Authors such as Erasmus are little read today. Once his ‘Adages’ were the bedside reading for statesman. In this book he uses a series of Adages or popular saying as the source for coded attacks on the follies of the great and the wise of his time. In placing his criticisms in stories about the great men of classical Greece and Rome, he avoided offending the great and good of his day. He was even resorting to publishing the first edition of his book was not published under a pseudonym to avoid the wrath of the powerful. The princes and dukes of Renaissance Italy squandered the wealth of their states in a series of pointless wars. It was this folly which he highlighted time and time again in ‘The Adages’. He despaired of these men who saw the only good as being their personal glory, which they could only be achieved on the battlefield.
What these men lacked was an understanding of how the states they governed functioned to produce the wealth necessary for the well being of the people. Wealth for them was what they used to demonstrate and display their power. Perhaps the best example of such folly was the behaviour of Charles the Bold of Burgundy. His army of elite knights wore armour that appeared to be gold, probably from the gold plate on steel. They made a magnificent spectacle. However this arrogant prince and his armoured knights were destroyed in battle by the peasant pikemen of Switzerland. His now ruined and defenceless state was taken over by his astute neighbour Louis of France and who added it to his kingdom.
The horrors of war were certainly demonstrated in the ‘forty years’ war that devastated Germany in the 17th century. Unparalleled acts of barbarism occurred during this war. As usual the victims were the people who suffered from hunger and the deprivations inflicted on them by the soldiers of the various states that fighting this war. One of the states that suffered most was Saxony, yet it’s Duke and his court enjoyed the luxuries of courtly life untroubled by war. The only inconvenience they suffered was from having to relocate occasionally to avoid being victims of this war.
This horrific war was one of the factors that gave rise to the enlightenment ; philosophers believed that mankind had to be re-educated into a better way of living. If mankind was taught that a better way of life was possible, the bloody wars of the past would not reoccur. They believed that if reason was elevated into being the principle governing all human behaviour, the horrors of the past could be avoided. Leibniz a German philosopher stated that God created the best of all possible worlds and if people lived life according to the laws dictated by the rational God, the best possible of lives would be available to all. Although the enlightenment philosophers were accused of naivety, in that they failed to understand the cruelty inherent in human nature. They were in fact all to aware how easy human society could lapse into barbarism. They wanted to convince people and princes that a better life than that of the brute was possible.
The enlightenment gave rise to an academic industry that generation after generation turned out volumes on how to create a better society. One such philosopher was Adam Smith, who realising the importance of commerce and industry to the well being of the people produced ‘The Wealth of Nations’. While there has always scepticism about the influence philosophers and the teachers of the humanities had on the behaviour of politicians and people, there was a time when politicians deferred to academia. When I was young politicians believed that economists possessed a body of knowledge that if followed would maximise the well being of people. This is the now derided Keynesian economics. Similarly politicians sought the advice of other experts, the Plowden report that led to the transformation of education in the 1960’s was drafted by educational sociologists.
However the politicians can be said to have turned there back on what can be best termed the enlightenment project. A series of economic crises in the 1970s led politicians to believe that any attempt to manage the economy and society to maximise the well being of the people was doomed to failure. Academic economists did not possess the knowledge essential necessary for the management of the economy. Such a role was best left to the collective wisdom displayed by the free market.
Now the circle appeared to have turned, politicians no longer believe that an informed knowledge of the society and economy is necessary. Events for them have proved that it does not exist. Now our politicians behave like some latter day renaissance prince, seeing personal glory as the only ambition worthy of a politician. Managing the economy and society to maximise the well being of the people, is no longer the task of politicians. In Britain politicians regularly demonstrate an ignorance of the society and the economy. Boris Johnson when he said ‘bugger business’ is an exemplar of current political thinking. While Donald Trump is derided for his ignorance of the wider society and countries beyond the American shore, he is little different from leading U.K. politicians. They disguise their ignorance in politer phrasing of their words, they may even eager resort to what appear as learned comments, but their thinking comprises little more than a rote learning of what are deemed the political essentials needed for any politician. In the U.K. as in America ignorance no longer a barrier to high office.