Ancient and modern

Socrates on Maria Miller

An ancient philosopher had the former culture secretary’s mindset pinned

12 April 2014

9:00 AM

12 April 2014

9:00 AM

Our former culture secretary, Maria Miller, is still apparently baffled at the fuss created by her fighting to the last to prevent her expenses being examined. It was a mere ‘legalistic’ transgression; that’s what MPs do. So that’s OK, then.

Socrates once discussed with the young Euthydemus the question of going into politics. Euthydemus’ assumptions about what it entailed were all too simple, which led Socrates into discussing the importance of examining oneself.

‘Isn’t it obvious,’ said Socrates, ‘that people are successful, when they know themselves, and failures, when they do not? Those who know themselves know what suits them best, because they can distinguish between what they can and what they cannot do. By doing what they know about, they meet their own needs and achieve their ends; while by steering clear of things they don’t understand, they avoid failure and mistakes. This also enables them to make sound judgements about others, and through their relations with them to provide themselves with what is good and guard against what is bad.

‘But those who do not know themselves, and are deceived in their estimate of what they can and cannot do, are in the same boat when it comes to dealing with everyone and everything else. They understand neither what they need, nor what they are doing, nor the people they are dealing with … This ruins their reputation and makes them laughing-stocks, despised and dishonoured.’

‘Yes, yes, I know all that,’ says Euthydemus, ‘but how do I begin the process of self-examination?’ ‘Well,’ says Socrates, ‘you must be able to distinguish right from wrong.’ ‘Of course I can do that,’ snorts the young man. ‘Oh, really?’ replies Socrates…

To most people, Mrs Miller looked exactly like Euthydemus, but she and the Commons ‘standards’ (irony intended) committee, who reduced a £45,800 payback to £5,800, doubtless saw themselves as Socrates. If so, then as Cicero said in a similar context, ‘from now on the Roman people will know the quality of judgement to expect from Roman senators.’

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