BBC Radio 4 - Thought for the Day
22nd October 2002
Here’s one more thing to worry about:- “Who is the Greatest Briton”. We’ve been introduced to the Top 100 and now we have to choose from the top ten. But, it’s not too serious. What is meant by “greatness” is left open. And so, we have royals and generals rubbing shoulders with anarchists and rebels; and scientists, engineers and explorers mixed with sportsmen and entertainers. The common factor seems to be that they all demonstrated some genius; they have touched lives and made a difference.
But, is it a reasonable cross-section of Great Britons? In India’s ancient texts, the Vedas, there is a model for analysing the inter-dependent contributions from the various sections of society. It notes that, in all human civilisations, there are four powers operating:- labour, economic, military and intellectual. They must function together like the human body. The labour section of society is like the legs and includes craftsmen, artisans, architects and painters. The Top 100 list ignores the cultural contribution of this group
Economic power is compared to the stomach distributing nourishment throughout the body. But, there’s only one business entrepreneur on the list. Surprising, considering how much we worry about money! The arms protect the body and military power is well represented with monarchs and politicians who have shaped the country, saved it from invasions and extended it as an empire.
Then there’s intellectual power characterised by the head. We have an amazing number of scientists, boffins and inventors who have all contributed towards the paraphernalia of modern life. But is this the only form of intellect that we value? Yes, we identify a few of our world-class writers and also some philanthropists. But, where are the philosophers and theologians? Would other countries omit their thinkers? Or, is there no one we esteem for helping to develop our collective world-view?
It seems we like our brainy folk to devise useful gadgets and regard philosophising as an impractical irrelevance. But, philosophy is never irrelevant. Even if we claim to have no philosophy or we cannot articulate it, everything we think or do is governed by what, deep down, we hold to be the truth about life.
This Top 100 list may contain some amazing personalities, but it questions how much we value a philosophical vision of life? We are busy creating new technologies and new social models, but our moral and ethical framework is lagging ever further behind. Without philosophy, we have no foundation. We need to discuss and debate the big issues of existence and purpose. Far from being an irrelevance, philosophy is crucial to underpin our social, scientific and political progress – that is if we want to keep our country truly great.
© BBC This script was commissioned by the BBC for broadcast as “Thought for the Day” on the Today programme Radio 4.