On civilisation

16 06 2014




After years of living in a charming thatched cottage made of lumpy damp cob, I appreciate the joys of the smooth walls and year-round dry warmth of my current flat. I’ve rented the flat for nearly five years now and at the end of the summer when the heating clicks back on I feel the glow of knowing that I won’t have to sit through a winter at the laptop suffering with stiff, cold fingers, icy feet and a chest infection.

Wherever I have lived I’ve appreciated the convenient delights of hot water for washing up, daily showers and the simple pleasure of being able to boil a kettle for a pot of tea. When it falls dark in the evenings being able to turn on a lamp is reassuring. These small daily conveniences confirm that all is well with the world.

For many people in the western world heat, water and light are considered essential for a civilised existence. Take away just one of those elements and many people would feel deprived. Perhaps I have become soft, but there is no way I could live in cold, damp ancient places again. The rat thudding up the bedroom stairs and out through the charming little cottage window under the eaves ended romantic dwelling for me. Given the choice I suppose I could cope with candle-light as long as I had warmth, but it would be irritating and tiring reading and writing by dim light. It makes me wonder how the writers and thinkers of the past managed to get so much work done.

The desire to read a book in a warm well-lit room might seem innocent enough, but the romantic 18th century thinker Rousseau felt that a comfortable, intellectual existence prevented people from living rich lives.  In the words of Bertrand Russell, romantics ‘did not aim at peace and quiet, but at vigorous and passionate individual life.’ Rousseau believed that civilisation enslaved people. Real life was lived with intense feeling, preferably outdoors as much as possible. Think Wordsworth swooning against a tree and you get the picture.

The romantics rebelled against convention. Individual freedom was worth fighting for and worth all the hassle of going against the status quo. Perhaps this leads to solipsism. Bertrand Russell certainly thinks so and condemns romantic values as destructive. ‘Hence the type of man encouraged by romanticism, especially of the Byronic variety, is violent and anti-social, an anarchic rebel or a conquering tyrant.’

Rousseau fitted the stereotype. True to the romantic spirit he sold his watch (being Swiss that was obviously the first thing he thought of) and spent time wandering through France homeless, pick-pocketing and befriending wealthy women when he became short of cash. He had a long-term affair with a chambermaid with whom he fathered five illegitimate children, and all of them ended up in orphanages. He became a social celebrity and was granted favours by Kings. His writing was banned. He inspired a revolution and he fell out with the most benign of philosophers David Hume.

I like to imagine the scatty Swiss and the sober Scot settling down with a good malt whisky or two to discuss the idea of taste and what constitutes human identity, but this philosophical friendship ended badly when Rousseau accused Hume of going along with a plot to kill him. A broken-hearted Hume mourning the loss of his crazy companion remained generous to the end. ‘He has only felt during the whole course of his life,’ Hume said of Rousseau. ‘He is like a man who was stripped not only of his clothes, but of his skin, and turned out in this situation to combat with the rude and boisterous elements.’  Rousseau returned to France where it is believed he ended his own life.

It’s easy to see why 18th century society with its emphasis on land and property rights seemed so depressing to someone who had no home of his own, but had Rousseau lived in the 21st century he might have recognised the benefits that modern civilisation has brought: not only electric light, but high speed trains and air travel. Civilisation has enabled us to build hospitals, waste systems and recycling plants. It has created reservoirs and universities, nature reserves and clean beaches.  It has given us digital photography and film and free music.  It has brought us vaccinations, the world wide web, safety lamps, flushing toilets, postage stamps, pencils, and rubber bands, all of which the Sun newspaper reminded everyone (or at least the 22 million who received the free copy this week) were invented by the English, brand leaders of civilisation itself.

Civilisation is no longer the chain that shackles us, but rather the bridge that takes us to where we want to go. Seen in this light civilisation frees us.

For curiosity’s sake

14 04 2014


What was this like before we got here?

Sometimes when I look around it seems that we’re living in a self-service world, an automated world that points us down a particular avenue. It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security by all the conveniences of living in the contemporary western world. In our post-industrial quest for efficiency and productivity, we have made things streamlined, safe and standardised. We have ironed out the idiosyncrasies. In such a world it’s easy to become dull and live on auto-pilot. It’s easy to forget how to think for ourselves because the world we have created doesn’t want us to. Where does that leave curiosity?

