The Grand Tour: Political Philosophy

Martin Robinson is a leading educationalist and author, having most recently published Trivium 21c in 2013 and Trivium in Practice in 2016. Prior to this he spent twenty years in various teaching positions in schools across London. Here he writes the first part of a new series called The Grand Tour, in which he will discuss the cultural landmarks that young people would benefit from having experienced by the time they leave secondary school. This piece focuses on political philosophy.

For Dr. Johnson a person who had not been to Italy would always: “be conscious of an inferiority…” The Grand Tour was for young aristocratic gentlemen to complete their education. This completion would include architecture, art, music, culture as well as food drink and wilder pursuits, shall we say, wine, women and fighting? The tradition has metamorphosed into the ‘Gap Year’, in which many young people back pack their way around the world or try to get to grips with the world of work, sometimes both. For many it is a coming of age ritual, yet it is still something that is limited to those with time, money, and the wherewithal to travel. There are other ways to explore. One way is to think of an approach to cultural experiences that doesn’t involve travelling across vast swathes of the globe accompanied by a Jeeves or a Passepartout. Known these days as a ‘bucket list’, or a hundred things you must do/see/read etc. before you die these itineraries of the soul are an interesting distraction to the day to day drudgery of getting by.

For a teenager, distracted by social or anti-social life and the eAducative demands of her school a list of things she should know or experience is an interesting quandary. What paintings should she know about and see, what pieces of music should she hear and understand, what food should she cook and savour? This Grand Tour of the Mind and Soul is the purpose of this little series of lists. If a teenager were to know of the following lists and explore them in detail she would be well on the way to ridding herself of any conscious inferiority in matters cultural, though she would not attain the heights of superiority and nor should she, she would be well placed to join in a conversation and know enough to realise how little she knows.

In his book, ‘The Infinity of Lists’, Umberto Eco points out that in his search for lists the exciting experience is not was is included but “all those things that had to be left out.” He goes on to say that his book “cannot but end with an etcetera.” This is what we do here, these will not be lists that includes the most important things, they can’t be, for they leave the most important things out. The most important lists are the ones that someone compiles for themselves in a lifetime, for these are the lists that inform our lives. What we do have here is a starting point, a conversation, maybe an argument, but we, nevertheless, have a list, a list which might point a way to some roads less traveled on a Grand Tour of the Mind or even to roads worn down by many feet from ancient times to the present day but all these roads lead to the etc.

In these extraordinary political times one thing might be a bonus and that is people are interested in politics again! If you are a teenager, getting yourself a political education might be a good idea. Imagine being able to quote some sage advice from the past or even being able to think in an informed way about the seemingly intractable problems of our present. As ever, all I can offer is a list of ten and this list is, again, notable by the etcetera that desperately needs to be added to the names I offer below. Who should you find out about to get a grounding in politics?

  • Plato Which of the Greeks to choose? Difficult, but in the end I settle for Plato, through him one can also read a version of Socrates through his dialogues but it is the text ‘Republic’ that I most recommend for serious students of politics. In this hugely significant work education, elites, power, emotions, the ‘just state’, ‘types’ of people and a range of political thought from communism to censorship and eugenics are explored. It is one of the major texts of philosophy and is a must read, or at least read a commentary, in order to understand much of the political philosophy that follows. Though much of Plato’s work is said to have influenced more extreme elements throughout history it is notable that he thought girls should be brought up equally as boys, it is the understanding of what it is to be a philosopher king or queen that most interests me.
  • Machiavelli The key text to read is ‘The Prince’, a text which is House of Cards and the West Wing rolled into one. This is ‘political’ par excellence and offers a rejoinder to the Utopian ideas explored in Plato’s Republic. Machiavelli tries to tell things as they are, would he have been able to look at the recent American election he would elicit no surprise from what he saw but as one of his chapters in the Prince is entitled: ‘That One Should Avoid Being Despised And Hated,’ maybe he would make a good advisor for many of our political masters.
  • John Locke Maybe the earliest ‘liberal’ theorist, Locke believed that mankind was liable to error, therefore Locke believed if the evidence changes we should change our minds. This was the same for government, if the people see that it has over reached its power or become useless we should be able to overthrow it and replace it with a new one. It is Locke’s thoughts that influenced the founding fathers of the United States as they wrote the constitution.
  • Edmund Burke Conservatism is difficult to understand unless one has a knowledge of Burke. It is interesting how radical Burke can seem and how much of the travails of the left and liberals can be salved if only they were to read Burke. His thought is wide ranging but it is his response to the French Revolution that gives us our clearest lessons as to the need for organic change, where the past is an inheritance rather than something to dispose of all too easily. Watching Obama and Trump together in the White House it is the fear that Trump might dump on his inheritance and that he might not respect the institutions and offices of state that give us pause. Burke teaches us this.
  • Mary Wollstonecraft A great figure, kept out of the ‘canon’ for too long, the writer of ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,’ she wrote about a wide variety of topics challenging much perceived wisdom of her time. Wollstonecraft wrote a rejoinder to Burke’s views on the French revolution but it is her later rejection of Rousseau articulated through questions about male power over female that is most poignant, bearing in mind that the revolutionaries of France were to later categorise women as ‘passive citizens’.
  • JS Mill Mill took Benthamist utilitarian ideas and made them more nuanced and thoughtful. Mill saw the importance of quality as opposed to mere utility. As a member of parliament Mill proposed votes for women, his thoughts on Liberty, that the individual should be free to do what he likes as long as it does not harm anyone else, is still very influential today. His work the ‘Subjection of Women’ shows that feminist thinking need not be the sole preserve of women.
  • Karl Marx Arguably the greatest writer on capitalism, it is Marx who foresaw much of the problems of capital as well as a revolutionary potential within it. That he tried to think of his theories as scientific yet without the prerequisite need for the modesty of a scientist, he was convinced he had uncovered certain truth, this belief influenced numerous followers who turned this ‘science’ into a religion. Maybe the most influential political writer of all time?
  • Frederick Douglass Many white people in Europe may not have heard of Douglass, it used to be thought, when I was at school, that the abolition of slavery was mainly a white concern, Douglass proves it was not. He was a great rhetorician who firstly liberated himself from slavery before going on to call for the liberation of all. A supporter of women’s suffrage Douglass was the first African American to run for office as Vice President.
  • Nelson Mandela Mandela’s inclusion here is almost a given, so much so that he might be overlooked as his presence stands as a colossus astride of our times. Of course he had his faults, he is but a man, but it is his forgiveness of his enemies and his incredible fortitude through years of imprisonment that stand as monuments to what our politicians could be more like today (and I don’t mean locked up!).
  • Donald Trump The living embodiment of where politics in the West has found itself. This show ain’t over until he is fired, we do well to remember that all political careers end in failure, yet hope that the institutions we have put in place and the traditions and wisdom accrued over time ensure that one politician’s failure does not bring the nation down with them. Trump is included here to remind us that what goes on today is as necessary to try to understand as that which resides in the past.

In order to keep in touch with what is happening today teens should read big broad newspapers, whether this is done online or on paper, eat up those column inches! Take out subscriptions to the New Statesman and the Spectator as well as watch any television programme in which Andrew Neil has a role as he is television’s current consummate political performer and one who doesn’t take any crap.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PTE or its employees.