The horrors of the 1930s and 40s seem far more than a lifetime away. But they aren’t. Accompanied by the flicker of black and white, the terrifying demagogues of the 20th century now seem like exaggerated fiction. But they weren’t.

In his Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the era:

“Rarely perhaps has any generation shown so little interest in any kind of theoretical or systematic ethics. The academic question of a system of ethics seems to be of all questions the most superfluous. 

The reason for this is not to be sought in any supposed ethical indifference on the part of our period. On the contrary it arises from the fact that our period, more than any earlier period in the history of the west, is oppressed by a superabounding reality of concrete ethical problems. 

It was otherwise when the established orders of life were still so stable as to leave room for no more than minor sins of human weakness, sins which generally remained hidden, and when the criminal was removed as abnormal from the horrified or pitying gaze of society. In these conditions ethics could be an interesting theoretical problem.

Today there are once more villains and saints, and they are not hidden from the public view. Instead of the uniform greyness of the rainy day we now have the black storm-cloud and the brilliant lightning flash. The outlines stand out with exaggerated sharpness. Reality lays itself bare. Shakespeare’s characters walk in our midst.”

But lest we be complacent about a world which seems long gone, a few pages later Bonhoeffer describes the nature of the tyrant:

“For the tyrannical despiser of men, popularity is the token of the highest love of mankind. His secret profound mistrust for all human beings he conceals behind words stolen from a true community. 

In the presence of a crowd he professes to be one of their number, and at the same time he sings his own praises with the most revolting vanity and scorns the rights of every individual. 

He thinks people stupid and they become stupid. He thinks them weak, and they become weak. He thinks them criminal and they become criminal. His most sacred earnestness is a frivolous game. His hearty and worthy solicitude is the most impudent cynicism. 

In his profound contempt for his fellow-men he seeks the favour of those he despises, and the more he does so the more certainly he promotes the deification of his own person by the mob.”

Chilling. As it was, so it threatens to be again; history has a bad habit of repeating itself if we don’t learn from it.

Stations on the road to Freedom

I shared Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Stations on the road to freedom” with an old friend this week.

I bought a copy of Bonhoeffer’s Ethicswhen I was searching for a famous quotation – which is actually by Martin Niemöller. Niemöller was arrested in 1937 by the Nazi authorities and survived first Sachsenhausen and then Dachau concentration camps.

Niemöller’s famous statement, reminds us that sometimes if you don’t take a stand, there may be no-one left to stand up for you:

“In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.” 

Bonhoeffer didn’t survive the war. His ‘Stations on the road to freedom’ were written in Tegel prison before his death at the hands of the Nazis.

His words really speak to me. But they have a few bits where God intervenes as the ultimate answer. Those bits aren’t for me. So with a gentle edit, here is my secular version of Bonhoeffer’s four stations.

Secular “Stations on the Road to Freedom” after Dietrich Bonhoeffer:


If you set out to seek freedom, then learn above all things to govern your soul and your senses, for fear that your passions and longing may lead you away from the path you should follow. Only through discipline may a man learn to be free.


Daring to do what is right, not what fancy may tell you, valiantly grasping occasions, not cravenly doubting – freedom comes only through deeds, not through thoughts taking wing. Faint not nor fear, but go out to the storm and the action, trusting in those commandment you faithfully follow; freedom, exultant, will welcome your spirit with joy.


A change has come indeed. Your hands, so strong and active, are bound; in helplessness now you see your action is ended; you sigh in relief; so now you may rest contented.


Come now, thou greatest of feasts on the journey to freedom eternal; death, cast aside all the burdensome chains, and demolish the walls of our temporal body, the walls of our souls that are blinded. Freedom, how long we have sought thee in discipline, action, and suffering; dying, we now may behold thee revealed.

As I said in an email to my good friend: 

“I’m doing ok on 1) Discipline and 2) Action, haven’t a huge amount to complain about on 3) Suffering by global standards, and I’m still in the prime of life – albeit number four will get us all in the end.”

“That and the greater number of protons which have cascaded across membranes in my body than there are stars in the observable universe in the time it has taken to write you this, are my thoughts for the day.”

