Recently a visitor to my house, scoffed when he saw that I had been reading a book on stoicism. Stoicism was to him a philosophy of a dead past, which was of no relevance today. Actually the books of the past can have a lot to teach us about contemporary society. Human behaviour and motivations amongst the great and powerful change little.
Erasmus despaired about the behaviour of the petty princelings that ruled the various cities of renaissance Italy. What particularly angered him was the damage wrought on their cities by these vainglorious princes and dukes seeking to achieve fame through war. Inevitably these wars turned out badly for their cities, even if they won there was the huge cost in wealth squandered and lives lost. He correctly identified this lust for fame in the ‘great men’ of his time, as the main cause of suffering amongst the peoples of renaissance Italy. This lust for fame is still a powerful motivator amongst our politicians. Although it is not a recent example Theodore Roosevelt*, regretted that he was unable to lead the USA in some Great War. War for him was the supreme test of a statesman’s leadership skills.
War gives politicians the chance to demonstrate their virility, it shows them to be one of that elite band, those who change the destiny of nations. This lust for war was so evident in the Presidency of George Bush. Even before the Iraq war his advisors were writing articles or giving interviews in which they stated that they were eager to demonstrate the superiority of the new American military technology. While Saddam Hussein’s Iraq provided just such an opportunity, it also provided an illustration of that old proverb that nobody wins a war. Iraq and the Middle East ever since has been involved in the turmoil of constant warfare, costing the US more men and resources than did the initial invasion.
Living in a country much diminished through historical mishaps our leading politicians have little opportunity to express their masculinity through war. Our military is so reduced in strength that our prospects of waging war without the help of a powerful ally are almost impossible. In the age of globalisation there is no longer the prospect of invading some weak and easy to beat enemy. They all have powerful friends who would intervene to protect their trading interests in that country. Although it was never acknowledged Britain could only wage war in the Falklands against Argentina with the permission of the USA.
Consequently our glory seeking politicians have to find a new enemy to beat. These enemies must fulfil two requirements, they must be internal so having no powerful foreign allies who could intervene on their behalf and offer the prospect of easy victories. One such internal enemy is provided by the state education system. Decades of vilification by the right wing press have convinced many that state schooling is nothing but a system of institutionalised failure. Any reform announced by an education minister will garner instant applause, as an overdue reform of a system that is failing our children. More importantly teachers and children can offer little effective opposition. Teachers organisations are too weak to resist any changes imposed by the minister. Children of course, do as they are told. Through portraying themselves as takers on of the enemy within, these politicians can achieve the fleeting glory of being tomorrow’s newspaper headline.
What these politicians really want is a foreign enemy to beat. Such an enemy can rouse the xenophobic instincts of that part of the population that distrusts anything foreign. These are the people for whom Europe is holiday destination offering sun and beaches, but nothing more. Our lusting for glory politicians have for decades waged a war of words against that enemy of Britishness, the European Union. Now they have succeeded and Britain is no leaving the European Union. They have won their easy victory. However even this war of words and policies proves the truth of the saying that all are losers hen it comes to war. They like the Italian Renaissance Princes have through their victory cost their country much. Slowly it is being recognised what damage this brutal rupture with our greatest trading partner will cause to the economy and wealth of the British peoples. Already the government is stockpiling medicines and asking food companies to do the same with food in preparation for a disastrous exit from the EU. Such is there lust for glory and a place in the history books, they ignore any evidence contrary to there beliefs. It does not matter how often businesses tell government that they don’t have the facilities to stockpile food, the government’s response is that because they have told business to stockpile food they have done all that’s needed to offset a bad Brexit. As one despairing businessman said, this lot could not run a fish and chip shop.
One myth to which these politicians refer is Britain’s glorious history, it’s standing alone against the Nazi enemy and its saving Europe from itself. However these politicians don’t realise that the war exposed the incompetencies of the governing upper middle classes. The discredit they incurred from the disasters of Dunkirk and Singapore* led to there loss of power in the post war election and the election of a majority socialist government. Now these same people are in words of a former leading politician leading the country into ‘an act of self harm’.
What Erasmus teaches us through his writings that all to often the wrong people achieve supreme power. Glory seekers who to achieve there place in the sun and doing so wreak immense harm on society in an attempt to fulfil there ambitions. His book ‘The Adages’ is full of warnings against letting such people achieve supreme power. Once this book was regarded as an indispensable read for statesmen, now it is largely neglected. Perhaps if it was still widely read our political classes would realise the dangers of having leaders who possess little more than a narcissistic sense of self belief. The political education of our leaders seem sadly lacking, as in both Anglo Saxon democracies the political classes are in thrall to narcissistic politicians.
*US President 1901-1909
*Media producers collaborate in the perpetuation of this myth. There are endless films about the miracle of Dunkirk, but none about the ignominy that was Singapore. The British commander General Percival managed the defence so incompetently that his army of 85,000 men was rapidly overwhelmed by a smaller Japanese force of 30,000 men. After this disaster many said that never again should such men (public school educated and of the upper middle classes) run the country. Now such men are again in charge and leading the country and demonstrating that as a class they have learnt nothing since 1942.