The Good Society

The St George’s Lecture

Published 5 June 2000
photo StGeorgesChapel 2000 Windsor Castle


The St George’s Lecture, delivered by Rabbi Sacks at St George’s Hall, Windsor Castle on 5th June 2000.

Your Royal Highness, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am honoured and moved by the invitation to address you tonight. I thank you, not just for the invitation but also for the institution under whose auspices we meet – St. George’s House. A great philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, once said that the importance of an institution lies not only in what it does but in the conversations of which it is the arena. Over the years, St. George’s House has been the home of one of the most important conversations we can have, namely about where we are going as a society and why. Its creation took wisdom and foresight, and I wish to pay tribute to it and its work.

Let me also add a personal note as the first member of the Jewish community to deliver this lecture. I do so by way of a story. Three years ago I was invited to give the first Jewish Heritage lecture at Cambridge University’s Divinity School. After the lecture was over, since I was in the year of mourning for my late father, I asked the Jewish students to stay behind so that we could say the evening prayers and I could recite Kaddish, the Jewish prayer associated with mourning. I then went down to the reception held to mark the lecture, where I saw an elderly Jewish academic in tears. I asked him why he was crying. ‘Surely,’ I said, ‘the lecture wasn’t that bad!’ No, he said, but he wondered whether I had understood the significance of that night. What he went on to tell me was this:  that part of Cambridge had been the site of the Jewish community prior to its expulsion in 1290. The alleyway at the back of the School, now called All Saints’ Passage, was then known as Jews’ Lane, and the spot on which the Divinity School now stands was, in all probability, where the synagogue had stood in the 13th century. Tonight, he said, was the first time that Jews had prayed there in seven hundred years. That was why he wept, thinking of how he had lived to see Jews return in honour to the place from which they had once been banished. Tonight I feel the same emotion, standing here in this ancient home of England’s kings and queens, and I thank God shehecheyanu ve-kiyemanu ve-higiyanu la-zeman ha-zeh, “who has kept us alive and sustained us and brought us to this day.”

In thinking about where we are going as a society, I begin by way of another story, one of my favourites, told to me by an Oxford academic when I was a student. He had asked me what I was studying, and when I replied, ‘Philosophy’, he tutted with disapproval. ‘Awful subject, philosophy. Philosophers never know what day of the week it is. Who’s your favourite philosopher?’ ‘Wittgenstein,’ I replied, as most philosophers did in those days. ‘Just proves my point,’ he said, and proceeded to tell the following tale:

Wittgenstein was standing one day with two of his disciples, Elizabeth Anscombe and H. L. A. Hart, on the platform of the Oxford station, waiting for the London train. Deeply immersed in metaphysical speculation, they entirely failed to notice the train as it steamed into the platform. Eventually they looked up and saw that the train had begun to move. Professor Hart ran and heaved himself on board. Elizabeth Anscombe (‘an enormous woman’) ran and heaved herself on board. Wittgenstein ran but could not catch up, and stood watching the train disappear from view. He looked so disconsolate that a woman came up to him and said, ‘Don’t worry. There’s another train due in an hour’s time.’ ‘But you don’t understand,’ said Wittgenstein in his heavy Viennese accent. ‘Zey came to see me off!’

From this I learned: Don’t ask how fast the train is going. Ask whether it is going to where you want to be.

We enter the twenty-first century on the brink of extraordinary possibilities. A hundred years ago there had been no successful effort at one of mankind’s oldest dreams, powered flight. That came with the Wright brothers in 1903. There had been no radio transmission. That was achieved by Marconi in 1901. In a single century there has been more scientific and technological progress than in all the millennia since man first walked on earth. Ours has been the age of the computer, the laser beam, the credit card, micro-surgery and interactive CD-Roms. We have sent rockets into deepest space, photographed the birth of galaxies and decoded the human genome, the book of life itself; and it has happened at dazzling speed. Today the average shopper in the average supermarket has a range of choices that, a century ago, would have been beyond the dreams of kings. Journeys that would have taken months now take hours. We have better health, longer life expectancy and more possibilities of almost every kind than any previous generation of mankind.

