My mother was a retailer of wisdom. She did not dispense it wholesale in the course of a childhood. Well into my thirties she found circumstance to deploy pithy idioms I had never heard before. Ten years after she passed, she even spoke from the grave: ‘As your mum once told me…’ began her brother, going on to explain how the stick to scare away the lion would always be found near the encounter with the lion. Translation: don’t wait to equip yourself for every possible eventuality before setting forth on your journey.
This is immemorial wisdom. In 2004, as writer-in-residence at the Ashmolean, I was on a private tour of some backroom treasures of the museum and a curator explained how stone knives and weapons were made and abandoned by our human ancestors as they migrated, because they could be so easily fabricated. A stone would always be found close to the need, be it for cooking or for attack. Or for defence.
The stone age was probably mankind’s most civilized age in terms of basic morality. In that age, no man could accumulate such an arsenal as to overawe his neighbours. When marauders came at you with a stone, there would always be a stone near at hand for defence. The sustainable way of life was hunting, or farming, or gathering in your own behalf. Robbery was one-off. It was no career. Murder was retail. Even with the heart of a Hitler, a Mao or a Leopold, no one had the means to kill a million men.
Those were the ‘good old days’ of morality.
Then mankind discovered iron, creating new economies of scale in homicidal enterprise. Since then there has been no looking back. Or forward. Suddenly it became possible to make a career of predation, to amass an armory so effective as to give an advantage to a band of Bokoharamic hooligans with blades and bullets over an entire nation of peaceful and sedentary cultivators with stone tools. The world was turned on its head and it became the acme of morality for nations to avoid working the land for themselves and to live off the colonial tribute, the enslaved labour, and the exploitation of their fellow men. It became normal to maim, and to murder innocents, in their hundreds and thousands and millions, and to bury all that evil in the chauvinisms of flag. Empire was invented. In supreme irony of course, victorious mass murderers redefined morality to their victims by bequeathing – at the edge of a bloodied sword – their victorious gods and warped morality as the new standard of holiness. In one generation the salt of the victims was dissolved in the predatory sea of empire.
It is the duty of man to retain the integrity of his own soul, even in the tumult of life.
Which is why, even in modern times, the true human must mine his morality from the spiritual stone age when every man was a cause onto himself. The morality of the modern state is suspect: on paper, the constitution is as good as it can get for modern man, but in reality, the state is often captured by malign interests, both foreign and local.
There used to be a point to the warped morality of the arms race: By splicing morality, mankind could live with the evil in her face. All the holy books agree that it is wrong to kill: unless your country was doing the killing on your behalf. It is evil to murder another human: unless you wear the uniform of a country, in which case it is the heroic thing to do to earn the highest honours of the land. Within this new, bearable, construct of morality, which serenades the descent of mankind into the pit of Hell, the arms race roars on. Our pay-off for this complicity is of course, security: if the state is permitted to kill on our behalf, it can guarantee us peace and security. And it did, too.
Between the wars.
But we have arrived at the final age of humanity, when the state of peace encapsulates a reign of war. At this ultimate juncture, the last vestiges of morality have been torn away and the madness at the heart of the human race is laid bare: we, who have given up our right to bear arms can no longer be defended by the countries to whom we have donated the right to kill on our behalf. There is no war, but our markets can be blown up at any moment. There is no war but our villagers can be massacred overnight in their beds. Children go to school, to be abducted as sex slaves for rapists fighting a ‘holy’ war.
And the state to whom we donated our right to bear arms, is helpless, because it has been captured by people interested only in their class and clique interests, none of which coincide with the interests of the people suffering violence in the streets, in the fields, in the creeks. In the streets…
The constitutional basis of man’s surrender of his right to arms to the state is that the state has agreed to defend him. Where the state abdicates this fundamental responsibility or becomes the predator attempting to steal man’s constitutional freedoms, man has two options: cower in his cave, or – as Mams advises from her grave – fear not. Go forth on the journey for which you were born, for on the street of your attack you will find your means of defence.