If I had to lose any one of my senses then I’d fight hard to save my sense of curiosity for it seems to me that being curious means being truly alive and awake. Without curiosity there would be no challenge for who could be bothered to explore, to discover, to enquire, to create or to reach out with no curiosity? Without curiosity we would become shut-in to the self. Without curiosity we would imprison ourselves.

Thinking philosophically is a curious occupation. It requires very little except an open mind and perhaps a notebook to catch new insights and understandings as they come. Thinking philosophically is something that anyone can do given a little time and attention. Philosophy is for the curious. One reason why thinking philosophically comes naturally to children is that their minds are more curious than adult minds.

Yesterday after a picnic with friends and their children under the oak trees I asked Anna, ten, and Elen, six, what they were most curious about. Anna said that she was most curious about the boy who cried wolf. She’d heard the story the day before and kept thinking about it. ‘I’m curious to know why he didn’t get a book or do something else. Why did he have to keep tricking people?’

She thought for a minute then added: ‘Also why do people say that cows lie down when it’s raining?’

Elen wanted to know why her friend Charlotte had left school and yet her sister Bella had stayed. She also wanted to know how cows make milk.

Her father Jeremy said that he would be curious to ‘have a chat with Darwin or Julius Cesar to see what they think of what we’ve made of the world.’ The girls’ mother Annaig was also curious about talking to people about lived experiences of the past. Annaig noted that when we start thinking about curiosity we end up with questions about the beginning and the end. Curiosity leads us into the big questions of philosophy.


Declan is most curious about how he can carry the biggest stick 

After our picnic we went for a walk on Dartmoor through an ancient and curious landscape. As we warmed our backs on granite rocks more than 20 million years old, we wondered what the world might have been like before there were humans to experience it. As I tried to imagine a perfect, pristine wild landscape, I realised that what we think about the world is part of evolution, too. Old models of thought erode and change over time. Old ideas become replaced by new and fresh ideas. The things we are most curious about today will shape our future in some way and then be replaced by other ideas to get curious about. It’s only when we stop being curious that the light goes out on human thinking.

Here are some of the things I’m most curious about at the moment:

Is curiosity a sense or a skill?

Why do people still fall out when all their needs are met?

What will the drowned wreckage of the missing Malaysian plane look like?

Will my fancy ruffled tulips open today?

I’d be curious to hear from anyone who wants to share their own curiosity list.


Medieval Mind Blast

2 04 2014



Life as a medieval monk provides almost the ideal conditions in which to practise philosophy: plenty of uninterrupted time, like-minded fellows and few worldly concerns. As long as they could endure chilled fingers, cramp  and eye-strain from hours of work under candle-light, monks could devote their lives to searching for answers to the most mind-expanding questions of all.

Saint Anselm,  a Burgundy-born monk, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1092, was one of the most prolific and influential of the merry medieval thinkers. He wrote On Truth, On Freedom of Choice, On the Fall of the Devil and On Language. He also wrote numerous letters.

He is probably best-known for his argument for the existence of God, known as the Ontological Argument. Ontology means ‘being’ and Anselm’s argument is an attempt to show why God’s being is necessary. He begins by claiming that God is ‘that than which nothing greater can be conceived.’ For Anselm’s argument to get off the ground we need to agree that the idea of God is the most superior being we can conceive of, and even if we have no faith in a religious or personal God, we can still think about what the concept God means. If we can think of something greater than God, then that would cancel out God as being the most supreme being.

In the next step Anselm points out that an idea of a supreme being is not the greatest thing we can think of because something that exists only in our minds is not as great as something that exists in reality. A God that exists would be supreme, whereas an imagined God would fall short of greatness. It is not possible for an imagined God to be greater than a real, existing God so therefore God must exist in reality.

Anselm’s reasoning is known in philosophy as an a priori argument in that it does not require experience or observation to be proved true. The argument has instead an internal logic. Anselm believed that because God is the greatest being we can think of, it means that the idea of God is contained within the definition of ‘greatest being.’

Now you can imagine winning the lottery, but actually having the cash is much better (greater) than dreaming about it. Isn’t it?

Anselm was quite proud of his ontological argument and claimed that only a ‘fool’ would deny that God existed, which rather irritated another monk Gaunilo who decided to think like a ‘fool’ and prove Anselm wrong. Gaunilo used the example of an imaginary island. We could imagine the most perfect island that ever existed with clean beaches, crystal clear waters, abundant vegetation, exotic fruits and flowers and extraordinary wildlife. Now we could add as many other perfections as we like: my island would have talking animals, extravagant birds and hot springs the temperature of a warm bubble bath. Now if I said to you that my island only existed in my imagination that would make sense, but if I tried to persuade you that this island of talking goats, gold-winged birds and bubbles had to exist because that made it even more perfect you would probably think that there was something dodgy in my logic.

