Political Theory Archives - The School Of Life

Machiavelli was a 16th-century Florentine political thinker with powerful advice for nice people who don’t get very far.

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His thought pivots around a central, uncomfortable observation: that the wicked tend to win. And they do so because they have a huge advantage over the good: they are willing to act with the darkest ingenuity and cunning to further their cause. They are not held back by those rigid opponents of change: principles. They will be prepared to outright lie, twist facts, threaten or get violent. They will also – when the situation demands it – know how to seductively deceive, use charm and honeyed words, bedazzle and distract. And in this way, they conquer the world.

It’s routinely assumed that a large part of what it means to be a good person is that one acts well. One doesn’t only have good ends, one is committed to good means. So if one wants a more serious world, one needs to win people over through serious argument, not clickbait. If one wants a fairer world, one has to judiciously and gently try to persuade the agents of injustice to surrender willingly, not through intimidation. And if one wants people to be kind, one must show kindness to one’s enemies, not ruthlessness.

It sounds splendid but Machiavelli couldn’t overlook an incontrovertible problem. It doesn’t work. As he looked back over the history of Florence and the Italian states more generally, he observed that nice princes, statesmen and merchants always come unstuck.

This was why he wrote the book for which we know him today, The Prince, a short deeply original manual of advice for well-disposed princes on how not to finish last. And the answer, in short, was to be as nice as one wished, but never to be overly devoted to acting nicely: and indeed to know how to borrow – when need be – every single trick employed by the most cynical, dastardly, unscrupulous and nastiest people who have ever lived.

Machiavelli knew where our counter-productive obsession with acting nicely originated from: the West was brought up on the Christian story of Jesus of Nazareth, the very nice man from Galilee who always treated people well and wound up as the king of kings and the ruler of eternity.

But Machiavelli pointed out an inconvenient detail to this sentimental tale of the triumph of goodness through meekness. From a practical perspective, Jesus’s life was an outright disaster. This gentle soul was trampled upon and humiliated, disregarded and mocked. Judged in his lifetime and outside of any divine assistance, he was one of history’s greatest losers.

And so, proposed Machiavelli, the secret to being effective lies in overcoming all vestiges of this story. The Prince was not, as is often thought, a guide to being a tyrant; it’s a guide about what nice people should learn from tyrants. It’s a book about how to be effective, not just good. It’s a book haunted by examples of the impotence of the pure.

The admirable prince – and today we might add, the CEO, political activist or thinker – should learn every lesson from the slickest, most devious operators around. They should know how to scare and intimidate, cajole and bully, entrap and beguile. The good politician needs to learn from the demagogue; the earnest entrepreneur from the trickster.

We are all ultimately the sum of what we achieve, not what we intend. If we care about wisdom, kindness, seriousness and virtue, but only ever act wisely, kindly, seriously and virtuously, we will get nowhere.

 We need to learn lessons from an unexpected source: those we temperamentally most despise. They have the most to teach us about how to bring about the reality we yearn for – but that they are fighting against. We need weapons of similar grade steel to theirs.

Ultimately, we should care more about being effective than simply nobly intentioned. It is not enough to dream well: the true measure is what we achieve. The point is to change the world for the better, not reside in the quiet comfort of good intentions and a warm heart.

All this Machiavelli knew.

He disturbs us for good reason; because he probes us where we are at our most self-serving. We tell ourselves we didn’t get there because we are a little too pure, good and kind. Machiavelli bracingly informs us we are stuck because we have been too short-sighted to learn from those who really know: our enemies.

Our assessment of politicians is torn between hope and disappointment. On the one hand, we have an idealistic idea that a politician should be an upright hero, a man or woman who can breathe new moral life into the corrupt workings of the state. However, we are also regularly catapulted into cynicism when we realise the number of backroom deals and the extent of the lying that politicians go in for. We seem torn between our idealistic hopes and our pessimistic fears about the evil underbelly of politics. Surprisingly, the very man who gave his name to the word “Machiavellian,” a word so often used to describe the worst political scheming, can help us understand the dangers of this tired dichotomy. Machiavelli’s writings suggest that we should not be surprised if politicians lie and dissemble, but nor should we think them immoral and simply “bad” for doing so. A good politician – in Machiavelli’s remarkable view – isn’t one who is kind, friendly and honest, it is someone – however occasionally dark and sly they might be – who knows how to defend, enrich and bring honour to the state. Once we understand this basic requirement, we’ll be less disappointed and clearer about what we want our politicians to be.

Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence in 1469. His father was a wealthy and influential lawyer, and so Machiavelli received an extensive formal education and got his first job as a secretary for the city, drafting government documents. But soon after his appointment, Florence exploded politically, expelled the Medici family, who had ruled it for sixty years and suffered decades of political instability, as a consequence of which Machiavelli experienced a series of career reversals.

Machiavelli was preoccupied by a fundamental problem in politics: is it possible to be a good politician and a good person at the same time? And he has the courage to face the tragic possibility that, given how the world really is, the answer is no. He doesn’t just think that political advancement comes more easily to the unscrupulous. he gets us to contemplate a darker possibility: that doing rightly and well what a political leader should and fulfilling the proper duties of political leadership is at odds with being a good person. 

Machiavelli wrote his most famous work, The Prince (1513), about how to get and keep power and what makes individuals effective leaders. He proposed that the overwhelming responsibility of a good prince is to defend the state from external and internal threats to stable governance. This means he must know how to fight, but more importantly, he must know about reputation and the management of those around him. People should neither think he is soft and easy to disobey, nor should they find him so cruel that he disgusts his society. He should seem unapproachably strict but reasonable. When he turned to the question of whether it was better for a prince to be loved or feared, Machiavelli wrote that while it would theoretically be wonderful for a leader to be both loved and obeyed, he should always err on the side of inspiring terror, for this is what ultimately keeps people in check.

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Girolamo Savonarola

Machiavelli’s most radical and distinctive insight was his rejection of Christian virtue as a guide for leaders. Machiavelli’s Christian contemporaries had suggested princes should be merciful, peaceful, generous, and tolerant. They thought that being a good politician, in short, was the same as being a good Christian. But Machiavelli argued differently with energy. He asked his readers to dwell on the incompatibility between Christian ethics and good governance via the case of Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola was a fervent, idealistic Christian who had wanted to build the city of God on earth in Florence. He had preached against the excesses and tyranny of the Medici government, and had even managed for a few years to lead Florence as a peaceful, democratic, and (relatively) honest state. However, Savonarola’s success could not last, for – in Machiavelli’s view – it was based on the weakness that always attends being ‘good’ in the Christian sense. It was not long before his regime became a threat to the corrupt Pope Alexander, whose henchmen schemed, captured and tortured him, hung and burned him in the centre of Florence. This, in Machiavelli’s eyes, is what inevitably  happens to the nice guys in politics. Eventually they will be faced with a problem which cannot be solved by generosity, kindness or decency. Because they will be up against rivals or enemies who do not play by those rules. The unscrupulous will always have a major advantage. It will be impossible to win decently. Yet it is necessary to win in order to keep a society safe. 

Rather than follow this unfortunate Christian example, Machiavelli suggested that a leader would do well to make judicious use of what he called, in a deliciously paradoxical phrase, “criminal virtue.” Machiavelli provided some criteria for what constitutes the right occasion for criminal virtue: it must be necessary for the security of the state, it must be done swiftly (often at night), and it should not be repeated too often, lest a reputation for mindless brutality builds up. Machiavelli gave the example of his contemporary Cesare Borgia, whom he much admired as a leader – though he might not have wanted to be his friend. When Cesare conquered the city of Cesena, he ordered one of his mercenaries, Remirro de Orco, to bring order to the region, which Remirro did through swift and brutal ways. Men were beheaded in front of their wives and children, property was seized, traitors were castrated. Cesare then turned on de Orco himself and had him sliced in half and placed in the public square, just to remind the townspeople who the true boss was. But then, as Machiavelli approvingly noted, that was enough bloodshed. Cesare moved on to cut taxes, imported some cheap grain, built a theatre and organised a series of beautiful festivals to keep people from dwelling on unfortunate memories.

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Giuseppe Lorenzo Gatteri, Cesare Borgia leaving the Vatican

The Catholic Church banned Machiavelli’s works for 200 years because of the force with which he had argued that being a good Christian was incompatible with being a good leader. But even for atheists and those of us who are not politicians, Machiavelli’s insights are important. He writes that we cannot be good at or for all things. We must pick which fields we want to excel in, and let the others pass—not only because of our limited abilities and resources, but also because of the conflicts within moral codes. Some of the fields we choose—if not being a prince, then perhaps business or family life or other forms of loyalty and responsibility—may require what we evasively call “difficult decisions”, by which we really mean ethical trade-offs. We may have to sacrifice our ideal visions of kindness for the sake of practical effectiveness. We may have to lie in order to keep a relationship afloat. We may have to ignore the feelings of the workforce in order to keep a business going.. That – insists Machiavelli – is the price of dealing with the world as it is, and not as we feel it should be. The world has continued to love and hate Machiavelli in equal measure for insisting on this uncomfortable truth.

