As an economist the quality that you most need is equanimity. Why, because as an economist you are all to aware of the follies of the politicians and the damage their policies can wreak on the economy and society. A concern heightened by my anxiety about the futures of my daughters and my expected grandchild. When a senior banker accused some of our leading politicians as being ‘clueless’ on the economy, I mouthed a silent ‘hear, hear’. What an economist needs is some defence mechanism that prevents them from being overwhelmed by pessimism. When one writer called economics the miserable science he was all too correct in his opinion.
Perhaps I should adopt the philosophy of Democritius, who dispelled this anxiety about the follies of mankind and in particular its leaders in laughter. However laughter is only a temporary source of relief and soon the feeling of pessimism returns. I find some solace in the classical Greek philosophy of scepticism. A philosophy which demonstrates that all which passes as human knowledge is fallacious. This is of some comfort when I realise that the ‘reforming’ policies of our latest group of reformist minded politicians are based on little more, that what can be described as a set of incoherent and wrong headed series of assumptions about human society. While I can get some pleasure from demolishing these policies in my mind, it does not help alleviate the blackness of mood.
Philosophy has always been a refuge for me. I can retreat to my philosophy books, which takes me to a world far removed from the pettiness of what passes for the public debate. Ever since I was introduced to him at university I have been entranced by the figure of Socrates. When Plato writes of about Socrates and one of his students going to the cool river bank to escape the hot sun in Athenian sun to find the a more congenial place for discussion, I feel that I could be there with them. Aristotle writes that the highest form of human activity is this, the contemplation of the great questions that have always puzzled and intrigued mankind. Students of philosophy such as myself enjoy the intellectual cut and thrust in the dialogue employed by the greatest of philosophers. What we understand is that there are no simple or easy answers to the great questions posed by the nature of human existence. While practising this very Western form of active contemplation, I can get so lost in the books that I’m reading so that I forget the world outside.
When devising his philosophy Plato would make use of the myth to make his reasoning comprehensible to his audience. Plato’s the cave is one very familiar myth, but there are others. One of my favourites is the myth of human creation in ‘The Timeaus’, he uses this myth to explain the fallibility of human understanding. Mankind he writes is fashioned by the demiurge (the divine craftsman) out of clay. If mankind is made out of some inferior substance to that of which the Gods are composed, they are therefore incapable of understanding or sharing superior knowledge possessed by the Gods. Compare this to the less interesting contemporary myth of the market, which dominates current policy making. It’s a myth that tells us little about the economy. The central tenet of market theory is that there is a price at which markets clear, that is there is a price at which supply equals demand. There has never been a market in which an equilibrium of supply and demand has been attained. In reality markets are inherently unstable, as supply and demand are constantly changing and are never equal. Consequently the myth of the market as a guide to policy making is unhelpful, although perhaps to call it useless is going too far. This is why I prefer philosophy to economics, the stories it tells are more interesting and more truthful.
Recently stoicism has begun to find favour. This is practical philosophy devised by the classical Greeks. Its purpose was to help its practitioners lead the good life. This practical philosophy teaches that the only things that one can control are the one’s own emotions and feelings. There is a story which demonstrates this. There was a stoic philosopher on a ship caught in a storm. He was the only person to remain calm during this storm. When asked why he was indifferent to the crisis, he said that the observed a pig on the ship. The pig seemed undisturbed by the storm, so he imitated the behaviour of the pig. There was nothing he could do to avert the possible impending disaster, so the only practical policy he could adopt was to remain calm, as his getting anxious would do nothing to avert the possible impending crisis. Those things in life that the individual cannot control they call the ‘indifferents’. There are many ‘indifferents’ that the individual cannot control, also some such as good health they can influence by adopting a sensible diet. Anxiety comes from worrying about these ‘indifferents’ over which the individual has little control.
Donald Trump and the alt. right are a threat to the way of life that enjoy. There ever willingness to resort to violence or to threaten its use, is a threat the the tolerant civilised lifestyle which I value. As is also his constant demeaning of various ethnic groups as the threatening other. As this is an indifferent over which I have little control, the person who suffers if I obsess about this is me. Constantly being anxious is damaging to the human personality. Being a good stoic I am concerned about the irrational and erratic behaviour of our leaders, but I am not going to be overwhelmed by my anxieties on that score. Also I can influence this particular indifference by becoming political active. I can become part of the resistance.
John Stuart Mill gives me solace when I read that freedom, is the freedom to think. Whatever the alt. right does it cannot control my thoughts. In doing this I do have an advantage in that I am retired and can devote my time to reading my philosophy books. Perusing one of Plato’s dialogues on Socrates I can lose myself in the world of the Classical Greek philosophy. Also I can counter the nasty xenophobia of the alt. right by going to my local coffee shop, and there I can immerse myself in the Italian culture. What can be more engrossing than a discussion of the merits of the various types of pasta, while enjoying a cup of Italian coffee. What I am trying to say is that for a stoic there is much I can focus on to enjoy in these unhappy times.
Stoicism offers an interesting historical parallel, Seneca one of the best known stoics lived in a Rome, whose ruler was the narcissistic Nero. Given the predominance of narcissistic leaders in the Anglo Saxon world, who mistake their personal well being and success as metaphor for that of society, one can see the value of reading Seneca. Despite being an advisor to one of the most capricious and unpredictable of Emperors, he not only survived in that role for many years while others perished, but he did for many years act as a restraining influence on Nero. During those years he lived a modest moral life in keeping with the tenets of stoicism. Although even he lost his life as Nero’s paranoia intensified. His ‘Letters’ and plays I believe should be required reading for staff in Donald Trump’s White House.
When I read Erasmus’s ‘Adages’ I am reminded that the curse of having leaders pursuing policies that are ruinous to their countries in order further their own personal ambition is nothing new. Renaissance Italy in which he lived was plagued by wars between the Princes and Dukes of the various city states, which might have brought fleeting glory to these men, but which were ruinous for there various city states and the Italian nation. Is there no more insightful into the psyche of politicians, than Erasmus’s adage that ‘war is sweet to those who have never tried it’? Despite the almost constant internecine warfare in Italy, Erasmus still managed to write and publish his criticisms of the crass behaviour of the ‘great’ men of Italy. Although, as with many writers living in authoritarian states to avoid persecution, his critiques of foolish and arrogant leaders were set in the past or given such ambiguous settings that no contemporary leader could consider themselves libelled.
Reading philosophy reminds me of the heights to which the human spirit can rise, in contrast to the gutters of the human spirit in which so many of our contemporary leaders reside. This is why I find solace in philosophy.