Gaunilo thought that there was something dodgy in Anselm’s logic. The problem as Gaunilo saw it was that you can’t just imagine things into existence. We could imagine the perfect horse, the perfect house, the perfect holiday, but that doesn’t mean that we can make them real. As a fellow monk Gaunilo believed in God, but he thought Anselm had been perhaps burning the candle way too late into the night and had made a few mistakes with this line of reasoning.

Undaunted Anselm came back to Gaunilo and said that his argument for God worked because God was perfection itself and not an example of a perfect place or person or thing. If there is such a thing as perfection and the most perfect of all perfections is God, then God has to exist.

Thomas Aquinas, who came two hundred years after Anselm, took a rather different approach to the same huge question. Aquinas outlined five ways of demonstrating God’s existence. The second way, known as the First Cause Argument, grapples with  the question of why there is something rather than nothing. Why does the cosmos exist? For this reason, it is known as a Cosmological Argument.

Aquinas also burned the candlelight and wrote voluminously. He was interested in synthesising his study of ideas from Judaism, Islam, Plato and Aristotle into a theory of everything, a bit like the Bill Bryson of his time.

One of the key ideas that Aquinas developed from Aristotle is that all knowledge is gained through experience accessed through the senses. We might recall riding a bicycle for the first time and that first bike ride is part of a whole library of memories that are built on experience. When we remember anything we essentially browse through the history section of our lives. There is nothing in our memory library that was not part of an experience we either saw, heard, felt, touched, tasted, smelled or dreamed.

Aquinas reflected that everything he could see around him – probably not much in his case except a narrow bed, blank wall and monk’s robes – had been caused by something else. The bed had been made by a carpenter from planks of wood that had once been a tree that had once been a sapling and so on and on. Aquinas reasoned that we could keep tracing the causes of everything that we observe in our world, but at some point we have to stop. We can’t go on forever. At some point we have to say: HURRAH! Look, here is THE cause of everything!

For Aquinas the First Cause is something that cannot itself be caused. It is similar to Aristotle’s idea of the Unmoved Mover, the generator of the universe, although for Aristotle the unmoved mover need not care about the universe it moves. For Aquinas, however, the First Cause does explain why the world is so wonderful. For Aquinas the First Cause is the wonder-maker.

The Cosmological Argument concludes that there is something rather than nothing because something (perhaps a great wonder-maker) started the ball rolling. Interestingly, new discoveries in cosmology seem to both support the argument and disagree with it as some of the recent coverage about the ripples of the Big Bang demonstrates. As Jeremy Paxman said on Newsnight: this really is news: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=um9TUFXkSsE

The really big question and perhaps the task of the next age of philosophy is to ask: if we know for certain what lies behind the existence of the universe how does that change things for humanity?

I’ll leave you with Anselm in his own words, not intended as a source of mirth, but it had us in hysterics at last night’s seminar:

“And, it so truly exists that it cannot be thought not to be. For, a thing, which cannot be thought not to be (which is greater than what cannot be thought not to be), can be thought to be. So, if that than which a greater cannot be thought can be thought not to be, that very thing than which a great being cannot be thought its not that than which a greater cannot be thought, which cannot be compatible. Therefore, there truly is something than which a greater cannot be thought, and it cannot be thought not to be.”

Now I wonder, could he have put that any clearer?







A cynical dog’s life

16 03 2014


The Cynics were a school of Greek philosophy and early fans of self-sufficiency. Living well for the Cynics meant living off the land. Hard work equated to a virtuous life. The four schools of philosophy: the Cynics, the Sceptics, the Epicureans and the Stoics were established in the early part of the third century BC partly as a reaction to the collapse of the old form of society based on independent city states.

One of the first Cynics was Antisthenes, who followed Socrates and who lived a fairly conventional life, mixing with other thinkers in the rather elite circles of early Greek philosophy, but after the death of Socrates and the collapse of Athens, he seems to have gone through a mid-life crisis. He rejected the fine clothes, high conversation and the wining and dining favoured by his aristocratic friends and instead starting hanging out with the workers, apparently dressing like a labourer.

