In the Critics this Week

Colin McGinn on Philosophy of Mind, Alain de Botton on James Miller, and Will Self on an Indian banq

In the Critics section of this week's New Statesman, ten pages of which are devoted to a philosophy special, our Critic at Large is Colin McGinn, professor of Philosophy at the University of Miami, who surveys the current state of play in the philosophy of mind and consciousness. Although McGinn concedes, in the spirit Descartes, the irrefutable existence of the self, he cautiously downplays the scope of the intellect: "Human intelligence is a local, contingent, temporal, practical and expendable feature of life on earth - an incremental adaptation based on earlier forms of intelligence that no one would regard as faintly omniscient." In Socratic vein, McGinn asserts: "There is more ignorance ... than knowledge."

In Books, Alain de Botton reviews The Philosophical Life: 12 Great Thinkers and the Search for Wisdom, from Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller. What, says de Botton, sets these seminal thinkers apart is that they pursue salient experience rather than intellectual vanity: "Miller presents 12 philosophers, great names including Socrates, Seneca, Montaigne, Kant and Nietzsche. What draws Miller to them is that they are all, in different ways, utterly unlike what a modern philosophical academic is expected to be. They don't want to be clever, they want to know how to live. They want to be wise." Moreover, de Botton notes that Miller's prose is intended for the layman, not his fellow professionals: "He is to be commended for leaving behind the sterile practices of his colleagues and speaking to civilian readers."

In the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire speaks to Professor Charles Taylor about his latest work, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience. The book responds to the need in modern western societies for political structures that accomodate the full breadth of moral and religious diversity: "The original model of secularism was one in which a very dominant religious group had to fight with other kinds of tendencies. That was the situation in France in the 19th century but doesn't at all describe modern-day Canada or the UK. The kind of secularism [advanced in the book] answers the question,'"How do we live together?'"

Also in Books: Giles Fraser reviews Simon Critchley's The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology. Fraser notes Critchley's atheism, and his argument that Christianity's perennial relevance lies in its alter ego, politics: "Modern political discourse is sublimated theology. And the only way properly to get at the unspoken drivers of much political philosophy is to recognise them as expressions of theological desire". Other reviews: Edward Skidelsky on Together: the Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation by Richard Sennett; and Jennie Erdal on Humean influences in her forthcoming novel, The Missing Shade of Blue. PLUS: Sarah Waters pays tribute to Angela Carter on the 20th anniversary of her death.

Elsewhere in Critics: Ryan Gilbey on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; Antonia Quirke on Steven Spielberg; Kate Mossman on Paul Weller; and Helen Lewis on Contre Jour. PLUS: Will Self's "Real Meals".

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge