Two Stone Balancers (March 2017)

A few years ago I went on holiday to Lyme Regis which I enjoyed for several reasons: I like holidays, I like Dorset because it balances my desire to head to the seaside against my reluctance to travel too far from my house, I like dinosaurs and Lyme Regis is at the heart of the Jurassic Coast, I like tongue twisters and she who sells sea shells on the sea shore was Mary Anning, a palaeontologist from Lyme Regis; I like Jane Austen and Lyme Regis is the setting of her finest novel and I like breakfast and there is in Lyme Regis a bakery where they have a fine morning repast. Particularly pertinent to today’s assembly, however, is the fact that I like mad art and Lyme Regis has an artist in residence who makes the town the kind of place where interesting and beautiful things are created. There is, for example, in Lyme Regis a professional stone balancer. He gets large stones and balances them on end on the sea shore and then takes photographs of them which he sells. We stopped to speak to him as he was creating his work on the promenade and he explained that the trick is not getting stones to balance – any stone will balance if you can find the sweet spot where the centre of mass is over the contact point with the ground – the trick is getting stones to balance in a way that it looks like they shouldn’t be able to. The stone-balancer came to mind when I was giving my lab lecture last week and I was talking about the impossibility of a society being both equal and free and it struck me that running a country must be much like balancing a stone – finding the sweet spot between those two contradictory ideas.

This morning I’d like to tell you about two other stone-balancing acts, two other examples of cognitive dissonance, two examples of searching for the sweet spot between apparently contradictory ideas. The first comes from Westminster School: it’s embedded in their ethos and runs deep in their DNA and it is encapsulated in the phrase Loyal Dissent. Loyal Dissent is the idea that one can question and challenge and still respect: that, in fact, the greatest respect that can be shown a scholar is to have her ideas, reasoning and axioms challenged and found sound. Loyal Dissent is a stone-balancing act because it is working for the team without being a yes-man, being highly critical of sources and then spending time learning from the best scholars that have gone before. Loyal Dissent is crucial to the peaceful communication that I spoke to you about last week – communities become insular and intolerant if the choice is between Loyalty or Dissent and the only way the centre can hold is if there is a forum for respectful disagreement. I commend the practice of Loyal Dissent most strongly to you and urge you to have in your mind that stone-balancing act: is the centre of gravity held over the point of contact or are you going to tip over into unquestioning Loyalty or, possibly worse, into disloyal and destructive quarrelsomeness.

I think Loyal Dissent is a useful cognitive dissonance that will carry you far in life but I want, inevitably, to rest for a little while and reflect on what it means for scholarship and our studies at Harris Westminster. I’ve often asked you to be more critical and I’ve also often asked you to spend more time memorising the wisdom of others and, whilst you may have noticed the potential conflict or, indeed, paradox of these instructions I’ve never before admitted the contradiction and attempted to resolve it. It’s a balancing act. You should be critical – when you are presented with information you should ask “why?” and “How do you know?” and “isn’t that a simplification?” but what you mustn’t do is allow this habit of critical scrutiny to become one of lazy rejection of authority: please try to formulate arguments against orthodoxy, please test every dogma against the white hot intensity of your intellect but when it passes the test, when your arguments come up short, as they will do, more often than not, please accept the strength of what you have been taught and learn it. One of the reasons I urge you to be critical is so that you thoroughly understand what you’re being taught, I suggest you ask hard questions not because I think that what you’re being taught is weak but because I think it’s strong and can take it and that having argued against it you will be able to be more convincing when you reason in favour. Loyal Dissent – keep the dissonance in mind.

The second dissonance comes following on from last week from another Yeats poem – this one was written in 1919 in the aftermath of the first world war and it strikes a different tone from the Lake Isle of Inisfree and seems particularly fresh and relevant in 2016/17. It goes like this:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.


Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   

The darkness drops again; but now I know   

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


There’s a lot to love in that poem but the words that haunt me are at the end of the first stanza: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Is this a statement of fact or a definition? Is it a withering criticism of our political leaders or a paean to the power of doubt. I don’t know what Yeats thought but I think that passionate intensity can be a good thing – I think that one of the dangers that politicians, especially centrist politicians, face is a tendency to boring pragmatism, to dispassionate realism and that they therefore lose out to the loud voices of extremism when, in fact,  making the world a better place is something that we can all be passionate about even if we disagree on how it should be done. And there, maybe, is the danger that the worst of Yeats’ poem fall into: those full of passionate intensity have in many cases lost the ability to disagree – or at least to respect those they disagree with. They are so convinced of their own passions that they can’t accept they might be wrong, so identified with their own viewpoint that any criticism is personal.


I would like to suggest a stone-balancing act, a cognitive dissonance. Can we be full of passionate doubt?


Passionate Doubt might sound like a contradiction – that, of course, is why it fits into today’s assembly – how can you be passionate about something you doubt? Well, I think that we can and, moreover, if we’re to improve the world and to maintain peace then I think we must. We should stand up for our beliefs, we should express them passionately and enthusiastically, we should bang our fists on the table as we argue our point and we should do those things not because we believe but because we doubt, not to browbeat our audience but to provoke discussion, argument, dissent. The more passionate we are about something, the more we believe the truth of what we say then the more we should welcome challenge and criticism because either we are right and our cause can take it or we are wrong and really need to change our cause.


I’m not sure Passionate Doubt links nicely into scholarship – Loyal Dissent is a more useful idea day-to-day in the school but as you look out into the wider world, as you think about what causes you will put time and energy into, as you consider what career paths are worthy of your talents I urge you to develop passionate doubt because I think that if we don’t want things to fall apart – I hope you spotted that Chinua Achebe was quoting Yeats in his book title – if we want to build a better society then we need a centre that holds and we need to find a way for the best to be filled with passionate intensity without becoming the worst. I’m not saying it’s easy – we watched the Lyme Regis stone-balancer working for an hour holding a single, sea-worn rock on its end, gently shifting the centre of gravity until he felt it directly over the rock below and was able to remove his hand and, in fact, whenever I’ve tried to replicate his work I’ve found that that point of balance is one I can only find with conscious readjustment – I can’t remove my hand but instead need to keep it there to give constant nudges. Stone-balancing, like cognitive dissonance, loyal dissent and passionate doubt is clearly something that takes practice.


1. More revelling in the poetry of Yeats can be found in Kindred Spirits