Friday, 31 October 2014

The Alternative to Democracy: Plato's Guardians

In Plato’s book “The Republic”, written about 380 BC, he gives us, using his mentor Socrates as his mouthpiece, a proposed system of government which has been debated ever since.

Plato criticizes democracy by means of a metaphor comparing a state to a ship in mid-ocean. Should we navigate by having a vote amongst the passengers? No, of course not. What we need instead is an expert; someone who is trained in the art of navigation. The rest of the book is concerned with the choosing and training of these experts, who will govern Plato’s ideal state.

Plato divides the inhabitants of his state into three classes: the Guardians (sometimes called “philosopher-kings”), who will govern, the Auxiliaries, who will assist them, and everyone else, who will undertake all the fundamental economic tasks of farming, manufacturing and so forth. He describes the education and life of the Guardians in great detail, ignoring the other classes (He even suggests putting forward an artificial myth; that the gods created man out of three metals; gold, silver and base metal, to correspond with the three classes)
       The potential Guardians should be chosen when still children, and given a lengthy education, both physical and moral (which he calls the “dialectic”), to equip them to rule. It includes the suggestion, revolting to our minds, that they should be taken whilst still young to witness battles, to accustom them to the sight of bloodshed. It seems that only when they are at least fifty will their education have been completed, and many will have fallen by the wayside in the process. He includes women Guardians as well as men, apparently following the same syllabus. This is unexpected, because women in contemporary Athens had no public role, and he justifies it by the curious analogy that pedigree stallions and mares are looked after in an identical way!
     Plato was well aware that even the best political system can be corrupted by personal greed, or ambition for one’s children, and therefore he lays down some extraordinary details of the Guardians’ lives. They will all live communally, in messes, without private property of any kind, and will be forbidden even to touch gold and silver. (Here Plato was influenced by how the warriors of Sparta lived). The Guardians must never marry or raise families: any children they have will be taken from them and raised communally by nurses, so that no-one shall know who their parents or their children are. Children who do not have the necessary qualities to become Guardians will be discarded; but there will be the possibility of recruiting talented children from the lower classes of society. The Guardians will thus always be a non-hereditary elite.
     Plato includes a long discussion on culture and censorship. It is clear to him that most of the literature of his day won’t do: it gives out the wrong messages.  The Greek gods are frequently portrayed as immoral or vindictive in their behaviour, the poets and playwrights too often show wickedness triumphing and good men suffering unjustly. This will all have to change. In his Republic there will be rigid censorship: all literature must point to an improving moral, with virtue always rewarded and wickedness punished, and craftsmen and artists must show only beauty, not ugliness. By this means, the future generations of Guardians will be protected against erroneous thoughts.     

It might be worthwhile putting Plato’s contempt for democracy into context. He was in his early twenties when democratic Athens was disastrously defeated by Sparta, whose social system bore a strong resemblance to Plato’s ideal republic. There followed the short-lived government of the “Thirty Tyrants”, [many of whom were personal friends of Socrates], who conducted a bloody purge of their opponents. After the overthrow of the Thirty Tyrants, it was a jury of citizens in a restored democracy which condemned Socrates to death – it has never been clear why: no other philosopher ever suffered such a fate.
      To return to Plato's analogy of a ship without an experienced navigator; he suggests that this will lead to the appearance of several alleged experts, offering radically different advice of what to do. Now the whole principle of democracy, as advocated by such writers as Rousseau and Mill, is that the public are intelligent enough to distinguish between good advice and bad advice, between the honest men and the charlatans. Plato, having observed the Athenian assembly of his day, is not convinced: he thinks the citizens are fickle and ill-informed, liable to fall prey to demagogues who make wild and irresponsible promises which then cannot be fulfilled. The notion that the people cannot be relied on to make sensible judgments has been the grounds ever since for attacking democracy and defending dictatorship and censorship. It is usually heard on the political Right. 

Plato’s system remains the only valid alternative to democratic government; namely, rule by experts, carefully selected and trained to be people not only of the highest ability, but also of the highest integrity, motivated purely by desire to serve the public good, without personal greed or ambition.  Could such a system ever be implemented? And if so, what would life under it be like?