Declaring that refined philosophy was worthless, Antisthenes left the rarefied atmosphere of the academy and started teaching philosophy in the open-air to those without education in what might be considered the first open university. He wanted to return to a so-called more ‘natural’ way of living and that meant doing away with government, private property, marriage and religion. He also thought slavery should be abolished. So what did that leave him with, apart from smelly clothes and clean conscience? Well, not much, according to historians. Antisthenes disliked any form of luxury and thought that indulging the senses was wrong.  He reputedly said:  ‘I had rather be mad than delighted.’

Few people would echo his view nowadays. Given a choice, most people would prefer to be delighted rather than mad, as delight in our understanding carries much less stigma than madness. But perhaps we need to consider Antisthenes in the context of his time. He was by no means the only philosopher to despise luxury. Socrates before him created the identity of a philosopher-eccentric by dressing in old rags and sometimes neglecting to put on his sandals.  Granted that a Mediterranean climate makes it much easier to wander around in the ancient equivalent of beach wear all year round, maybe these philosophers were not as rebellious as they seemed, but their example in giving up luxury is worth examining.

A new Waitrose opened in my home town this week. The giant high street mobile advertising, the wrap-around sandwiching front and back of the local newspaper, the texts, the endless stuff in the letter box, the home visits from freshly uniformed Waitrose butlers bearing free cheese and wine samples on silver platters ensured that I took notice.  In the interests of philosophical research I went to see what all the fuss was about.

As I stalked the shelves, browsing what looked to me to be the same sort of produce and goods you get in every other supermarket, I wondered why people had chosen to come to Waitrose in droves. Apparently on opening day people started queuing at 7am, an hour before the store officially opened. So what is going on? What’s the appeal? Part of it must be that Waitrose is a marketing triumph: it packages things nicely, makes everything look pretty, trains staff to smile and to help the customers feel good, and then makes a huge profit. If that sounds cynical, it’s meant to in the spirit of the original cynics who would not have been seen dead near Waitrose.

Nevertheless, my visit to the shiny new store made me wonder whether there is something interesting going on because from what I could see most people shopping in Waitrose know exactly what they are doing. Most people shopping in Waitrose are buying what they can’t get elsewhere and that’s the feeling of a shop that cares, even if it is manufactured.

Walk into Waitrose and you feel uplifted by the sense of abundance and plenty, by the sense that the age of austerity, exemplified by the dusty cut-price world of Lidl and Aldi and the now struggling Morrisons is over at last. Goodbye cruddy old Co-op with your worn-out slippers and cardigan and your unappetising deli. Hello Waitrose with your Easter-egg colours, your outlandishly priced delicacies and your sweet smile. Spring is finally here!

For the Cynics, luxury was to be avoided if you wanted to feel good. For people living in 21st century Britain, luxury is what makes us feel good. So why have things changed so radically? Why is it now that when we want to cheer ourselves up, we are encouraged to do so by brands that parade their luxury status. I bought muesli the other day; wholesome muesli that used the word ‘luxury’ prominently on the front of the packet. Why? I didn’t buy it for that reason; I just wanted some breakfast cereal, so why did the company try to persuade me that I’d somehow invested in my wider well-being? It is precisely this form of marketing that makes many people feel cynical.

Dropping out to grow my own muesli seems a bit extreme, but not as extreme as Diogenes, another Cynic who followed Antisthenes. Diogenes famously claimed to be ‘a citizen of the world,’ but decided rather bizarrely to live like a dog. Indeed the word ‘cynic’ is derived from the Greek word kynikos, which means canine. He ditched most of his clothes, didn’t wash and moved his bones into a burial urn, a big terracotta pitcher. He was visited by many dogs and considered them to be his friends. Naturally when people annoyed him (and you can just guess at how much he was teased) he barked and howled and sometimes sank his teeth into his tormentor’s ankles.

Alexander the Great apparently dropped by one day and the great leader famously asked Diogenes if there was anything that he could do for him: some more Winalot, perhaps, or maybe a brisk run on the seafront followed a good scratch on his tummy? Diogenes famously told Alexander that yes there was something that Alexander could do for him and that was that he could get out of his light. Alexander’s reply is lost in history.

