Simon Carr: There's a lot in peasant wisdom

We've detached ourselves from our real lives to live a subjunctive world
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Here's a report of a conversation with a Russian peasant. I dare say with the right adjustments it could be a conversation with any sort of unschooled farm worker at any time over the last 5,000 years.

Q: All bears are white where there is always snow; in Novaya Zemlya there is always snow. What colour are the bears there?

A: I have only seen black bears and I do not talk of what I have not seen.

Q: But what do my words imply?

A: If a person has not been there he cannot say anything on the basis of words. If a man was 60 or 80 and had seen a white bear there and told me about it, he could be believed.

You can imagine that sort of mentality to be annoying if you had to live with it; but as an experiment it's refreshing.

The trouble with convictions and causes and passions, these days, is that we can believe what we want. It's a matter of taste, almost. We've detached ourselves from our local lives, from the facts of our lives, and taken up residence in some weightless, subjunctive world.

We light on something to care about and then apply ourselves to the task. Some of us choose to care about world hunger and after an introductory period we wonder how people can ignore such suffering in a world of plenty.

Having chosen our area of concern we don't have to stick to the obvious side of the issue. Who knows? Child poverty might be helped by tax cuts, for instance. You can believe that, if you want. It's not really provable. Most of these things aren't.

In the endlessly articulated world we live in there are many reasons for and against, more than enough for our leaders to bat for either side and "fight passionately for their beliefs".

But with the endless multiplication of facts, arguments and stories we can conjure a case – a moral case in all its weight and seriousness for the thing itself or its opposite.

This is quite modern. Maybe it's the product of universal education and the sudden rise in IQ that has been observed by James Flynn. He thinks recent cultural developments (television, computer games, IQ tests) have led us to be more at ease with abstractions. We have become more conceptual than our parents. And our societies more intellectual, or mental.

But it makes me nostalgic for that peasant way of thinking.

Q: There are no camels in Germany. The city of B is in Germany. Are there camels there or not?

A: I don't know. I have never seen German villages. If it is a large city, there should be camels there.

Q: But what if there aren't any in all of Germany?

A: If B is a village, there is probably no room for camels.

And if you substitute "weapons of mass destruction" for camels, and "Iraq" for "Germany" – then we see a peasant and a highly trained lawyer can come to the same conclusions.