        In Plato’s day, it was not impossible that a group of philosophers might have run a city-state on these lines. It would probably need to be small, and isolated from the outside world. (Plato had in mind the city-states of contemporary Greece, with only a few thousand citizens, and he never discusses international trade at all). Between 388 and 361 BC Plato made three visits to the court of Dionysus, tyrant of Syracuse in Sicily, attempting to educate his heir, Dionysus II, but completely failed to turn the young man into a Guardian. The Spartan system, which had attracted Plato, went into irreversible decline not long after its victory over Athens. Within a century, the coming of the empire of Alexander the Great, and later that of Rome, made all city-states obsolete.  In the nineteenth century various attempts were made to set up communities in the wilds of America, whose people would be motivated by brotherly love rather than individual gain, but few lasted any length of time; usually foundering on the rock of competing egos.  
      On the other hand, some religious-based communities have proved more durable. Consider, for instance, the Roman Catholic church: the most durable structure the world has ever seen. All authority is vested in a hierarchy of priests, who are believed to have a direct access to God, and who are commanded to be celibate, without personal property, and absolutely obedient to their superiors; all of which would seem to fit Plato’s criteria. It is surely no coincidence that almost all the early Christian theologians were Greeks who were very familiar with Platonic ideas.
      The late Richard Crossman, who served as a cabinet minister under Harold Wilson in the 1960s, once wrote a book called “Plato Today”, in which he suggested other institutions working on the same lines. He cited the Communist Party in the Soviet Union and Hitler’s SS as examples. Both were elite organizations with high entry requirements, both were rigidly disciplined and both attempted to inspire their members with ideological fervor to take the place of individual ambition. As a less pernicious example, Crossman cited the British independent boarding school, where young men lived communally, in conditions far more Spartan than they would have enjoyed at home, and where they were trained to run the Empire: their education being overwhelmingly moral and “character-building” rather than technical.

The best attempt to portray life in a Platonic state can be found in the final section of Jonathon Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”, where he visits the land of the Houyhnhnms. They are intelligent horses, whose society is entirely Platonic. They have no contact with the outside world, no science, industry or even agriculture, nor do they have any spirit of curiosity, or wish to expand their knowledge. They keep their population numbers stable by voluntarily abstaining from sex, and have no personal affection for their foals. Lesser horses, who are of a different colour and of inferior mental capacity, are servants to the elite, accepting their lower status without complaint. The Houyhnhnms have remained the same for countless generations, and in consequence conformity has become so total that there is no longer any need for a police force. We are told that they compose poetry, though Swift wisely refrains from giving us examples (it presumably consists of portentous general statements in heroic couplets!), but have no other arts. Even conversation is devoid of discussion, since they all think in exactly the same way.
        Gulliver professes to find Houyhnhnm society immensely preferable to his own. This no doubt reflects Swift’s hatred of England in his day, and increasingly of the human race in general; but at the same time Swift has infallibly brought into focus the great weakness of the Platonic society, which has been shared by all its imitators down to the present day. It would be entirely stationary; not to say stagnant. It would never produce anything new in culture, technology or ideas. It is very doubtful if it would be flexible enough to cope with some major natural disaster, like a famine, an epidemic or an earthquake (and the Greek world was extremely susceptible to devastating earthquakes). It could never fully be isolated from outside pressures and influences. These weaknesses are obvious in all Plato’s imitators: the Catholic church, the Nazis and Communists, the British public-school system.
    Plato had no notion of progress. This is not surprising, since the concept was unknown before the end of the eighteenth century, when the French Revolution and the industrial revolution changed the world for ever. To Plato, society and politics were seen as moving in endless repetitive and meaningless circles, and any change was likely to be deterioration rather than improvement. The best he could imagine, therefore, was a form of society structures to guard against any change at all. We can only be glad that we do not live in such a society. As Churchill once put it: democracy is a very bad form of government,but all the others are even worse. 

