What have we to do with the recent demand by students of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London? The demand is that the study of Greek philosophers like Socrates, Aristotle and Plato be replaced by the study of Eastern philosophers, particularly Indian ones.
Want to beat someone at their game by evicting their gods from their house, do they? Well, it’s been known to happen. Out here, meanwhile, we wouldn’t know about the Harappan civilisation, Asoka, Ajanta, Khajuraho and much else if not for the British. We lost it all and forgot it all.
They gave it back to us with general education, which was their invention, not ours. European philosophy is the foundation of their academic identity and it indirectly benefited us too, through the Raj. ‘Indology’ was their creation. They need not be allowed the last word on it by any means. But in their place, I wouldn’t give up my old gods for new every thousand years, especially if they’d served me well.
Be that as it may, and while that report may engage those concerned, the daily news horrifies and repels. Is there nothing going on in our world but evil? For millennials and for anyone who missed out, it may be very pleasant to catch up on the everyday life of English vets in the inter-war years of the first half of the 20th century, through the books of James Herriot.
Better still, why not watch the heartwarming BBC TV series of the 1990s, now available on YouTube (the traditional 30-year cycle continues in entertainment, evidently, no matter the medium)? The series is called All Creatures Great and Small, and it’s addictive; at least, the first three seasons were.
There’s the highly principled James; his wife Helen, the prettiest and surely the nicest girl in the Yorkshire Dales; the mercurial owner of the veterinary practice, Siegfried Farnon; and his charming younger brother, Tristan, who’s gloriously irresponsible and an incurable prankster, always on the brink of qualifying at veterinary college in Edinburgh but never quite clearing all his papers.
The flamboyant Siegfried tells James that Tristan looks like a debauched choir boy and scolds James and Helen that they’re nothing but a pair of great softies, too kind and modest for their own good. Siegfried and Tristan owe their operatic names to their mother’s passion for the German composer Wagner.
These characters are some of the most inspiring people I ever met in a book, more so than any philosopher or guru. They seem to embody more real religion and goodness than many people one reads about or indeed encounters in real life. They are true healers who love their work, often treat pets for free, especially those of little children and elderly pensioners, eat, drink (good claret sometimes, or ale and Yorkshire beer), get cross when tired or irritated, fight epidemics and manage to stay stoic and optimistic through grim conditions, often getting up on a freezing night to help a cow through a difficult calving.
Their little world is long gone. But their values are enduring and may come in curiously handy today, as we struggle to stay grounded through our times.
The views expressed are personal.