BOOKS AND FREEDOM
A Talk given to the young people of Lichfield Cathedral School in 2008
I gaze out on to a sea of faces and what do I see?
I see a great library in the making.
Yes, I can envision each one of you as a book. Can you imagine yourself as a book for a second or two? Imagine your arms as the endboards holding within them the pages of your life – your hearts, brains and bodies make the paper, and something is going to be written on those pages.
A small part of that story is written already, but I see a lot of blank paper – waiting to be filled.
Some of you may become small books, some big books. There will be neat and tidy books, rough and ready books, useful books, beautiful books, wonderfully original books, and, sadly, copy-books.
Maybe there’s a truly great book or two out there.
But there’s no reason why you should not all make for excellent reading; it’s up to you.
I can only say this: DON’T GET LEFT ON THE SHELF.
Don’t allow yourself to become so boring – such a dull read – that no one wants to pick you up. Dear Books in the Making, please take notice. Like any book, it helps if you’ve got something interesting to say: something to communicate. The book does not have to be long; but it must be good. Your life will be written on its pages – and some clever people will be able to read through the lines and see behind the lies we tell ourselves and others. Pretty or handsome paper does not mean the reader will hold you in his or her hands for very long. You have got to have substance, meaning, sense, mystery, humour, and knowledge. There will be some pages in your own book you may want to tear out, but they are part of your book, part of what you are. We live to be read.
Yes, we are all, in a sense, books, waiting to be written and read. What is it that does the writing?
Some time over Christmas you will have heard, or will hear yet, these words:
IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD
What word? Was it Aard Vark, the first word in some school dictionaries? In the beginning was the Aard Vark. Doesn’t sound right. Some people think the ‘word’ that was in the beginning means the Bible, because the Bible is sometimes referred to as the ‘Word of God’. Well, ‘the Bible’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘books’ – so it would say: In the beginning were the books. Surely not! The paper must have come first! Something had to do the writing, and that could be done only when there was something to write on.
Has something got lost in translation? I’m afraid it has. When the Book of St John’s gospel was translated into English to turn a foreign book into an English book, they had a problem. The original Greek said en archē ho logos ēn. Which probably doesn’t mean much to you. It means: In the beginning was the LOGOS. The Roman Latin writers translated this word LOGOS as verbum, indicating the speech of God: speech as an expression of God’s mind. That is, God said: Let there be Light and there was Light.
So it might have been translated : In the beginning was the LET. God’s word was to allow, or initiate, or to start a creation – the letting go of Light. He let the light go – and it is still running! Energy equals mass times the speed of Light squared! You physicists will understand.
But this is not really the whole point. The Greek word LOGOS means – well, several things – that’s why it was hard to find the right ‘word’ in English!
LOGOS means Mind, or intelligence, and was translated into Hebrew by some Jewish writers as Wisdom. In the beginning was Mind. In the beginning was intelligence. In the beginning was wisdom. Now that sounds right, doesn’t it? You have to have a mind before you can do anything. The divine – that is incomprehensible and mysterious - MIND AT THE BEGINNING made the universe. Which means that the universe is an expression of God’s mind – and that means that God’s intelligence is in the world. Not everyone can see it, I grant you. What would we need to see the divine intelligence in the world? Well, we would need to activate the divine intelligence in ourselves, since we are part of the creation and like knows like. We can understand some of the intelligence in the universe because we have some of that intelligence in ourselves. Maybe we have it all – but don’t know yet how to find it – or use it properly.
Now, some clever person whose divine intelligence was really switched on, many centuries ago, looked at the universe and called it the liber mundi. Some of you may be able to translate this Latin phrase, liber mundi. It means – can anyone beat me to it? – it means the Book of the World. They looked at the earth and nature and the cosmos – which means all of it, including the distant stars, and they called it the Book of the World or Universe. They said the earth and the universe in which we spin was a book.
A Book can be read, and this book was intended to be read. You can read the universe. Why? Because, it was said, this book is written with the ‘finger of God’. God’s finger is like a pen, which means that the code or language of the universe was written with divine intelligence.
In the beginning was the Word, the Logos, the Mind, the Intelligence. We have minds, we have intelligence – and if we use them, we shall acquire wisdom, Knowledge and the knowledge – or wisdom – of how to use knowledge.
So that’s why this wise man called it a Book of the World. Because the Book contains Knowledge. Real knowledge. Amazing things. Amazing thoughts. And if we get to know this knowledge, we shall develop divine intelligence – and come to know the mind that created it – we shall come to know God! And – here’s a clue – this knowledge can also be read as music. The universe is a musical score, waiting to be played. Beethoven thought so. He could hear it even when he was deaf. He came to know God from reading the Universe.
Wow! That’s saying a lot. Most books can tell us about fishing, or sports, or stories about dogs, cats and other furry creatures, some tell us about geography or clothes, music, mathematics, history or what to do on our holidays. But this old wise man said that if you learn to read the liber mundi, the book of the world or universe, you may come to share the Mind of God – or at least a portion of it. This is mighty stuff, powerful and to some people’s thinking dangerous.