Machiavelli is prey to a natural misunderstanding. It can sound as if he is on the side of thuggish or slightly brutal people; that he’s cheering on those who are mean or callous. But actually his stern advice – about being ruthless – is best directed to those who run the risk of losing what they really care about because at key moments they are not ruthless enough.

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Thomas Hobbes was a 17th-century English philosopher who is on hand to guide us through one of the thorniest issues of politics: to what extent should we patiently obey rulers, especially those who are not very good – and to what extent should we start revolutions and depose governments in search of a better world?

Hobbes’s thinking is inseparable from one major event that began when he was 64 years old – and was to mark him so deeply, it coloured all this subsequent thinking (remarkably he died when he was 91 and everything he is remembered for today he wrote after the age of 60).

This event was the English Civil war, a vicious, divisive, costly and murderous conflict that raged across England for almost a decade and pitted the forces of King against Parliament, leading to the deaths of some 200,000 people on both sides.

Hobbes was by nature a deeply peaceful and cautious man. He hated violence of all kinds, a disposition that began at the age of four, when his own father, a clergyman, was disgraced, and abandoned his wife and family, after he’d got into a fight with another vicar on the steps of his parish church in a village in Wiltshire.

The work for which we chiefly remember Hobbes, Leviathan, was published in 1651. It is the most definitive, persuasive and eloquent statement ever produced as to why one should obey government authority, even of a very imperfect kind, in order to avoid the risk of chaos and bloodshed. To understand the background of Hobbes’s conservatism, it helps to realise that across western Europe in the 17th century, political theorists were beginning to ask, with a new directness, on what basis subjects should obey their rulers.

For centuries, way back into the Middle Ages, there had been a standard answer to this, contained in a theory called the Divine Right of Kings. This was a blunt, simple but highly effective theory: stating that it was none other than God who appointed all kings and that one should obey these monarchs for one clear reason: because the deity said so – and He would send you to hell if you didn’t agree.

But this was no longer proving quite so persuasive to many thoughtful people who argued that the right to rule ultimately lay not with Kings, but with ordinary people, who gave kings power – and therefore should only expect to take orders from kings so long as, but only so long, as things were working out well for them. This was known as the Social Contract theory of government.

Hobbes could see that the Divine Right of Kings theory was nonsense and what’s more, was going to be increasingly unpersuasive as religious observance declined. He himself was, privately, an atheist. At the same time, Hobbes was deeply scared of the possible consequences of the social contract theory, which could encourage people to depose rulers whenever they felt a little unhappy with their lot.

Hobbes had received a first hand account of the beheading of King Charles I on a scaffold in front of the Banqueting Hall at the Palace of Whitehall in 1649 – and his intellectual labours were directed at making sure that such ghastly, primitive scenes would never be repeated.

So in Leviathan, he put forward an ingenious argument that tried to marry up social contract theory with a defence of total obedience and submission to traditional authority. The way he did this was to take his readers back in time, to a period he called ‘the state of nature’, before there were kings of any kind, and to get them to think about how governments would have arisen in the first place.

Key to Hobbes’s argument was that the state of nature could not have been a pretty place, because humans, left to their own devices, without a central authority to keep them in awe, would quickly have descended into squabbling, infighting and intolerable bickering. It would have been a little like the English civil war, but with people in bear skins bashing each other around with flint tools. In Hobbes’s famous formulation, life in the state of nature would have been: ‘nasty, brutish and short.’

As a result, out of fear and dread of chaos, people were led to form governments. They had done this willingly, as social contract theorists maintained, but also under considerable compulsion, fleeing into the arms of strong authority, which they therefore – Hobbes argued – had a subsequent duty to keep obeying, with only a few rights to complain if they didn’t like it.

The only right that people might have to protest about an absolute ruler, or Leviathan as he called him, was if he directly threatened to kill them.


 

However, if the ruler merely stifled opposition, imposed onerous taxes, crippled the economy and locked up dissidents, this was absolutely no reason to take to the streets and demand a change of government.

‘Though of so unlimited a power, men may fancy many evil consequences, yet the consequences of the want of it, which is perpetuall warre of every man against his neighbour, are much worse.’

He admitted that a ruler might come along with an ‘inclination to do wicked deeds’ but the people would still have a duty to obey as ‘humane affairs cannot be without some inconvenience.’ But this inconvenience is the fault of people, not the sovereign, because: ‘if men could rule themselves, there would be no need at all of a common coercive power.’ As Hobbes went on: ‘He that complaineth of injury from his Sovereign, complaineth of that whereof he is the author himselfe; and therefore ought not to accuse any man but himselfe.’

Hobbes’s theory was dark, cautious and not especially hopeful about government. In our more optimistic moment, we want him to be wrong. But  it seems Hobbes’s name will always be relevant and fresh again when revolutions motivated by a search for liberty go horribly awry. Hobbes was not against revolution for any sinister motives. He just maintained, as he put it in the preface to Leviathan, that he felt compelled:

‘…to set before men’s eyes the mutuall relationship between protection and obedience.’

 

Modern life is, in many ways, founded around the idea of progress: the notion that as we know more (especially about science and technology), and as economies grow larger, we’re bound to end up happier. Particularly in the eighteenth century, as European societies and their economies became increasingly complex, the conventional view was that mankind was firmly set on a positive trajectory; moving away from savagery and ignorance toward prosperity and civility. But there was at least one eighteenth-century philosopher who was prepared to vigorously question the “Idea of Progress” – and who continues to have very provocative things to say to our own era.

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the son of Isaac Rousseau, an educated watchmaker, was born in Geneva in 1712. Almost immediately, Rousseau suffered the first of what he would later call his “misfortunes” – just nine days after giving birth, his mother, Suzanne Bernard, died from complications which arose from a traumatic and complicated labour. When Rousseau was ten, his father got into a legal dispute and the family was forced to flee to the city of Bern where Isaac would later marry for a second time. From that point on, Rousseau’s life was marked by instability and isolation. Throughout his teenage years and adulthood, he changed homes frequently; sometimes in search of love and acclaim; sometimes just to escape persecution.

As a young man, Rousseau went to Paris and there was exposed to the opulence and luxury that was the order of the day in ancien regime Paris; the aspirational bourgeoisie did their best to emulate the tastes and styles exhibited by both royalty and aristocracy, only adding to the competitive spirit that fuelled the burgeoning Parisian social scene. The Paris Rousseau was exposed to was a far cry from his birthplace of Geneva, a city that was sober and deeply opposed to luxury goods.

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A theatre in Paris during Rousseau’s time.

Rousseau’s life was shaped by some key chance turning points. One of the most significant of these occurred in 1749 as he read a copy of a newspaper, the Mercure de France, that contained an advert for an essay on the subject of whether recent advances in the arts and sciences had contributed to the “purification of morals”. Upon reading the note placed there by the Académie de Dijon, Rousseau experienced something of an epiphany. It struck him, seemingly for the first time, that civilisation and progress had not in fact improved people; they had exacted a terrible destructive influence on the morals of human beings who had once been good.

Rousseau took this insight and turned it into the central thesis of what became his celebrated Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, which won the first prize in the newspaper competition. In the essay, Rousseau offered a scathing critique of modern society that challenged the central precepts of Enlightenment thought. His argument was simple: individuals had once been good and happy, but as man had emerged from his pre-social state, he had become plagued by vice and reduced to pauperism.

Rousseau went on to sketch a history of the world not as a story of progress from barbarism to the great workshops and cities of Europe, but of regress away from a privileged state in which we lived simply, but had the chance to listen to our needs. In technologically backward prehistory, in Rousseau’s “state of nature” (l’état de nature), when men and women lived in forests and had never entered a shop or read a newspaper, the philosopher pictured people more easily understanding their own minds, and so being drawn towards essential features of a satisfied life: a love of family, a respect for nature, an awe at the beauty of the universe, a curiosity about others, and a taste for music and simple entertainments. The state of nature was also moral, guided by pitié, (pity) for others and their suffering. It was from this state that modern commercial ‘civilisation’ had pulled us, leaving us to envy and long for and suffer in a world of plenty.

Rousseau was aware of just how controversial his conclusion was – he anticipated “a universal outcry” against his thesis and the Discourse indeed prompted a considerable number of responses. Rousseau had found fame.

What was it about civilisation that he thought had corrupted man and produced this moral degeneracy? Well, at the root of his hostility was his claim that the march toward civilisation had awakened in man a form of “self-love” – amour-propre – that was artificial and centred on pride, jealousy, and vanity. He argued that this destructive form of self-love had emerged as a consequence of people moving to bigger settlements and cities where they had begun to look to others in order to glean their very sense of self. Civilised people stopped thinking about what they want and felt – and merely imitated others, entering into ruinous competitions for status and money.

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Discourse on the Origins of Inequality 

Primitive man, noted Rousseau, did not compare himself to others but instead focused solely on himself – his objective was simply to survive. Though Rousseau didn’t actually employ the term ‘noble savage’ in his philosophical writings, his account of natural man unleashed a fascination with this concept. For those who might see this as an impossibly romantic story to be explained away as the fancy of an excitable author with a grudge against modernity, it is worth reflecting that if the eighteenth century listened to Rousseau’s argument, it was primarily because it had before it one stark example of its apparent truths in the shape of the fate of the native Indian populations of North America.

