Reading The Signs

There is an old expression “a sign of the times”. It has never meant much to me because it has always seemed that an infinite variety of perspectives can exist at any time. Seen from that perspective, life is one great balancing act.

Recently, re-reading an old hit-and-miss text by G.K. Chesterton, which is also available online, returned that idea to the forefront of my mind. To some extent, it also helped to raise some depressed spirits. Then, however, news broke of war abroad and the notion of a fragile balance to life takes on a different hue altogether.

If wars can be avoided if countries are neutral, countries do not necessarily want to be neutral and so “escalations” will occur, sooner or later. As the balance between states changes, to be neutral can be seen to be unacceptable to many, even among scholars, as the news may remind one. And then people will attempt to “read the signs” of what a new balance may become, even if, for instance, one is not an authority on the geopolitics of the Black Sea and nuclear energy provision.

In my casual way, casual in the sense of being a part-time historian, my historical imagination was preoccupied recently with “reading signs”, albeit on two completely obscurantist notes: 1) why did so many photographed Fenian prisoners in the 1860s tuck their hand in their jackets, Napoleonic style: were they issuing a signal to their captors in a kind of sign language? 2) was Chesterton’s idea of orthodoxy akin to a Christian-humanist variation of, or parallel to, the Hindu concept of “the lord of the dance”, with the critical difference of always placing human agency at its core?

Humanists, properly speaking, will put humans first in any settlement of a dispute or conflict. States will put laws first. If there be a war, it will probably end in a truce and a legal treaty, hopefully sooner rather than later.

In Ireland, people are perhaps not inclined to think too much about treaties, possibly partly because in the public consciousness there was so often reference made to only one (“The Treaty”), but it is reasonable to look for signs that there shall be one when there is conflict. If so, let us hope that its constituent rules may be balanced, so that inevitable escalations that occur in time can remain manageable. Beyond that, I’m not sure what more any historian can say. Except perhaps that, in the light of the cold and miserable weather of late, it is also quite possible those mysterious looking prisoners were tucking their hands into their jackets solely because their hands were cold. There’s a merciful notion at least.