I’m somewhere between half and two thirds down the ‘road to freedom’. Important, amid all the ‘action’ to remember that; and enjoy the ride.

Rights Gone Wrong


Rights are all well and good, but sometimes they lead you to the wrong places. Generally I’m with John Stuart Mill:

“Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”

That’s the classic case for ‘negative liberty’ – i.e. freedom from interference if you’re doing no harm. And it has travelled time well; Governments: know your limits. But what Mill says before this is important too:

“The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”

And it’s this innocuous final phrase which is the tricky one: ‘impeding their efforts to obtain it.’ Does ‘impeding’ include dodging your taxes, turning a blind eye to inequality or using ‘rights’ to justify a bad status quo? As Mill said:

“A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”

Not that he was a pacifist:

“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse.”

“A man who has nothing which he cares more about than his personal safety is a miserable creature who has no chance at being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”

But as America reels from another terrible school shooting, with the prospect that the 2nd Amendment will be wheeled out again to justify inaction, surely historic rights are causing contemporary wrong.

Times change. It’s the 21st century not 1791. Give Governments too many powers and they abuse them. Give citizens guns and they do too. Two wrongs don’t make a right in a modern democracy.

I can’t help quoting Mill one more time:

“I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative.”

Surely it’s time for change on the right to bear arms.

I am a Scientist


Like most people I guess, I get irritated by folk who are wrong. But unlike most people, I actually don’t mind so much when I am.

Perhaps that’s because I believe in a ‘Bayesian brain’. Mash up all the facts, data and experience you have (however little) and come up with a probabilistic answer. That’s certainly how my mind works.

Of course we all live trapped in our own heads. So what seems common sense to me, absolutely may not to other people. Different experiences, different world views, different data.

As a recently deceased US Senator said:

“Sir, you are entitled your own opinions, but not your own facts.”

But what are facts anyway? Just a combination of data, theory and interpretation.

If someone says something I disagree with, generally speaking, I’ll have a quick go at saying so – and what I think. If pushed, I’ll point out the flaws in their position, if they are obvious.

But except in the most extreme or important situations, I’ll generally leave it after one or two tries. Experience tells; people don’t change their minds easily.

One of the weaknesses in a Bayesian approach is similar to the ‘ethical’ problem I used to have as a Utilitarian. The balance of probabilities, like the balance of morality, isn’t easy to explain or justify to people of principle and belief.

Most of the calls we make are analogue not digital. They are ‘probably’ not ‘binary’. So I’ve learnt, in the main, to simplify what I’m thinking when it comes to persuading. In the art of human persuasion, a single strong argument trumps several reasons.

And this cuts us to the chase. Why is it so hard to reason with people? Because most of human existence was in the pre-scientific era. Belief, superstition and commandment drove most people’s thoughts and deeds.

And a quote I read from the late great populariser of science, Carl Sagan, sums up the difference:

In science it often happens that scientists say, “You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken.” And then they would actually change their minds and you would never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.

I am a scientist.


I do feel – and feel is the right word – that Herbert McCabe’s ‘On Aquinas’ deserves a wider audience. So many important themes, from so many thinkers, rendered limpid in a thesis all of his own.

Of course there’s Aristotle in there. And as the title suggests, we are constantly accompanied by Aquinas. But, for me, it’s Herbert McCabe who shines through as having put together his own picture of what constitutes the human condition, in what I’d take as a summation of his life’s work.

I noted yesterday that people read more pulp fiction on Kindles than they’d dare have on their bookshelf or be seen reading in public. But the opposite is also the case. Truth is I’d never have found Herbert McCabe or bought his book without the web, connected devices and impulsive instant gratification via electronic delivery.

McCabe makes a powerful case for ‘philia’, mutual care and fellow-feeling, as the right basis for our relationships – not the functional rights and duties of justice and the law.

Justice is the minimum duty we owe to ‘strangers’, ‘philia’ is the care, respect, love, friendship, reasonable accommodation and interdependence we have with other people which constitute ‘humanity’ and ‘society’. Laws imperfectly capture the statutory minimum, ‘philia‘ is the gold standard for people, politics and society.