Yet, coincidentally with these changes in the past fifty years there has been – especially among children – a quantum leap in rates of depressive illness, suicide attempts, stress-related syndromes, drug and alcohol abuse, and other symptoms of psychological dysfunction. To take one particularly striking example: In 1940, teachers were asked what were the seven most serious problems they faced in school. They replied: talking out of turn, chewing gum, making noise, running in corridors, cutting in line, not wearing school uniform, and dropping litter. In 1990, teachers were asked the same question. Their replies were: drug abuse, alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy, suicide, rape, robbery and assault.

Contemplating these facts, I am reminded of the fabled Russian politician who began his speech with these words: ‘Friends, yesterday we stood on the edge of the abyss, but today we have taken a giant step forward!’ How has there been so striking a disjunction between human possibility on the one hand, human happiness on the other? That is a central question of our time.

The simplest answer is that in pursuit of progress, we have valued science over ethics. We have focused on technical mastery rather than on the question, ‘To what end?’ The result is that we have unparalleled knowledge of what is, and unprecedented doubts as to what ought to be. We are moving at great speed without being altogether sure where we want to go. Let me give some examples.

Imagine an anthropologist from some future century, studying our urban landscape and trying to infer from it the shape of our culture. She would notice the great cathedrals and churches that still mark our skyline. She would note that the buildings, though magnificent, were mostly old. She would conclude, rightly, that religion once played a central part in British society but no longer, and she would search for their functional equivalent today. She would find it in today’s shopping centres and hypermarkets, the cathedrals of our time. The analogy goes deep. They are the places where people congregate on Sundays, where they engage in ritual behaviour (‘retail therapy’), and worship the icons of our age, whose initials we wear, like stigmata, on our clothes. Sometimes it even becomes Puritanical: ‘Shop until you drop’. Its credo is summed up in the American bumper sticker that reads, ‘The guy with the most toys when he dies, wins.’

The question is: can we translate houses of worship into shopping arcades without loss? To this, the psychologist Oliver James, concerned about the huge rise in depressive illness in the course of two generations, gave a telling answer.[1] His thesis is that a society predicated on increasing consumer expenditure must necessarily be sustained on the basis of artificially created dissatisfaction. So, advertising surrounds us with images of models who are impossibly thin, women unattainably beautiful, men absurdly well dressed, cars and computers that make us embarrassed to still be using last year’s model. Marketing intentionally creates a tension between what we have and what we see, a dissonance that can only be eased by buying this or wearing that. Perpetual dissatisfaction is good for business. It just happens to be bad for people. Compare this to the world within a place of worship, whose message is that we are valued, not for what we earn or own or spend, but for what we are.

Let me illustrate this point by travelling back in time to a comparable moment in the history of civilisation. It is a story about translation, because I believe that one of the simplest ways of understanding the differences between cultures is to identify the words that are untranslatable from one language to another. 2,300 years ago there occurred a famous moment in the history of translation, when the Hebrew Bible was translated for the first time into Greek, the so-called ‘Septuagint’. Jewish tradition records that the translators found themselves unable to translate literally the verse, “On the seventh day, God completed the work that He had done” (Gen. 2:2). Evidently they felt that the sentence, in that form, would have been unintelligible to the Greeks; so instead they wrote, “On the sixth day, God completed . . .”

What did they believe was unintelligible? The idea that rest is a creation, an achievement, a work of art. As it happens, we have independent evidence that their intuition was correct. Several Greek and Latin writers of antiquity say that the Jews kept the Sabbath because they were lazy. The concept of a holy day was familiar to every ancient culture. What was unique about the Sabbath was that it was a day of rest, a time whose holiness was expressed in cessation from work.