Diogenes believed that living simply was the only way to live freely. For him, moral freedom is only possible without desire for material possessions. In this respect he belongs to a long tradition of ascetics and alternatives who believe that withdrawing from the temptations of society is the way out of the bind of consumerism. But for modern society it certainly is not that clear-cut. We have recognised that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. We are not about to start lining our kennels with newspaper. Most people don’t mindlessly consume luxuries. We are canny enough to know the real motivations behind supermarket temptations, and we are open-minded enough to make our choices. We don’t need to give up on comfort in order to achieve wisdom. True wisdom lies in the subtleties of discernment.


Maths matters to those with golden bones

10 03 2014

Pythagoras has been called ‘one of the most interesting and puzzling men in history.’ Mathematics as we understand it today began with Pythagoras and also Philosophy itself as he was the first to use the word ‘philosophy.’ He is also credited with applying the term ‘cosmos’ to the universe. His ideas blended together mathematics and theology and directly influenced the philosophy of Plato and in turn St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and the rationalist philosophers Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz and Kant.

As Pythagoras wrote nothing little is reliably known about the man behind the right angle triangle, which is still getting people worked up in maths tests. Some legends describe Pythagoras as the son of the god Apollo and accounts of his  miraculous, shamanic powers are fantastical making him seem like a character from a Greek myth. He was supposed to have travelled to the underworld and back and he could remember his previous lives. Reputedly Pythagoras could speak to animals, including eagles and bears and if that weren’t enough weirdness he also had a golden thigh which he liked to show off at parties. Some scholars have doubted whether he even existed at all. Perhaps he was made up by the cult of the Pythagoreans.

What is known is that Pythagoras was born on the island of Samos, a particularly violent and corrupt Greek island ruled by a tyrant called Polycrates who practised a Machiavellian style of leadership, dispatching his brothers when they got fed up with his wicked ways and using his own navy to make raids on foreign fleets. Understandably Pythagoras decided to take his golden bones elsewhere and he moved to southern Italy where he set up a religious society in Croton (some sources spell it Kroton). His disciples were loyal, but the citizens of Croton turned against him and he had to flee to another part of Italy, Metapontion, where he worked until he died.

Pythagoras was the first to understand that numbers, if they are real at all, are eternal and outside of time. Such was the power and purity of numbers that the early disciples believed that they had discovered the secret to God’s thoughts. The Pythagoreans discovered that everything in the universe is based on numbers. This mystical cosmology relates to patterns in nature from seeds to shells to the rings in the bark of trees, and the markings on insects, birds and animals. For those early thinkers, numbers were the key to understanding the mystery of nature.

The understanding of numbers led to advances in astronomy, physics, engineering and meteorology. Any discipline requiring data and statistics can trace its lineage right back to the Pythagoreans. The beauty of numbers is expressed in the forms of architecture, painting and music. Without an understanding of numbers civilisation and culture as we know it would not have developed in the way it did.

Given the importance of numbers, it’s interesting to note that recent headlines about the state of British education claim that ‘schools are going backwards.’ The reason is that today’s pupils are seemingly worse at maths and reading than their grandparents. A report showing literacy and numeracy tables for 24 countries ranks England near the bottom at 21 and 22 (below Poland and Estonia in one report I read, and of course that must mean Brits are really and truly off-the-scale thick).

The ‘damning report’ shows that Japanese school leavers are more advanced than graduates from British universities (given that some of these same graduates would of course be Japanese, I’m not sure how this works, but you get the idea). The thrust of the reports is that action must be taken if the United Kingdom is not to fall drastically behind, remaining the dim-wits of the world, forever assigned to selling programmes and hotdogs at the great game of life. The question is what has happened to Britain’s world-class education, a system that used to be the envy of the world? How come children in the Netherlands and Finland end up more literate and numerate than British or American children?

Education minister Elizabeth Truss has been visiting China to see how things are done there. Working class Chinese children typically score higher at maths than middle class British kids. That must be so galling for those parents who are shelling out huge amounts of money to send their children to private schools, when any son or daughter of a Chinese factory worker will easily beat them in the race of life, well at the very least a maths Olympiad.   Simon Jenkins, writing (ranting) for the Guardian online says that there’s nothing like maths statistics for sending people mad.

“It is maths that has the mesmeric appeal. To Gove and Truss it is virtually a state religion…. Stuff the little blighters full of maths, they demand, and Britain will again rule the world. Square the hypotenuse, and Johnny Taliban will beg for mercy.”