Thursday, 23 October 2014


People persist in saying "disinterested" when what they mean is "uninterested". These words are actually quite different.
     In the first word, having an "interest" in something has the eighteenth-century meaning of having a "stake" in it. Thus, if I am watching a game of football, if I have no commitment to either side (such as a bet on the result, or support for my local team), I am disinterested in the result; but if I hate football and couldn't care less who wins, then I am merely uninterested. The referee must be disinterested (that is, unbiased), but if he was uninterested he would be no use at all.
    The principle of British justice is that the judge and jury must be disinterested: without prior commitment or bias to either side; and juries are carefully selected to this end. This has not always been the case: in previous centuries, judges were seen as "lions under the throne", whose job was to help secure the conviction of the King's enemies, and made little pretense of being disinterested; Judge Jeffreys in the later seventeenth century being a notorious example. Judicial disinterest seldom applies under dictatorships; one need only cite the "revolutionary justice" of Soviet Russia, particularly under Lenin and Stalin, and of the tribunals in the "Terror" of 1793-4 of the French Revolution. But,once again, a judge at any time and in any type of court who was uninterested in the case before him would be useless.
    It was a classic Marxist argument that the promise of "disinterested justice" would always be a sham: class interest is all-pervasive. I wonder if the recent demand in Britain for more judges from the racial minorities, and fewer from the elite independent schools and universities, is based upon the notion that judges from privileged and rich backgrounds are unlikely to be truly disinterested? Or, more likely, that they may not be perceived as being disinterested?  

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The church of King Charles the Martyr, Falmouth

Falmouth church in Cornwall is dedicated to "King Charles the Martyr"; which is highly unusual. The church possesses a portrait of King Charles, attributed to Sir Peter Lely (see below), and the east window shows Christ in majesty, looking remarkably like Charles, with Archbishop Laud in attendance alongside the archangels. How had this come about?

Today Falmouth is an important deep-water harbour ont the estuary of the Fal river, but it is actually quite a recent settlement, and the original town was at Penryn, a short distance upstream. The only significant building in Falmouth was the castle at Pendennis, built by Henry VIII.
     Cornwall was strongly royalist in the civil wars in the 1640s. Charles I's queen, Henrietta Maria, fled to France from Pendennis, and so did her son, the future Charles II. When he left, he vowed that if he returned he would build "a chapel for public worship" there, since there was then no church. A prominent local landowner, Sir Peter Killigrew, a staunch royalist, had similar ideas, and after the restoration of the monarchy for a charter for the town, promising to provide land of his own for a church and parsonage.
   He won support. The foundations of the church were laid in 1662, and the building was consecrated three years later. The church was thus built in the classical style fashionable at the time. Since then it has been extensively modified.

   King Charles I was condemned to death and beheaded in 1649, and was soon proclaimed a martyr by his supporters. Although he undoubtedly conducted himself with dignity and courage at the end, it is difficult today to what precise cause he was a martyr, except that of the principle of divine right monarchy. Really, like his equally unfortunate fellow-monarchs, Louis XVI of France and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, he was a well-meaning, rather weak-willed man of limited talents, caught up in a situation which it was beyond his abilities to control - in fact, an argument against hereditary monarchy with real political power.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The last of the Hohenstaufen and the end of the Sicilian kingdom

Frederick II, of the Hohenstaufen family, was simultaneously Holy Roman Emperor (meaning that he ruled Germany and much of northern Italy) and King of Sicily and southern Italy. He spent much of his reign in bitter struggles with the Pope and with the independent-minded Italian cities. 

When he died in 1250 he left his kingdom of Sicily to his son, Conrad, who had already been elected "King of the Romans" by the German princes, but not crowned Emperor by the Pope. Frederick also left vast territories in southern Italy to his illegitimate son, Manfred, with the title of Prince of Taranto. The two were inevitably suspicious of each other, and Pope Innocent IV was hostile. Conrad was soon strong enough to advance from Germany into Italy, to re-establish Imperial control over the north. In January 1254 he accused the Pope of usurpation and heresy, and Innocent responded by excommunicating him. War seemed inevitable; but that April Conrad died of fever, aged just 26, leaving only a 2-year-old son, known as Conradin.