The Sabbath meant and means many things. It was a protest against slavery. One day in seven, every individual shared the same freedom, breathed the same air of liberty. It was a reminder that there are limits to our exploitation of natural resources. Like the sabbatical and jubilee years, it was a time when the earth rested as a reminder that we are not only creators but also creations, charged with conserving the natural world for future generations. But it has something, too, to do with the nature of happiness. The story is told of the eighteenth century mystic Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev who looked out of his window one day and saw people rushing in the town square below. ‘Why are you running?’ he asked one passer-by. ‘To make a living,’ he replied. ‘What makes you so sure,’ said the rabbi, ‘that your living is ahead of you, and you have to run to catch it up? Perhaps it’s behind you, and you need to stand still to let it catch up with you!’ The Sabbath is the time when we stand still and let our blessings catch up with us.

Greece, at the time of the Bible translation, was at the height of its powers. Its achievements in art, architecture, drama and philosophy remain awe-inspiring. Yet within two centuries it had begun its decline, to be replaced by the power of Rome, while Judaism, despite its tragic history, survived. I wonder whether that episode does not contain the explanation. Might it be that civilisations, like individuals, are prone to burn-out, to exhaustion? Might the Sabbath not be one of the great elements in the sustainability of a culture? Is this why Judaism and its daughter monotheisms, Christianity and Islam, survived while so many other civilisations faded and disappeared?

The Hebrew writer Achad ha-Am once said that more than the Jewish people kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept the Jewish people. Jews are not opposed to the market economy or technological advance; we welcome them. But in the Sabbath there is a necessary counter-affirmation, best expressed by one of our ancient Sages who said, ‘Who is rich? One who rejoices in what he has.’ The remorseless pressure of consumerism to define ourselves in terms of what we lack, not what we have, takes a heavy toll in a culture which has no counter-voice. The translation of Sunday from a day of rest to a day of shopping is not a minor, but a major, transformation and, in my view, a great mistake.

Let me take another example, this time from bio-ethics. There is no doubt that the discovery of DNA and the decoding of the human genome are among the most exciting advances in human knowledge ever made. Their potential benefits are vast. Genetic screening and gene-splicing may allow us in the future to treat hitherto incurable conditions, among them Huntington’s, Tay-Sachs, cystic fibrosis and Down’s syndrome. The question is: will we know where to stop? Will we be able to draw the essential line between therapeutic and eugenic interventions? Will we recognise the moral limits of bio-technology?

Certain concerns are, I believe, misplaced. It is not wrong to pursue new ways of curing disease. Judaism does not contain a prohibition against ‘playing God’. To the contrary, it sees us as ‘God’s partners in the work of creation’. Nor does it see infertility as a condition to be accepted, but rather as one, if possible, to be cured. Genetic engineering, even cloning, may well be acceptable if these are the only ways of treating illness or enabling a couple to have a child. Nor is cloning, in and of itself, merely replicating a human being. Identical twins are both persons in their own right and display differences when they grow up, whether raised separately or together. We should resist any tendency to genetic determinism, as the Judeo-Christian ethic has resisted every other form of determinism in the past. We are creatures of will and choice, of upbringing, culture, reflection and imagination. Our fate is not written in our genes.

Yet, for all that, we are right to have qualms. How will we differentiate, for example, between curing impaired learning ability and enhancing intelligence? At what point will we halt the right of parents to determine their child’s genetic endowment? At what stage does childbirth shade over into manufacture? When does a child – produced, let us say, as a clone of a parent, or as a replacement for another child who has died – become a means to someone else’s end rather than as an end in his or her own self? What, in the long run, will happen to our concepts of personal identity, relationship and individuality, and to the idea –fundamental to the sanctity of life – of life as God’s gift?

