DURING the Second World War there was a poster in the UK which read: ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. During the flu epidemics of 1957 and 1968 there was no attempt to minimise the danger: yet at the same time there was a concerted effort by both governments and the media to avoid spreading panic and fear. In other words the advice was: keep calm and carry on – not stay home and save the NHS!
So what has changed so dramatically during the intervening years? I believe two important factors may have been overlooked, converging to create the present state of affairs.
Machiavelli contended that ambition for power over others and in particular for political power was always motivated by a kind of psychotic sociopathology: it was never benign. This view may appear extreme but it has the whiff of Occam’s razor about it which I hope to demonstrate.
There have always been constraints upon such tyrannical ambitions: usually from others who shared them. But the strongest bulwark against them has been a robust democratic system: indeed, the cornerstone of democracy is simply the prevention of tyranny. This however requires a voting populace which can think critically and independently: a faculty that has to be painstakingly developed.
So the ancient Greeks formulated a system of education consisting of seven subjects which collectively imparted such clarity of thought. This was named the ‘trivium’ and the ‘quadrivium.’
Remnants of this system survived for over 2,000 years: but since the beginning of the 19th century when state-controlled education began to spread throughout the world, those principles have been gradually eroded. Then in the 1960s the pace accelerated and this deterioration extended throughout academia so that now independent critical thinking is not only discouraged but increasingly condemned and vilified.
This is precisely the state of affairs that existed in 2019: a ‘normal’ based upon an illusory notion of ‘liberty’.
To return to Machiavelli’s observation: Boris Johnson provides an interesting example. One would have thought that his classical education might have imparted some vestige of critical thinking ability. But he also harboured from an early age an ambition to be ‘King of the World’. Unfortunately the tyrant won out over the academic. There still remains an element of conflict between the two within his personality: a handicap from which many of his political allies and advisers are conspicuously free.
Of the latter, Neil Ferguson is a wonderful case study involving both convergent factors. Out of his own mouth he reveals himself to be a deranged sociopath although he seems to be totally unaware that his own words condemn him. Added to which of course his ludicrous projections display a total disregard for scientific methodology whether that suggested by Karl Popper, for example, or the even more relevant application of Baye’s theorem. In fact he is so immersed in delusion that when reality persistently refuses to confirm his predictions, he concludes that reality must be wrong.
A further validation of Machiavelli’s ideas: when offered the opportunity via Covid to unleash their inner tyrant without restraint, leaders throughout the world leapt at the chance to introduce draconian restrictions to our ‘liberties’ – the most egregious of which were imposed on the liberal democracies of the West. And an intellectually emasculated populace, infected with fear and delusion, could do nothing other than accept whatever they were told and become meekly subservient.
However there is a glimmer of hope. Now that all this is out in the open instead of being just an unmanifest seemingly remote possibility, we have the opportunity to strive towards an enlightened future instead of returning to a spurious, mythical ‘normality’.