This is a call for revolution. The Earth is under threat. It cannot cope with all that we demand of it. It is losing its balance and we humans are causing this to happen." These opening lines of Harmony will strike many people as something of a paradox. It is a feature of our modern life view that no one is entitled to rule by hereditary right, and the Prince of Wales owes his position to an accident of birth. By what authority does he rouse the rest of us to revolution? There seems to be something contradictory in the heir to the throne calling on his subjects to rise up in rebellion.
The prince's position may look less paradoxical when one realises that what he is urging is a revolt against the modern world. Our future monarch is well known for the stances he has taken on sustainability, organic farming and the failings of modernist architecture, among other issues. His views have often been contentious, but they are not incoherent. They hang together closely, reflecting a considered rejection of the modern outlook.
"We need to escape the straightjacket of the Modernist world view," he writes, "so that we can reconnect our collective outlook to those universal principles that underpin the health of the natural world and keep life's myriad diversity within the limits of Nature's capacity." We must shake off scientific materialism - a reductive philosophy that has become entrenched in modern culture. Before the rise of modern science, practically every culture viewed the world as an intelligible whole, with a structure that matched the human mind. As the prince sees it, unless we can learn to see the world as an intrinsically orderly and meaningful cosmos we have no hope of dealing with the environmental dangers that threaten the Earth. Only in this way can we find a way out from "the age of disconnection".
One of the inset quotations that adorn this lavishly produced volume is from the Emerald Tablet of Hermes, a text medieval alchemists believed was part of a tradition going back to ancient Egypt. The book follows the Hermetic school in maintaining that the structures of sacred buildings reflect patterns in the cosmos. The notion that wisdom can be found in a hidden spiritual tradition attracted many 20th-century writers, including Yeats and TS Eliot. It features in Aldous Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy (1945), and informs the work of the poet Kathleen Raine (1908-2003), one of the founders of the Tenemos Academy of which the prince is patron. Alongside modern science, there has always been a counter-tradition, a "golden thread" (as the prince describes it) of esoteric thinking, which insists that humankind and the cosmos are linked together in a necessary balance.
Harmony is essentially a manifesto for this anti-modernist hermeticism. It will surely provoke furious hostility from those who think materialism is the only view of things consistent with science, but the chief value of Harmony may be in challenging the dogmatic certainties of modern rationalism. Science is a method, not a fixed body of knowledge, and the so-called scientific outlook is a succession of makeshifts, each of them internally unstable.
Current scientific orthodoxy includes a highly mechanistic type of biology and theories of physics which redefine the very idea of matter. It is unclear how the discrepancy will be overcome, but there is nothing to say that it will be resolved in favour of materialism of the kind that figured in 19th-century disputes about religion. The claim to superior rationality of our missionaries of materialism needs to be challenged. If the prince's anti-modernist manifesto provokes these guardians of orthodoxy into one of their recurrent spasms of fulminating rage, so much the better.
Encouraging readers to "immerse themselves in Nature's grammar and geometry, how it controls life on Earth, and how humanity has expressed it in so many great works of art and architecture", Harmony applies the hermetic philosophy to a wide range of practical issues. Co-authored with two others but written throughout in what is recognisably the prince's voice, it is an important book, which deserves to be examined with a seriousness it is unlikely to receive.
Still, one cannot help having doubts about the view of the world the book promotes, some pretty fundamental. If evangelical materialists make science seem more unified than it is, the prince downplays aspects of the pre-modern world-view that do not square with contemporary thinking. The idea that a revolutionary transformation in collective life can come about by a shift in the way we think is found nowhere in the traditional wisdom he wants to revive. In ancient Europe, India, China and Africa, life was always understood to be a cyclical process. Human experience was like the natural world, an unending round of creation and destruction. The necessary balance could be disrupted; but when this occurred, Nature would return things to equilibrium.
In an interesting turnabout, a version of this ancient view seems to be supported by contemporary Earth science. The current wave of climate change is unlike others in having been triggered by human activity. But if humans have caused global warming, it does not follow that they can stop the process. The prince writes of the Earth being under threat, and in terms of the ongoing destruction of species and habitats he is right. But climate change is not at bottom a wholly soluble problem. It is the planet restoring the balance that humans have disrupted. While we can surely be more intelligent in adapting to this shift, we cannot hope to avert it. Infinitely more powerful than its dominant species, the Earth will re-balance itself whatever humans do.
By promoting the idea of a revolution in consciousness as the remedy for contemporary ills the prince shows he is, after all, a modern man. As heir to the throne of the most modern country in the world, he could hardly be otherwise. Perhaps Harmony can be read as a move in preparation for the role he so clearly wants. A film version has been announced, and the anti-modern message will soon become a fleeting image in the media. However much he struggles against them, the contradictions in the prince's position cannot be overcome. He emerges from this book as very much like the people he wants to lead - anxiously looking for a way out from the intractable difficulties we presently confront, while remaining stuck fast in the disconnected modern world.
John Gray's next book, 'The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death', is published by Penguin in JanuaryReuse content