Friday 1 March 2002

On Praxis (2002)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXX No. 1 Spring 2002

By Martin O’Hagen 

Martin O'Hagan describes his search for wisdom in the context of war-torn Northern Ireland, a search that took him from Marx, to Hegel and finally to Augustine.

In 1969, what are euphemistically called the Ulster 'Troubles', raised their ugly collective heads for the nth time in the last 200 years. But, as a young man coming to terms with the pointlessness of a provincial bourgeois existence, I felt it was to give life meaning and even purpose.

I had left school at 15 and found my sense of freedom stifled in what I began to feel was an absurd existence. There had to be something more than living for the weekend and the invasion of bars and dance halls listening to the awful show bands.

Then the troubles began, with police men beating apparently innocent marchers off the Derry Bridge. Pictures of a thorn walking-stick wielding, out of breath, RUC Inspector repeatedly beating a peaceful protester found a ready comparison in people's minds with the harsh south African regime. Sharpeville was just a few years before.

Looking back, pleas for the common sense 'one man, one vote' falling on the deaf ears of the repressive Police now seem like a carefully choreographed piece of political propaganda. Certainly, it was mild by more violent standards that arose in the coming years.

Nevertheless, it launched me and thousands of other young impressionables. The Vietnam War protests, the students revolt of 1968, and the American black civil rights movement appealed to all of us hopeful for a brave new world. And it wonderfully dove-tailed with ideals of the bourgeois revolutionaries of the 1798 rebellion with their demands for freedom and equality of the marketplace. The call of ancient sectarian sirens of holy Catholic Ireland failed to find a willing ear among those, like me, who instinctively knew there had to be something else.

So I began my twenty year journey which would lead me into the Marxism of the Positivistic school that was the basis of official Marxist states. But it was a journey which would also justify my opposition to physical force - opposition to the men of the Provisional IRA who couldn't turn away from their sirens, which had turned out to be banshees keening for the dead.

Yet, it would also help me to rationalise why killing may not always be wrong, when seen from an Ulster political perspective. It was, after all, right for the black P.J. wearing youngsters of the V.C. (Viet Cong) to blow to kingdom-come young G.I.s. And this is not just that syndrome that condones far-away wars while condemning the conflict next door. Nor, in contrast to Lenin's pronouncements, was there any such thing as just and unjust wars. Rather, wars were necessary or unnecessary. The war against Hitler was necessary, but the American war in Vietnam was not necessary. (Instead, what was necessary was the defeat by force of arms of the mighty war machine of the US.)

And in Ulster it seemed natural that the British Army had to be opposed because in the 1970s it served a repressive regime, interning hundreds of, and at one point several thousand, men and women. People who were never convicted of any crime.

Then too, soldiers had shot dead 13 people on the streets of Derry in one particular, infamous, incident. But in general soldiers had shot dozens of others in equally controversial circumstances. But surely, as in any war, all sides suffer and no one has a monopoly.

Coming from a Catholic background and having been probably the last generation to experience the rigours of a Catholic education before the radical innovations of Vatican Two, I found my Marxism came as a great relief. (Only later was I horrified to discover Russell insisting that my Marxism may have been my Catholicism by other means.) Everything became relative. Everything I took for granted had its basis among human beings and was not somewhere up on Mount Sinai cut out in tablets of stone.

As it was, if I felt I could justify shooting another human being on political grounds then my morals had feet of clay. Although it was to be two decades before I heard about the Sophist, Protagoras, I acted as if man was the measure of all things and I was that man. The morality beaten into us by bullying Christian Brothers was no longer a restraining force. Years of brow-beating fell away like a dark cloak and there was the illusion of liberation.

And surely the troubles had begun as a romantic adventure of youth. The whisperings of Wordsworth continued to echo in our ears that to be young was very heaven. But years of gaol and needless deaths and hardship added cynicism. Marxism of the Positivistic kind failed to answer moral and psychological questions. Indeed it said such questions were petty bourgeois, that they ëbelonged to the anti-vivisection lobby' - as GPU interrogator Ivanov screamed at Rubashov in Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon.

As imprisoned revolutionaries, we were told that that book was heresy. It underlined what many had now begun to suspect. The conflict was not a struggle to rid us of the hated bourgeois overlords, complete the Irish bourgeois revolution and clear the decks for a ëproper' revolution. Instead, what it had become was merely a brutal sectarian campaign of assassination.

Later, freedom from the daily grind of prison life run on strict military lines was welcome. After years of incarceration the outside had become the panacea to all my ills. The fear and loathing, the choking claustrophobia of over a hundred men sharing two and a half standard Nissan huts, the powerlessness of year in, year out, sharing the same half acre of rough tarmac on a former runway, left its scars.

