Regaining our spiritual commons

This thought piece was written for Perspectiva.

Here’s a pub quiz question. Which piece of British legislation was on the statute books longer than any other? Answer: The Charter of the Forest. It was signed in 1217 and lasted 754 years.

The follow-up question is, do you know what it secured? And the answer to that is: The Commons.

The commons are those shared resources that nobody in particular owns; typically including land and forests, water and minerals. The charter asserted the right of common men and women to subsistence, to work and to reparation for loss of commons.

Nowadays, in an age of enclosures, sell-offs, privatisation and imparkments, it’s shocking to learn that in the Middle Ages, fifty per cent or more of the land was commons, accessible to everybody. Fifty per cent.

It raises the question of how that was possible and I suspect it was because people had a powerful sense of an even more extensive commons. There was also a “spiritual commons”. The land belonged to nobody because it belonged to everybody, which is to say that people were conscious of it as part of life itself.

It’s why, in the ancient world, economics was theorised as a type of knowledge or wisdom. It had to do with the relationship of households and cities to nature and deities. The aim was to facilitate the greatest human goods in conjunction with the gods.

Similarly, in the medieval period, estates and kingdoms were regarded fundamentally as entrusted patrimonies bestowed by heaven, not capital resources defined by law. It was a world “charged with the grandeur of God”, to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins, equally blessed and terrifying.

Those times were not utopias, of course. But it does suggest that alongside the tangible loss of the commons, the spiritual commons has been lost to us too. My intuition is that matters. The world has been turned into property that can be traded. It can be manipulated because, stripped of its spiritual vitality, its extrinsic value outshines any intrinsic meaning. The unintended byproduct is that we are now viciously spiralling down a vortex of unsustainable consumption because we are caught in an agony of lost meaning, desperately seeking proxies for the spiritual commons in addictive consumption.

If this is even partly right, we will need to regain sight of this lost dimension to save ourselves and the planet. But can that be done? Can the spiritual commons be re-imagined again for our times? My hypothesis is that the undertaking is hopeful because spiritual commons is not depleted. It is a type of wealth defined not by scarcity but abundance. It cannot be traded, though we can be trained to enjoy it. It’s here, still, already. It’s disappeared from view but not disappeared. So, what does it look like?

Spiritual commons includes the capacities we have to imagine and to relate, to know and to delight. It’s also the practical wisdom about how to live well and thrive. Its nature is akin to the wealth Albert Einstein had in mind when he asked: “Can anyone imagine Moses, Jesus, or Gandhi with the moneybags of Carnegie?”

It is the non-material aspects of life that, more often than not, are crucial for finding meaning and purpose, particularly when life involves suffering. The appreciation of what’s good, beautiful and true should be added to the list, therefore, as well as the freedom to orientate one’s life around them. This also implies that love lives in this domain.

To care for spiritual commons would involve fights… We’d have to make the case for free will and the life of the mind, which means resisting both being reduced to brain products.

My sense is that the rediscovery of spiritual commons would be primarily an imaginative and educative task. We might train ourselves to relate to it again. It would be known through deepening attention and expanding perception. It’s about focusing on what’s implicit as well as measurable; valuing what’s felt as well as what can be kicked. It’s about toying with the possibility that the whole world has an inner life, not just the bit of it that’s my body and yours.

I think time would be a crucial element to re-imagine, too, the spiritual commons given to us freely each day by the sun. Some simple words could help differentiate between types of time, thereby to experience its qualities afresh.

The ancient Greeks might assist. They could tell the difference between several types of time. There was recreation, which was about fostering spiritual commons such as participation and compassion when going to a play or sharing in a sport. There was leisure, which was time for pursuing activities such education or visiting the temple. And there was inactivity, which Aristotle regarded as vital for the highest human experience of all: conscious awareness of how you are living and what qualities it exhibits.

There was also work, though the Greeks might also advise taking a stand against the use of phrases like “free time”. It implies that work is the owner of time, which is one of our fundamental mistakes, removing it from our spiritual commons.

To care for spiritual commons would involve fights. I think we’d have to make the case for free will and the life of the mind, which means resisting both being reduced to brain products. We’d also have to show that the horizons of human intelligence reach far further than the domains of decision-making and problem-solving, as is assumed by researchers in artificial intelligence. It includes contemplation and appreciation, imagination and inspiration, all of which are truth-bearing too.

Another area of contention has been highlighted by Andrew Kimbrell, not least in his publication, Cold Evil: Technology and Modern Ethics. “Cold evil” is the insidious valuing of objectivity over intuition and understanding; efficiency over affection and friendship; competition over help and vulnerability – in other words, another loss of spiritual commons. He cites the dictum that “technology is a way of organising the world so that we do not experience it”. Experience is at the heart of regaining spiritual commons so technology may often, therefore, be an opponent, though the hope is that a rekindled imagination would help us to spot that and see how it can mindfully serve not mindlessly shape us.

Spiritual commons are often manifest in and through the loveliness of the material world, so that matters as well. It’s another area, alongside education, where spiritual commons has practical implications. That was spotted early by John Ruskin.

Consider his 1884 lecture, The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, in which he noted that “one of the last pure sunsets I ever saw” was in 1876, almost a decade previously. The colours back then were “prismatic”, he said, the sun going into “gold and vermillion”. “The brightest pigments we have would look dim beside the truth,” he continued. He had attempted to reflect that glorious manifestation of the spiritual commons in paint.

He also knew that his experience of its beauty was lost because the atmosphere was becoming polluted. As a keen observer of nature, he noted how dust and smoke muddied and thinned the sky’s brilliance. In short, it would be crucial to clean up the environment if the vivid, natural displays were to return. Of course. But the subtler point Ruskin draws our attention to is the one about motivation: he wanted the vivid, natural displays because he had an awareness of, and desire for, spiritual commons.

Imagination, relationship, knowledge, delight. Wisdom and time, truth and love, the implicit and the felt. The meaning of suffering and the purpose of struggle. Life has been organised around spiritual commons before. Might training ourselves to become conscious of their abundance again help us to do so once more?