Sunday, 20 September 2015

Politicians as Monks

I was reading Friedrich Heer's book on the Holy Roman Empire when I was struck by the following comment, referring to Pope Gregory VII's campaign in the 11th century to enforce celibacy on the clergy and stamp out simony (the sale of clerical office). Heer wrote:-
   "Eliminate simony along with clerical marriage, and the clergy could be turned into monks. All great purifiers and radical revolutionaries want to turn men into monks: one thinks of Robespierre, but it also applies to  Lenin, since he trained his professional revolutionaries to renounce (.....) all binding attachments to other individuals".
   I'm sure this is right. Just as monks renounce the world with their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, so revolutionary extremists have demanded that their followers must abandon the things that motivate their fellow-creatures - the delights of love, achieving a reasonable standard of living, providing for their children, extending a helping hand to their friends - in order to give total dedication to the cause. Now of the examples Heer cites, Robespierre seems to have been virtually sexless, and his disapproving prissiness put him at odds with his sometime ally and eventual victim, the sensual, Rabelaisian Danton. Lenin was married but childless. Hitler's sex-life remains a mystery: he married Evan Braun only the day before their suicide. None of them appear to have been motivated by personal monetary gain. Mussolini, by contrast, was only too human in his lust for women and wealth; which is perhaps one reason why he was never fully convincing as a Fascist dictator. Karl Marx had a family, but made little attempt to earn money. He was perpetually short of funds, but that was because his financial management was hopeless: in fact he had inherited a comfortable legacy, and was given substantial sums by the successful businessman Engels.   
    It seems to be the case that we expect today's politicians to be so high-minded and idealistic that they are immune from the normal human motivations mentioned above: in other words, to be like monks. But, a cynic would protest, what is the point of engaging in the risky business of seeking political power unless you can thereby earn a decent living for your family and provide well-paid jobs for your friends and supporters? This was certainly the way political leaders behaved in Britain until a couple of centuries ago, and it is still the case in a great many countries today. Indeed, it is a truism that in an undeveloped economy virtually the only way of acquiring wealth quickly is to get into government and get your hands in the public till. Many noble families in Britain today owed their original rise to prominence thus. By contrast, today's political leaders in Britain at least are not paid well by executive standards, and very poorly paid compared with those on the national media who abuse them.
     When people tell me that politicians shouldn't be motivated by personal gain, I have one of two responses. If these people are on the political left, I say, "You mean like Hitler?", and if on the right, I say, "Like Lenin?"   

The only comparable group I can think of is creative artists; who, if they concentrate on producing work that the public actually wants to buy, are often accused of being "mercenary", and of betraying something called "artistic integrity". But creative artists too may have families to support, and do not want to be monks.

No comments:

Post a Comment