You may think his behaviour erratic,
In the House, his style is dogmatic,
But he uses his charm
To allay our alarm
That his actions are wholly akratic.
When you reach the age of forgetfulness and strain to remember what you did yesterday, it is always a pleasure to reverse this process and learn something new. Last week, I read Ian McEwan's very clever and funny novella, echoing Kafka's Metamorphosis
which I had read as an undergraduate some 60 years ago. In The Cockroach
, McEwan has this insect transform itself into the UK's Prime Minister and embark on honouring the will of the people. 'How could a nation do this to itself?' he writes, 'It was tragic. It was laughable. Surely the Greeks had a word for it, choosing to act in one's own very worst interests. Yes they did. It was akrasia. Perfect. The word began to circulate'.
My dictionary defines akrasia as: 'The state of mind in which one acts against one's better judgement; weakness of will. Used chiefly with reference to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics
'. As opposed to our Prime Minister who probably studied nothing else, I am unversed in Greek philosophy and never learnt the ancient language, with but one small exception. In my youthful enthusiasm as a medical student in the company of clever people who spoke with confidence about Plato and Aristotle, I bought and read a Penguin Classics translation of that very book, the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle
, and it has rested almost undisturbed on my bookshelves to this day. If they had time, there is much in it which would be of interest to our politicians even today, as Aristotle analyses the merits and flaws, the wants and needs, and the personalities of the human of his day.
It is something of a shock to be able to put modern faces, indeed one's own, to the characteristics Aristotle described in Greece of the late 3rd century BCE. One thing struck me early in Book One
: 'Political science is not studied with profit by the young'. I thought of those young people who are the voices of Number 10 and others, the special advisors or spads who lurk behind politicians. 'Every man is a good judge of what he understands: in special subjects, the specialist, over the whole field of knowledge the man of general culture… The young man is not versed in the practical business of life from which politics draws its premises and its data. He is, besides, swayed by his feelings, with the result that he will make no headway and derive no benefit from a study the end of which is not knowing but doing'.
But you need to skip ahead to Book Seven
to learn that akrasia, translated as incontinence, is the opposite of eucrateia, the Greek virtue of continence. 'The incontinent or morally weak man does wrong knowing it to be wrong because he cannot control his passions'. This must, I think, be the source of the dictionary definition, and Aristotle writes many pages discussing various points of view between virtue and vice where incontinence lies. One cannot read this without wondering what the young student of classics (Greats
, they call it at Oxford, which must confer some sense of superiority) made of this as he read it in the original. Of course, words change their meanings and there is plenty in Nicomachean Ethics
that may be used by a defence lawyer.
By the time you read this, all in our political world may be perfectly clear, to use a term with which the politicians universally preface their obfuscations, and a miracle may have removed ill-feeling from our disunited Kingdom. However, it is likely we shall be participating in a General Election that offers the people of England a practical choice between parties influenced variously by the world's most significant thinkers from Aristotle through Marx to Keynes and, unfortunately, Hayek.
It is worth applying some critical thought to the process we are witnessing. A small group of very wealthy, but shadowy, men influenced a small group of very wealthy MPs to promote the extreme free market views of the last named. They saw the EU as a serious hindrance to their views and used their wealth to work through their media to promote a populist view that it, the EU rather than bad British governance, was responsible for the condition of the poorest. They made life hell for the mainstream of the Conservative Party and a weak Prime Minister came up with the bright idea of a people's vote to excise the cancer in the party. No-one thought it necessary to point to the advantages of being part of one of the world's largest economies and the lies told by the populists led to a result that did for him and his successor.
It divided the nation and both main parties, each led by men afflicted by akrasia, but Aristotle might have recognised in them the paradox. The motivation for their destructive behaviour in one case errs on the side of the angels, on the other the devil. Akrasia lies somewhere between good and evil. Perhaps this is a guide to how we should vote.
Meanwhile the United Kingdom has become a laughing stock. Happily, in Scotland, we have our own people's philosopher, Robert Burns:
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men,
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
Worth thinking about as we make our minds up.