It was the late Stratford Caldecott who first struck up my interest in Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World by Charles, the Prince of Wales. Caldecott described the book as the coffee table manifesto of traditionalism. After my own reading, I can only concur with his description. For the traditionalist, this book’s primary use is as a conversation starter. The sophists, economists, and calculator obsessed in our age will have little time for it, but for others it can be used to spark a fire that sets us about pondering the deeper questions of life.
The apparent catalyst or reason for the book’s existence is the Prince’s obsession with the environment. His activism and statements about our need to care for the earth and accordingly alter our business habits have invited derision from the modernist right. The book is filled with proposals to cut carbon emissions, end deforestation and overfishing, and touts the work of the Prince’s many charities. Indeed, there are times the book feels like a clever PR move made by a future King whose career until now has been less than perfect. The book is filled with photographs, many of them showing the Prince in exotic locales planting trees or watching an endangered albatross. Next to these images, the many paragraphs beginning with “My charity” or “The charity of which I am the patron” or “I have long advocated the need” sometimes make the book feel like one of those personal statements we expect from aspiring presidential candidates every few years. However, I suppose Royalty does have its rights.
A cynical reading like this, however, cannot explain the book’s existence. For one thing, the Prince does himself no favors with those critics who disagree with his environmentalism. On the other hand, a closer reading makes one wonder if the environment is what the Prince is getting at all.
“This is a call to revolution,” the first line of the book reads. The earth cannot cope with all we demand of it, and we must make a change. But, the Prince declares, “right action cannot happen without right thinking and in that simple truth lies the deeper purpose of this book.” For the Prince, the environmental or economic crises are “consequences of a much deeper problem.” The problem is the way we look at the world, and the Prince calls to “see the world as the ancients saw it” and to hold onto a timeless view of things “rooted in the human condition and experience.”
Rather than jump right into telling us about the actions we must take to save the planet, Prince Charles laments that, “it is the spiritual dimension to our existence that has been lost in the modern era.” It is more than of passing concern that our age no longer believes in the soul or of God. Indeed, Prince Charles explicitly defends and admits the fact that the wisdom upon which he bases his worldview came to humanity from revelation. “I cannot stress it firmly enough,” he argues, “by dismissing such a process [revelation] and discarding what it offers to humankind, we throw away a lifebelt for the future.”
The problems of our age, environmental, financial, or otherwise, are in reality spiritual problems, and the Prince attributes all this to modernism. Modernism corrupted the way we farm, the way we do business, the way we design buildings, the way we compose music, and the way we relate nature. He explains that, “modernism deliberately abstracted nature and glamorized convenience.” Where the Aristotelian and Thomistic framework once provided the basis for seeing man as a part of nature, in harmony with it, modernism and the enlightenment have separated both man and God from nature. “It is as if all that happened from the seventeenth century onwards built a very high wall so that only the tops of the trees are visible in the landscape beyond it,” the Prince muses. And indeed, the consequences have been disastrous.
Believing like he does, that “tradition is a living presence,” the Prince is able to show us just how much our thinking has changed by pointing to radical revolutions in different disciplines. In music, for instance, he observes we have abandoned traditional tonal harmony, and the experimental result is that the music is “clever” rather than eternal. In architecture, likewise, he says that modernist designs may be “clever and eye-catching, but they do not nurture a sense of well being.” That architecture is important to community well-being is something our culture cannot understand, but the Prince argues it is important because it “defines the public realm and therefore helps to define us as human beings. It affects our psychological well-being because it can either enhance or detract from a sense of community.”
Education, too, has suffered from our disconnected view of the world. Specialization and efficiency have only ensured that we know more and more about less and less. Knowledge is emphasized over wisdom, and what the Prince calls a “whole-istic” education that connects children with nature and their heritage is all but lost.
The tradition the Prince is trying to restore is not specifically western. He quotes Wendell Berry, Muslim proverbs, Shakespeare, the Buddha, Gandhi, and even references C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and the Book of Common Prayer, all seamlessly, and the result is a philosophy that sits in stark contrast to the modern way of thinking. Channeling a mixture of C.S. Lewis and Aristotle he declared, “We are not the masters of creation. No matter how sophisticated our technology has become, the simple fact is that we are not separate from Nature. Just like everything else, we are nature.”
One cannot truly pay attention to this volume and seriously think it is a mere feel-good PR move by a public figure. How well do you think the modern world will take being told by an aristocrat that “our approach cannot all be based on rights. There have to be responsibilities too.” And what good will it do the future constitutional monarch of a secular society, and “symbolic” head of the Church of England to say “It was humanism that forced the famous split between Church and State in the seventeenth century and opened the door to those notions that became so prominent in the European enlightenment. By then… human nature came to be seen more and more as self interested.”
No, the Prince is offering us a real challenge. He is presenting a “new” way of looking at the world, but it is only new in a Chestertonian paradoxical sense. It was an old philosophy when all our thoughts were new, and it shall be a new philosophy when all our thoughts are old. The Prince wants to see a new world that looks remarkably like an old one. And unlike politicians who write meaningless words that never bear any fruit, the Prince has used the powers and resources at his disposal to work towards the changes he envisions. Prince Charles used his own estate to create the town of Poundbury, constructed with traditional architecture and designed with the human pedestrian in mind, thus making it easier to be near family, work, and daily needs. Additionally, the Prince has founded a graduate school for the study of traditional arts and is patron of the Prayer Book Society.
With a little imagination, it is not difficult to see the Prince as a conservative, seeking to channel the moral energy of the day into a conversation about what truly matters in life. In a world gone so metaphysically mad, we could use more like him.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.