Reports of Indian society drawn up in the sixteenth century described it as materially simple, but psychologically rewarding: communities were small, close-knit, egalitarian, religious, playful and martial. The Indians were undoubtedly backwards in a financial sense. They lived off fruits and wild animals, they slept in tents, they had few possessions. Every year, they wore the same pelts and shoes. Even a chief might own no more than a spear and a few pots. But there was a distinct level of contentment amidst the simplicity.

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An early depiction of life in a Native American village.

However, within only a few decades of the arrival of the first Europeans, the status system of Indian society had been revolutionised through contact with the technology and luxury of European industry. What mattered was no longer one’s wisdom or understanding of the ways of nature, but one’s ownership of weapons, jewellery and alcohol. Indians now longed for silver earrings, copper and brass bracelets, tin finger rings, necklaces made of Venetian glass, ice chisels, guns, alcohol, kettles, beads, hoes and mirrors.

These new enthusiasms did not come about by coincidence. European traders deliberately attempted to foster desires in the Indians, so as to motivate them to hunt the animals pelts the European market was demanding. Sadly, their new wealth didn’t appear to make the Indians much happier. Certainly the Indians worked harder. Between 1739 and 1759, the two thousand warriors of the Cherokee tribe were estimated to have killed one and a quarter million deer to satisfy European demand. But rates of suicide and alcoholism rose, communities fractured, factions squabbled. The tribal chiefs didn’t need Rousseau to understand what had happened, but they concurred totally with his analysis nevertheless.

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Contemporary portrait of Rousseau.

Rousseau died in 1778, aged 66, while taking a walk outside Paris. He’d spent the last years a celebrity, living with his common-law wife. But he also was constantly on the move fleeing persecution in Geneva after some of his more radical ideas, especially about religion, caused controversy (the stress of this had also caused a series of mental breakdowns). He is now buried in the Pantheon in Paris, and the Genevans celebrate him as their most famous native son.

In an age such as our own, one in which opulence and luxury can be deemed both desirable and exceedingly offensive, Rousseau’s musings continue to reverberate. He encourages us to sidestep jealousy and competition and instead look solely to ourselves in identifying our self worth. It is only by resisting the evil of comparison, Rousseau would tell us, that we can avoid feelings of misery and inadequacy. Though difficult, Rousseau was confident that this was not impossible, and he thus leaves behind a philosophy of fundamental criticism, but also one of profound optimism. There is a way out of the misery and corruption produced by the mores and institutions and modern civilisation – the hard part is that it involves looking to ourselves and reviving our natural goodness.

Adam Smith is our guide to perhaps the most pressing dilemma of our time: how to make a capitalist economy more humane and more meaningful.

He was born in Scotland in Kirkcaldy – a small manufacturing town – near Edinburgh in 1723. He was a hard working student and very close to his mother. In his childhood, he was briefly kidnapped by gypsies. As an adolescent, though from the middle class, he toured France with the grandest young aristocrat of his time, with whom he’d struck up a close friendship. He then became an academic philosopher, wrote a major book about the importance of sympathy and lectured on logic and aesthetics. He had a charming smile. His study was usually very messy.

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He was also one of the greatest thinkers in the history of economics – in part because his concerns went far beyond the economic. He wanted to understand the money system because his underlying ambition was to make nations and people happier. In his time, that would normally have meant getting interested either in religion or in government. Intellectual debate was dominated by passionate discussions about the role of the church and the foundations of the state. But Smith insisted that what philosophers should really worry about is the economy: how money is earned, how it is spent and who gets how much for doing what.

Smith remains an invaluable guide to four ideas, which can help us to create a better kind of capitalism:

1. Specialisation

When one considers the modern world of work, two facts stand out:

– modern economies produce unprecedented amounts of wealth (for the elite).

– many ordinary people find work rather boring and, a key complaint, meaning-less.

The two phenomena are (strangely) intimately related, as Adam Smith was the first to understand through his theory of specialisation. He argued that in modern businesses, tasks formerly done by one person in a single day could far more profitably be split into many tasks carried out by multiple people over whole careers.

Workers at a Chinese state-owned factory in Shenya

Smith hailed this as a momentous development: he predicted that national economies would become hugely richer the more specialised their workforces became. A country where people made their own bread for breakfast, had a go at building their own houses in the morning, tried to catch fish for lunch and educated their children themselves in the afternoon was doomed to poverty. Far better to split everything up into individual areas of expertise and encourage people to trade their needs and talents.

One sign our world is now so rich, Smith could tell us, is that every time we meet a stranger, we’re unlikely to understand what they do. The mania for incomprehensible job titles – Logistics Supply Manager, Packaging Coordinator, Communications and Learning Officer – prove the economic logic of Smith’s insight.

Currency trader working

But there is one huge problem with specialisation: meaning. The more jobs are subdivided, the less likely every job is to feel meaningful, because what we call meaning emerges from a visceral impression that one is engaged in something which is making a difference to someone else’s life. When businesses are small and their processes contained, this sense of helping others is readily available, even if one’s doing nothing grander than running a small clothes shop or a bakery. But when everything is industrialised, one ends up as a tiny cog in a gigantic machine whose overall logic (though present, and available to the management) is liable to be absent from the minds of people lower down in the organisation. A company with 150,000 employees distributed across four continents, making things that take five years from conception to delivery, will struggle to maintain any sense of purpose and cohesion.

So horrified were some thinkers by the implications of specialisation, they argued we should go back to an artisanal economy (the great fantasy of philosophers in the 19th century). But Smith was more inventive. He discerned that what many workers in advanced economies lack is a satisfying story about how their individual efforts fit into the bigger scheme; how they are helping other people and serving society.

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Bosses of the specialised corporations of modernity therefore have an additional responsibility to their workers: reminding them of the purpose, role and ultimate dignity of their labour.

2. Consumer Capitalism

Smith’s age saw the development of what we’d now call consumer capitalism. Manufacturers began turning out luxury goods for a broadening middle class. Shopping arcades sprang up, as did fashion magazines and homeware brands. Some commentators were appalled. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wished to ban ‘luxury’ from his native Geneva and return to a simpler way of life. He was a particular fan of ancient Sparta and argued that his city should copy its austere, martial lifestyle.

Disagreeing violently, Smith pointed out to the Swiss philosopher that luxury goods and stupid consumerism in fact had a very serious role to play in a good society – for it was they that provided the surplus wealth that allowed societies to look after their weakest members. Yes, consumer societies might not have the surface moral rigour of Sparta, but they qualified as properly moral on a different score: that they didn’t let young children and the old starve, for they could afford hospitals and poor relief. All those embroidered lace handkerchiefs, jewelled snuff-boxes and miniature temples made of cream for dessert were unnecessary and flippant no doubt, but they encouraged trade, created employment and generated immense wealth – and had to be defended on that score.

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If Smith had ended it there, it would have made for an uncomfortable choice (either the silliness of consumer capitalism or the oppressive austerity of Sparta – or North Korea). But Smith held out some fascinating hopes for the future: consumption didn’t invariably have to involve idiotic and frivolous things. He observed that humans have many ‘higher’ needs that are in fact very sensible and good, and yet that currently lie outside of capitalist enterprise: among these, our need for education, for self-understanding, for beautiful cities and for rewarding social lives.

The capitalism of today still hasn’t quite got around to resolving the awkward choices Smith and Rousseau circled. But the hope for the future is that we won’t forever merely be making money off degrading or superficial consumer needs (pumping out ever more greetings cards or sneakers). We’ll also learn to generate sizeable profits from helping people in truly important, ambitious ways. Psychotherapy should, for example, rightly be one of the gargantuan industries of the later 21st century.

3. How to treat the Rich

Then as now, the great question was how to get the rich to behave well towards the rest of society. The Christian answer to this was: make them feel guilty; show them the sufferings of the poor and appeal to their consciences. Meanwhile, the radical, left-wing answer was: raise taxes. But Smith disagreed with both approaches: the hearts of the rich were likely to remain cold and high taxes would simply lead the rich to flee the country.

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He arrived at more original and more subtle recommendations thanks to a theory about what the rich really want. He proposed that, contrary to what one might expect, it isn’t money the rich really care about. It is honour and respect. The rich accumulate money not because they are materially greedy, but because they are emotionally needy. They do so primarily in order to be liked and approved of.

Royal Investitures

This vanity provides wise governments with a highly useful tool. Rather than taxing the rich, these governments should learn to give the rich plenty of honour and status – in return for doing all the good things that these narcissists wouldn’t normally bother with, like funding schools and hospitals and paying their workers well.

As Smith put it, “The great secret of education is to direct vanity to proper objects.”

4. Educate Consumers

Big corporations feel very evil to us now, the natural targets of blame for low-paying jobs, environmental abuse and sickening ingredients. But Adam Smith knew there was an unexpected, and more important, element responsible for these ills: our taste. Collectively, it is we, the consumers, who opt for certain kinds of ease and excitement over others. And once that basic fact is in place, everything else follows in the slipstream. It’s not companies that primarily degrade the world. It is our appetites, which they merely serve.

