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Ancient and modern

Plutarch's advice for the Tory leadership candidates

1 June 2019

9:00 AM

1 June 2019

9:00 AM

The MPs wishing to replace Theresa May as prime minister have policies — but do they know what their electorate makes of them as human beings? In one of his many essays, Plutarch (fl. ad 100) analysed how your enemies could help you see how you came across to others.

He began by stating that all governments had to put up with malice, jealousy and the desire to come out on top. But as early man learned that wild animals, his natural enemies, could in fact be a most agreeable source of food, clothing and medicine, so politicians could learn how to turn their mortal enemies to advantage.


Plutarch’s point was that enemies were always on the lookout, watching your every move and that of your friends and intimates, ‘prying into your actions, teasing out and investigating your plans… and especially getting a firm grip on your failings and hunting them down’. This was a call to keep the closest possible watch on your own behaviour.‘When people said Rome was safe because Carthage was defeated and the Greeks subjugated, Scipio Nasica replied: “Not true: we are now at the danger point, with no one left to make us feel afraid or ashamed.”’

Then again, like Plato, ask yourself in what seemed to you bad company: ‘Am I rather like that myself?.  So if you attacked someone else for their way of life, examine your own; ensure the joke could not be turned back on you. Further, if you were the one abused, do not rely on friends to explain why: ‘the truth is to be heard only from enemies’. So it was important to consider if you had said or done anything to deserve that rebuke. Enemies noticed more than friends. The tyrant Hiero was once abused for his bad breath. Hiero asked his wife why she had not told him. ‘I assumed all men smelled like that,’ she chastely replied.

Finally, learn from your enemy by acknowledging what had made him successful. You could then credibly criticise his faults. If that was impossible, use your enemy’s success to sharpen your competitive instincts on him.

All that boiled down to: ‘know yourself’ — and acting on that knowledge. And the chances of any MP doing that?


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