“Never say you know the last word about any human heart”
“Every life is both ordinary and extraordinary – it is the respective proportions of those two categories that make that life appear interesting or humdrum”. This line comes from “Any Human Heart”, a profoundly moving novel by the British writer William Boyd. The book portrays its protagonist, Logan Mountstuart, through excerpts from his intimate journals. It provides not only details of his intimate tribulations but a greatly evocative depiction of major historical events through the twentieth century.
Logan is born to a well-to-do English family but his identity is modelled by certain facts and influences that set him apart from the beginning. He is the son of an English father but his mother is Uruguayan and his first written words were in Spanish. The author displays an inclination for introducing these singular traits into a character that comes to exemplify human life in all its vigour and weakness.
Logan records his life on a number of journals that take the reader into an exhilarating ride through school, the life of a promising undergraduate at Oxford University, the early successes and challenges of a young and successful writer, marriage, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the art world in New York, the economic misery of the seventies and the denial of history in modern France….
“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.”
Some individuals are born with great talents but among those, there are a few who will use their gifts generously to enlighten others. Carl Sagan is the perfect example of someone endowed with not only a colossal intellect but also boundless generosity to bring joy and knowledge to others. He devoted his life to science and was professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University. He also played a key role in several spacecraft expeditions such as Mariner, Viking, Voyager and Galileo. Among countless awards he received the NASA medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and for Distinguished Public Service.
Yet, alongside his successful scientific career, he made great efforts to popularise science among the wider public. His TV series “Cosmos” was viewed by over 200 million people in more than 60 countries and exemplified how to explain scientific discoveries rigorously and engagingly. In the book that accompanied the series (also entitled “Cosmos”), he explained the importance of making science relevant to all. After describing the intellectual achievements of the scientists and philosopher working at the Library of Alexandria and how their legacy was virtually obliterated, he says:
“Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy”.
Sir Winston Churchill, Speech, 1941, Harrow School
If someone were to prepare a recipe to acquire political power, I cannot think of a more powerful one than the following: add a big dose of an emotionally explosive component, that can stir the basest human instincts of your fellow humans and spice it up with distorted representations of another community that can be used as a target for violent attacks. The most successful example of the first ingredient is dogmatic religious belief and the most efficient choice for the second one continues to be a different nation or ethnic group. One will provide you with unquestionable authority, impervious to rational argument, and the other with a target to focus your followers’ fears and frustrations.
Most of the Western European countries have excelled at delivering countless varieties of this lethal dish over centuries. Thankfully, the heroic efforts of enlightened thinkers and the sacrifice of many in violent conflict has led to the acknowledgement of political methods, values and legislation to mitigate the proliferation of that poisonous combination. Yet, the recent establishment of democracies in countries like Libya and Egypt has created the perfect environment for ruthless manipulators that are keen to try their hands at recreating that recipe for disaster. After the excitement and hope brought about by the Arab Spring, the murder of the US ambassador in Libya and the tide of violence unleashed across the Middle East have reminded us that democracy and freedom are difficult to achieve and harder to preserve.
“All men having power ought to be mistrusted.” James Madison
A few days ago, a major announcement was made by Mario Draghi, current president of the European Central Bank (ECB), intended to exorcise the spectre of the Euro disintegration. On September 6th, he announced the ECB would resume buying the bonds of troubled countries but upon the condition that those same countries submit to formal and externally monitored reform programmes. Mr. Draghi justified the ECB’s action with the argument that high yields faced by certain European governments are not only the product of a higher credit risk, but also the result of markets’ “unfounded fear that the euro would break up”. My intention is not to assess the decision in technical terms but rather, the extremely worrying political assumptions and contradictions that can be detected in some aspects of the announcement and related press commentary. Continue reading