These are not theoretical questions. Already we are moving into disturbing territory. Take the following case, which I owe to the philosopher Anthony O’Hear.[2] An Italian businessman and his Portuguese wife, who already had two children through surrogacy, decided that they wanted a third: a boy who was tall, athletic and blond. They went to an agency in Denmark, who found a sperm donor in the United States, an egg donor in Britain, and a surrogate mother, also in Britain. The operation was performed in Athens. After 21 weeks of pregnancy it was discovered that, instead of a boy, the surrogate mother was carrying twin girls. Disappointed, the couple demanded that she have an abortion. She refused. The twins were born, and were eventually adopted by a lesbian couple in California, where they are now being raised by a nanny from Puerto Rico.

What are those children if not commodities produced to order and then traded across the world? Who are their parents? The couple who initiated the project? The sperm- and egg-donors? The surrogate mother? The two adoptive mothers? What story will the girls be able to tell themselves about their identity when they grow up? What in this case has become of the idea of persons as beings sacred in themselves rather than the gratification of someone else’s desire? Once again, as in the previous example, we are allowing the market (this time, in co-operation with medical technology) to substitute for ethical principle, as if all that matters is the maximal freedom to do what we choose so long as we can afford it. At some stage, a civilisation must be able to say: not everything we can do, should we do. Without this, technology drives values instead of values directing technology; and if that happens, then truly we are travelling blind. Of any technological advance, the primary question must be: Does this enhance or diminish human dignity? In many cases it enhances it, but not in all. When it does not, we must call a halt.

Consider this declaration made, in 1997, by the International Academy of Humanism, and signed by some of the most distinguished scientists of our time. It said:

Some world religions teach that human beings are fundamentally different from other mammals . . . Human nature is held to be unique and sacred . . . As far as the scientific enterprise can determine [however] . . . [h]uman capabilities appear to differ in degree, not in kind, from those found among the higher animals. Humanity’s rich repertoire of thoughts, feelings, aspirations and hopes seems to arise from electrochemical brain processes, not from an immaterial soul that operates in ways no instrument can discover . . . Views of human nature rooted in humanity’s tribal past ought not to be our primary criterion for making decisions about cloning.[3]

This is scientific reductivism at its worst. If human aspirations are no more than electrochemical brain processes, then a Rembrandt is a mix of pigments on canvas, and a Beethoven quartet, mere marks on paper. Of course this is nonsense. We are both physical beings whose movements can be described in terms of cause and effect, and intentional, self-conscious agents whose acts can only be understood in the language of purpose, meaning, imagination and aims. We are, as the Bible puts it, ‘dust of the earth’ but within us is the ‘breath of God.’ These two languages – one constructed in terms of physical causes in the past, the other in terms of aspirations for the future – are irreducible to one another. Morality belongs to the second. It is about the world to which we aspire – the world of ‘ought’ – and about its realisation in the here-and-now, the world of ‘is.’ A language which reduces humanity to electrochemical brain processes is one in which not only morality will become radically unintelligible; so too will be the ideas on which our essential humanity depends. We do well to heed the words of one of the great scientists of our time, E. O. Wilson, who says this about our current state:

[W]e are learning the fundamental principle that ethics is everything . . . We are adults who have discovered which covenants are necessary for our survival, and we have accepted the necessity of securing them by sacred oath . . . [I]f we should surrender our genetic nature to machine-aided ratiocination, and our ethics and art and our very meaning to a habit of careless discursion in the name of progress, imagining ourselves to be god-like and absolved from our ancient heritage, we will become nothing.[4]

