Few Britons and fewer Americans, I suspect, know much about the Prince of Wales, except that he is first in line to the throne. But in fact his vast range of public and charitable works, and his frequent interventions in public debate, will probably have a bigger influence on the nation than anything he will be allowed to achieve if he ever becomes the monarch. He is often at loggerheads with the “Establishment” he is taken to represent, and misunderstood or mocked as woolly-minded by media pundits whose job is to promote the modernist spirit.
David Lorimer’s Radical Prince: The Practical Vision of the Prince of Wales was the first book to examine the many threads that go to make up the Prince Charles’ vision for modern Britain, and his initiatives in “ecology, agriculture, religion, architecture, medicine, business and education.” Lorimer defines the Prince as a “radical traditionalist” who believes we need to “rediscover our roots in a living tradition.” A more recent book, Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World by Prince Charles with Tony Juniper and Ian Skelly (accompanied by a movie), brings the story up to date. The book is the coffee-table manifesto for a traditionalist revolution.
For more than thirty years the Prince has been promoting sustainable agriculture, organic farming, alternative medicine, and the new urbanism. He has even constructed an experimental village (Poundbury) to see if his Distributist social philosophy and architectural principles can be made to work in the modern world. He seems most at home in a Romantic tradition that goes back to William Blake, blended with more exotic influences from Jung, the Sufis, and Vedic India. It is an eclectic vision associated with the late Kathleeen Raine, whose Temenos Academy now flourishes under the Prince’s patronage.
The Prince’s populist assaults on architects and town planners often make headline news (he once described the National Theatre as “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting,” and a distinguished proposal for Trafalgar Square as resembling “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”), but his painstaking efforts to develop an alternative vision for Britain are relatively little known, and when known often unappreciated. He writes:
Perhaps I should not have been surprised that so many people failed to fathom what I was doing. So many appeared to think–or were told–that I was merely leaping from one subject to another–from architecture one minute to agriculture the next–as if I spent a morning saving the rainforests, then in the afternoon jumping to help young people start new businesses. What I have actually been trying to demonstrate is that all of these subjects are completely inter-related and that we have to look at the whole picture to understand the problems we face. For not only does it concern the way we treat the world around us, it is also to do with how we view ourselves.
Among the other practical steps he has taken to implement his ideas are through his Trust to give opportunities to young people, through his Highgrove estate to raise the profile of organic gardening, through Duchy Originals to create a nationally successful business based on organic farming, through his Foundation for Integrated Health to encourage research in complementary medicine, and through Business in the Community to support the regeneration of local communities. In addition he has founded an Institute of Architecture and a degree course in Visual Arts (Islamic and traditional). In the field of education at a lower level he defends the teaching of classic authors such as Shakespeare, and promotes the active involvement of school and pre-school children in a wide range of arts.
In medicine as elsewhere, the Prince’s philosophy is to “work with the grain of nature rather than against it.” He employs modern technology where appropriate, but he believes that the human body and soul form an “ecosystem” that has (within limits) the capacity for self-healing through the restoration of balance. The role of science is to assist that capacity for healing, respecting the way it has evolved or been created, rather than aggressively to re-invent or re-design the human organism. He has made contributions in the field of hospital design, as well as medical education and research. In Harmony he writes:
As I first struggled to understand what age-old thinking like this could teach us, I began to notice a curious connection between the many problems our modern world view had created and a subject that increasingly fascinated me. It was a surprising subject. It was the design and symbolism of the architecture of the temples, mosques, and cathedrals of the world. The more I learned about it, the more I became aware that there was a similarity between the way ancient civilizations built their sacred structures and the way the natural world itself is structured and behaves. The ratios and proportions that define the way natural organisms grow and unfold are the same as those that underpin the structure of the most famous ancient buildings. I was among a number of people who began to piece together a great jigsaw which revealed, much to my surprise, a profound insight into what really lay at the heart of ancient thinking.
Seeing this, I began to realize that the great juggernaut of industrialization relies upon a somewhat aberrant kind of language–a man-made one–which articulates a world view that ignores Nature’s grammar. Much of the syntax of this synthetic language is out of synchrony with Nature’s patterns and proportions and this is why it so often jars with the language of Nature. This is why so many Modernist buildings don’t feel ‘right’ to so many people, even though they may find them clever; or perhaps why we feel uncomfortable with factory farming, even though it makes economic sense because it supplies such a lot of food at such low prices; or why we feel something is missing from a form of medicine that treats the body like a machine and does not accommodate the needs of the mind or the spirit.
I find, by contrast, that if people are encouraged to immerse themselves in Nature’s grammar and geometry–discovering how it works, how it controls life on Earth, and how humanity has expressed it in so many great works of art and architecture–they are often led to acquire some remarkably deep philosophical insights into the meaning and purpose of Nature and into what it means to be aware and alive in this extraordinary Universe. This is particularly so in young people and the results of such immersion are as heartening as they are surprising.
The Prince argues that the modern rejection of the spiritual dimension of the universe led directly to the confrontation of fundamentalist secularism (materialist, atheist) with fundamentalist forms of religion (puritanical, literal). “Science can tell us how things work, but it is not equipped to tell us what they mean. That is the domain of philosophy and religion and spirituality.” But the religion we need has to be authentic, not an ideological substitute for the real thing. We need to get beyond those forms of tradition that have become empty shells or been corrupted by “mechanistic thinking.”
Prince Charles claims he does not want to return to the past, but simply to learn from it. He thinks we should “accept that there are such things as timeless principles, operate on a human scale, look firmly to the long-term, respect local conditions and traditions, and be profoundly sceptical of people who suggest that everything new is automatically better.” Whatever you may think of the English monarchy in general, it is hard not to warm to someone who claims he is motivated by the
desire to heal–to heal the dismembered landscape and the poisoned soil; the cruelly shattered townscape, where harmony has been replaced by cacophony; to heal the divisions between intuitive and rational thought, between mind, body and soul, so that the temple of our humanity can once again be lit by a sacred flame; to level the monstrous artificial barrier erected between Tradition and Modernity and, above all, to heal the mortally wounded soul that, alone, can give us warning of the folly of playing God and of believing that knowledge on its own is a substitute for wisdom.
When I met the Prince, some years ago, in the garden of his home in Highgrove, I was quite nervous. I had dressed in my smartest suit, but the Prince turned up in his gardening clothes, with holes in his trousers, and was completely relaxed. We chatted about Kathleen Raine, who was a mutual friend, and the composer John Tavener. He was there to inspect the work on his private chapel, which was being covered in frescoes by Aidan Hart, whom the Prince had first met on Mount Athos (where he used to go every year). I was with the iconographer David Clayton, who was assisting his teacher Aidan. The chapel spoke eloquently of the Prince’s personal Christian faith, despite the fact that he is well known for his ecumenical interests and in particular for working closely with Muslims (in fact he may be better respected in the Islamic world than he is in ours). For the Prince, these things go together. You can’t appreciate another’s faith without going deeply into your own.
Books related to the topic of this article may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Published here by the gracious permission of the author, this post originally appeared in (Beauty in Education or The Economy Project, etc depending on the source).