Manfred now moved quickly to take control of southern Italy and Sicily, initially claiming to be regent for Conradin, but having achieved this, he had himself crowned King of Sicily in 1258. The Popes were determined to get rid of him, Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the younger brother of Henry III of England, initially turned down the Pope's offer of the crown of Sicily, but then, aided by massive bribery, was elected "King of the Romans" (that is, prospective Emperor) and crowned at Aachen. He never got to Rome to be crowned Emperor by the Pope: in the face of growing opposition in Germany and hostility from France, he hurriedly retreated to England. 
        In Italy, Manfred reigned supreme. The cities of the north were deeply divided between "Guelfs" (who supported the Pope) and "Ghibbelines" (who had supported Frederick, and now supported his son). Manfred destroyed a vast army financed by the Pope at Montaperti in 1260, (many of Manfred's soldiers being Sicilian Moslems), occupied Sardinia the next year, and also took Corfu and bases in Albania. A sign that he was a significant figure on the European stage came when he married his daughter Constance to Peter, son and heir of King James of Aragon in Spain. How was the Pope to get rid of Manfred? The crown of Sicily was offered to Edmund, younger son of Henry III, who promised vast sums to help achieve this, but then the English barons revolted at tax increases and the scheme was abandoned. Everyone ignored the claims of young Conradin back in Germany!

  The new pope, Urban IV, a Frenchman, then offered Sicily to Charles of Anjou, the younger brother Louis XI, the King of France. Charles had already turned down a previous offer, because Louis (soon to be canonized as Saint Louis) was devoting all his resources to crusading and did not want to be distracted by any fighting in Europe. But eventually Papal advocates won Louis over to support his brother's cause. Charles promised to pay the Pope vast sums if the plan succeeded.
      In 1265, Charles eluded Manfred's fleet to land in Rome, where he was crowned King of Sicily, and assembled a massive force to march southwards. Manfred tried to buy time by retreating, until finally in February 1266 the two armies met at Benevento in southern Italy. After a hotly contested battle, Manfred was killed and his army slaughtered or driven away. As an excommunicate, Manfred was denied burial in consecrated ground, though it is said that Charles had a cairn erected over his body in tribute to his fighting qualities. This courtesy was not, however, extended to Manfred's wife and children, who were carted off to prison, where they soon perished.
    Charles now ruled all Italy south of papal territory, and promptly forgot most of the promises he had made to the Pope. He was an efficient ruler, not unduly cruel by the standards of the time, but his taxes were high and his rule was not popular in Sicily. He soon faced revolts there, and also in southern Italy and in the Ghibbeline cities further north.
        In Germany Conradin, now aged 15, handsome and attractive, decided to claim his rightful kingdom.. He gathered forces and crossed the Alps in autumn 1267, against the advice of wiser relatives. Moved through the Ghibbeline cities; Verona, Pavia and Siena; and arrived in Rome amidst wild rejoicing in July; the Pope having retreated to Viterbo. In August he met Charles’s forces at Tagliacozzo. Conradin’s army was on verge of winning the battle when Charles spotted him, isolated with few supporters, many of his undisciplined troops having dispersed to seek plunder. Charles and his knights charged at him, smashed his bodyguard and drove him in flight from field. The rest of Conradin's army, disorganized and now leaderless, was heavily defeated with great slaughter.
      Conradin and other leaders were captured soon after. Charles set up a puppet court to try them for treason, and in October 1267 Conradin, the last of the Hohenstaufen, aged just 16, and his equally young friend Frederick of Baden, were publicly beheaded in Naples. This violent breach of the normal rules of chivalry shocked most contemporaries. Even the Pope said to be uneasy; and Dante, writing fifty years later, was still upset by it (Dante, who had strong Imperialist views, places Manfred in Purgatory, not Hell, in his "Divine Comedy").

            Charles was a man of limitless ambition. He now obtained for himself the meaningless title of “King of Jerusalem”, and planned an attack on Constantinople, to make himself Emperor of the west. But his grandiose schemes overthrown in Sicily! The last surviving descendant of the Hohenstaufen, and of the old Norman Kings of Sicily, was now Constance. When her husband Peter became king of Aragon in1276, he began to think of taking Sicily for himself, and by 1280 had put together an invasion-force (under pretense of launching crusade against Tunis) But then, a sudden crisis was precipitated! 