Wilson’s reference to ‘our ancient heritage’ brings me to my final example, and to the fundamental question: What is society? Let me approach the issue obliquely by thinking about this building, Windsor Castle itself. I try to imagine what it must be like to inherit such a building. To live in such a place, so steeped in history, is to want to know how it came to be and why. In the course of asking such a question I would learn about how it began, in the days of William the Conqueror, on the legendary site of King Arthur’s Round Table. I would find that it had been rebuilt several times over the course of the ensuing centuries, in the days of Henry II, Henry III, and Edward III. In the course of learning this history I would do more than discover facts. I would also know that I had entered into a set of obligations – a moral relationship – with its past and future. I would know that I was part of a story. The very fact that the castle was here would tell me that its previous owners had endeavoured to preserve it, protect it, and at times enhance it so that it could be handed on to future generations. They had vested their hopes in me, that I too would guard it and hand it on in turn to those who come after me. The result is that when disaster strikes, as it did in the great fire of 1992, I would know that I had to restore the damaged buildings (including the great Hall we are in tonight), not necessarily exactly as it was before, but in keeping with the whole. That is what it is to live in the context of history.

Now compare the castle to a five-star hotel not far from here. My relationship to it is quite different. It does not tell a story that speaks of this place, this building, this history. To the contrary, if the hotel is part of an international chain, it may only be the weather that reminds me, when I wake up, that I am in Britain and not Bali, Bangkok or Buenos Aires. My relationship with the hotel is purely contractual, meaning that the hotel provides me with certain services, in return for which I pay the bill. Beyond that, it makes no demands on me, nor I on it. That is the difference between a hotel and a home.

By now, of course, you will have realised that I am talking, not about two buildings, but about two conceptions of society. I will never own a building like Windsor Castle, but I do own something not less significant, namely a story. It was given to me by my parents when I was a child. Every Jewish child receives such a gift on the festival of Passover. It tells me that my ancestors were once slaves; that they were then set free; that they wandered in the desert for forty years, and then later across the earth for 2,000 years. I know, just as does the heir of a physical inheritance, that I am a link in the chain of generations, with a duty of loyalty to the past and to the future. That is the conception of society Edmund Burke had in mine when he called it a ‘partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.’[5] I am part of a story, whose earlier chapters were written by my ancestors, and whose next chapter I must now write and then hand it on to my children and they to theirs. That is society as a home with a history extended through time.

That, however, is not the view that prevails today. Instead we have moved toward the idea that a State is purely procedural. It embodies no particular history or set of values. It exists in a purely contractual relationship with its members, whereby in return for certain payments in the form of taxes, we receive specific benefits and services. Beyond that each of us is free to do what we like so long as we do not scare the horses. This is society, not as a home, but as a hotel. It is therefore, at its very roots, not something from which I could derive an identity, a set of ideals, a story that helps me to understand who I am, or a sense of obligation toward the past or guardianship for the sake of the future. It is deeply problematic as to whether I could feel loyalty to such a society. Indeed I suspect that the word ‘loyalty,’ like so many other words in our vocabulary, is a mere survival, a relic, of an earlier age.

It is therefore not surprising, in the light of these three examples – to which one could add so many others – that our happiness has not kept pace with the advance in knowledge, technology and gross national product. That is because we are in the process of systematically deconstructing the bases on which happiness rests: our sense of being valued for what we are, of the uniqueness and sanctity of a human life, and of being part of a story that confers meaning and significance to my life. With this, I come to the point to which we have been travelling all along.

Professor Stephen Hawking once wrote a 200-page best seller called A Brief History of Time. Here is an even briefer history of time, in three sentences: In the beginning, people believed in many gods. Then came monotheism and reduced them to one. Then came science and reduced them to none.

Or in other words, first there was myth. Then there was monotheism, which demythologised the world. Then came the moment when Laplace said the famous words, ‘Je n’ais pas besoin de cette hypothese.’ I no longer need to invoke God to explain the world. On this view, monotheism – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – was a mere halfway stage on the long road to science.

That is how we have come to tell the story, but it is not the only, or even the most interesting, way. I want to suggest an alternative: Ever since Homo sapiens stopped beating the tribal drums long enough to express a thought, we have reflected on our place in the universe. We know that, compared to all there is, we are each infinitesimally small. At best, we are a ripple in the ocean, a grain of sand on the shore. The universe preceded us by billions of years, and it will survive for billions of years after we are gone. How then is our life, that fleeting shadow, related to the totality of things? To this there have been two answers, and they are fundamentally opposed.

