Monday, 22 August 2011

Good politics and bad policy: rediscovering fire.

Ian’s invitation to get the icon 'working' (SEE HERE)  has stimulated so many ideas and I have to take care not to get carried away.  But I find the discipline of the icon  very useful  to focus attention on the issue he raises.  
An icon is a kind of window and this icon is calling us to look at our world through the image of  the Sacred Heart.   Yesterday I read through the Sunday papers and was drawn to a remark by Catholic convert and ex-PM, Mr. Tony Blair.  He pointed out – à propos the recent riots - that good politics does not always make for good policy. ( Read HERE )  And, quite unusually for a politician he admits to having made mistakes in the past : where good politics led to very bad policy.   I am sure that the Angels are still rejoicing  even as I write!  But this raises the issue of what makes for good policy.  If policy is a function of politics, then it follows that we have to reflect on how politics can inform better policy designs.  The answer to this can be found at the bottom of the icon.  The seven streams of water stand for the seven sacraments, but it occurred to me that they can also stand for the seven virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and courage ( the four cardinal virtues) and faith hope and love (the three theological virtues). (1)  We are thereby reminded that the Sacred Heart is described (in the litany) as ' virtutum omnium abyssus': the abyss of all virtues.   That is to say that it contains the very the height and depth and fullness and utter perfection of all the virtues.  In Jesus - the New Adam - we have the perfect model for the virtuous life. 

If human beings are to create productive and resilient political, economic and social orders  they have to do so by seeking to live virtuous lives and designing institutions and policies that can promote or facilitate the good (virtuous) life.  As a Meerkat might put it: ‘simples’.   A visit to the famous Palazzo Publico in Siena will show that this is not exactly a brilliant new insight.  Back in the 14th century the good citizens of the city had the sense to commission frescoes to remind their politicians that ‘good’ and bad’ government had consequences and that Good government was virtuous government. (SEE HERE ) When virtue did not inform government Siena would look like parts of England a week or so ago!  I have long argued that such artwork should be installed in every Cabinet room and Parliamentary chamber in the world! 

The key question to ask of any policy is straightforward enough: will it or has it promoted or undermined the capacity of human beings  to live a virtuous life?  If not, then is will be bad policy. Simple.  If politicians lack virtue they produce bad policy, and if citizens lack virtue  they will not lead a good life.  In this sense the rioters are indeed just a reflection of the political class. The frescoes in Siena by Lorenzetti really says it all.  If rulers rule without virtue and citizens live without virtue the result is corruption, chaos and disorder.

And what of our icon?  What does it say?   The Sacred Heart is telling us that the greatest of all the virtues is love.  It tells us that the very centre of God is a furnace of love.  Like Dante, (2)  Teilhard is asking us to appreciate that it is love that drives the stars and planets and  that human beings have a spark of this divine fire and the purpose of existence is to harness this energy.   Let me repeat what Teilhard said about this energy  because it contains the essence of what the Sacred Heart is about:

Quelque jour, après l’espace, les vents, les marées, la gravitation, nous capterons, pour Dieu, les énergies de l’amour.- Et alors, une deuxième fois dans l’histoire du Monde, l’Homme aura trouvé le Feu. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, L’Évolution de la Chasteté, ( Les Directions de L’Avenir, Éditions du Seul, Paris1973, p92) (One day, after we have harnessed  the energy of space, the winds, the tides and gravitation we will harness, for God, the energies of love. And then for the second time in the history of the world, Man will have discovered fire.

The Sacred Heart expresses a hope and a faith in the capacity of human beings to harness  all of the energy contained in the universe.  The energy contained in space, the winds, the waves and in the very force of gravity itself.  Mankind has been amazingly successful in capturing energy and using it to solve problems and improve the quality of life.  But of course, mankind has also abused this capacity to harness energy ever since Prometheus discovered fire. 