Ryanair's chief executive Michael O'Leary gestures

As a result, the reform of capitalism hinges on an odd-sounding, but critical task: the education of the consumer. We need to be taught to want better quality things and pay a proper price for them, one that reflects the true burden on workers and the environment.

A good capitalist society doesn’t therefore just offer customers choice, it also spends a considerable part of its energies educating people about how to exercise this choice in judicious ways. Capitalism needs to be saved by elevating the quality of demand.

Conclusion

The economic state of the world can seem at once so wrong and yet so complicated, we end up collapsing into despair and passivity.

Adam Smith is on hand to lend us confidence and hope. His work is full of ideas about how human values can be reconciled with the needs of businesses. He deserves our ongoing attention because he was interested in an issue that has become a leading priority of our own times: how to create an economy that is at once profitable and civilised.

Most people agree that we need to improve our economic system somehow. It threatens our planet through excessive consumption, distracts us with irrelevant advertising, leaves people hungry and without healthcare, and fuels unnecessary wars. Yet we’re also often keen to dismiss the ideas of its most famous and ambitious critic, Karl Marx. This isn’t very surprising. In practice, his political and economic ideas have been used to design disastrously planned economies and nasty dictatorships. Frankly, the remedies Marx proposed for the ills of the world now sound a bit demented. He thought we should abolish private property. People should not be allowed to own things. At certain moments one can sympathise. But it’s like wanting to ban gossip or forbid watching television. It’s going to war with human behaviour. And Marx believed the world would be put to rights by a dictatorship of the proletariat; which does not mean anything much today. Openly Marxist parties received a total of only 1,685 votes in the 2010 UK general election, out of the nearly 40 million ballots cast.

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t reject Marx too quickly. We ought to see him as a guide whose diagnosis of Capitalism’s ills helps us navigate towards a more promising future.

Karl Marx was born in 1818 in Trier, Germany. He was descended from a long line of Rabbis, but his family converted to Christianity when he was six in order to assimilate with German society. At the posh and prestigious University of Bonn, he racked up huge debts, was imprisoned for drunkenness and disturbing the peace, and got into a duel. He also wanted to become a drama critic. Displeased, Marx’s father sent him to the more serious University of Berlin, where he joined a group of philosophers known as the Young Hegelians who were extremely sceptical of modern economics and politics.

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Karl Marx as a young man

Soon Marx became involved with the Communist party, a tiny group of intellectuals advocating for the overthrow of the class system and the abolition of private property. He worked as a journalist and secretly became engaged to a wealthy young woman, Jenny von Westphalen. Due to his political activity, the young couple had to flee Germany and eventually settled in London.

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Marx with his wife, Jenny von Westphalen

Marx wrote an enormous number of books and articles, sometimes with his friend Friedrich Engels. Some of the most important are Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843), The Holy Family (1845), Theses on Feuerbach (1845), 1844 Manuscripts, The German Ideology (1845), The Communist Manifesto (1848), Critique of the Gotha Program (1875), and the very long Capital (1867-1894).

Mostly, Marx wrote about Capitalism, the type of economy that dominates the western world. It was, in his day, still getting going, and Marx was one of its most intelligent and perceptive critics. These were some of the problems he identified with it:

One: Modern work is “alienated”

One of Marx’s greatest insights, delivered in an early book known as the 1844 Manuscripts, is that work can be one of the sources of our greatest joys. It is because Marx had such high hopes for work that he was so angry at the miserable work that most of humanity is forced to endure.

In order to be fulfilled at work, Marx wrote that workers need ‘to see themselves in the objects they have created’. At its best, labour offers us a chance to externalise what’s good inside us (let’s say, our creativity, our rigour, our logic), and to give it a stable, enduring form in some sort of object or service independent of us. Our work should – if things go right – be a little better than we manage to be day-to-day, because it allows us to concentrate and distil the best parts of us. 

Think of the person who built this chair: it is straightforward, strong, honest and elegant. Now its maker would not always have been these things: sometimes he or she might have been bad tempered, despairing, unsure. Yet the chair is a memorial to the positives of his or her character. That’s what work is ideally, thought Marx. But he also observed how in the modern world, fewer and fewer jobs have this characteristic of allowing us to see the best of ourselves in what we do.

Directoire style chair with wicker seat

 

Part of the problem with modern work is that it is incredibly specialised. One can tell because people have very weird-sounding job titles: you find packaging technology specialists, beverage dissemination officers, gastronomical hygiene technicians and information architects. These jobs take years of training to master, which makes the modern economy highly efficient, but we end up with a situation where it is seldom possible for one’s real nature to find expression in what one is doing day-to-day.

In Marx’s eyes, all of us are generalists inside. We were not born to do one thing only. It’s merely the economy that – for its own greedy ends – pushes us to sacrifice ourselves to one discipline alone, rendering us (in Marx’s words) “one-sided and dependent” and “depressed spiritually and physically to the condition of a machine.” It was in the 1844 Manuscripts that Marx first argued that modern work leads to “alienation” – in German, Entfremdung.

In our hearts, we are far more multiple, and promiscuous than the modern economy allows: beneath the calm outward facade of the accountant might lie someone pining to have a go at landscape gardening. Many a poet would want to have a go at working in industry for a few years.

Marx recognises our multiple potentials. Specialisation might be an economic imperative but it can be a human betrayal.

Marx also wants to help us find work that is more meaningful. Work becomes meaningful, Marx says, in one of two ways. Either it helps the worker directly to reduce suffering in someone else or else it helps them in a tangible way to increase delight in others. A very few kinds of work, like being a doctor or an opera star seem to fit this bill perfectly.

But often people leave their jobs and say: I couldn’t see the point in working in sales or designing an ad campaign for garden furniture or teaching French to kids who don’t want to learn. When work feels meaningless, we suffer – even if the salary is a decent one. Marx is making a first sketch of an answer to how we should reform the economy; we need an economic system that allows more of us to reduce suffering or increase pleasure. Deep down we want to feel that we are helping people. We have to feel we are addressing genuine needs – not merely servicing random desires.

Marx was aware of a lot of jobs where a person generates money, but can’t see their energies ‘collected’ anywhere. Their intelligence and skills are dissipated. They can’t point to something and say: ‘I did that, that is me’. It can afflict people doing apparently glamorous jobs – a news reader or a catwalk model. Day-to-day, it is exciting. But over the years it does not add up to anything. Their efforts do not accumulate. There isn’t a long-term objective their work is directed towards. After a number of years they simply stop. It’s the reverse of an architect who might labour for five years on a large project – but all the millions of details, which might be annoying or frustrating in themselves, eventually add up to an overall, complete achievement. And everyone who is part of this, participates in the sense of direction and purpose. Their labours are necessary to bring something wonderful into existence. And they know it.

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A factory worker spends all day mechanically bottling ketchup. Circa 1901

Two: Modern work is insecure

Capitalism makes the human being utterly expendable; just one factor among others in the forces of production and one that can ruthlessly be let go the minute that costs rise or savings can be made through technology. There simply is no job security in Capitalism. And yet, as Marx knew, deep inside of us, we long for security with an intensity similar to that which we feel in relationships. We don’t want to be arbitrarily let go, we are terrified of being abandoned. Marx knows we are expendable, it all depends on cost and need. But he has sympathy for the emotional longings of the worker. Communism – emotionally understood – is a promise that we always have a place in the world’s heart, that we will not be cast out. This is deeply poignant.

Three: Workers get paid little while capitalists get rich

This is perhaps the most obvious qualm Marx had with Capitalism. In particular, he believed that capitalists shrunk the wages of the labourers as much as possible in order to skim off a wide profit margin (he called this “primitive accumulation” or in German Ursprüngliche Akkumulation. It was very difficult for the labourers to protest or alter their circumstances. Not only were they in desperate need of employment, but their landlords and employers could conspire to keep them desperate by raising the price of living along with any rise in wages. Modern life also brought new challenges that kept the proletariat weak: crowded quarters, disease, crime-ridden cities, injuries in the factory. In short, Marx wrote, the workers could be almost endlessly exploited.

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A mural by the Mexican Marxist artist Diego Rivera shows the workers inside a vast machine-like system of modern production

Four: Capitalism is very unstable

Long before the Great Depression or the computer-traded stock market, Marx recognised that capitalist systems are characterised by series of crises. This is partly because capitalists seek increasingly big risks in order to make even bigger profits, and this speculation disrupts prices and employment. But Capitalism isn’t just volatile because of competition and human frailty. In Marx’s view, it is inherently unstable–a force that constantly overpowers itself, a “sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.” 

Ironically, Marx pointed out, we have crises in Capitalism not because of shortages, but because of abundance; we have too much stuff. Our factories and systems are so efficient, we could give everyone on this planet a car, a house, access to a decent school and hospital. Few of us would need to work. But we don’t liberate ourselves. Marx thinks this is absurd, the outcome of some form of pathological masochism. In 1700, it took the labour of almost all adults to feed a nation. Today a developed nation needs hardly anyone to be employed in farming. Making cars needs practically no employees. Unemployment is currently dreadful and seen as a terrible ill. But, in Marx’s eyes, it is a sign of success: it is the result of our unbelievable productive powers. The job of a hundred people can now be done by one machine. And yet rather than draw the positive conclusion from this, we continue to see unemployment as a curse and a failure. Yet, logically, the goal of economics should be to make more and more of us unemployed and to celebrate this fact as progress rather than as failure.