There have been cultures, ancient and modern, that have seen reality in terms of vast impersonal forces. To the ancients they were the sun, the sea, the storm, the flood. Today they are the global economy, international politics, the environment and the Internet. What they have in common is that they are indifferent to us, just as a tidal wave is indifferent to those it sweeps away. Global warming does not choose its victims. Economic recession does not pause to ask who suffers. Genetic mutation happens without anyone deciding to whom. On this view, the forces that govern the world are essentially blind. They are not addressed to us. We may stand in their path or we may step out of the way, but they are unmoved by our existence; they do not relate to us as persons. In such a world, human hope is a prelude to tragedy. The best we can do is to combine hedonism with stoicism: seize what pleasures come our way and take Prozac to anaesthetise the pain. That is a coherent view. Its greatest expression is to be found in Greek tragedy. It is where our culture is heading today.

At some stage in the history of ancient Israel a different vision was born: one that saw in the cosmos the face of the personal. Without denying any of the world’s appearances, it saw beyond them to a deeper reality: a God who brought the universe into being, not as a scientist in a laboratory, but as a parent, in and through love. In this vision, we are not insignificant, nor are we alone. We are here because someone willed us into being, who wanted us to be, who knows our thoughts and values us in our uniqueness, whose breath we breathe and in whose arms we rest, someone in and through whom we are connected to all that is.

This was not a minor discovery, nor was it simply a religious one. It was as much about mankind as about God. To put it simply: by discovering God, our ancestors discovered man. For the first time a momentous concept began to take shape: the concept of the human person – every human person – as a being of unique dignity. It is not to much to say that in the words, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,’ were born all the great ethical and political concepts that have shaped Western civilisation for the past thousand years, among them, human rights, the free society, the sanctity of life, and the dignity of difference.

Finding God singular and alone, our ancestors discovered the human person, singular and alone. Hearing God reach out to us, they discovered the importance of human beings reaching out to one another. Haltingly at first, then with growing confidence, they began to realise that God is not about power but about relationship. He is found, therefore, not just in heaven but in society, in the structures we make to honour His presence by honouring His image in other human beings. Faith is not a primitive form of science. It is about the ultimate reality of the personal and how we translate that into our shared and social world.

That is why we need, not only supermarkets and laboratories and hotels, but also places like St. George’s Chapel and the many other houses of worship where we sustain and give expression to our vision of the personal. That is the necessary counter-voice to all those forces – economic, scientific, political – whose glory and greatness is that they are impersonal. We are not opposed to these things. To the contrary, they have given us economic growth, scientific advance and democratic government, three of the treasures of the modern world. It is simply that we also need the texts and contexts that remind us of the sacred stories and ethical principles that articulate our humanity, and that have been driven, in recent decades, to the very margins of the public square.

The pages of history are littered with the debris of civilisations that were, in their time, technologically supreme: from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt to the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. I find it awe-inspiring to realise that the social orders that survived were those that valued, not power, but the powerless; not economic and military but spiritual strength; not the mass but the individual, in whose features they discerned the image of God. That is what will always constitute the good society, and if today this has become a counter-cultural view, so be it. Religions were always at their best when they were counter-cultural, when they challenged the consensus instead of running after it. Today we need to hear that voice again, loudly, fearlessly, unequivocally – for the sake of our children, our future, and God, in whose reflection alone we see ourselves as we are called on to become.

[1] Oliver James, Britain on the Couch, London, Century, 1997.
[2] Daily Mail, 8 May 2000.
[3] Quoted in Leon Kass, ‘The Moral Meaning of Genetic Technology,’ Commentary 108:2, September 1999.
[4] E. O. Wilson, Consilience, London, Abacus, 1999, 332-333.
[5] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993, 96.