Stood on a grey suburban station platform this morning (the car’s bust again) I looked at the different shapes and sizes of punters, mums and pinstriped professionals all focused on getting their train. There were moments of ‘philia’. A shy ‘See you tomorrow‘ to the man serving a women her daily coffee, a jolly exchange between Ticket Collector and middle aged vamp.

Through the lens of ‘philia’ people look different. We judge less, tolerate more and look beyond face value. McCabe was right to remind us of this.

Change the Record

At lunch with a good friend today, we got talking about people and politics. We both admitted to getting cross, as we get older, at having to spend time with people whose views never change and who keep chewing the same cud. We concluded that people – even friends – who repetitively complain about things, moan about politics and never do anything about anything, are to be frequented with caution.

Later, I found myself writing a speech about society and citizenship for work. Where else to turn than Aristotle and Aquinas. Looking for inspiration, I stumbled across the reason my friend and I had been so grumpy about the monotonous tunes of stuck records. They are missing the point. Here (shortened) is what the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has to say on politics and society:

Following Aristotle, Aquinas believes that political society (civitas) emerges from the needs and aspirations of human nature itself. Thus understood, it is not an invention of human ingenuity nor an artificial construction designed to make up for human nature’s shortcomings. It is, rather, a prompting of nature itself that sets humans apart from all other natural creatures.

To be sure, political society is not simply given by nature. It is rather something to which human beings naturally aspire and which is necessary for the full perfection of their existence. The capacity for political society is not natural to man, therefore, in the same way as the five senses are natural.

The naturalness of politics is more appropriately compared to the naturalness of moral virtue. Even though human beings are inclined to moral virtue, acquiring the virtues nonetheless requires both education and habituation. In the same way, even though human beings are inclined to live in political societies, such societies must still be established, built, and maintained by human industry.

Both Aquinas and Aristotle write about how, and why, families, the household, villages and clusters of villages come together – basic biological needs and division of labour. But ‘society’ only emerges beyond a certain threshold. And why? Because:

In addition to yielding greater protection and economic benefits, it also enhances the moral and intellectual lives of human beings. By identifying with a political community, human beings begin to see the world in broader terms than the mere satisfaction of their bodily desires and physical needs. Whereas the residents of the village better serve their individual interests, the goal of the political community becomes the good of the whole, or the common good

The political community is thus understood as the first community (larger than the family) for which the individual makes great sacrifices, since it is not merely a larger cooperative venture for mutual economic benefit. It is, rather, the social setting in which man truly finds his highest natural fulfillment. It is in this context that Aquinas argues (again following Aristotle) that although political society originally comes into being for the sake of living, it exists for the sake of “living well.”

And this is what we were scratching at today. Friendship, communities, politics and society all require some form of constructive engagement, contribution and participation to reap the rewards of an ‘enhanced moral and intellectual life’ and “living well”. So we voted with Franklin D. Roosevelt, don’t waste time our time blaming the system, other people or society. As Roosevelt famously said ‘Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.’ Or change the record.

Subway Sceptic

In amongst the standard issue ‘New York stylie’ graffiti I walked past yesterday was a quality thought. ‘Question everything’. This struck me as rather profound for a coastal Cornwall underpass. But who inspired the phantom sprayer? Was it:

1) The Sex Pistols – a call for ‘Anarchy in the UK’.
2) David Hume – there are absolute limits to what we can know.
3) Pyrrho – hold back on your judgements for a less troubled existence

I reckon a mix of 1) and 3). Two fingers to authority and a nod to the inalienable right to your own freedom to escape society’s preconceptions.

I read Wilhelm von Humbolt quoted by John Stuart Mill in his seminal ‘On Liberty’ yesterday:

From the union of ‘freedom’ and ‘a variety of situations’ arise ‘individual vigour and manifold diversity’ in society.

Mill himself goes on to say:

Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.

Graffiti is vandalism. And if we buy this weeks analysis that the cause of the UK’s ills is gangsta rap and consensual policing then the callow youth who sprayed his question (lots of assumptions here…) deserves his head cracking with a ‘zero tolerance’ truncheon.

But ‘epoché’. After Pyrrho, this week ‘I hold back’. I’ll suspend judgement and ignore Hesiod. Some questions are worth asking – and some liberties worth defending.


