Zen Mischief


(1) Primitivism is not being equated with mental deficiency, since this would certainly not be true. They are being put forward as alternatives.

(2) This leader may come to power either by heredity or by being elected by the society's establishment (eg. The Pope).

(3) The man who had an idea and was sufficiently bigoted to say "I am right" and bludgeon his idea into effect. Or, of course, his equally bigoted successor.

(4) Compare with George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

(5) Ideology: the current set of beliefs, ideals or attitudes; the current modus vivendi.

(6) Attitudes are isolated concepts. Thus a person who has attitudes is living superficially. However if these attitudes are inter-connected (cf. the nervous system) this leads to a way of life (the modus vivendi) in which no attitude can exist in solitude. If one attitude is changed, all others must to some extent be adjusted, and thus the modus vivendi must change also, even if only slightly. To take an analogy ... someone who has attitudes is like a person made up of individual, carefully distinct, spots of colour which, whilst they may look attractive at first sight are obvious to the discerning eye. But is there not something special about the person who shines white? - the white being made up where the individual spots of colour run together, thus affecting one another. Is this not like someone who has a way of life?

(7) Situation Ethics is a code of ethics in which each decision is taken totally out of context and isolated in time. In other words: if I can justify my impending action, to myself, now, then it is not important what the cause or outcome of this action is; neither is it important that I am not able, under the same conditions, to justify this same action at another, totally different time and place. It is important only that I think it is the right action for me now.

(8) It is a requirement of the Roman Catholic faith that the adherents thereto believe in "the primacy of the pope and his supreme and full power over the entire church" (AMJ Kloosterman, Contemporary Catholicism: Thought Since Vatican II, Fontana, 1972). Yet if he (the Pope) says something which the members of the church dislike (eg. the teaching on contraception) many flagrantly and deliberately disobey it; neither are they disciplined for it! The Roman church is therefore not obeying the rules which would make it convergent.

The Essence of Harmony in a Divergent Society

Dr Keith C Marshall


Is harmony possible in a society which is divergent, and intellectually expanding?

It seems to me that this problem may be viewed from two totally different points of view, which will not necessarily lead us to the same conclusion:

To view society from a stable foundation, ie. with a pre-set, rigid morality.
To view society with no such foundation; to treat each and every event as a separate situation.

I intend to treat these two cases separately. However before doing so perhaps we ought to examine and define what we mean by the phrases harmony in society and a divergent society.

What is harmony in society? Surely harmony, at least in its limiting case, must be identical with agreement? If two people do not agree, at least on a majority of their concepts, then it is almost impossible for them to exist together in harmony, unless one or the other is always prepared to subjugate their views and be passive. Thus it must be true to say that for harmony to exist in a society either every person must actively agree with each and every other person, or anyone who does not agree must passively accept the current ideology. Can we visualise any cases in which this might arise? Yes, I think we can:

A primitive, or mentally deficient(1), society with a leader(2) who is the supreme and absolute governor of all members of the society. Many primitive or aboriginal tribes work in this way.
A society ruled by a dictator(3) who has either removed all those who disagree with him, or has indoctrinated them until they agree(4). This is the classic dictatorship of Hitler, Stalin or Saddam Hussein.

These two cases, it seems to me, are not necessarily always separate; there will, in practice, probably be a large overlap between them. We shall return to these cases at the end.

What is a divergent society? Divergence is a growing apart, so that a divergent society is one which is continually expanding, mentally and philosophically, as opposed to physically. Is this a sufficient definition, or can we improve on it? A society which is ever seeking to better itself, for no obvious and genuine philanthropic reason, which is always throwing up new ideas - scientifically, philosophically and socially - where the intelligent, interested and educated person is always being made to think, ever more deeply, about new problems, and where he is being continually made to reappraise, and if necessary amend, his personal ideology(5) with respect to these problems.

Are these two definitions of harmony and a divergent society not mutually exclusive? It seems to me that, ultimately, they are indeed mutually exclusive. And what is more they remain so in whatever way one approaches their union. Let me try to show how this may be so.

If we begin with no fundamental, underlying point of view (approach (b) above) we, the inhabitant(s) of the society, must wander through the sea of ideas emitted by society either looking for an attitude, or alternatively modifying our already existing but distinct attitudes(6). In this wandering we are continually testing each set of circumstances to determine whether or not we agree with it. We must always be asking: Can I justify thinking/doing this now, in my present context?. (Would the person with a pre-defined modus vivendi not ask: Is this action consistent with my ideology; if not, why not??) Is this not Situation Ethics?(7)

Can this Situation Ethics approach ever lead to harmony within a divergent society? Situation Ethics must, surely, leave the person in a state where he (or she, of course) cannot possibly define his own ethical and moral position accurately. If the person doesn't understand their own position, how then can he appreciate another's position? Harmony cannot exist in a situation where the members of the society are themselves as divergent as the society within which they exist. Is this not the position to which Situation Ethics leads us?

It is particularly easy to show, I feel, that if we begin from a preconceived point of view (which is not necessarily an intransigent standpoint) we must arrive at the very same conclusion. In such an exercise our definition of a divergent society will still hold, but do we not need to change our definition of harmony? If we have a definite point of view, surely our concept of harmony is that in ultimo everyone will agree with us? (Unless, of course, we are very broad-minded and free-thinking and prepared to acknowledge the possibility that we may be wrong and thus that we may end up agreeing with someone else's ideology.) But if everyone, in order to achieve the harmony we are seeking, ends by agreeing with us, that by definition contravenes our definition of a divergent society. Surely the society is then no longer divergent, but convergent, and our conditions are not fulfilled.

Let us now, in conclusion, return to the question of defining harmony in society. We defined two cases where harmony is achieved within society: a primitive society with an autonomous leader, and an advanced society ruled strictly by a totalitarian dictator. Can we define either of these societies as being divergent? Was Nazi Germany a divergent society? Is a true Marxist state (Communist China is probably a good approximation) a divergent society? Or, to pick a small group within our own environment, are the Plymouth Brethren divergent? Surely they cannot be by definition? Does this not lend weight to the thesis that to be harmonious a society must be convergent? How many groups within a society, for that is all they can be in a modern society, are sufficiently convergent to achieve harmony? Three examples come to mind (and all are religious groupings): the Plymouth Brethren, the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Mormons, all of which must, since we are an advanced society, fall within our second category.

Finally let us explode one myth: harmony does not exist within the Roman Catholic Church, the one place where society, en masse, assumes that it must exist.(8) Does this not make most, if not all, Catholics hypocrites? But that is a different subject altogether!

We can never live in true harmony and continue to make progress, because progress requires divergence. Which would you prefer: true harmony and convergence, or some disharmony and divergence?


I would like to thank Victor Stok for suggesting the subject, and together with Graham "Will" Williams, for interesting and developmental discussions during the writing of the original version of this essay in 1973-74.