read a document and no-one ever answers a communication in writing. Nothing is ever settled in principle. There is just endless debate and sitting around. But this, I suppose, is their characteristic method. Suddenly some drastic, clear-cut decision is reached, by what process one cannot understand, and all the talk seems to have gone for nothing, being the fifth wheel to the coach, the ultimate decision appearing to be largely independent of the immense parlez-vous, responsible and irresponsible, which has preceded it.

…I have already stayed here longer than I intended. But things move very slowly owing to the dissipation of authority, the reluctance to settle anything in principle and the fact that all important matters are conducted orally. But I am still hoping that another fortnight will see me through—for better or worse.2

Any further comment necessary?

  1. Keynes Papers (Personal Papers/80/9): letter to P. A. S. Hadley, 10 September 1941 []
  2. John Maynard Keynes, ‘Letter to Sir Kingsley Wood, 2 June 1941’, in The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, ed by. D. E. Moggridge, vol. 23: Activities 1940-1943, External War Finance, 30 vols. (London; New York: Macmillan; Cambridge University Press, 1979), 103–113. Emphasis added. []

Alternative Facts and the “Reality-Based” Community

The Unreality-Based Community

The Unreality-Based Community

Trump is inaugurated and the sparsity of the crowds, in comparison with recent inaugurations, is noted. The next day, Trump’s Press Secretary delivers a 5 minute angry vituperation to the assembled press corps in the White House Briefing Room, in which he asserts both that no one can know the true numbers that were present and also that “This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period.” The day after, Trump aide Kellyanne Conway tells NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday that Spicer had merely been offering “alternative facts.” The Guardian reports that this phrase “was received with widespread astonishment.”1 Why astonishment? It’s not as if this is anything new?

In 2004 Ron Suskind of The New York Times was told by an aide for the Bush White House:

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

The disdain that the Bush staffer felt for the “all of you” is shown in the way he referred to the “reality-based community,” as if that were indicative of some moral failing.2

Again, why the surprise?

Siegfried Kracauer noted in 1947, that Totalitarianism meant what the description said: it was a totalizing approach to life. Nothing, nothing, was exempt from its desire and ability to rewrite what was not part of the narrative. Rather German Totalitarianism:

…endeavoured to supplant a reality based upon the acknowledgement of individual values. Since the Nazis aimed at totality, they could not be content with simply superseding this reality—the only reality deserving the name—by institutions of their own. If they had done so, the image of reality would not have been destroyed but merely banished; it might have continued to work in the sub-conscious mind, imperilling the principle of absolute leadership.3

As Chico Marx asks, in that classic movie of political suspicion, Duck Soup, “Well, who you gonna believe? Me or your own eyes?”4

The answer that Kracauer and Conway both give us is that in this unreality-based brave new world, there is no real choice.



  1. Jon Swaine, ‘Donald Trump’s team defends ‘alternative facts’ after widespread protests,’ The Guardian, Monday 23 January 2017. []
  2. Ron Suskind, “Without a Doubt,” The New York Times (New York, October 17, 2004), sec. Magazine. []
  3. Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1947), p. 298. []
  4. Chico, and not Groucho as Jonathan Freedland mistakenly remembered in his comment piece in The Guardian this morning, before it was amended with a subclause correction. Perhaps it is an alternative fact that Groucho said it first? Jonathan Freedland, ‘Sean Spicer is a Groucho Marxist, asking us not to believe our own eyes‘ The Guardian, 23 January 2017 []

How to think (even when arguing)

Source: Wikipedia

Sometimes we need to sit down and think clearly what it is we think we are doing when we think. Then, as if to make the job harder, we need to think about how we express what it is we have thought. Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole attempted to do just that with The Art of Thinking, the first edition of which was published in 1662. Arnauld and Nicole were part of what has come to be known as the ‘Port Royal’ school, which included Pascal and Racine, and was named after the two religious foundations of that name in and around Paris, and which represented a resistance to the assumptions about education and knowledge prevalent in France in seventeenth-century (Arnauld, in particular, didn’t like the Jesuits, and the near-monopoly they had on education and French intellectual life).

A section in The Art of Thinking (which is sometimes also known as ‘Port-Royal Logic’, or plain old ‘Logic’) deals with the place of argument, disputations and contention. Significantly, Arnauld and Nicole place it within a wider argument about the dangers of “self-love” to clear and truthful thinking. Sometimes, we can be so caught up in proving that we are right that we neglect to see how much we have been seduced by ourselves, proving to ourselves that we are loved, even if it is only loved by ourselves.

I don’t know why I think this wise and pacific teaching about disputations should be so appealing today, of all days:

7. Malicious or envious contradictions may be to some extent distinguished from less objectionable disposition but one which produces similar faults of reasoning. This disposition is the spirit of contention, a disposition no less injurious to the mind than is self-love.

Disputes in general are not to be condemned. On the contrary, debates rightly used contribute more than anything else to our finding the truth and to our convincing others of this truth. An isolated mind examining a subject is often cold and languid; that it may be inspired and that its idea may be awakened, the mind needs a certain warmth. Often by the varied oppositions encountered we discover the obscurities of a position as well as the difficulties in convincing others of that position: and so debate gives an opportunity for both correction and clarification.

