Flat White

Why prime ministers should read

13 March 2020

5:00 AM

13 March 2020

5:00 AM

Last November, Alexander Larman’s Spectator piece on Gladstone’s Library brought to readers’ attention one of the most important features of the four-time Victorian prime minister’s life: his reading. At a time when decades of educational hyper-specialism has made for fewer truly well-rounded individuals, William Gladstone’s life and thought is a firm reminder that things were not always this way. As Boris Johnson’s chief special Adviser Dominic Cummings’ has argued in his call for an ‘Odyssean revolution’ in education, modern-day politicians and advisors all too often lack both knowledge from diverse disciplines and the ability to synthesise such knowledge in the ways necessary to make important policy. Gladstone was very different. 

As his impressive library makes clear, he had a voracious appetite for learning and books. And contemporaries noted that it was the catholicity of his reading which set him apart from many of his political fellows. He didnt read merely to look up facts and statistics, find answers to immediate problems, or to confirm views he already held, but out of a genuine desire to study, as he put it, man and the world considered with respect to man. As his friend and first biographer John Morley put it, All his activities were in his own mind one. This, we can hardly repeat too often, is the fundamental fact of Mr Gladstones history. Political life was only part of his religious life. It was religion that prompted his literary life. 

And it was a notably busy life. Even a cursory read through his diaries, comprehensively available in fourteen volumes, gives ample indication of his impressive qualities of energy and concentration. He believed he was accountable to God for the use of all his time, and for sixty years diligently recorded all his daily activities. Even at the height of his political career, and amid all his other personal and social commitments, he made almost daily time for literary activity, whether reading, writing or study.  


The foundations of Gladstones literary life were laid in childhood, then at Eton and Oxford during his formal education. There he achieved highly in both classics and mathematics and was awarded a double first in 1831. Although he read around 22,000 titles during his life (and annotated 11,000 of them) it was a select group of individuals that proved the most influential on him. After the Bible itself, he especially prized Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Dante, Butler and Burke. The peculiarity and ingenuity of his literary mind was particularly evident in his study of Homer, or Homerologyas he referred to it (a fascination to which Boris Johnson can surely relate). Vast amounts of time and effort were poured into these studiesover the course of his adult life he produced five major works on the subject as well as a number of smaller works and articles. No aspect of the poems escaped his attention as he pored over the minutest details of early Greek religion, history, geography, politics and society, all of which he related to some larger point. For example, he sincerely believed that Homer contained all the fundamentals of political science, and in the three-fold constitution depicted in the Iliad and the Odyssey he discerned the distant ancestor of Britains own unique balancedconstitution. It is unusual for any politician today to view politics from first principles, let alone go looking for them in literature that is twenty-eight centuries old. This was a man with a keen, and somewhat imaginative, historical consciousness. 

Gladstone was certainly not alone amongst nineteenth-century politicians in his literary and scholarly pursuits. Disraeli had been a successful novelist while other party leaders, such as Lord Derby, had produced valuable classical translations. But while others could read and write authoritatively in one particular area, Gladstone was able to converse with multiple scholars across different disciplines. We can get a sense of this in the pages of the Nineteenth Century, the periodical founded by James Knowles in 1877. Because its pages served as the forum for debate amongst most of the leading figures of its day, the Nineteenth Century is for historians a remarkable time capsule of British intellectual thought of the later nineteenth century. Gladstone was a frequent contributor, his articles many and varied. Few other figures have had the confidence to write equally on British foreign policy as on The colour senseor Epithets of movement in Homer. And all this in the run-up to his monumental and controversial return to politics as the Peoples William. 

His broad and well-rounded thought stands in stark contrast to the standard practices of twenty-first century politics, where thinking is all too often outsourced to professional researchers. Although he had come from a merchant, rather than noble family, he was an embodiment of the classical Greek sense of natural aristocracythat of rule by the best. One contemporary, the writer L.A. Tollemache likened him to the Athenian statesman Pericles for his ability to lead a nominal democracy from the front. That such an elite should be able to connect so well with the ordinary man or woman is a remarkable testament to his mind and character.

Reading Gladstone gives a strong indication of what an Odyssean public figure looks like. Regardless of political stripe, those seeking a model of well-roundedness would do well look to him for inspiration. 

Dr Alastair Paynter is a visiting academic in History at the University of Southampton. 

Illustration: National Portrait Gallery.

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