Marx believes that because we don’t distribute wealth to everyone, nor seek and celebrate unemployment, we are plagued by instability, unhappiness, and unrest. “Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism,” he wrote. “And why? “Because there is too much civilisation…too much industry, too much commerce.”

Five: Capitalism is bad for capitalists

Although Marx sometimes called the capitalists and bourgeoisie “vampires” and “hostile brothers”, he did not think they were evil at heart. In fact, he believed that they were also victims of the capitalist system. For example, he was acutely aware of the sorrows and secret agonies that lay behind bourgeois marriage. Affluent people of his day spoke about family in the most reverent and sentimental of ways. But Marx argued that marriage was actually an extension of business. Marriage concentrated money in the hands of men, who used it to control their wives and children. The idealised bourgeois family was in fact fraught with tension, oppression, and resentment, and stayed together not because of love but for financial reasons. Marx didn’t think the Capitalists wanted to live this way. He simply believed that the capitalist system forces everyone to put economic interests at the heart of their lives, so that they can no longer know deep, honest relationships. He called this psychological tendency “commodity fetishism” (Warenfetischismus) because it makes us value things that have no objective value, and encourages us to see our relationships with others primarily in economic terms.

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Are mum and dad in love, or are they in it for the money?

This is another important aspect of Marx’s work: he makes us aware of the insidious, subtle way in which an economic system colours the sort of ideas people will have about all sorts of matters. The economy generates what Marx termed an ideology. In his 1845 work The German Ideology, he wrote, “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” A capitalist society is one where most people, rich and poor, believe all sorts of things that are really just value judgements that relate back to the economic system, for example: that a person who doesn’t work is practically worthless, that if we simply work hard enough we will get ahead, that more belongings will make us happier and that worthwhile things (and people) will invariably make money.

In short, one of the biggest evils of Capitalism is not that there are corrupt people at the top—this is true in any human hierarchy—but that capitalist ideas teach all of us to be anxious, competitive, conformist, and politically complacent. 

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An exaggerated, visual version of capitalist ideology from the science fiction film They Live

***

Marx wrote remarkably little about what a communist system should look like. He believed his writings were mostly descriptions, rather than prescriptions, about what was to come. When criticised for his rather vague predictions (that there would be a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” for example), he scoffed that he did not wish to write recipes “for the cook-shops of the future.” Perhaps he wisely sensed how hard it is to guess future tastes, both culinary and political. 

Nevertheless, we do get little glimpses of Marx’s utopia hidden in his writings. The Communist Manifesto describes a world without private property, without any inherited wealth, with a steeply graduated income tax, centralised control of the banking, communication, and transport industries, and free public education for all children. Marx also expected that communist society would allow people to develop lots of different sides of their natures. In the German Ideology, he wrote that “in communist society…it is possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” We’d get to explore all the different parts of ourselves–our creativity, our intellect, our gentleness, and our ferocity–and everyone would have a bit of time to do philosophy. 

***

After Marx moved to London he was supported—rather ironically for an anti-capitalist!—by his friend and intellectual partner Friedrich Engels, a wealthy man whose father owned a cotton plant in Manchester. Engels covered Marx’s debts, made sure his works were published, and (in order to divert the suspicions of Mrs. Marx) even claimed paternity for a baby who was likely Marx’s illegitimate child. Moreover, the two men wrote each other adoring poetry.

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Karl Marx, his daughters and their unofficial family member, Friedrich Engels

Marx was not a well-respected or popular intellectual in his day. He spent much of his time puttering around the reading rooms of the British Museum slowly writing an interminable book about capital. He and Engels were always trying to avoid the secret police (including Marx’s brother-in-law, who ran the Prussian secret service). When Marx died in 1883, he was a stateless person; fewer than a dozen people attended his funeral.

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Marx’s library pass for the British Museum reading rooms, now the British Library

Respectable, conventional people of Marx’s day would have laughed at the idea that his ideas would remake the world. Yet just a few decades later they did: his writings became the keystone for some of the most important ideological movements of the 20th century.

Marx had an unusually broad view of modern problems. He coined fancy-sounding terms like “dialectical materialism” because he wanted to challenge us to connect our daily experiences and choices to vast historical forces, to help us see ourselves as part of a larger, morally-important struggle. His work is sometimes confusing, not only because he changed his mind over the course of his life but also because he wanted to develop his own language to describe modern problems in a way that was neither prescriptive nor strictly scientific. 

We should resist a dismissive reading of Marx on the basis of what happened to his ideas in the 20th century, because he is particularly useful to us in this present moment. Like many of us, he wanted to understand why the modern economy seemed to produce so much misery along with its material wealth. He was astounded by the power of Capitalism, the way that it allowed for the “subjection of Nature’s forces to man…clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground.” But he also could see that Capitalism does not make us happier, wiser, or kinder–it cannot inherently lead us to be more human or more fully developed.

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The house of the Bulgarian Communist Party, now abandoned

Considering the failures of previous Marxist-inspired regimes, we’re unlikely to improve things by implementing the kind of revolutions Marx predicted. But we should think very seriously about what he tells us about the deeper problems of Capitalism. For too long, being a Marxist has meant you agree with the least impressive part of Marx’s ideas: his solutions to the ills of the world. And because they look so odd, everything else he has to say falls by the wayside.

But Marx was like a brilliant doctor in the early days of medicine. He could recognise the nature of the disease, although he had no idea how to go about curing it. He got fixated on some moves that might have looked plausible in the 1840s but which don’t offer much guidance today. At this point in history, we should all be Marxists in the sense of agreeing with his diagnosis of our troubles. But we need to go out and find the cures that will really work.

Tantalisingly, they are truly out there, scattered in this and that research paper and economic book sidelined by the mass media. We need to consider how to build an economy that not only brings us greater prosperity but also a better relationship to nature, to money, to each other, and to ourselves. We don’t need a dictatorship of the proletariat, but we do need to reconsider why we value work and what we want to get out of it. We shouldn’t get rid of private property, but we do need a more thoughtful, authentic relationship to money and consumption. And we must begin to reform Capitalism not by simply deposing heads of banks but by upending the contents of our own minds. Only then will we truly be able to imagine an economy that is not only productive and innovative, but also fosters human freedom and fulfilment. As Marx himself declared, “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

John Ruskin (1819-1900) was one of the most ambitious and impassioned English social reformers of the 19th century. He was also – at first sight – a deeply improbable reformer, because he seemed to care mostly about one thing – beauty – which has a reputation for being eminently apolitical and removed from ‘real life’. And yet the more Ruskin thought about beauty – the beauty of things humans make, ranging from buildings to chairs, paintings to clothes – the more he realised that the quest to make a more beautiful world is inseparable from the need to remake it politically, economically and socially. In a world that is nowadays growing not only ever more polluted and more unequal but also, though we seldom remark upon it, uglier, Ruskin’s emphasis on beauty and his understanding of its role in political theory make him an unusual yet timely and very necessary figure. Towards the end of his life, Tolstoy very accurately described Ruskin as, “one of the most remarkable men not only of England and of our generation, but of all countries and times.”

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John Ruskin in 1863

Ruskin was born in London in 1819 into a wealthy and cosseted home. He was an only child of parents who devoted much of their energies to nurturing and developing his precocious talents in art and literature. His father was an immensely successful wine and sherry importer, with a taste for Byron, Shakespeare, Walter Scott and Turner. Ruskin’s parents decided to educate him at home, fearing that other children might encourage coarse habits in their son. He spent most of his days alone in his parents’ huge garden, drawing flowers. As a treat in the evening he would be allowed to sit quietly in the corner of the drawing room, sketching illustrations for scenes in the Bible. Every year, during his teens, he went with his parents on long tours of France, Switzerland and Italy. They travelled slowly in their own large coach, stopping at every town along the way.

Young Ruskin particularly liked the French Alps (and the delicious trouts which they often ate for dinner in Chamonix). But the place that most impressed him and changed the course of his life was Venice, which he first saw when he was 16 and to which he returned almost every year during long periods of his adult life. In Venice, he spent his days visiting churches, floating in gondolas and looking at paintings. He also loved to make highly accurate drawings of his favourite architectural details.

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John Ruskin, Casa d’Oro, Venice, 1845

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John Ruskin, North West Porch of St Mark’s Cathedral, Venice, 1877

Venice was, he said, ‘the paradise of cities’. And he declared the Doge’s Palace to be ‘the central building of the world.’ He was entranced by its beauty, its dignity and the splendour of its craftsmanship. ‘It would be impossible, I believe, to invent a more magnificent arrangement of all that is in building most dignified and most fair.’

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John Ruskin, The Doge’s Palace, Venice, 1852

On his return to England, Ruskin was struck by the contrast between the glories of Venice and the often dingy realities of British urban life. It’s a familiar phenomenon. We too are liable to come back from the Grand Canal to Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow or Acton High Street and feel our spirits sink. And yet, although we may mutter a few disparaging remarks, on the whole, we leave it at that; feeling that the ugliness that surrounds us is some sort of inviolable phenomenon we would be best to resign ourselves to.