Helpful as debates are when rightly used and when not invaded by passion, yet they are dangerous when improperly used by persons who pride themselves on maintaining their own opinions at any cost and on contradicting all other opinions. Nothing can take us further from the truth nor plunge us more readily into error than a contentious disposition. Imperceptibly we become accustomed to find reasons for everything and yet to place ourselves above others’ reasons by never yielding to their force. Little by little we are led to hold nothing as certain and to confound truth with error by regarding both as equally probable. That a question is to be settled by discussion or that two philosophers agree is a rare thing indeed. Replies and rejoinders are always found, since the aim is to avoid not error but silence: To remain always in falsehood is believed less disgraceful than to admit a mistake.

Unless discipline has taught us perfect self-possession, we easily lose sight of the truth in disputes; no other activity so excites our passions. What vices have debates not awakened. says a celebrated author,  since they are nearly always governed by anger. We pass first into a hatred of the reason and then of the person. We learn to dispute only to contradict: Because each is busy contradicting and being contradicted, the fruit of the de­bate is the annihilation of truth. One goes to the east, another to the west; the principle is lost, the argument founders in cavil­ing. After an hour’s storm neither disputant knows what is being disputed. Some hold themselves above the dispute; others are incapable of entering into the dispute; and still others speak only beside the point in dispute. One seizes on a word or an analogy; another neither listens to nor at all understands what his opponent says, being so engaged with his own thoughts that he can follow only his own arguments. Others, conscious of their weakness, fear everything, reject everything, and either obscure the discussion from the start or else become obstinate and silent in the midst of the dispute, affecting a proud contempt or a stupidly modest disdain for contention. Some, provided only that they strike, do not care how they expose themselves; others choose their words and weigh their reasons. Still others rely on voice and lungs alone. Some end up opposing themselves, and others weary and bewilder everyone by their prefaces and useless digressions. Finally, some counter with abuse and trump up a quarrel to end a discussion in which they are suffering defeat. Such are the common vices of debates described ingeniously enough by this celebrated author, who, though he never knew the true grandeur of man, has nicely canvassed man’s defects. From this enumeration of the pitfalls of debate we see that de­bates could prove harmful to the mind. So, if debate is to be helpful, we must avoid these pitfalls ourselves as well as being careful not to follow others into the depths. We must see others wander without wandering ourselves, never losing sight of the end we ought to seek—the clarification of the truth under dis­cussion.

From Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole, The Art of Thinking; Port-Royal Logic, ed. by James Dickoff and Patricia James, Library of Liberal Arts, 144 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964), pp.274-275

How we privilege the heroic loner

A Heroic Loner

I’m writing a book on silence, and the way in which those who are silent are both celebrated and reviled in our culture. One of the most important studies about the social effects of silence is Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s The Spiral of Silence1. In this book she examines the way in which majoritarian viewpoints work to eliminate the public expression of dissent, until it is even impossible to have private articulations of contrary view-points. She begins her book with a parable, based upon her viewing of a ballet, in Chicago, in the spring of 1980:

Somewhere, possibly in Italy, there is a small town with honest citizens and a count and a countess of local lineage. Outside of the town, in a castle on a hill, lives a strange man who has the oddest ideas. He never ceases to give people cause for amazement; perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that they are partly amazed and partly annoyed by him, while at all times keeping their distance.

One Sunday this man appears in town leading a unicorn by a chain. People can only shake their heads about him. A little later, however, the count and countess are also seen in town leading a unicorn by a chain. This is the signal for everyone in town to get a unicorn.

Another Sunday, the strange man in the castle suddenly appears with a gorgon. People ask him what has become of the unicorn. The man tells them he was tired of the unicorn and decided to pepper and grill him. Everyone is shocked. But when the count and the countess also appear with a gorgon, shocked surprise turns to envy, and all at once gorgons are the rage.

On the third Sunday, the man in the castle turns up with a manticore and tells the people the gorgon was slaughtered. At first the townsfolk are scandalized. But then everything follows the usual course: the count and the countess secretly dispose of their gorgon, the townsfolk follow suit, and all at once the manticore is in vogue.

Time passes; the strange man in the castle is not seen anymore. People are sure the manticore has been slaughtered too. The towns­people form a committee to put an end to these crimes and march on the castle. They enter the castle, but are brought up short by what they see. They find the strange man dying in the company of his three animals—the unicorn, the gorgon, and the manticore. The unicorn represents the dreams of his youth, the gorgon his middle age, and the manticore his old age.

The townspeople discarded his ideas as quickly as they had taken them up; they were just passing whims….We all take the poet’s side. …The poet represents our image of man as strong, indepen­dent, imaginative. And we are all familiar with the count and the countess—superficial trend-setters who have no ideas of their own but want to be leaders wherever they go. Those we despise most, however, are the people who go along with the crowd, first making fun of a person because he is different from them but then absorbing any new fashion and finally giving themselves the air of moral authority.

This is one point of view, and it is the way strange people from the castle, loners, artists, and scholars have always felt.2

Noelle-Neumann doesn’t feel that it necessarily the only point of view…

As long as we privilege the heroic loner, the outsider, the rebel, and at the same time, refuse to recognize our need to conform, and to make others conform, we will only see the point of view of strange people from the castle. Don’t the count, the countess, and the townspeople deserve to have their story listened to as well?

  1. Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion, Our Social Skin, 2nd ed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993) []
  2. Noelle-Neumann, Spiral of Silence, viii–ix. []
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