Ancient and modern

Corbyn is the master of ‘raising issues’ – with no result in sight

10 February 2018

9:00 AM

10 February 2018

9:00 AM

Jeremy Corbyn is the master of ‘raising issues’. He received an obscure prize last year for his ‘work for disarmament and peace’ — i.e. talking about it. He ‘raised issues about human rights in Iran’, he said, when he worked for TV there. It will be at the ‘centre of my foreign policy’.

The ancient Greek for ‘word, speech’ was logos, and words could be regarded as tricky and deceitful: mere talk, no substance. Logos, however had another range of meanings: ‘reason, rational account, argument.’ It was in that sense that Plato saw logos as the sole route to the truth: using debate to produce a reason-based account of the world.

The Athenian Thucydides, the contemporary historian of the catastrophic ‘Peloponnesian war’ between Athens and Sparta (431-404 bc), took on board both of these senses, but asked the crucial question: what did logos actually achieve? What was actually done as a result of logos? More importantly still, what fit was there between man’s logos and the real world?

That was the point at which Thucydides stalled. He came up with plenty of examples of a leader alerting his men to the way in which a battle could be won and proving right. In particular his hero, the great statesman Pericles, seemed to have an uncanny grip on the right policies for whatever situation arose, and Athens flourished under his leadership. That was, he thought, because of Pericles’ high intelligence: he saw ‘what needed to be done’ for each occasion.

But reflecting over the course of the conflict, Thucydides understood that even a man like Pericles could do nothing about the brutal external realities of war, ‘a violent teacher’. And Pericles knew it: for, as he said, ‘sometimes the course of events is as arbitrary as the plans of men. That is why we blame “chance” for whatever does not happen as we expected.’ It rendered man’s logos meaningless, no match for unteachable events.

And that is all Corbyn — hardly a Pericles — has to offer: an endless ‘raising of issues’ about peace and human rights. And to what precise effect? Winning a prize. That will confront those brutal, external realities all right.

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