I’ve been doing a lot of presentations on strategy in the last few weeks. The good news is people say it’s all very clear. They like it. “A lot better than it was too” some say. I acknowledge, slightly wistfully, that our old strategy was bigger on soaring rhetoric – and I miss that a bit. But not much. Clear and credible is better.

Reading Montaigne and Aristotle on Rhetoric I can see why. Montaigne first:

Eloquence most flourished at Rome when the public affairs were in the worst condition and most disquieted with intestine commotions; as a free and untilled soil bears the worst weeds.

Oh dear – suggests I may have been part of indigestion in our organisational intestines. Our rich intellectual soil allowed many rhetorical flowers to bloom. Perhaps some tilling was called for.

Aristotle for his part, in his encyclopaedic and comprehensive way, offers three volumes on Rhetoric covering it’s function, forms and stylistic niceties.

A dense but magisterial account on the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy runs through Aristotle’s work. In essence the purpose of rhetoric is to persuade. It is neutral and can be used well or badly and for good or for ill. The Rhetorician, like the physician should be judged, not, on whether he or she saves every patient or wins every argument, but on his or her use of the relevant tools, interventions and skills.

The Stanford encyclopaedia offers that persuasion itself depends on (a) the character of the speaker (b) the emotional state of the hearer (c) in the argument (logos) itself. The speaker can employ his or her skills as a stimulus for the sought emotion (pathos) from an audience. However, along with pathos, the speaker must also exhibit ethos, which for Aristotle encompasses wisdom (phronesis), virtue (arete), and good will (eunoia).

Persuasion is accomplished whenever the speech is recieved in such a way as to render the speaker worthy of credence. If the speaker appears to be credible, the audience will form the second-order judgment that propositions put forward by the credible speaker are true or acceptable. The catch is for it to be true Rhetoric the speaker must accomplish these effects by what he or she says; it is not necessary that he is actually virtuous: on the contrary, a preexisting good character cannot be counted part of the technical means of persuasion.

So is Rhetoric mainly about cheating and what you can get away with? And if so why would a man of Aristotle’s leanings engage with it? Well as the Stanford Encyclopaedia explains it:

It could be objected that rhetoric is only useful for those who want to outwit their audience and conceal their real aims, since someone who just wants to communicate the truth could be straightforward and would not need rhetorical tools. This, however, is not Aristotle’s point of view: even those who just try to establish what is just and true need the help of rhetoric when they are faced with a public audience.

Aristotle tells us that it is impossible to teach such an audience, even if the speaker had the most exact knowledge of the subject. The audience of a public speech consists of ordinary people who are not able to follow an exact proof based on the principles of a science. Further, such an audience can easily be distracted by factors that do not pertain to the subject at all; sometimes they are receptive to flattery or just try to increase their own advantage. And this situation becomes even worse if the constitution, the laws, and the rhetorical habits in a city are bad (as in Montaigne’s Rome above).

Finally, most of the topics that are usually discussed in public speeches do not allow of exact knowledge, but leave room for doubt; especially in such cases it is important that the speaker seems to be a credible person and that the audience is in a sympathetic mood. For all those reasons, affecting the decisions of juries and assemblies is a matter of persuasiveness, not of knowledge.

But, reassuringly, at the heart of Aristotle’s approach to rhetoric – as you would expect of the man – is a belief in substance over style:

Aristotle joins Plato in criticizing contemporary manuals of rhetoric. Previous theorists of rhetoric gave most of their attention to methods outside the subject; they taught how to slander, how to arouse emotions in the audience, or how to distract the attention of the hearers from the subject.

Aristotelian rhetoric is different in that it is centred on a rhetorical kind of proof, the ‘enthymeme’ which he called the most important means of persuasion. Since people are most strongly convinced when they suppose that something has been proven, there is no need for the orator to confuse or distract the audience by the use of emotional appeals, etc.

In Aristotle’s view an orator will be even more successful when he just picks up the convincing aspects of a given issue, thereby using commonly-held opinions as premises. Since people have a natural disposition for the true there is no unbridgeable gap between commonly-held opinions and what is true.