Aside from letting off steam, Jenkins does raise some interesting questions about the relevance and importance of mathematics in education today. Why is there such a focus on testing the mathematical ability of school children? Why are humanities A levels now failing to attract students convinced that they need ‘proper’ subjects like English, science and maths? Why don’t we instead teach primary school children about old golden legs Pythagoras himself?

I have to say that I’ve never used any O Level maths knowledge in any real life situation, but then and again, I don’t use French much either. What interests me is why the British education system is (statistically, it has to be said) failing our children? Why is it that the children of Chinese hospital porters do better at school than children of British doctors and lawyers? There seems to be an assumption that the system itself is the key to success. Culturally the UK and China are worlds apart. Few parents and teachers of British children would welcome the Chinese system of nine-hour tests and drills. One newspaper commentator reminds readers that a couple of years ago film images of Chinese students hooked up to intravenous amino acid drips to keep them going in the classroom while they studied for their entrance tests went viral on social media. What is also interesting is why the education minister picked China when the Netherlands (or dare I say it Poland) is so much closer to home?

Pythagoras has no idea of what he started.

The view from history

25 02 2014

I wonder what the next generation will think when they look back over this particular period in history. Will people think that we were trying to do our best for the world and those who share it? Will they think that we made mistakes, but that was understandable because in 2014 we simply didn’t know any better?

The German philosopher Georg Hegel believed that we could only understand history retrospectively. By taking the long view of the way we came through the years we are able to see the routes we took, the decisions we made, the plans, projects and people that were important to us at the time. For Hegel the unfolding of history is a way of showing us who we are and what we are made of.  By his understanding, history is not just a series of events, history is human progress. History is the way we move towards greater awareness, evolution and personal freedom.

Hegel believed that there would come a time when the world was free from conflict. In this new dawn there would be no more slavery, no human trafficking, no child labour, no corrupt governments, no use of starvation as a weapon of war, no prejudice, no human rights abuses. By rigorously and systematically challenging our old ways we would come to realise what we could keep and what we could chuck into the dustbin of history. We’d carry on like this, refining and polishing our ways until we had no more improvements to make. Only then would we be actually free to follow our destinies.

Does this sound like an impossible ideal? For many critics of Hegel, it certainly does and there are plenty of examples of terrible situations in the world that illustrate how humanity seems to be moving backwards. Sometimes, on days like today when I cannot get the image of the Syrian camps out of my mind, I cannot bear to listen to the news, but equally I cannot make myself tune to something less distressing because it feels like a betrayal of all those who are desperate that the world should not turn a deaf ear to their suffering.

I don’t blame people for tuning out. There is only so much that people can take and even the Radio 4 reporter sounded choked this morning by what she had witnessed among those families starving to death in the camps that have been under siege for months.  The word she used was ‘overwhelming,’ and that was the word that kept me listening and got me thinking of how people in starvation situations become so weakened that they cannot help themselves. Take food from people and you take their will to live. Cruel and corrupt regimes use starvation as a weapon of war. It is less direct than shooting protestors on the streets, and far less costly. Those who starve their people do not dignify them with opposition; they simply disregard them. They give them nothing so that they will become nothing.

The question we must ask is why do some regimes fear people so much that they must starve them into silence? What history are such regimes trying to prevent? We know from the gulag, from the death camps, from the mass exterminations that these acts are remembered and documented. The names of the silenced and the starved will be forgotten, but their suffering will not because there are people who witnessed it, and can never forget it. Those who suffer as the warriors of atrocity are those who become the new history. 

Lessons in leadership

2 02 2014


When I first started secondary school teaching I was given advice on how to manage my classes. I was told that I mustn’t be too soft or the students would take advantage. Ideally, I wanted them a little afraid of me, and that way, I was assured, I would always get what I wanted, which was complete control of my groups.

The advice was well-meaning and intended to be supportive. Soon after receiving it, I decided that I would ignore it. The way I looked at it the last thing I wanted was to walk into my work place every morning and feel the students retreat from me in fear.

I had several reasons for not wanting to use fear in establishing my authority as a class room leader. The first is that I’m not an especially frightening person. I’m not very tall; I have a small frame and I don’t have a loud voice.  I have an open and enquiring approach to life and my style of engaging with people is part of my approach. Before I entered teaching I worked as a journalist and author and had developed a communication style that was collaborative and compassionate. I knew that actively listening to people and being prepared to work with them to find creative solutions to obstacles and problems had proved invaluable in interviews and in the news rooms where I worked to fierce deadlines.