Why? Because when, as it is written, the divine intelligence said Let – Let there be Light – and there was Light. I can see it all around me. He was expressing absolute FREEDOM. God was free. Fantastically free! No chains in sight. No bindings. No one to tell Him what to do. No rules but His own. The one who is free is able to permit things to be. I shall say that again because people have some very silly ideas about what ‘freedom’ really means. The one who is free is able to permit things to be. To allow them. To be open to the possibility of new things. Intelligence makes us free. Jesus says, The Truth will make you free. By using it. When we have learnt how to do something, we are free to use it. We understand. We have power over it; we experience feelings of love and happiness, satisfaction and fulfilment. When we learn about ourselves, we will be free to use ourselves, powerfully and properly, according to the law of our nature – our living place in the universe. Our part of the Great Book.
Well, let me tell you, at about the time the wise man talked about the Book of the Universe, the books in the cathedral library across the road, were chained up. Chained to the shelves. As if they weren’t heavy enough in those days, they added chains. They were chained like prisoners on an old galley ship. What wrong had the books done to deserve such punishment? If you listened hard, you could hear them crying. Those books were not free. Why? Because the people who looked after them were not free either. They did not let the books speak to everyone. Why? Because they did not want them to have the Knowledge. If the people had the knowledge, well, they might not need the priests who chained the books up to tell them what was what. And if they did not need the priests, well, they might find they did not need the Church either! There would be a revolution!
Holy smoke! The Church wanted to control the Knowledge. They wanted to control the Book of the Universe. The result was that the Book of the Universe became a closed Book, and men and women were closed in their minds – dark, like the darkest winter night in Narnia under the reign of the wicked queen. Yes, there was need for a revolution! There always is when the Book is closed and the light is shut out.
Before we bring the roof down – and I get carted off by the Spanish Inquisition, or the Bishop of Lichfield – let us go back a bit. Let us say something else about those books that were chained up across the road.
Now, there was one fact that helped the Church keep the very few books that used to exist under their control. Do you know what that fact was?
Books were written by hand and that meant very few people could see them. You had to know someone who could write – and read – and reading and writing was kept to the Church.
And then, something happened.
Printing. Between 1440 and 1450 an inventor called Johann Gutenberg, who lived in a city called Mainz in Germany, experimented with what are called movable types. He found a way to make accurate punch-cutters. Punch cutting is the art of making individual letters, like stamps. The individual letters, called punches or types were arranged in what was called a galley, a wooden frame, but they were not chained down like galley slaves – the printer was able to move them about freely. With the right paper and the right ink, he had freed the word! He could put the letters together any way he liked. A text could be printed time and time again using the same type. The book only had to be written once, and the type arranged once. After that you could have as many books as you could afford. The printing press caused a revolution. The written word could be multiplied almost infinitely. Our capacity to exchange ideas was revolutionised. You did not need to go to a bishop to ask to see a book; you could buy one in the market-place, when you bought your meat, vegetables and leather breeches. Because of books, the world of men’s minds got bigger and bigger – and as his mind encompassed the universe, the world got smaller and smaller. He felt big enough to go and explore that infinite continent called THE UNKNOWN.
It is very fitting then that the first book Gutenberg printed was a beautiful Bible – only 21 copies of it now exist in the world. There is a copy of a copy of it, printed, in the school Library. You might want to have a look at it and think about what its first appearance meant. I know what it meant for one person. A friend of mine, a film producer, was living in East Germany in the days when the government would not let people out (they also controlled what books people could read) – the people were chained to the country by soldiers with guns at the borders – this was going on only 20 years ago. In order to escape the country, my friend had to bribe a border guard with the family’s most precious possession (now worth over a million pounds). She had to give away a Gutenberg Bible – and now it is lost. But she got her freedom and went to West Germany and then England where she could read almost anything she wanted.
After the year 1450 - 560 years ago - the basis of virtually everything you are taught at this school, began to appear. It took only 150 years to lay the foundations of western knowledge. The most important steps were taken within 50 years or so of the invention of printing. It became possible to make a new world and resurrect a vanished one – all through books. Let me show you what I mean.
On 19 November 1472, Gunther Zainer printed the standard encyclopaedia of Isidore of Seville. This had actually been written 850 years before, but had only been available in a manuscript and was kept in monasteries and abbeys. Now it could be read in the home.
In 1473, Avicenna’s Canon was printed in Milan on 12 February 1473 by Philip de lavagua. To the end of the 17th century, this was the most important textbook of medicine – it contained all the ancient and Muslim knowledge of medicine.
The first bilingual dictionary was published in Venice on 12 August 1477. Why Venice? Because there was a big trade there and a German colony of traders who wanted to speak to the Italians – and the Italians wanted to speak to the Germans. They say Money Talks – but not always in the same language!
Also from a German printer in Venice – the very skilled Erhard Ratdolt – printed the first scientific textbook in the world, Euclid’s Elements of geometry. That job was finished on 25 May 1482.
