Monday, 31 October 2011

The Grand Panjandrum*

I awake. The eyes that see are my eyes, and the room I see is my room. The sound of rain is heard by my ears, and the thought, "Good. It does not matter that I forgot to water the plants last night", is my thought. The neck that turns to look at the clock is my neck. The feeling of stiffness in that neck is my feeling. The decision on whether to get up or to lie there a little longer is my decision.

I am the subject of my life. I am The Grand Panjandrum in my life.

Disregarding completely any philosophical argument about the existence of a soul, I am going to reflect here upon the problems that arise just because each of is the one subject of one life : our own.

The first category of problems that comes to mind are social ones. Learning to live as part of a family, part of a neighbourhood, part of a school and part of the wider society is at its best a gentle process of adaptation and adjustment. We learn to curb our passions and to share; to take turns and to defer gratification. As we make efforts to gain mastery of our behaviour and to make sense of our world, Plato and Freud would be proud of us. Aristotle would appreciate the times in which we apply reason in order to balance our own needs and desires against the needs and desires of others.

At its worst a child's early experience of society might be abusive, neglectful, conflicting, confusing and full of fear. How then does a child learn to adapt to the norms of a world so different in character from the one he knows? He might begin to expect everyone else to play The Grand Panjandrum against him, and thus determine to get his defence in first. He might defend himself by inflating his own ego so much that he sees himself as The Grand Panjandrum over all others. That we label people who exhibit such tendencies beyond infancy as thugs, hoodlums or sociopaths is not helpful in terms of political efforts to build a just and secure society.

To be just in government a society needs to be able to deal humanely with those who challenge the established norms. If we allow any sense that such people are in some way "other" or "beyond the pale" we not only deny our own humanity but we also might be inclined to play The Grand Panjandrum with real people's lives.

The second category of problems are ethical ones. My Grand Panjandrum is kind, caring, generous and honest. Or so I believe, because my Grand Panjandrum is me. Socrates claimed that the unexamined life is not worth living. I would agree. But how do I know that the conclusions to which my examination leads me are the right ones? Socrates would tell us that by dialogue we are best able to reach a consensus of opinion about the best way forward. But what if my dialogue is only with people who are like me? And if my dialogue is only with myself I am doomed to put forward the same old arguments. As Francis Bacon said,

"For what a man would like to be true, that he more readily believes."

If there is no external authority like a god to tell me what to do then my Grand Panjandrum and I have to do the best we can. I weigh the money I send to Charity X against the knowledge that it is a drop in the ocean by consoling myself that something is better than nothing. I restrain myself from crowding around an accident victim because I respect the person's dignity. But if the person was wounded and alone and drunk and vomiting and swearing would I put my coat under his head and hold his hand until the ambulance I called arrived? I do hope so, but I suspect that my Grand Panjandrum and I are cowards "full of sound and fury and signifying nothing". (Shakespeare. 'Macbeth')

So where does that leave me? It leaves me wanting every child to grow up sure of itself and its own Grand Panjandrum. It leaves me wanting suitable housing in which to bring up those children, for all families. It leaves me wanting employment opportunities in real jobs for young people. It leaves me wanting better ways of dealing with crime or anti-social behaviour than just locking people up. It leaves me wanting a culture of mutual respect between all classes, creeds and post codes in our society. It leaves me wanting to be braver, and bolder.

So what must I do? I must speak up on these issues at every opportunity. I must write letters to MPs and consider carefully how to use my vote. I must hold those banks with whom I hold savings to account, and make a nuisance of myself demanding answers to the questions they would rather were not asked. I must learn to live not with what I want but with what I need, and give as much as I can to the groups in my community that do good work. I must learn to smile and to encourage and to thank those whom I encounter. I must be happy to pay my taxes. I must learn to keep my mobile phone charged and a battery in my torch and a blanket in my car. I must learn basic first aid.

These things will do for starters.

How about you?

* The Grand Panjandrum
Late 19th century. From 'Farrago' a nonsense verse composed by Samuel Foote to test the memory of the actor Charles Macklin.
Used to denote a figure of power or authority.

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