What Does Studying Classics at Oxford Teach You about Running a Country?

An article in the Guardian declared the Oxford University degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) “the degree that rules Britain.” Here’s a snapshot of the UK political and media elite from a few years ago:

“Monday, 13 April 2015 was a typical day in modern British politics. An Oxford University graduate in philosophy, politics and economics (PPE), Ed Miliband, launched the Labour party’s general election manifesto. It was examined by the BBC’s political editor, Oxford PPE graduate Nick Robinson, by the BBC’s economics editor, Oxford PPE graduate Robert Peston, and by the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Oxford PPE graduate Paul Johnson. It was criticised by the prime minister, Oxford PPE graduate David Cameron. It was defended by the Labour shadow chancellor, Oxford PPE graduate Ed Balls.

Elsewhere in the country, with the election three weeks away, the Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the Treasury, Oxford PPE graduate Danny Alexander, was preparing to visit Kingston and Surbiton, a vulnerable London seat held by a fellow Lib Dem minister, Oxford PPE graduate Ed Davey. In Kent, one of Ukip’s two MPs, Oxford PPE graduate Mark Reckless, was campaigning in his constituency, Rochester and Strood. Comments on the day’s developments were being posted online by Michael Crick, Oxford PPE graduate and political correspondent of Channel 4 News.

On the BBC Radio 4 website, the Financial Times statistics expert and Oxford PPE graduate Tim Harford presented his first election podcast. On BBC1, Oxford PPE graduate and Newsnight presenter Evan Davies conducted the first of a series of interviews with party leaders. In the print media, there was an election special in the Economist magazine, edited by Oxford PPE graduate Zanny Minton-Beddoes; a clutch of election articles in the political magazine Prospect, edited by Oxford PPE graduate Bronwen Maddox; an election column in the Guardian by Oxford PPE graduate Simon Jenkins; and more election coverage in the Times and the Sun, whose proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, studied PPE at Oxford.”

The subjects of Philosophy, Politics and Economics were clearly combined into a degree that would attract those with ambitions to take leading roles in running a country.

There was a time when a degree in Classics (ancient languages, literature, history and philosophy) would have been thought to be the subject of choice for those wanting to run the country, or the Empire as it was, not just for career politicians but also for those in public administration.

A degree in Classics is the degree the UK’s current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, holds. Before him you’d have to go back more than half a century for a Classicist Prime Minister to Harold Macmillan (1957-63) who also happens to have been at the same school (Eton) and the same Oxford college (Balliol) as Boris Johnson.

Anthony Kenny, who was Master of Balliol College when Johnson was a student there, wrote about Johnson’s time at Balliol:

On the basis of the tutors’ reports, I formed the judgement that while Boris had the necessary intelligence, he lacked the appropriate diligence to achieve the first-class degree that he clearly felt was his due. Though he sat lightly to formal academic obligations, Boris did acquire a genuine love of the classics during his undergraduate years…

This genuine love and to some extent mastery of the classics is obvious from stories like the one (told here) from Johnson’s time as a journalist in Brussels:

In the days when French was the only language authorised in the EU press operation, Johnson once asked a question in Latin. He wanted to know more about some directive supposedly intended to enforce the use of the Latin names of fish to facilitate the common fisheries policy.

Johnson also gets journalists to cover forgotten celebrities like the 5th century BC Roman legend Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus by saying things like this (when asked in 2009 whether he’d want to be party leader and Prime Minister):

“In the immortal words of Michael Heseltine, I cannot foresee the circumstances in which I would be called upon to serve [as prime minister]. If, like Cincinnatus, I were to be called from my plough, then obviously it would be wrong of me not to help out.”

This is knowledge of Roman history used as a stylistic device to present oneself in a certain light. Cincinnatus had such a reputation for competence in leadership that he was brought back into a position of great political responsibility, even as he was busy just doing work on his small agricultural holding. The words that the Roman historian Livy uses ahead of the episode Johnson alludes to are:

“It is worth those persons’ while to listen, who despise all things human in comparison with riches, and who suppose that there is no room for exalted honour, nor for virtue, unless where riches abound in great profusion. Lucius Quintius [Cincinnatus], the sole hope of the Roman people, cultivated a farm of four acres, at the other side of the Tiber, which are called the Quintian meadows…”

There are very few clearer contrasts than that between Cincinnatus  and a current-day career politician who spends all his life plotting to achieve the highest political office.

Another Classics moment in Johnson’s career is the fact that he, as Mayor of London during the 2012 London Olympic Games, commissioned a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, to write an Olympic Ode in ancient Greek and in the style of Pindar. Johnson recited it himself at an opening gala.