This wasn’t Ruskin’s way. The more he experienced the contrast between Venice and modern Britain, the more it broke and enraged his heart. He couldn’t get over the appalling realisation that, in one place, human effort had led to such delightful results and that elsewhere (in fact, in most places) the same quantity of labour, the same (or more) money and similar human beings had produced dismal and soul-destroying results. Why were modern humans so bad at creating liveable environments? Why was the contemporary world so dispiritingly, monstrously ugly?

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Street of terraced houses in Loughborough, England

Ruskin had begun his career as an art critic, his ambition had been to open his audience’s eyes to the beauty of certain paintings and buildings, but in middle age, a more direct and urgent goal came into view. He realised that the ugliness of most things in Britain (from the factories to the railway stations, the pubs to the workers’ housing) was the clearest indication of the decadence, cruel economic ideology and rotten moral foundations of his society.

Attempting to change this was to be his life’s work. He devoted the remainder of his career to an urgent, vocal fight against the underlying principles of modern Capitalism. He attacked property developers for putting profit before the interests of the community. He lambasted industrialists for degrading the lives of their workers. And he laid into the whole of the Victorian bourgeoisie for neglecting their responsibilities towards the poor, for shortening their days and coarsening their spirits.

Partly his attacks were delivered as lectures. Ruskin spent a good part of every year giving talks up and down Britain. He was always off to harangue some group of industrialists in Birmingham or Sheffield about their crooked value systems and the immense heart-rending superiority of Venice to modern England – a fact which was all the more shocking to his audiences since Britain was, just then, getting into its stride as the workshop of the world.

But he was also interested in practical action. When his father died, he was left an enormous fortune, which he set about spending on good causes. In 1871, he founded The Guild of St George. He had long admired the medieval guild system, where workers were well-organised within trades that offered them both job security and pride in their work. Ruskin’s Guild was an attempt to reorganise economic life along pre-capitalist lines. He tried to set up a network of farms creating sustainable, unadulterated foodstuffs (for a time, he was a leading maker of apple juice). He built workshops to produce woollen and linen clothes. He encouraged businesses turning out high quality but affordable pottery, cutlery and furniture. And he wanted the Guild to act as a property development company that could be content with breaking even rather than aiming for the usual profit margins that he believed were incompatible with beauty. And finally, he wanted to set up a network of schools offering evening classes as well as a number of museums for workers, as an alternative to the numbing mass media otherwise pushed their way. Along with diverting the lion’s share of his wealth to the Guild, he also encouraged wealthy people around the country to contribute their riches to the project.

The Guild was in some ways a success. Quite a few industrialists gave Ruskin their surplus wealth. Some cottages were bought on the Welsh coast where a group of Ruskin’s devotees started a business making jumpers. Near Scarborough, a farm was bought which made a variety of jams. A museum was started in Sheffield. His most devoted disciple, William Morris, set up a highly influential furniture and interior decoration company, William Morris & Sons, whose chairs and wallpapers remain successful.

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 William Morris, Sussex chair, 1865

And the Guild itself has survived today – it can be found at www.guildofstgeorge.org.uk – and still performs some of the work that Ruskin had championed.

But of course, Ruskin did not manage single-handedly to reform Capitalism. It seems a general law that people who can think well aren’t the most adept at organising change. They aren’t good with the accounts, they get impatient with meetings – and because of these procedural flaws, the world doesn’t change as much as it should. However, Ruskin is as close to a thinker-activist as the 19th century produced and he remains an inspiration to anyone who seeks not just to reflect on the world, but also to alter it in the direction of beauty and wisdom.

To zero in on only one of his schemes, in the mid 1870s while he was a professor at Oxford, Ruskin got increasingly bothered that his students didn’t understand the meaning and pleasure of work. They went to parties and wrote essays but never did anything very productive with their hands, which he believed had a detrimental effect on their characters. There was a road in a nearby village of Hinksey which had become so filled with ruts and potholes that it was more or less unusable. The carts had to avoid it and make their way over the village green, messing up the grass. The local children didn’t have anywhere to play.

So Ruskin got together sixty students and organised them to mend the road and tidy the green. Eyewitnesses described Ruskin on a wintry morning ‘wearing a blue cloth cap with the earflaps pulled about his ears, sitting cheerily by the roadside, breaking stones not only with a will, but with knowledge, and cracking jokes the while.’ Mending the road took them a long time and they made very imperfect progress. There were complaints from the local landlord and a general conviction that Ruskin was a touch unhinged.

But the underlying point is crucial. Out of fear of seeming ridiculous, we often end up not tackling the challenges around us. The road mending was a small instance of a larger idea that animated Ruskin’s life: that it is the duty of creative, privileged people to direct their efforts towards making the world more pleasing and tidy, more convenient and beautiful, not just for themselves, but for the greatest good of the greatest number. He also believed that we should not (cannot) leave this to the forces of the market, because they will never get round to planting wildflowers by the edges of roads and making sure that village greens are pretty.

Throughout his life, Ruskin contrasted the general beauty of nature with the ugliness of the man-made world. He set up a useful criterion for any man-made thing: was it in any way the equal of something one might find in nature? This was the case with Venice, with Chartres Cathedral, with the chairs of William Morris… but not with most things being turned out by the factories of the modern world.

So Ruskin thought it helpful for us to observe and be inspired by nature (he was a great believer that everyone in the country should learn to draw things in nature). He wrote with astonishing seriousness about the importance of looking at the light in the morning, of taking care to see the different kinds of cloud in the sky and of looking properly at how the branches of a tree intertwine and spread. He took immense delight in the beautiful structures of nests and beavers’ dams. And he loved feathers with a passion.

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John Ruskin, drawing of a peacock feather, 1873

There was an urgent message here. Nature sets the standard. It provides us with particularly intense examples of beauty and grace. The plumage of a bird, the clouds over the mountains at sunset, the great trees bending in the wind – nature is ordered, beautiful, simple, effective. It is only with us that things seem to go wrong. Why can we not be as it is? There is a humiliating contrast between the natural loveliness of trees by a stream and the bleak, grimeyness of an average street; between the ever-changing interest of the sky and the monotony and dreariness of so much of our lives. Ruskin felt that this painful comparison was instructive. Because we are part of nature we have the capacity to live up to its standard. We should use the emotion we feel at the beauty of nature to energise us to equal its works. The goal of human society is to honour the dignity and grandeur of the natural world.

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John Ruskin, drawing of the Mont Blanc, France, 1856

By championing beauty so intensely, Ruskin rescues bits of our own experiences that we rarely take too seriously. Most of us have at points felt that trees are lovely, that somewhere else (and it could be Venice) is far more beautiful than the place we live in day to day, that there are too many shoddy things in the world, that work really isn’t enjoyable enough, that often we are misemployed – but we tend to dismiss these thoughts as too personal, minor, not really of significance to anyone other than ourselves. Ruskin argues us into a more ambitious and more serious attitude. It is, he says, just such thoughts and experiences which need to be given proper weight, which need to be analysed and understood. They provide crucial clues as to what is really wrong with the world and can therefore lead us towards moves that may make it genuinely better.

Ruskin’s approach to politics was to hold resolutely on to a vision of what a really sane, reasonable, decent and good life would look like – and then to ask rigorously just how a society would need to be set up for that to be the average life, for an ordinary person, and not a rare piece of luck only for the very privileged. For this he deserves our, and posterity’s, ongoing interest and gratitude.

Most of the time, successful modern life involves lots of technology, constantly being connected with other people, working very hard for as much money as possible, and doing what we are told. These elements are almost a conventional prescription for success. So it may come as a surprise that some of the best advice about modern life comes from an unemployed writer who lived alone in the woods and refused to pay his taxes. Henry David Thoreau (originally David Thoreau, 1817-1862) reminds us about the importance of simplicity, authenticity, and downright disobedience.

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Thoreau in his 30s

He was born in 1817, in Concord, an unassuming town west of Boston. His father was a pencil-maker and his mother took in boarders. He attended Harvard College in 1833 and graduated in 1837 with good marks. Yet he rejected the ordinary career paths like law, medicine, or the church. He took up teaching for a period, but failed to settle into a job at the local school because he couldn’t stand their practice of corporal punishment. He was, in short, dissatisfied with every obvious trajectory.

Then Thoreau struck up a remarkable friendship with the American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). Emerson believed in transcendentalism, an outlook that holds that the world is divided into two realities: material reality and spiritual reality. Transcendentalists emphasise the importance of the spiritual over the material when it comes to leading a fulfilling life.

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Emerson and his transcendentalism had a huge influence on Thoreau. Moreover, Emerson inspired Thoreau to work seriously towards becoming a writer. Thoreau’s house was busy and noisy, and he found working at the pencil business tiring and uninspiring. But Emerson owned a plot of land in the woods surrounding the nearby Walden Pond, and in 1845 he allowed Thoreau to build a small cabin (3 by 4.5 metres) there. It had three chairs, one bed, a table, a desk, and a lamp.