At Easter 1282 French official in Palermo pestered a Sicilian lady, and her husband stabbed him to death. This developed into a massacre: within the day, two thousand French had been murdered in Palermo. The massacre, to be known as “the Sicilian vespers”, soon spread throughout whole island. (One of the many explanations of the mysterious word "Mafia" is that it is code for "Death to the French!" All one can say is that it is no more improbable than other explanations) The rebels quickly organised themselves and called upon Peter of Aragon to help: he landed forces that summer, soon controlled the whole island, and then moved to invade the mainland. Charles in Naples was slow to respond, and the Ghibbelines in northern Italy again began to cause trouble. 
       Pope Martin IV did his best to help Charles by excommunicating the Sicilians and anyone who tried to help them. In 1283 he proclaimed the war against Aragon to have the status of a Crusade, and tried to get Philip III of France to invade the country. Charles of Anjou in no way moderated his ambitions: he now initiated a scheme, to  become king of Hungary, where the ruling dynasty was about to die out. He eventually succeeded in this, but died in 1285; his grandiose plans for world domination ruined by events in Sicily.
     Desultory warfare continued in the island for twenty years, without clear results. Even the Aragonese were ready to give up on Sicily: but in the end the island did survive as more or less self-governing, under the overlordship of Aragon. Eventually Sicily, along with Naples and southern Italy, became part of the kingdom of Spain.. But the whole character of the island had changed. The ancient multiracial culture of Arabs, Greeks and Jews had vanished under successive waves of invaders; Normans, Germans, French and Spaniards; who transformed it into a land dominated by immensely rich and powerful feudal nobles, barely controlled by any central government, ruling vast estates of poverty-stricken oppressed peasants, against a background of endemic banditry. Although Naples and Palermo were still very large cities, the region had been left behind by events, and from being the richest and most culturally vibrant part of Italy was now the poorest and most backward. The would be little reason for historians to concern themselves with Sicily again before Garibaldi’s expedition there in 1860.

       The struggles in Italy left the country so hopelessly fragmented that the unity so desired by Dante was impossible to achieve until the nineteenth century, and even then had to be brought about by force. For this the Papacy must be given much of the blame. ("The Papacy, with its creatures and allies, was strong enough to hinder national unity in the future; not strong enough itself to bring about that unity". - Jacob Burckhardt: "The Civilization of the Renaissance"). At an international level, the extreme partisanship of various Popes for Charles of Anjou (especially Martin IV, a fellow Frenchman), and their readiness to use spiritual weapons, such as excommunication and crusading, for purely political disputes with other Christian rulers, and furthermore to use them ineffectively; served to discredit the Papacy. It was said of Pope Innocent  IV, who first began the campaign to destroy the Hohenstaufen in Italy; “He took the church at her highest and best, and in eleven years destroyed half her power for good, and launched her irretrievably upon a downward course“. Within 25 years of the Sicilian Vespers, the Popes were no longer in Rome, but at Avignon, mere puppets of the kings of France. It could be held to serve them right.  

The Sicilian Vespers lived on in the popular memory.  When in the early 17th century Henry IV of France contemplated invading Italy and boasted, "I shall breakfast in Milan and I shall dine in Rome", he was told, "In that case your majesty will doubtless be in Sicily in time for the Vespers". Perhaps responding to this hint, Henry did not pursue his invasion plan.  The purge of the older generation of American Mafiosi by Lucky Luciano in 1931 was also nicknamed "the Sicilian vespers" by journalists. 

1250   Death of Frederick
1254   Death of Conrad
1258   Manfred crowns himelf
1266   Battle of Benevento;  death of Manfred
1267   Defeat and execution of Conradin
1282   “Sicilian Vespers”
1285   Charles of Anjou dies


Innocent IV   1243-54
Alexander IV   1254-61
Urban IV   1261-64
Clement IV   1265-68
Gregory X   1271-76
Martin IV   1281-85
Honorius IV   1285-87

Friday, 3 October 2014

How to shut someone up

This is actually a highly sensible comment, heard some years ago.

John was pontificating loudly, as usual, when Wilf, an aged colleague, intervened.
   "You know, John; you should be on television", he said, "Then I could switch you off".
      The timing was absolutely perfect.

I would recommend this wording for anyone confronted with some tedious know-all.