But besides the odd recherché reference and the occasional lapse into Greek or Latin, what else might Johnson’s time at Oxford  have taught him about running a country?

There is an episode of his life in student politics at the Oxford Union remembered by Anthony Kenny that looks like an early lesson in political self-presentation:

In 1986, he ran for the presidency of the Union. Though nothing like as rabid as the Balliol JCR, the Union was sufficiently left wing for it to be inconceivable for a Tory to be elected as president. Boris concealed his Conservative affiliation and let it be widely understood that he was a Social Democrat. So far as I know, he told no actual lies, but his strategy recalled Macaulay’s words about the difference between lying and deceiving: ‘Metternich told lies all the time, and never deceived any one; Talleyrand never told a lie and deceived the whole world.’ With Talleyrand-like skill, Boris got himself elected as President of the Oxford Union in Trinity Term.

Shortly after this I was telephoned by an SDP MP, Dick Taverne, who told me that he was looking for an intern to work for him during the vacation. He inquired whether I could suggest any candidates. ‘I’ve just the man for you’, I said, ‘bright and witty and with suitable political views. He’s just finished being president of the Union, and his name is Boris Johnson.’ When I summoned Boris to ask whether he was interested in the job, he burst out laughing: ‘Master, don’t you know I am a died-in-the-wool Tory?’

Toby Young, a contemporary of Johnson’s at Oxford, said that Johnson “had successfully courted the backing of the leftwing Limehouse Group to secure victory. He didn’t join the group but was seen at one of its parties. According to Young, Johnson also stopped describing himself, for the period of the Union election campaign as a Conservative and rebranded himself as an environmentalist.

There may be parallels between that episode and the 2019 leadership campaign during which Johnson was relatively hard to pin down on his views and avoided many opportunities to communicate them, but was seen in the presence of various fractions of his party, associating himself with both the One Nation Group and the hard Brexit plans of the European Reform Group.

When Johnson almost became Prime Minister in 2016, Anthony Kenny was reminded of the time Johnson, almost achieved a first-class degree, but had to settle for a 2:1 instead:

In 1987, Boris sat the final examinations. He was determined to get a first, and seemed confident that he could do so on the basis of six weeks of really hard work. Perhaps he might have been able to do so had he taken eight weeks: quite a few firsts have been gained on the basis of a last-minute spurt. But some weeks after the end of the examinations, Boris was summoned from France, told that his work was on the borderline between the first and second class, and instructed to appear for a viva, or oral examination. A day or two later Boris knocked on my door, and presented a very humble appearance – the only time I have ever seen him do so. ‘I am to be viva’d on Aristotle’, he said. ‘My tutor is in France – but I hear you know something about Aristotle. Would you be kind enough to give me a tutorial in preparation?’ So we sat together for the best part of a day and went over a number of likely questions. In spite of this expert assistance, however, Boris achieved only an upper second. That is something that he has never forgotten. Nor has David Cameron, who got a first – not, in [Classics] however, but in PPE, as Boris likes to remind people.

There are critics of Johnson who would claim that his unwillingness to put in the hard work over a sustained period of time still disqualifies him from the highest achievements of political office. In 2016, some of those who pulled the plug on Johnson’s bid for the party leadership cited a lack of seriousness. The media reported as emblematic the fact that Johnson took a day out to play cricket on a day that was crucial to the leadership campaign.

The attitude on display smacks of what a previous Balliol Prime Minister, Asquith, called the Balliol man’s “tranquil consciousness of effortless superiority.” That is to say, one is meant to want and acquire the top office, the best degree, a superior grasp of one’s subject, but one shouldn’t be seen to make an effort in acquiring it. One is meant to have it despite not working very hard, despite, say, occasionally just playing cricket for a day.

Anthony Kenny became disenchanted with his former student, Boris Johnson, over the fact that Johnson supported the campaign for the UK to leave the European Union. His final recorded reflections on Johnson, are these:

I reflected ruefully on the college’s part in his education. We had been privileged to be given the task of bringing up members of the nation’s political elite. But what had we done for Boris? Had we taught him truthfulness? No. Had we taught him wisdom? No. What had we taught? Was it only how to make witty and brilliant speeches? I comforted myself with the thought that even Socrates was very doubtful whether virtue could be taught.

If we were going to stay with Kenny’s initial instinct that Johnson’s future conduct and programme of Government reflects on his college, his university and on the way Classics is taught, what should we look out for? In contrast to many of the populist politicians with which Johnson is often classed, he has enjoyed an elite education and spent four years of his life studying classical history, literature and philosophy. If that isn’t meant to have any kind of influence on his truthfulness, wisdom, morality, or at least an influence that could broadly be called civilising, then what is it meant to be doing?

