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.



A poignant moment for me but one amongst millions for her – this week I shook (quite gently) HRH The Queen’s gloved hand.

At the launch of a new Academy of International Relations, I stood in line; first to be inspected by Prince Philip, before the immaculate, steady grace (and not a single silver hair our of place) of her Majesty.

We exchanged no more than a few words and she was on, and gone. The intensity of her eyes, and the very clear focus within them is striking. She doesn’t say a lot, but she doesn’t miss a thing. And what things she has seen in a long and very public life.

Whatever you think of the monarchy, she is dignity and hard work personified. A time-capsule of Britain and the world’s history. And on a very ordinary grey Tuesday night in November I shook her hand – which I makes it a grey ordinary Tuesday, I will remember for the rest of my life.



I read a while ago that physicists were arguing over the wisdom of analysing the complete dataset from the latest probe which is measuring the cosmic microwave background radiation.

Why? Because from it we will soon have all the data it is possible for us to have on the origins of the universe. And if we analyse it all, we will have closed the book of history on our ultimate origins – there will be nothing more for future generations of physicists to know.

I was reminded of this by a lively conversation on the history of Western Art the other day. I’ve recently bought myself a primer which takes you from cave paintings to cubism and contemporary modern art.

In the early pages, just how small the sliver is, of what survives from antiquity, becomes obvious. There are no paintings, often no original statues and incredibly few fragments from entire cities, kingdoms and civilisations. The ‘cosmic background radiation’ of western culture is largely mapped. What we have is probably all there is.

But although only a fragment, it has been a treasure trove down the centuries. In the writings of Montaigne, his many references to Plutarch, Seneca, Horace et al were the ‘classical education’ which in his time (or in fact slightly before it as he lamented) were the gold standard. A Renaissance man who knew his ‘Greats’, knew everything that was worth knowing.

Paraphrasing Wikipedia, perhaps there is still something to be said for ‘Philo’s Rule’ of ‘classical education’: preserving those words and ideas which impart intellectual and aesthetic appreciation of “the best, which has been thought and said in the world”.

For the polymath, history is the easiest framework on which to hang intellectual curiosity. The past is finite. But, unlike the cosmic background radiation, the arrow of time for the living is forwards – at least for a few decades.

So, I think there’s a balance to strike between a good investment in “the best” that has been thought, said and painted, and keeping abreast of the ephemera of today. History has winnowed and filtered, but it has also carelessly and randomly mulched, ignored and forgotten.

Time marches on. And who knows which of today’s ‘cave paintings’ will be remembered 10,000 years from now. Daubing is as important as appreciating the daubing of others.


Aristotle is always refreshingly plain on a subject. So when I read him, I find it easy to think he’s simply making a useful summary of a well known issue. But often he was creating the entire discipline; the first known thinker to frame or classify it. This makes his clarity and brevity all the more remarkable. And all this in 350 BC.

Among his intellectual inventions was the first setting out of the principles of ‘Poetics’, covering drama, tragedy and a lost volume on comedy.

Here he explains the origins and evolution of poetry:

Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.

Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature. Next, there is the instinct for ‘harmony’ and rhythm, meters being manifestly sections of rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift developed by degrees their special aptitudes, till their rude improvisations gave birth to Poetry.

Poetry, myth and tragedy played important roles in Ancient Greece. According to Nietzsche they were instrumental in maintaining the vitality and optimism of Greek culture. Poetry, myth and tragedy also captured the essence of Ancient History. As Aristotle said:

Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history. For poetry expresses the universal and history only the particular.

Perhaps, like philosophy, poetry is less central to modern culture. But it’s still takes the same courage and skill:

Constantly risking absurdity, whenever he performs above the heads of his audience, the poet like an acrobat climbs on rime. (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 1958)

It also connects the sublime with the ridiculous in the human condition:

Poetry is the achievement of the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits. (Carl Sandburg, 1928)

But philosophy and poetry can still bring happiness, fulfilment and an opportunity to develop our natural gifts – till our ‘rude improvisations’ give birth to our own poetry.