For Aristotle, the speaker does need to recognise that his or her audience may not have the habit of scientific proofs. He also concedes that long chains of logical inferences might not work well either. But, in his view, every man is open to bridging the gap between commonly-held opinions and the truth. So good rhetoric draws on both.

As for style, as with his ethics it’s all about the ‘golden mean’. In a nutshell for Aristotle the good style is ‘clear in a way that is neither too banal nor too dignified, but appropriate’. Nice.

I conclude the reasons I need less rhetoric these days is 1) our organisational intestines are in better order 2) more of what we are doing accords with commonly-held beliefs and thus 3) I need far fewer appeals to emotion and long chains of inferences to make my case. All that’s left is to add a spot of Ethos and Pathos and the job is done. Time for a rhetorical rest.

Equals and Similars

Aristotle has some interesting things to say about society and man as a social animal. In summary, man is by nature social. Intelligence and virtue are our best qualities. And, justice is the minimum common bond which keeps us from savagery.

The state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand.

The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole. He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state.

A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature. For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all; since he is equipped at birth with arms, meant to be used by intelligence and virtue, which he may use for the worst ends.

Wherefore, if he have not virtue, he is the most unholy and the most savage of animals, and the most full of lust and gluttony. Justice is the bond of men in states, for the administration of justice, which is the determination of what is just, is the principle of order in political society.

Aristotle also makes the same case for moderation and the ‘golden mean’ in social structures which he makes at the personal level in his Nicomanichean Ethics. In Book IV Part XI of ‘Politics the unlikely heroes of the Aristotelian state are the oft underappreciated middle classes.

In all states there are three elements: one class is very rich, another very poor and a third in a mean. Moderation and the mean are best, and therefore it will clearly be best to possess the gifts of fortune in moderation. But he who greatly excels in beauty, strength, birth, or wealth, or on the other hand who is very poor, or very weak, or very much disgraced, finds it difficult to follow rational principle.

Those who have too much of the goods of fortune, strength, wealth, friends, and the like, are neither willing nor able to submit to authority. The evil begins at home; for when they are boys, by reason of the luxury in which they are brought up, they never learn, even at school, the habit of obedience. On the other hand, the very poor, who are in the opposite extreme, are too degraded. So that the one class cannot obey, and can only rule despotically; the other knows not how to command and must be ruled like slaves.

Thus arises a city, not of freemen, but of masters and slaves, the one despising, the other envying; and nothing can be more fatal to friendship and good fellowship in states than this: for good fellowship springs from friendship; when men are at enmity with one another, they would rather not even share the same path. But a city ought to be composed, as far as possible, of equals and similars; and these are generally the middle classes.

It is manifest that the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and that those states are likely to be well administered in which the middle class is large, and stronger if possible than both the other classes, or at any rate than either singly; for the addition of a middle class turns the scale, and prevents either of the extremes from being dominant. Great then is the good fortune of a state in which the citizens have a moderate and sufficient property.

The case for fairness and equality at the heart of good governance in 350BC. We can lament the absence of women, the somewhat florid descriptors and the injunction that the ‘degraded’ poor can only be ruled like slaves. But… justice, more ‘equals and similars’, citizens bound by ‘good fellowship’ and fewer rich and poor strikes me as a pretty good prescription for the city, the state and the workplace.

A pious hope maybe, and Aristotle explores a book full of less ideal alternatives. But just because it’s idealistic doesn’t mean it’s wrong. As Herbert McCabe points out in ‘On Aquinas: ‘There is a fashion at the moment among those who believe in the market economy for what Aristotle would regard as treating citizens as though they were foreigners’.

I’m all for the market. If democracy is the least worst form of rule, then the market is the least worst form of resource allocation. But some social justice, humanity, fellow-feeling and friendship is part of any flourishing person, workplace or state.

Perhaps if we were fractionally less worried about conspicuous consumption, salary and status we might get closer to Aristotle’s ideal polis. But fellow-feeling is more than sharing the spoils. It’s also a state of mind. Citizenship, like friendship, requires us to think of other people as fellow ‘ends’, not just means to our own ends. Here’s to more ‘equals and similars’.