On 13 August 1491, Bernardo de Choris printed the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato’s Works. These works introduced the idea of idealism. Everyone’s heard the phrase that someone is idealistic. Plato said that all things on earth are imperfect copies of an ideal world, the memory of the ideal world – Christians called it heaven - they said was deep in our minds. Beautiful, true and good things and experiences could activate the memory of the ideal. The problem – then and now – is making the ideal happen on earth. So, according to Plato, you could say that the Book of the Universe is a kind of printed copy! He even called the creator of the universe a Workman – a bit like a printer really. According to Plato the Workman imprints his ideas in our hearts.
And did you know that the first book on musical theory in the Christian west was printed in Venice in 1491? It was by a man called Boethius. He thought that music had an ethical basis. Musical harmony could bring people together in peace. Disharmony did the Devil’s work, separating people. That is why the early Blues musicians – who used harmonic dissonance and blue notes – were sometimes called the Devil’s music. But it is also said that the Devil has all the best tunes!
So, within 150 years the basic texts for our civilisation had appeared in print, giving us knowledge of universal education (that means everybody should get an education – not that long ago, many of you would have been working in the fields or up dirty chimneys), the first books about Georgraphy, the first popular Atlas, the first books on modern astronomy, the beginnings of Art History, the first systematic legal textbooks (books about the theory of Law), the first books about how we can know the world through reason, the first books on the theory of history, the first books on chemical medicine, the first books about the telescope.
And did you know that electricity was first described by an Englishman in London in 1600 in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I? The first books on freedom of thought and the faith in a person to reach their own thoughts, not just repeat other people’s. The first books about political freedom, the first books about the freedom of the press, the first travel and guide books.
And I’ll just finish his bit by saying that a couple of years after this palace was built, the first book was printed saying that government was a contract between the ruler and the ruled. That means that government is a moral trust – a trust that can be forfeited – or the contract broken – if the government does not govern properly.
And just in case you thought that all books were about freedom and making the world bigger, it is worth mentioning one book, printed in Rome in 1559 by Antonio Blado. This was the Index Librorum prohibitorum – the Index of prohibited Books. This gives us an idea of what the Catholic Church thought about all this printing going on. They made a list of all the books the Church did not approve of – anyone who read them or possessed them could be cut off from the Church – exiled, they believed, from God. They could be burnt to death at the stake – and the banned books burned as well. The German philosopher Heinrich Heine said that ‘When the books burn, people will burn’. Adolf Hitler began his rule by organising bonfires of all the books he did not like. A few years later, many people from round the world were burnt in the flames of the war he started.
But the Index of forbidden books had a problem. It found itself in competition with other books in an open market of ideas. Once you had printing, you could write your own book saying that the opinion of the Church teachers was wrong, and you could read what you thought you should. This was what we call Free-thinking, something frowned upon by authority since the beginnings of civilisation. Books made it happen all over the place.
In this country we tend to take free thinking for granted. We should not.
You can only have proper free thinking when you can get access to all the best books – the knowledge, and to compare different ideas. In this country we now have only one major bookselling chain – and very few independent bookshops. If the chain store people don’t like the new books, people may never know they exist. If newspapers don’t write about them, we are left in the dark.
Instead of the old Church telling us what they think we should read, now it’s the chain stores! They don’t burn the people they don’t like at the stake, they just ignore them. And think about education. In this school the teachers try very hard to bring you the best books, but in many schools, it is often people appointed by the government who decide what books should and should not be read. My dad used to say, it’s not what you read at school that’s important, it’s the reading you do at home. School books are not enough by themselves.
But I’m still glad I’m a writer. I’ll tell you why. When I was 15, I got an apprenticeship at the British Museum book bindery – the British Museum had the largest library in the country and my job would have been to make sure the books did not fall apart. Then I realised, that though I love books – especially old books – I would have been making book containers – covers, things that bind or close books up. So I had a big argument about it with my dad and declared I wanted to go to Oxford University instead. Then, I thought, I would be able to open lots of books and fill the pages with my own thoughts and studies. And that’s what I did. And that is what I do.
For me, books and freedom are completely married, entwined together.
So, this story of books is really all about Freedom – expanding freedom, becoming more free. Free of what? Free of the limitations, the bindings of ignorance, of darkness, of not knowing and not seeing. Freedom is often written about, sung about, often shouted about – but often it just means a desire to escape from something hard and difficult.
But freedom means the freedom TO DO SOMETHING. You can only do something when you have learned well how to do it. If you do not know, you are immediately dependent on someone who does – and it hurts the pride and the pocket to ask. Not knowing something can be very expensive. If you do not know, you are less free and then you can be manipulated. To be ‘manipulated’ means that someone can get his or her hands on the compass of your life and put you in a direction that is not the one you would choose if you knew better. Our minds need to grow through learning and doing. Then we may get a glimpse of the Great Book of the Universe of which you and I are all parts – pages written and pages we have yet to write.
So, take the fullest advantage of all your days at school and at home and be a master, not a slave of the universe. A Master is one who knows his Book. As Jesus said : Seek and ye shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened to you. The Truth will make you free.
Please note that talks by Tobias Churton can be found in the published transactions of the Canonbury Masonic Research Centre (CMRC).