The war began again but by now the so-called best years were over and anyway age indicated it was a game for younger men. The drift into 'Quietism' contrasted with the heady days of red flags and tramping feet. Marxism remained in the background only to justify wheeler-dealer moves. Life on the dole became a sort of Robin Hood adventure, a facet of the class war, and dodging the dole snoops a game.

Now there was urgent need to get out of this humiliating situation. Education offered a way, but it was related to the struggle, which was now the politics of the parish pump and local government. This was the nearest we got to real democracy. A vote for a councillor was a vote for better burial arrangement and bin collection and a tidy park.

Class issues and Marxism can't survive the bitter bigotry that characterised politics in this corner of the planet. The only choice possible is between isolation and in-fighting. Brendan Behan, the Dublin playwright, once noted that when the Irish form an organisation the first item on the agenda is a split. And there was a split: me and the rest of the party. Someone had decided that I had a disruptive attitude - whatever that was.

I felt a great sense of relief as I cast aside the scribbled note that heralded my abrupt departure after 13 years of struggle, and lay back in bed and had a quick doze before getting up. The reality was, I was sick of it all. There were more important issues to be faced... such as me. We had never been allowed to consider me. It was a queer dialectic that considered only one half of the contradiction between the self and the rest.

The 1990s dawned with myself in a secure job as a reporter for one of the popular tabloids. Money was no longer a problem. I wasn't rich but there was a steady wage. My mind began to wander again - probably the onset of middle age. I looked for reasons and discovered nothing so far caught my imagination. I returned to Queens University in Belfast in search of this grail of sorts. There I came across the Stoics and the rest of the Greeks, whose approach to philosophy flew in the face of the discourse that was being promoted. Philosophy as a way of life interested me. It was a mode of existing in the world that might yet transform my mediocre being.

Philosophy took on the form of an exercise of thought, will and the totality of being. Its goal is wisdom. The search was for a way of life that brought peace of mind, inner freedom and cosmic consciousness. In his dialogue, the Symposium, Plato had shown that Socrates could be identified with Eros, the son of Poros (expedient) and Penia (poverty). Eros lacked wisdom but he did know how to acquire it. In Xenocrates the notion of philosophy curing mankind's anguish is explicit. Also in Epicurus who said, 'We must not suppose that any other object is to be gained from the knowledge of the phenomena of the sky... than peace of mind and a sure confidence'.

All through the Middle Ages the scholastic university had been dominated by theology. There, professionals trained other professionals. Education was not directed towards people with the sole purpose of becoming fully developed beings. It is no accident that between the 16th and 18th centuries genuine philosophical advances were made outside the universities. We have just to look at Descartes, Spinoza, Malebranche and Leibniz.

At the end of the 18th Century, the new philosophy made its appearance within the universities. This was a philosophy without the trappings of theology. With a few rare exceptions, such as Nietzsche or Schopenhauer, philosophy becomes a discourse and begins to inhabit a different environment than that of Ancient philosophy.

Schopenhauer wrote that university philosophy was mere fencing in front of a mirror. He claimed its goal is to give students opinions that suit the local establishment He wrote:, 'And yet if there is one thing desirable in this world, it is to see a ray of light fall onto the darkness of our lives shedding some of the light on the mysterious enigma of our existence.'

I realised that while this is true it is not the whole truth. There was a need for serious philosophical discourse - if just to clarify matters. I found Hegel interesting on this point. Not the Hegel Marxists love to rubbish, but the real Hegel in all his turgid style, that obfuscates any sense. To gleam Hegelian meaning is to bend the mind. To open it to other possibilities and potentialities.

His concept of 'the Whole' did make sense, but it was his sense of morality I found compelling. In Kant I had discovered a Stoic practice that embodied an art of living to be found in Epictetus, Roman slave and philosopher. There should not be a separation between theory and praxis. For the first time Marx's words that philosophers only interpret the world... took on a new meaning. It was the beginning of a return to Ancient philosophy as a philosophy of practical wisdom. Could this be the Hegelian metaphysical circle?

I had gone in search of meaning and discovered a potential for morality and inner peace. Marxism was no longer the be-all and end-all but merely a tool to help cope and understand a world rapidly changing in several respects. At the finish, my model, if that is the proper term, turned out to be Augustine, who had, by philosophically re-examining his life, come to his own conclusions. His wisdom did not merely make him wiser - it changed his essence. It made him be in a different way.

Editor's note.
 There is a particular pathos, indeed power, to this essay now. Shortly after it was submitted as part of a Pathways to Philosophy project, Martin O'Hagan became another victim of the troubles, shot down in cold blood by Unionist paramilitaries.
 As is normal for all articles, this essay has been edited for the purposes of clarification and completeness. The original version can be found on the Pathways website.

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