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Ancient and modern

Ancient & modern

After failing to lay a glove on David Cameron in his pre-election interview, the professional personality Jeremy Paxman is said to have called him a ‘smooth bastard’, an admission of failure if ever there was one.

28 April 2010

12:00 AM

28 April 2010

12:00 AM

After failing to lay a glove on David Cameron in his pre-election interview, the professional personality Jeremy Paxman is said to have called him a ‘smooth bastard’, an admission of failure if ever there was one.

After failing to lay a glove on David Cameron in his pre-election interview, the professional personality Jeremy Paxman is said to have called him a ‘smooth bastard’, an admission of failure if ever there was one.


Paxman’s problem is that, being merely an interviewer, he is master of none of the technical problems on which he was challenging the Tory leader. It is a subject on which Socrates was eloquent. A principle that lies at the heart of Socratic thinking is that the precision with which one can describe the technical knowledge required in the practical business of pottery or carpentry should be applicable to talking about moral conduct too. So, we know precisely what goes into a good shoe and how it is made: what precisely goes into a good man, and how is he made?

In one dialogue he subjects the working of the Athenian Assembly to this style of analysis. When it dealt with technical matters, he says, the Assembly summoned technicians: building problems required builders, shipbuilding shipwrights, and so on; ‘and if anyone whom they do not regard as an expert tries to give them advice, they will have nothing to do with him, but will shout him down until he either gives up of his own accord or is dragged away by officials’. But, Socrates goes on, when it is a matter of general policy, anyone can give his opinion, ‘carpenter, smith, cobbler, merchant or ship-owner, rich or poor, noble or low-born, and no one objects’. But what do they know to make them experts in this area?

Whither, then, Paxman? The fact is that his particular brand of bluster can no longer match the expertise of the party briefing machines. There are two possible solutions. Either Paxman yields place to a master of the technicalities to probe e.g. the economics of any proposals; or he goes into full Socratic overdrive, asking how one can tell what is good or bad in a policy, and how the interviewee can demonstrate that his policies in any area are good.

Who knows, Paxman might even reach the agreeable Socratic conclusion that he was wiser than the interviewee to this extent that, unlike the interviewee, he knew he knew nothing. But somehow one doubts a professional personality could ever make such an admission.


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