William Dalrymple journeys to heartland of the early church in the footsteps of the famous monk John Moschos who documented his travels sojourns across Byzantium in his work The Spiritual Meadow. Dalrymple hopes that by following in his footsteps he may gain an insight the history of Christianity in the east and its future. The author skilfully intertwines historical narrative with the travails of his long and arduous journeying, which see him l climbing into abandoned tombs, surviving in the harsh desert and fleeing from terrorists.
Throughout the book one is constantly reminded of the stark contrast between the situation for Christians in 578 AD and today. In the past Christianity enjoyed supremacy in large parts of the what we would now call the middle east and coexisted with the other religions such as Islam and paganism. The most extreme example of this being one occasion where our author is told that the same space was used for worship by both Muslims and Christians. In addition, at one point in the narrative the author meets a group of Muslims who are visiting a shrine of Saint George in the West Bank to be healed. Darlymple emphasizes throughout the narrative Christianity is contrary to popular perceptions an eastern religion and must be understood as a system of belief which emerged from the intellectual milieu of the east and the rich tapestry of competing ideologies of that region. Further, that the Church in the west was constantly looking to east as the source of inspiration. For example, Irish monastic art is almost certainly seeking to imitate work originating from Tur Abdin in Turkey. Further, the monastic cells on the island Skellig Michael off the Irish coast are copies of eastern designs that can be still seen in modern Israel.
The situation finds in the present is completely different: Christians are a tiny and oppressed minority persecuted by and increasingly militant Islam and stuck in the middle of ethnic and political conflicts some of these between different religions and some between waring Christian factions. These pressures have led to a mass exodus of the young, Christianity is vanishing from large parts of the world. In the face of such bleak facts From the Holy Mountain is also a story of resistance and fortitude. Darlymple meets monastic communities that defiantly cling on in the face of persecution and misery to traditions that go as far back as the beginnings of Christianity and acts of forgiveness and tolerance by those who should be enemies owing to race and creed.
From the Holy Mountain is a masterfully written and guides the reader through a bewildering range of emotions and places. In the hands of lesser writer such a narrative might be confused or dull because of endless historical detail. Darlymple manages to gives the reader a plentiful supply of historical data without detracting from the tempo of the narrative. Further, the journey he is on serves as an anchor that helps make sense of the bewildering number of topics, people and places both past and present.
When people speak of philosophy, they are usually thinking of two different things: one is a subject that concerns itself with the question of how one should live both ethically and practically. The other is a theoretical pursuit chasing the perennial questions of existence. These two visions interact with each other but are nonetheless separate.
Often these two visions are forced into conflict, the rationality for this is that either theoretical pursuits are a waste of time or they are inferior to the higher questions and in some way not “respectable”. First, let us turn our attention to the first contention: one may think that there are so many practical issues to deal with in world that such speculation is morally reprehensible. The mistake here is to forget that our modern world has been equal assisted by ideas as well as technology. The idea that we should no longer be governed by kings, or that we do not perceive reality without an interpretative framework to filter our perception were once considered outlandish. Now they are common knowledge to the extent of almost being cliché. Karl Popper rightly pointed out that in science it does not matter where the ideas come from initially whether it be dreams, experiment or visions. What matters is what fruit they can bear, his judgment about science can be expanded to the field of ideas in general. We do not know what will be of practical use in the future, therefore, we should remain open to many different possibilities and not prematurely close off avenues to knowledge.
Even the ideas that do not possess any practical application have a beauty of their own that demands they do not be idly discarded, they reside in what Robert Pirsig described as the high country of the mind in which the intellect is elevated to a greater and wider discourse, free of idiocy of the mundane and every day.
Now let us turn our attention to the second criticism that practical philosophy is of no worth because it does have the intellectual solidity of the theoretical philosophy that is entrenched is most British and American universities. To criticise philosophies such as stoicism for not having a strong intellectual foundation is to miss the point entirely. The test of a practical ideal is in the living of it, which is something lamentably few “philosophers” would ever dare and attempt. Further, in the case of stoicism it is an open set of ideas which can be easily modified and attached to some other underlying belief system that may be more intellectually rigorous.
These endless division of philosophy has led to a pernicious division of the mind where intellectuals tend to concern themselves either purely with the practical or the intellectual spheres, which is itself been hastened by accelerating march of specialisation of work and thought. We see those like Alain de Botton who possess much practical insight but meagre theoretical understanding and on the other hand, the archetype of the university professor who possess great theoretical wisdom but very little practical understanding. The world needs people who embody both meanings of philosophy and is doing so give richer and broader lives to the world. Without generalists we will live in a meagre and divided world in which people will be unable to understand each other so lost in their own experience and jargon.
Recently I suffered the misfortune of having to go to hospital for an extended period of time. If I had not checked myself in I almost certainly would have died. This experience has forced me to reflect death and to know it more intimately. Whilst I was in intensive care two people were taken out in body bags.
The first and most shocking realisation I had was that my death was a very real possibility and when it occurs is only partially in my control. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger thought our prevailing attitude towards death was inauthentic. What he meant by this is that we think of death as some distant phenomena that will never visit us, we only see death as happening to someone else. Even though I have studied Heidegger my attitude was still inauthentic, certain truths can only be learnt through experience.
With this new knowledge I have tried to reconsider what I am going to do with the time I have left. I would urge you dear reader to do the same. There is a darkness in such thoughts but also a chance for liberation.
Another hard question that my experience raised was how to find a balance between future and present orientated thinking. Because we can never be sure when we are going to die we might be tempted to make immediate preparation for the end. However, if we have many more years to live this would be unwise. How are we to find balance? The answer lies acting in harmony with this uncertainty mixing future and present desire together, exercising spontaneity and prudence in equal measure. I put this forward as an ideal goal rather than something that can be easily achieved.
It is equally unwise to dwell on death too long for as Nietzsche said:
He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.
Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146