Our icon invites us to look at the world through the Sacred Heart of the universe.  It is asking us to see that the most powerful energy that humankind has available as a problem solving resource is the energy of love.  In the icon Jesus is pointing to his divine centre saying: ' here it is is!  Come to the source'.  And this means that when we look at problems and policy we have to ask one question:  how have human beings harnessed love?   Has a given policy served to cultivate or foster the capacities of people to work  with one another and live alongside one another? Has it served to facilitate the growth of cooperation and collaboration? Have given institutions promoted and built trust and understanding?  Have policies sought to cultivate the potential that human beings have for altruism and mutual aid?  Have policies sought to promote the idea of a virtuous life?   Or have policies served to foster greed, selfishness, irresponsibility and disregard for others?  Have policies served to promote hate and misunderstanding? Has public policy served to promote a sense of solidarity and a desire for the common good?  In short, has the attempt by human beings to solve those problems they believe require forms of collective action enabled them to discover fire for the second time?  Or have our decisions led  just to the fire that burns and destroys?  Have they been about the fire of love, or the fire of hate, greed and me, me, me, ME ?  Have people opened their hearts to their neighbours or have they closed their hearts and lived for themselves alone? 

However, when we look at so much public policy here and elsewhere we find that it has tended to be less about the heart than the head.  All too often human beings get carried away by a misguided belief in the powers of rationality and reason.  (Or the flipside of this, the equally dangerous idea that free markets left to themselves will solve all our problems.)  All too often they fall prey to the illusion that they can know and analyse their problems, when in truth the world is far too complex to be reduced to some kind of puzzle to be solved by the application of calculation or analysis or market forces.  All too often policy is  driven by the belief that policy makers KNOW  what they are doing and KNOW what the consequences of their actions will be.  Sadly, history shows that human beings are not too clever when it comes to foreseeing the unintended consequences of their big ideas.   Human beings do best when they proceed by evolutionary change rather than revolutionary change: what Teilhard refers to as the process of  tâtonnement: trail and error learning.  

And so, as in the case of the recent riots in England: let us proceed to address the underlying causes by tâtonnement.  The causes are very complex – that is to say there are many variables all interacting with one another. (And for Teilhard evolution is the story of increasing complexity and inter-dependence.)  For policy makers to say that it is all because of this factor or another (moral decline ...etc...) is dangerous  nonsense.   Human beings advance – as all evolving life – by their capacity to learn from their mistakes  rather than their claims to knowledge.  In other words we learn by carrying the cross of failure and we must never be deluded by thinking that we KNOW.  

It is learning from  failure - learning from the way of the cross - that is ever the engine of human progress.  What we do know is that human life progresses when human virtues flow and irrigate society and that it gets in  a terrible (God forsaken )  mess when they do not flow.  What we also know (the icon tells us) is that love is the most powerful energy in the world – and indeed in the universe! The Sacred Heart is reminding us that there is one thing we really do know: God is love and we were made for love and to love.  Life has a purpose and a destiny: unity with the Omega of the divine centre.  For human life to progress it needs faith and hope.  But above all it needs humanity and humility to learn from its mistakes and thereby how to harness that energy that glows at the very heart of the Cosmos. Humanity has to learn to trust in that sacred energy and not  fall prey to the illusion that harnessing all the other physical or material energies in the  universe will solve our problems.  Yes, let us harness all the energies that fill our universe and use them to build a better world but we must do so in ways that are mindful of the fact that  the only energy that can enable humanity to realize its full potential is there right in the center of the icon.  We need science, but we also need a sense of the sacred.  Our world needs  reason, but a reason which is not cut off from the sacred.  And it also needs a sense of the sacred which embraces science.   Indeed, rediscovering the fire at the Omega point is nothing less than the rediscovery of a universe that is sacred and filled with the presence of God in all things, and a cosmos that  has a sacred heart at its core.   


(1) There again, we can read them as the 7 'heavenly virtues': Chastity; Temperance, Charity ( caritas) ; Diligence ( Industria); patience; Kindness (humanitas) and humility. 
(2) 'L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stele.'

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