One of the texts that should haunt anyone observing populist politicians, which I’m sure no one with a degree in Classics would have been able to avoid, is the beginning of Plato’s Republic, where the challenge to Socrates’ ethics is fiercely put by an aggressive sophist called Thrasymachus. Known as Thrasymachus’ challenge, or the immoralist’s challenge, the passage contains the following language. In the translation of Benjamin Jowett, another former master of Balliol College, who took the view that learning Classics at Oxford was a good preparation for men to go into the Indian Civil Service, it goes like this:

“You fancy that the shepherd or neatherd fattens of tends the sheep or oxen with a view to their own good and not to the good of himself or his master; and you further imagine that the rulers of states, if they are true rulers, never think of their subjects as sheep, and that they are not studying their own advantage day and night. Oh, no; and so entirely astray are you in your ideas about the just and unjust as not even to know that justice and the just are in reality another’s good; that is to say, the interest of the ruler and stronger, and the loss of the subject and servant; and injustice the opposite; for the unjust is lord over the truly simple and just: he is the stronger, and his subjects do what is for his interest, and minister to his happiness, which is very far from being their own. Consider further, most foolish Socrates, that the just is always a loser in comparison with the unjust. First of all, in private contracts: wherever the unjust is the partner of the just you will find that, when the partnership is dissolved, the unjust man has always more and the just less. Secondly, in their dealings with the State: when there is an income tax, the just man will pay more and the unjust less on the same amount of income; and when there is anything to be received the one gains nothing and the other much. Observe also what happens when they take an office; there is the just man neglecting his affairs and perhaps suffering other losses, and getting nothing out of the public, because he is just; moreover he is hated by his friends and acquaintance for refusing to serve them in unlawful ways. But all this is reversed in the case of the unjust man. I am speaking, as before, of injustice on a large scale in which the advantage of the unjust is more apparent; and my meaning will be most clearly seen if we turn to that highest form of injustice in which the criminal is the happiest of men, and the sufferers or those who refuse to do injustice are the most miserable –that is to say tyranny, which by fraud and force takes away the property of others, not little by little but wholesale; comprehending in one, things sacred as well as profane, private and public; for which acts of wrong, if he were detected perpetrating any one of them singly, he would be punished and incur great disgrace – they who do such wrong in particular cases are called robbers of temples, and man-stealers and burglars and swindlers and thieves. But when a man besides taking away the money of the citizens has made slaves of them, then, instead of these names of reproach, he is termed happy and blessed, not only by the citizens but by all who hear of his having achieved the consummation of injustice. For mankind censure injustice, fearing that they may be the victims of it and not because they shrink from committing it. And thus, as I have shown, Socrates, injustice, when on a sufficient scale, has more strength and freedom and mastery than justice; and, as I said at first, justice is the interest of the stronger, whereas injustice is a man’s own profit and interest.”

In a post-truth environment, the worry must be that the populist politicians are adopting Thrasymachus’ programme of lying and stealing on a grand scale. Why should they, they might think, tell the truth, when they can get away with lying? Why should the bother with fair taxation when they can get away with enriching themselves and their friends through the tax system? It is crucial that people learn that the immoralist’s challenge doesn’t succeed.

And yet, I know that there is a strand of teaching Plato at Oxford that consists of a lecturer taking a passage of Plato, treating it as an argument in analytical philosophy and showing up its deficiencies as an argument (Well… drawing the conclusion Plato does from his premises is a non-sequitur… It might work if Plato helps himself to this additional premise that he uses in such-and-such other dialogue, but then that contradicts what he does here.) It is quite possible to learn that Plato didn’t succeed in defeating the Thrasymachus’ challenge in the Republic. I’m pretty sure a tutor once told me not to read Plato for the philosophy but for the Greek prose style.

Clearly Jowett’s vision, that one could read Livy in order to be like Cincinnatus, rather than give oneself a learned – and at the same time humble – air, or that one could read Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics to learn about governing an Empire have deservedly failed with the decline and fall of the British Empire and the many ways in which post-colonial analysis shows how problematic it was for the British to think that they were the successors to the Greeks and Romans in their colonialism.

But that shouldn’t mean that those teaching future elites (another problematic concept in itself), have no responsibility for teaching them about how to be good at being an elite. Anthony Kenny, Jonathan Barnes and others who would have taught Johnson are leading experts in ancient philosophy. They awarded him a good, almost a top, degree in the subject they taught. What he learned, is something we have yet to see as he starts his position at the top of Government.