Freddie Sayers speaks to King Charles III's co-author Ian Skelly
King Charles III ascends to the throne as a living paradox. He represents the apogee of the British establishment, yet he has spent over 70 years as a somewhat radical critic of modernity. He insists he is not anti-science, but is continually critical of its power over our way of thinking; he presides over a Christian nation but his philosophy finds its roots in pre-Christianity; part traditionalist fogey, part climate-conscious progressive, King Charles occupies a truly heterodox position.
The central premise of his 2010 book Harmony is the disastrous consequence of humanity’s current relationship with natural world. We have come to view nature as a tool to exploit, something we rely on but are fundamentally separate from. By the King’s account, this stems from a philosophical breach that began even before the Enlightenment — we need to rediscover the wisdom of earlier ages.
The co-author of Harmony and long term friend of the King, Ian Skelly, explains to Freddie Sayers that King Charles is focused on “the complex systems that govern our lives.” “There is a reason we called the book Harmony” Skelly says, “if you extensively exploit these systems we rely on, then everything breaks down. The world joins up just as a piece of Back might do.”
The King’s philosophy, appears to be not just pre-Enlightenment but in lockstep with the pre-Socratics – a cohort of Ancient Greek thinkers preoccupied with concepts of unity, harmony, and togetherness. And these ideas find their expression down through early Christianity, they underpin Judaism and Islam, “the philosophies, if you like, of the primary peoples of the world who had not yet lost this sense of the sacred.”
It is visible, too, in Thomas Aquinas, who saw the natural world as an expression of divinity, “the animating principle at the heart of life.”
But by the 13th century there was a theological shift in Western Christianity, “which started to see God as separate from creation, something that was out there with a will and we were instruments of that will. That is a profound philosophical shift: we are left with a freedom that humanity sees as disconnected from creation. Everything became separate” says Skelly.
And now in the industrialised world we have become accustomed to viewing the world as a machine, a downstream harm of this psychological separation from nature. It seems in that process of modernisation – something King Charles is not opposed to, Skelly is keen to stress – we have lost a lot of wisdom and our discourse has become dominated by narrow scientific language.
This in turn inhibits further our ability to engage seriously in questions of philosophy and spirituality, and these disciplines – crucial to life – become side-lined. “What he’s really saying,” Skelly stresses, “is that we need to bring these things back.”
If we could reintegrate this ancient way of thinking, Skelly suggests, then we would naturally operate with more care and reverence for the world we live in.
Though King Charles has been pushing this line for decades now, his arguments feel perfectly contemporary, and at times oddly prescient. The coronavirus pandemic has enlivened a group of people to become increasingly sceptical of those who elevate science to an almost Godlike status. And the establishment mantra of “trust the science” is, increasingly, met with raised eyebrows.
This could have been written in 2022. In the current world that has seen international supply chains break, panic about relying on less energy and less natural resources thanks to both the climate crisis and the war in Europe, the ideas he expressed above are gaining traction. But it is nevertheless an edgy and rather countercultural thing for a King to believe.
And he has been long-pilloried by the establishment and by mainstream metropolitan opinion.
“He’s not anti-science” Skelly stresses, “but he would side with people who reject the kind of total authority of science over all aspects of our lives.”
For example, he is sceptical “of pumping animals full of antibiotics so they don’t get diseases. The overuse of chemicals and pharmaceuticals has always worried him. And he’s very concerned about the idea of genetically modifying crops, because we’re playing with life. We’re playing with things that feed us.”
It all sounds rather anti-capitalist, scepticism of big-pharma, big corporations. And this, especially coming from a neutral Sovereign, might upset those on the political right. But at the same time, his beliefs are grounded in something ultra-traditional, which in some ways may alienate those on the left.
His accession to the throne at this point in time is significant. While he may not represent a classically left or right tradition, his ideas – things he has been discussing for decades – fit neatly into an emerging intellectual movement.
Thanks to Ian Skelly for such an illuminating portrayal of the new King.