Friday, 9 June 2017

Theresa May, Hubris and a Decline in Classical Education

Seeing this on Facebook today gave me some food for thought. This is the second example of a Conservative Prime Minister initiating a vote, expecting to win - and then losing. David Cameron fully expected to win the referendum on Britain staying in the EC, convinced he would gain a Remain victory which did not happen, and was forced to fall on his sword and resign. Theresa May called this General Election confidently expecting a Tory landslide, based upon a very strong showing in the opinion polls. She appeared on TV this morning looking surprisingly calm and without a red face, which she ought to have been wearing, following a humiliating failure at the ballot box.
I think this all points to one thing: a lack of knowledge of the classics, and a decline in the teaching of Latin and Greek. Mrs May went to a grammar school which later became a comprehensive, so probably never got to study Latin or Greek. David Cameron went to Eton, where, as Wikipedia says:
"His early interest was in art. Six weeks before taking his O-Levels he was caught smoking cannabis. He admitted the offence and had not been involved in selling drugs, so he was not expelled but was fined, prevented from leaving the school grounds, and given a "Georgic" (a punishment which involved copying 500 lines of Latin text)."
This punishment might well have affected Cameron's attitude to the Greek and Latin languages. Either way, neither Mr Cameron or Mrs May seem to have understood the word "Hubris" before they announced their disastrous votes.
Hubris is a word that gets bandied about a lot, so it's important to clarify what it means. Generally speaking, it means foolish pride or reckless overconfidence. As Wikipedia (not always wrong) says:
  "In its ancient Greek context, it typically describes behavior that defies the norms of behavior or challenges the gods, and which in turn brings about the downfall, or nemesis, of the perpetrator of hubris...In its modern usage, hubris denotes overconfident pride combined with arrogance. Hubris is often associated with a lack of humility. Sometimes a person's hubris is also associated with ignorance. The accusation of hubris often implies that suffering or punishment will follow, similar to the occasional pairing of hubris and nemesis in Greek mythology."
In Biblical terms, this is expressed in Proverbs 16:18 as:
"Pride goeth (goes) before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall".
Both David Cameron and Mrs May must now rue neglecting their classical and religious education.
If we look back through literary fiction and historical fact, we find numerous examples of hubris.
There is John Milton's Paradise Lost, where Lucifer tries to incite other angels to worship him, but is cast into Hell by God and His loyal angels. Victor in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein manifests hubris in his attempt to become a great scientist by creating life through technological means, but eventually regrets this previous desire - as might some atomic scientists of the 20th century. Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus portrays the "hero" as a scholar whose arrogance and pride lead him to sign an agreement with the Devil, without any regard for the consequences. The most prominent example of hubris in classical literature, of course, is that of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, which led to his (literal) downfall.
If we look back through history, we can see hubris at work in the massacre of the Roman legions in the Teutoburger Wald slaughter in AD 9 through to Hitler's last stand in Berlin, 1945. There is the ignominious defeat of the Second Crusade in 1147. and, much later, the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 which was, as Saul David says:
"...a squalid episode...characterized by Custer's naked ambition, lack of regard for his men and foolish contempt for his foe".
Custer is quoted as saying after he launched his doomed attack:
"Where did all those damned Indians come from?"
This same recklessness was displayed by E. J. Smith, captain of the Titanic, Lord Chelmsford at Isandhlwana, 1879, General MacArthur in Korea, 1950 and by French generals at Dienbienphu in Indo-China, 1954. And there are many more such examples for those interested.
Looking back over all these debacles makes me wonder why David Cameron and Theresa May did not take account of them - but, that's hubris for you. Or is it caused by a decline in the study of the classics and the ancient Greek and Latin languages? In 2015, Harry Mount, writing in the Daily Telegraph, in his article, "The Greek Tragedy in our Classrooms", laments:
"The game is up for ancient Greek in comprehensives.
From now on, the high-minded, mind-expanding beauties of Greek will be confined to public and grammar schools. The gap between comprehensive and selective education will yawn wider and wider..."
Oh, well, perhaps that is why Theresa May called this election. Her school became a comprehensive while she was there. Mount continues:
" The 1988 Education Reform Act didn’t include Latin in the National Curriculum. Within five years, the number of students studying Latin in state schools halved."
None of this excuses David Cameron, of course. Fee-paying schools still teach Latin and Greek. Perhaps his Latin punishment turned him against the wisdom of Socrates, Sophocles, Marcus Aurelius and all the other great minds of antiquity?
If any adverse consequences flow from this election, just think: it could all have been avoided by greater attention to classical literature by two Conservative Party leaders.
"Caveant, consules!"


  1. Interesting. I just finished Halberstams book on the Korean War. Characterizing hubris afflecting MacArthur is the least of his failing...:)

  2. You could present a similar argument about the refusal of politicians to learn from history, a subject all of them will have studied. It seems to me that most politicians view history merely as an account of the past, to be raided when a suitable, if often inaccurate, analogy can be drawn to justify their current decisions and actions. They don't use history to inform and shape their decision-making processes.

    Two examples:

    1. The term 'appeasement' has been cited by politicians as a justification for our military operations since 2000, often used detrimentally against those who oppose those wars, suggesting they'd do anything to avoid war. In reality, after the Nazis broke the agreement with the UK by annexing Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Chamberlain initiated a programme of rapid rearmament and preparation for war. It seems to be forgotten that it was Chamberlain, not Churchill, who was prime minister when we declared war on Germany.
    2. Talking to terrorists. The Tories and the media have made much capital out of the fact that Jeremy Corbyn spoke to the IRA in the past, strongly implying some kind of treachery, or at the very least, extreme naivety. This ignores the fact that Thatcher and subsequent prime ministers did themselves communicate with these terrorists, and indeed the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace resulted from such contacts. Drawing facile analogies between that situation and our present problems with terrorism ignores how different the two situations are. The IRA, whom I have always despised, were a centrally organised group who certainly wished to plant bombs and kill people, but not kill themselves in the process: they saw themselves as soldiers, not martyrs, and intended to live to fight another day. Recent terrorist attacks have been perpetrated by individuals who do not have any tangible links with the equally despicable Da'esh, even though they may claim allegiance to the terror group. They tend to be lone operators, born in this country, who set out to die for their cause, taking as many people along with them in the process. Unlike the IRA whose aim was a united Ireland, they have no long-term strategy, and they are not the Fifth Columnists of a terrorist organisation although Da'esh is quite happy to claim the credit after atrocities have occurred. The situations are profoundly different, and require a different approach; a 'one size fits all' approach to terrorism will not succeed. Suggesting Corbyn was an IRA sympathiser purely for electoral purposes is one of the more disgraceful aspects of the recent general election campaign.

    The most important point about history that politicians refuse to accept because it deprives them of a source of simplistic and inaccurate justifications for their present actions is that history never exactly repeats itself. Using emotive phrases such as 'appeasement' and 'IRA', loaded as they are with assumptions and ill-informed preconceptions, demonstrates a lack of understanding of history, which should not be deployed like a disposable campaign slogan, as it frequently is. It should be used to inform current decisions, not to provide spurious justification for them after the event.