October 02, 2007

My Influences

Dave Cole has asked me to write about the five people who have most influenced my politics during my lifetime. That's not as easy a question as it seems. I have decided to leave out personal influences- partly because it would be hard to decide between individuals, partly because I don't want people to be associated without their permission with my views and partly just because it might get too pious. I have been influenced by tons of people through my life- my father and mother, uncle, brother, several of my friends (who know who they are), teachers both at school, at Oxford and Cambridge and even bloggers have influenced the way I think. But for this exercise I want to concentrate particularly on people I have never met. This is not a list of the most intelligent people I have ever read, but of the people who influenced my intellectual growth most and many of the insights I drew from them may well be inaccurate understandings of their work.

Anyway here is the list for interest's sake:

1. Edward Gibbon

I read Gibbon's Decline and Fall for the first time when I was 15, I return to it all the time. He nourished my development as a historian. Gibbon had this stunning perception of the world as a whole- his history is vast. It is 3,000 pages long in my edition, it covers over a thousand years of history (from c. 180AD to 1453AD) and it describes the fall of the West Roman Empire, the fall of the East Roman Empire, the emergeance of the Western European state system, the rise of Islam, the Hunnic invasions and their roots on the borders of China, Roman Philosophy, Theological disputes in early Christianity (its still the main thing I have read on the Arians and Athanasians) and the decline of a republic into a despotism. Gibbon awoke in me a respect for the ancient world, I have never quite lost, a respect for republicanism not just as a political philosophy but as a way of living soberly and sensibly and rationally.

2. Isaiah Berlin

Berlin was someone I discovered when I was 17. Listening to a radio program, I heard him interviewed by Michael Ignatieff. Having heard him, I went out the next day and bought every single one of his books that I could find. Berlin stood and stands for me in part as a representative of a culture which I aspire to. As a fellow of All Souls in the 1930s he was involved in political, philosophical and literary conversation. He read and knew Boris Pasternak, John Austin and Felix Frankfurter. As important as that diverse intellectual social life was to me, it was Berlin's celebration in his work of pluralism that I learnt most from. For Berlin didn't believe at all in planning or utopia- Berlin's arguments were concerned with defending the individuality of human beings and the fact that moral choices were never easily reduced to a right or wrong answer. Rather Berlin argued that morality boils down to tragedy more often than not- for example the tragedy of government reducing freedom or allowing the poor to starve. Berlin's pluralism which acknowledged that tragedy is a political philosophy which deeply appeals to me.

3. Friederich Hayek

Hayek like Berlin was thoroughly aware of the evils that totalitarianism stimulated. He was the thinker that dominated my thoughts as a teenager and some of the habits I acquired then have continued till now. Hayek was the apostle of free market Capitalism, he argued for it both economically and philosophically. Hayek's intellectual legacy to me is twofold. Firstly he established for me that knowledge and the incapacity to know certain facts is at the centre of economics. The market is ultimately a device for ensuring the distribution of knowledge about demand through the system. It works better in Hayek's view than a planned economy because no planner can know the preferences of those he plans for in the way that the market can indicate. The second thing that Hayek was centrally interested in was liberty. Hayek had a very simple theory of liberty- but it is a defensible one. He was very worried about the extra-legal powers that governments might create- particularly for themselves. Hayek saw the rule of law as a concept which bound the state to treat itself as it treated those under it. I am not a Hayekian but I am sceptical of state power for reasons that he taught me.

4. Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes is a thinker I discovered at University. During my first year at Oxford I studied the Theories of State paper- and was told to read Aristotle, Hobbes, Rousseau and Marx. I had already read Aristotle on politics and some Rousseau. But what I read of Hobbes blew me away and during the rest of my degree at Oxford, I spent my time digesting what I had read in that week of the first year. Hobbes's model of politics which sees it as an arena of conflict between people pursuing their selfish desires and that the ultimate aim is a negative one- the provision of peace- has influenced my thinking in all kinds of ways. More than anyone I had come across previously Hobbes provided me with a model of how the state works, why things happen the way that they do and so on. His geometrical approach- where political theory is seen as the addition and subtraction of names from each other- is one that holds attractions for me as well. From Hobbes I learnt the importance of order and the importance of the state.

5. George Orwell

Before I went to Oxford I was told to read Orwell's essays. Whilst there I was frequently instructed by tutors to read and reread them- particularly his wonderful essay on politics and language. I admire most of Orwell's books- Burmese Days for example is amongst the best anti-colonialist writing- some of the novels lack a little inspiration. I suppose from Orwell though I take the idea of a non-communist left. In Down and Out in Paris and London (written whilst Orwell himself decided to spend a couple of years living as a beggar on the streets) Orwell documented in terrifying detail the experience of living in absolute poverty. This book more than any other shocked me out of my complacency and made me want to do something for the poor and dispossessed of the world- its a book I read regularly in order that I remember what kind of fate can await those who fall to the bottom end of society. In 1984 (which I think is his finest acheivement) he demonstrates to me the futility of the idea of the general will (Rousseau and Marx's way out of the misery of capitalism) by suggesting that it destroys human individuality. It demands that Winston Smith believe that 2 and 2 equal five because that is what the state says it equals. In those two books, Orwell lays out both why I think that it is essential to be in favour of moderating the market and why it is essential to be against Communist ideas.

Obviously this list is incomplete. Looking back at it, there are people who have influenced the way I think about politics as well as my political ideas. I would add some to this list that I have left off (Umberto Eco springs to mind for his wonderful destruction of conspiracy theories in the novel Foucault's Pendulum, Spinoza the great atheist philosopher of the seventeenth century, some of the people my PhD is about particularly Henry Ireton and their conception of liberty as a defence of the right of conscience to express itself and Peter Kropotkin the Russian anarchist all spring to mind as well). This is not a complete list- nor is it a list I would necessarily agree with tommorrow- but it is definitely a list of people worth reading. I don't agree with everything they say but the five men (unfortunately no women) here have been formative influences on my political thinking- they are all worth reading- why don't you, instead of reading my blog tommorrow- pick up one of them and see what you think!

I suppose I had better pass this on- but I'm not too disposed to overtly do it. So anyone who comes along consider yourself tagged. There are plenty of people who I would love to hear from and whose blogs I respect- you know who you are- so go out and write about your five political influences.


outsider said...

I do think this is more about ways of thinking than views- a composite of these people would probaly be rather more righwing than Gracchi particularly on ethical issues!

Having said that every one of them was a great writer and/or thinker.

excluding friends and family I would say
I would say bible, Friedman (milton), Charles Moore, Hayek and John O' Sullivan

Ashok said...

I feel arrogant devoting a post to this meme. I went and checked Dave Cole's blog to make sure it wasn't his meme and that he wasn't losing out on getting it started by me answering here.

If you care at all, the list is what little I understand of Lincoln, Yeats, Aristotle, Joshua Parens, Leo Paul de Alvarez.

El Dave. said...

Ashok - don't feel arrogant. Post!

It's an interesting list. Interesting that they were all concerned with statecraft...

Winchester whisperer said...

Plato for ideals, Pericles for oratory, Cicero for intrigue, Wellington for a lesson in how public opinion can turn and Thatcher for guts.