Charles, Prince of Piffle
A very silly man gives a very sinister speech.
This is what you get when you found a political system on the family values of Henry VIII. At a point in the not-too-remote future, the stout heart of Queen Elizabeth II will cease to beat. At that precise moment, her firstborn son will become head of state, head of the armed forces, and head of the Church of England. In strict constitutional terms, this ought not to matter much. The English monarchy, as has been said, reigns but does not rule. From the aesthetic point of view it will matter a bit, because the prospect of a morose bat-eared and chinless man, prematurely aged, and with the most abysmal taste in royal consorts, is a distinctly lowering one. And a king does have the ability to alter the atmosphere and to affect the ways in which important matters are discussed. (The queen herself proved that in subtle ways, by letting it be known that there were aspects of Margaret Thatcher's foreign policy that she did not view with unmixed delight.)
So the speech made by Prince Charles at Oxford last week might bear a little scrutiny. Discussing one of his favorite topics, the "environment," he announced that the main problem arose from a "deep, inner crisis of the soul" and that the "de-souling" of humanity probably went back as far as Galileo. In his view, materialism and consumerism represented an imbalance, "where mechanistic thinking is so predominant," and which "goes back at least to Galileo's assertion that there is nothing in nature but quantity and motion." He described the scientific worldview as an affront to all the world's "sacred traditions." Then for the climax:
As a result, Nature has been completely objectified—She has become an it—and we are persuaded to concentrate on the material aspect of reality that fits within Galileo's scheme.
We have known for a long time that Prince Charles' empty sails are so rigged as to be swelled by any passing waft or breeze of crankiness and cant. He fell for the fake anthropologist Laurens van der Post. He was bowled over by the charms of homeopathic medicine. He has been believably reported as saying that plants do better if you talk to them in a soothing and encouraging way. But this latest departure promotes him from an advocate of harmless nonsense to positively sinister nonsense.
We owe a huge debt to Galileo for emancipating us all from the stupid belief in an Earth-centered or man-centered (let alone God-centered) system. He quite literally taught us our place and allowed us to go on to make extraordinary advances in knowledge. None of these liberating undertakings have required any sort of assumption about a soul. That belief is at best optional. (Incidentally, nature is no more or less "objectified" whether we give it a gender name or a neuter one. Merely calling it Mummy will not, alas, alter this salient fact.)
In the controversy that followed the prince's remarks, his most staunch defender was professor John Taylor, a scholar whose work I had last noticed when he gave good reviews to the psychokinetic (or whatever) capacities of the Israeli conjuror and fraud Uri Geller. The heir to the throne seems to possess the ability to surround himself—perhaps by some mysterious ultramagnetic force?—with every moon-faced spoon-bender, shrub-flatterer, and water-diviner within range.
None of this might matter very much, until you notice the venue at which Charles delivered his farrago of nonsense. It was unleashed upon an audience at the Center for Islamic Studies at Oxford University, an institution of which he is the patron. Nor is this his only foray into Islamophilia. Together with the Saudi royal family, he supported the mosque in North London that acted as host and incubator to Richard "Shoe Bomber" Reid, the hook-handed Abu Hamza al-Masri, and several other unsavory customers. The prince's official job description as king will be "defender of the faith," which currently means the state-financed absurdity of the Anglican Church, but he has more than once said publicly that he wants to be anointed as defender of all faiths—another indication of the amazing conceit he has developed in six decades of performing the only job allowed him by the hereditary principle: that of waiting for his mother to expire.
A hereditary head of state, as Thomas Paine so crisply phrased it, is as absurd a proposition as a hereditary physician or a hereditary astronomer. To this innate absurdity, Prince Charles manages to bring fatuities that are entirely his own. And, as he paged his way through his dreary wad of babble, there must have been some wolfish smiles among his Muslim audience. I quote from a recent document published by the Islamic Forum of Europe, a group dedicated to the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate and the imposition of sharia, which has been very active in London mosques and in the infiltration of local political parties. "The primary work" in the establishment of a future Muslim empire, it announces, "is in Europe, because it is this continent, despite all the furore about its achievements, which has a moral and spiritual vacuum."
So this is where all the vapid talk about the "soul" of the universe is actually headed. Once the hard-won principles of reason and science have been discredited, the world will not pass into the hands of credulous herbivores who keep crystals by their sides and swoon over the poems of Khalil Gibran. The "vacuum" will be invaded instead by determined fundamentalists of every stripe who already know the truth by means of revelation and who actually seek real and serious power in the here and now. One thinks of the painstaking, cloud-dispelling labor of British scientists from Isaac Newton to Joseph Priestley to Charles Darwin to Ernest Rutherford to Alan Turing and Francis Crick, much of it built upon the shoulders of Galileo and Copernicus, only to see it casually slandered by a moral and intellectual weakling from the usurping House of Hanover. An awful embarrassment awaits the British if they do not declare for a republic based on verifiable laws and principles, both political and scientific.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Prince Charles by Matthew Lewis-WPA Pool/Getty Images.