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The inside of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond

Thoreau moved in on the Fourth of July with two aims: to write a book, and to ascertain whether it was possible to work one day a week and devote six to his philosophical work.

In his two years in the cabin, Thoreau penned his most notable work: Walden; or, Life in the Woods, which was eventually published in 1854. It was a modest commercial and literary success at the time, but it would become an inspirational text about self-discovery. Thoreau argued that his escape to Walden Pond was not simply a relaxing retreat to the forest. He settled there to “live deep and suck out the marrow of life,” as he put it:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Thoreau believed that people often ‘miss’ life—they remain so stuck in their ways that they fail to see that other approaches to fulfilment exist: “it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left.” After some time in the cabin, Thoreau discovered a different, more conscious lifestyle.

To begin with, Thoreau concluded that we actually need very few things. He suggested that we think about our belongings in terms of how little we can get by with, rather than how much we can get. Money, he believed, is largely superfluous, for it does not help us to develop our soul. Work, in the traditional sense, is also unnecessary: “As for work we haven’t any of any consequence.” Thoreau aimed to labour for only one day a week, and found this was entirely possible. He pointed out that walking the distance of a 30-mile train journey took a day, but working to earn the money to pay for the same journey would take more than a day. Best of all, walking allows us to view nature and gives us time for contemplation—and that, in Thoreau’s view, was what time was for: “I found, that by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living. The whole of my winters, as well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study.”

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Self-reliance and solitude: Thoreau turned this commercially-made chair into a rocking-chair himself during his time at Walden Pond. “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society,” he wrote in his journals.

Thoreau’s friend Emerson wrote, “The civilised man has built a coach, but lost the use of his feet.” Thoreau similarly distrusted society and the “progress” it seemed to make. He deeply valued what he called self-reliance. He felt that economic independence from other people and from the government was crucial, and while he understood that we need the company of other people from time to time, he felt that too often we use the company of other people to fill gaps in our inner life that we are afraid to confront ourselves. The task of learning to live alone was, for Thoreau, not so much about carrying out daily chores as it was about becoming a good companion for oneself, relying first and foremost on oneself for companionship and moral guidance: “Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession.” Most of all, one should change oneself before seeking to change the world.

Thoreau also saw technology as an often unnecessary distraction. He saw the practical benefits of new inventions, but he also warned that these innovations could not address the real challenge of personal happiness: “our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things…We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” What we need to be happy isn’t work or money or technology or even lots of friends, but time.

Thoreau also believed we should look to nature, which is full of deep spiritual significance.  He sought “to be always on the alert to find God in nature.” He thought of animals, forests, and waterfalls as inherently valuable both for their beauty and their role in the ecosystem. He said he would be very happy “if all the meadows on the earth were left in a wild state,” for we are likely to find that “nature is worth more even by our modes of valuation than our improvements are.” We can best understand ourselves as a part of nature; we should see ourselves as “nature looking into nature,” rather than an external force or the master of nature.

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Yellow Warbler and Red-Tailed Hawk eggs that Thoreau found and then gifted to the Boston Society of Natural History

Most of all, nature provides the meaning that money and technology and other people’s opinions cannot, by teaching us to be humble and more aware, by fostering introspection and self-discovery. Thoreau believed that with the right kind of consciousness, human beings could transcend their previous limitations and ideas. This mental state—and not money or technology—would provide real progress. He optimistically declared, “only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” If we clear our lives of distractions and make time for a little contemplation, new discoveries await us.

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Perhaps the best testament of the value of Thoreau’s individual contemplation and personal authenticity is that his ideas lead him to powerful political conclusions. He believed that people should behave in a way that would make their governments more moral, prioritising their moral conscience over the dictates of law. In ‘Resistance to Civil Government’ (1849), Thoreau argued that people are morally obliged to challenge a government that upholds hypocritical or flagrantly unfair laws. The American government of Thoreau’s day had, in his view, bullied Mexico into war in 1846 to expand its territory; it also upheld slavery. So Thoreau turned to what he called ‘civil disobedience’—peacefully resisting immoral laws—in protest. In July 1846, he withheld payment of his poll tax duty to avoid paying for the Mexican-American war and slavery. He spent a night in prison for his troubles, an adventure that led to the writing of his essay ‘Resistance to Civil Government’. “There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognise the individual as a higher and independent power, from with all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly,” he wrote. “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.”

It was not until it was picked up by subsequent reformers that ‘Civil Disobedience’—as it was later called—became one of the most influential pieces of American political philosophy in history. Mohandas Gandhi adopted Thoreau’s idea of nonviolent disobedience as a model for his fight against British Colonialism, and referred to Thoreau as “one of the greatest and most moral men America has produced.” In the Second World War, a number of people in Denmark adopted the methods of ‘Civil Disobedience’ to resist the Nazi movement, and Thoreau became a hero there. Furthermore, Martin Luther King famously used Thoreau’s ideas in his fight for equality for African-Americans. King’s first exposure to nonviolent methods of protest came when he read Thoreau’s work in 1944; it convinced him that “noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”

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Lunch counter protestors against racial segregation in the American South (here being harassed by racist opposition) are inspired by Thoreau’s idea of civil disobedience

Despite his time as a hermit, Thoreau teaches us how to approach our frighteningly vast, highly interconnected and morally-troubling modern society. He challenges us to be authentic not just by avoiding material life and its distractions, but by engaging with the world, and withdrawing our support for the government when we believe it is acting unjustly. This might make us feel uncomfortable: how many of us want to risk our liberty or possessions on one act of defiance? Yet civil disobedience has become one of the most powerful forms of doing ‘nothing’ (avoiding certain actions) the world has ever seen.

Thoreau remains highly relevant, for we are not far from the problems he sought to address. His emphasis on frugality and turning one’s back on the material world is a fresh insight in a world of economic trouble. Indeed, interest in Thoreau peaks around economic crises: during the depression in the 1930s, his philosophy became especially popular in America. Yet—as Thoreau would probably argue—it should not take a severe crisis for us to question a materialistic life.

We can also continue to learn from his appreciation for nature and the psychological possibilities it offers. Thoreau later became a patron saint of the environmental movement; the Sierra Club—one of the largest environmental organisations in America—uses Thoreau’s slogan, “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” as their guiding mantra.

After he left Walden, Thoreau travelled widely, spent time working as a surveyor, and published many more essays, especially about the environment. He had struggled with tuberculosis since his college years, and fell ill with it yet again after an outing to count tree rings. He died three years later in 1862, aged only 44. However, his works endure, and remind us of just how important it is to remove the distractions of money, technology, and other people’s views in order to live according to our inner nature.

In March 1845, the United States acquired a new president – James K. Polk – a forceful, aggressive political outsider intent on strengthening his country and asserting its pre-eminence in front of other world powers, especially Mexico and Great Britain. Within a year of his inauguration, he had declared full-scale war on Mexico because of squabbles over the Texan border, and was soon rattling his saber at Britain over the ownership of Oregon. To complete the picture, Polk was a vigorous defender of slavery, who dismissed the arguments of abolitionists as naive and sentimental.

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James K. Polk

Polk was a popular president, admired by many for his gung-ho manner, but a sizeable minority of the citizenry disliked him intensely. One especially committed opponent was a writer from Massachusetts called Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau is now a canonical American literary figure, studied in every high school for his lyrical masterpiece, Walden. But there is another, more political side to Thoreau, now usually air-brushed out of the story, which came to the fore in relation to the President.

 

Thoreau quickly realised he was opposed to everything Polk stood for: he hated what became the Mexican-American war, instinctively siding with the losing Mexican side, was wary of Polk’s squabbles with Britain and was appalled by the administration’s policy of hunting down and returning runaway slaves to their masters in the South.

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His anger against his President found its impassioned expression in an essay he published in 1849, now known as Civil Disobedience. At the heart of the essay is the question of what an honest citizen should do about a president he or she wholeheartedly opposes. The prevailing view was that because Polk had won a majority, those who were against him should now fall silent. It should – it was often said – be the duty of a good citizen to fold away their objections and respect the will of the majority.

But this was precisely the point Thoreau wished to probe and upturn. He suggested that true patriots were not those who blindly followed their administration. They were those who followed their own consciences and in particular, the principles of reason. Thoreau wished to redistribute prestige away from blinkered obedience towards independent thought. What marked out a noble citizen of the republic, a real American, was not – in Thoreau’s view – that they respectfully shut up, but that they thought for themselves every day of an administration’s life.

On the basis of just this kind of independent thinking, Thoreau signalled a radical opposition to Polk’s term. He denounced the Mexican-American war, the repatriation of slaves and the outlook of the government more generally. So as to underline his opposition, Thoreau held back payment of his taxes. In July 1846, he walked into Concord, Massachusetts to get his shoes repaired and was arrested and thrown into the town’s jail. Thoreau saw nothing undignified about spending some time behind bars. As he wrote: ‘Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is a prison.’

‘All machines have their friction,’ Thoreau admitted, but when injustice is too great, you should ‘let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.’