You cannot survive as a national newspaper journalist if you are soft. My previous working life had demonstrated that I was not a pushover, so it was a bit of a shock to discover that a teacher who doesn’t use fear is a teacher who doesn’t get respected. In the early days of teaching, I often felt compromised. When democratic rule failed and I had to resort to using some tough tactics, it felt wrong. I believed that there was a better way to lead than merely acting scary and so I began to study leadership as an art rather than as a tool.

The Italian thinker Machiavelli (1469-1527) would have derided my early attempts to bring my students on side without resorting to brutality. Machiavelli believed that that it was better to be feared than to be loved. As far as Machiavelli was concerned Cesare Borgia, who appointed a tough commander for a particularly unruly part of Italy, allowed him to rule with an iron fist and then had him dismembered and put on display for all to see in the town square, was exactly the role model Machiavelli was looking for. His view was that given half a chance people would lie, cheat and act out of greed and self-interest; it was unfortunate, but people were just made that way and couldn’t be trusted. Incredible as it seems to me, this line of thinking is still prevalent in many institutions today.

As Machiavelli’s examples testify, undoubtedly fear as a form of control works. It makes people listen and it makes people behave. A whole generation of people schooled under corporal punishment understand the dynamic of fear and obedience. With this philosophy the ends justify the means.

The consequence of Machiavellian thinking, however, is that obedience shuts people down. Entire nations were shut down and suppressed under fascist and communist rule. If rule by fear was truly as successful as Machiavelli believed it could be then those nations would have remained under control to this day. Machiavelli failed to see that rule by fear only works temporarily. After a while people get used to brutality and even become bored with it. Brian Keenan’s illuminating study of the mind and personalities of hostage and captor in An Evil Cradling writes of daily beatings and torture becoming ‘insignificant, a mere passing inconvenience.’ The real hurts are ‘psychic’ although if the trauma is too deep and too prolonged then there is the refuge of insanity, against which Keenan fought.

It seems to me that Machiavelli did not believe in courage. He did not understand that people could be inspired either by their own determination or by courageous leaders such as Nelson Mandela. Perhaps the only role models available to him were demented and murderous ones: Macbeth as opposed to Henry V. And we know what happened to Macbeth, whose act of diabolical treachery against mild King Duncan turned against him and plunged him into the deepest form of paranoid fear. If you rule with fear, then fear to some extent will also rule you.

Machiavelli was forced into exile by the Medici family who believed that he was part of a plot to overthrow them, and so we must view his ideas on leadership with an awareness of his own desperation to return to public life. More enlightened philosophers such as Kant recognised that it is not necessary to act like a beast in order to be respected. Human beings could thrive if they were treated as an end in themselves. With Kant we have the beginnings of humane philosophy.

Nevertheless Machiavelli’s ideas are still influential and The Prince is still read by many politicians. The stream of meanness that runs through the popular entrepreneurial show Dragon’s Den has elements of Machiavellian thinking. On television and through social media cruelty is as popular as it ever was for creating an entertaining spectacle.

The enjoyment of cruelty is perhaps part of the self-interest and greed that Machiavelli identified as basic human nature. It is challenging to do some hard thinking about what we truly admire over and above what we find frivolously entertaining. We perhaps understand cruelty too well.

What we so often fail to stand up for is that leaders who treat their troops, their workers, their students, their followers as if they matter will always win over leaders who threaten and bully and use shame to diminish. Fear so easily ignites rebellion as shown by countless testimonies from the underground resistance movements of the Second World War.  

I also recognise this truth from teaching. Rebellion is a healthy way of testing whether fear is real. It lets the leader know that she is on the wrong track and needs to either change her leadership style or listen a bit more attentively.

Rebellion also creates an opportunity for some mischief and this, too, can be valuable. Reindeer travel in large herds across wintry landscapes. The herds are led by the elders who know all the snow-covered tracks and have the wisdom of experience to navigate the way through. When it is time to rest, the elders can bring the entire herd to a halt to lie down in the snow. Sometimes, though, the younger reindeer want to carry on and they can get a bit playful and move to the front. In his study of leadership The New Leaders the Daniel Goleman describes such a scene in which the elders patiently get up and move the subordinates back in line. After a couple more tries, the elders give up and let the youngsters ‘take the lead.’ This is a fine example of a discerning leader who knows how to temper discipline with tolerance. Machiavelli could have learned a lot from watching reindeer.


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