Thoreau didn’t advocate the non-payment of taxes as a rule, and in fact, a well-meaning aunt soon paid his bill. The non-payment was just one example of the many non-violent ways that a democratically elected government could and must be resisted when its actions veer into aggression and unreason. An election settles who the president might be, it doesn’t determine that everything that president does is right or that one should simply do nothing until the next election.

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Thoreau

Above all, Thoreau hated political passivity. Sarcastically he wrote: ‘There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing.’ This would not be his way: ‘How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.’ He argued that the citizen must never just ‘resign his conscience to the legislation’ and put himself ‘at the service of some unscrupulous man in power.’

He mocked that ‘most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders… are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God.”

Thoreau would not be such a servant. This most American of writers knew exactly whom it was right for him to serve: his own mind and conscience.

Matthew Arnold was the most important educational reformer of the 19th century. He realised that, in the modern world, education would be one of the keys to a good society. But it had to be education of a special kind – and not one that we nowadays necessarily recognise or strive for. Instead of saying that schools should teach more trigonometry or improve the literacy rates in particular socio-economic percentiles, Arnold advocated a strange sounding, but deeply sane and necessary, agenda. Schools should promote – as he put it – ‘Sweetness and Light’. It was a turn of phrase calculated to irritate his contemporaries, but it neatly captured what he was trying to do – and what we might be inspired to try in turn.

NPG Ax27807; Matthew Arnold by Elliott & Fry, published by  Bickers & Son

In his lifetime, Arnold was a laughing stock for some of the newspapers of Britain. The Daily Telegraph in particular constantly teased him for being pretentious: ‘an elegant Jeremiah’ as they put it. Whenever there was a strike or a riot, they imagined Arnold earnestly telling people not to fuss so much about vulgar, practical things like unemployment or low wages, and instead to raise their minds to higher ideals and concentrate on ‘Sweetness and Light’. It was a deeply unfair criticism (as we shall see) but there was just enough in Arnold’s character to make it stick. It reveals just how easy it is to come across as fey, out of touch and inconsequential when one is trying to stand up for fragile, slightly complicated things.

Matthew Arnold was born in 1822. His father, Thomas Arnold, was a major intellectual celebrity of his times: a tireless, immensely active and stern headmaster of Rugby public school, who had a starring role in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, one of the bestselling novels of the era.

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Matthew’s father, Thomas Arnold, 1840

Matthew was a disappointment, and a puzzle, to his father. He liked to read in bed in the morning, he enjoyed strolling through woods and meadows, he was charmed by young women in Paris, he wrote poetry, he neglected his studies and published – to the world’s indifference – a couple of slim volumes of verse. Eventually, he fell in love with a woman called Frances Lucy Wightman – his pet name for her was Flu – the daughter of a judge. But to get married he needed a solid career, so he took up a senior post in the Department of Education as an Inspector of Schools. For years, he travelled the length and breadth of Victorian England, checking whether children were being properly taught. He earned a very respectable salary; the family grew, they went on interesting holidays and lived comfortably and happily in the West End of London – though Arnold was never quite on top of his finances.

Arnold didn’t write a great deal of poetry in these years but his charm (and his late father’s many influential friends) got him elected to the highly prestigious position of Professor of Poetry at Oxford. There was no money attached to the role – but it meant he got to give a series of lectures each year to the opinion formers of the nation. It was to prove the making of him, for it was thanks to his post that he matured into a profound social critic. His best lectures were gathered together into his most important and influential book, Culture and Anarchy (1869).

London street scene

There was a lot that bothered Arnold about the modern world – as it was just beginning to reveal itself. But he summed it up in one embracing idea: Anarchy. By ‘anarchy’, he didn’t mean people in black balaclavas breaking shop windows. Rather he meant something much more familiar and closer to home: a toxic kind of freedom. He meant a society where market forces dominate the nation; where the commercial media sets the agenda and coarsens and simplifies everything it touches; where corporations are barely restrained from despoiling the environment, where human beings are treated as tools to be picked up and put down at will; where there is no more pastoral care and precious little sense of community, where hospitals treat the body but no one treats the soul, where no one knows their neighbours any more, where romantic love is seen as the only bond worth pursuing – and where there is nowhere to turn to at moments of acute distress and inner crisis. It’s a world we’ve come to know well.

Arnold believed that the forces of anarchy had become overwhelming in Europe in the second half of the 19th century. Religion was in terminal decline. Business reigned triumphant. A practical, unpsychological money-making mentality ruled. Newspaper circulation was growing exponentially. And politics was dominated by partisanship, conflict and misrepresentation.

The Galeries Lafayette, a department store. Paris, France.

In the past, religion might have served to reign in these anarchic tendencies. But in his best poem, Dover Beach, Arnold described how ‘the sea of faith’ had ebbed away, like a tide from the shore, leaving only a ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.’

What could replace the function that religion had once played in society? What forces might constrain anarchy and civilise, guide, inspire and humanise instead? Arnold proposed one resounding solution: Culture. It must be Culture, he proposed, that would overcome the forces of anarchy inadvertently unleashed by Capitalism and Democracy.

But to play such a role, by Culture one could not simply continue to mean what a lot of people then (as today) understood by the term: namely, an interest in going to art galleries on holiday, watching an occasional play and writing some essays about Jane Austen at school.

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A contemporary cartoon of Matthew Arnold, showing him balancing adroitly between poetry and philosophy

By Culture, Arnold meant a force that would guide, educate, console and teach, in short, in the highest sense, a therapeutic medium. The great works of art weren’t to be thought of as mere entertainment, they contained – when interpreted and presented properly (and this is where Arnold thought his society had gone so wrong) – a set of suggestions as to how we might best live and die, and govern our societies according to our highest possibilities.

Arnold’s goal was therefore to try to change the way the elite establishment (the museums, the universities, the schools, the learned societies) were teaching works of Culture, so that they could become what he felt they had it in their power to be: a proper bulwark against modern Anarchy and the agents to deliver appropriate doses of those important qualities, ‘Sweetness and Light’.

By ‘Light’, Arnold meant ‘understanding.’ The great works of culture have it in their power to clear mental confusion, they give us words for things we had felt but had not previously grasped, they replace cliche with insight. Given their potential, Arnold believed that schools and the mass media had a responsibility to help us get to know as many of these light-filled works as possible. He wanted a curriculum that would systematically teach everyone in the land: ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world,’ so that through this knowledge, we might be able to ‘turn a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.’

The painting entitled Midsummer (L) by E

But Arnold was conscious of how the teaching of works of Culture in fact needlessly distances us from their power. Academic commentary grows like ivy around masterpieces, choking the majesty and interest of their message to us. Museums for their part make art sound immensely complicated, abstract and peculiar. As for the big and insightful thoughts that may lie in philosophy, they have frequently been formulated in ways that make it exceptionally difficult to understand them and see their personal import (Arnold had academic culprits like Hegel in mind). So, Arnold tried to impress upon his intellectual contemporaries a project which remains urgent to this day: that of ‘carrying from one end of society to the other, the best knowledge and the best ideas of the time; labouring to divest knowledge of all that is harsh, uncouth, difficult, abstract, professional, exclusive; to humanise it, to make it efficient outside the clique of the cultivated and learned.’

To make it efficient outside the clique of the cultivated and learned. Note how this ostensibly rarefied and impractical commentator had something deeply practical and very democratic in mind. He recognised that, in a populist, market driven society, it was no use keeping culture for the few,  writing books that only a hundred people could understand. The real task was to know how to popularise. If Culture was to be properly powerful, it would have to learn to be popular first.

By ‘sweetness,’ Arnold meant that he wanted works of Culture to be presented to the audience in sweet ways. He saw the absolute necessity of sugar-coating things. In a free society, cultural authority could no longer be strict and demanding – people would simply turn away or vote for something less severe. Anyone who wanted to advocate serious (but potentially very beneficial) things would have to learn the art of sweetness. They would have to charm and amuse and please and flatter. Not because they were insincere but precisely because they were so earnest. In Arnold’s ideal world, the lessons of advertising – which in his day discovered how to sell expensive watches and fire tongs and special knives for boning chickens – would have to be used by intellectuals and educators. Instead of wondering how to persuade middle-income people to purchase potato peelers or soup dishes, they would ponder how to make Plato’s philosophy more impressive or how to find a larger consumer base for the ideas of St Augustine.

Pink's Marmalade, 19th century.

By sweetness, Arnold also meant kindness and sympathy. He wanted a world where people would – in the public realm – be nicer to one another. Enough of the brutality and coarseness of the Daily Telegraph, a publication that every day took pleasure in gunning down new victims and turning personal tragedies in to the stuff of mockery. He wished Culture to help foster a spirit of kind-hearted enquiry, a readiness to suppose that the other person might have a point, even if one didn’t quite see it yet. He wanted to promote a tenderness to people’s failings and weaknesses. He saw sweetness as an essential ingredient of a good, humane society.

Culture and Anarchy remains filled with eminently valid answers to the problems of the modern world. With religion gone, it really is only Culture that can prevent Anarchy. But we still have a way to go before Culture has been divested of, to use Arnold’s words, all that is ‘harsh, uncouth, difficult, abstract, professional, exclusive’ about it.

This project is – in its own way – a small contribution to fulfilling Arnold’s magisterial vision.