Gary Hayden WALKING WITH PLATO A philosophical hike through the British Isles 224pp. Oneworld. £12.99.
978 1 78074 656 2 Friedrich Nietzsche used to walk for up to
eight hours a day, often rising well before
dawn. “I am always on the road two hours
before the sun comes over the mountains,” he
wrote from Switzerland in 1877, “and especially
in the long shadows of afternoon and
evening.” His fellow philosopher Søren Kierkegaard
was of a similar disposition, writing to
his niece thirty years before: “every day I walk
myself into a state of well-being and walk
away from every illness. I have walked myself
into my best thoughts, and I know of no
thought so burdensome that one cannot walk
away from it”.
It is no coincidence that these two men, each
physically and mentally tormented, were both
keen walkers. As Gary Hayden, the author,
previously, of You Kant Make It Up!: Strange
ideas from history’s great philosophers (2011)
observes in his latest book Walking with Plato:
A philosophical hike through the British Isles,
there is something about walking that soothes
the spirit and frees the mind, especially for
those with a less than cheery temperament.
Walking with Plato has the appearance of a
semi-serious travelogue, in which the author
and his wife make the sometimes arduous and
often dreary hike from John O’Groats to
Land’s End. One might expect Bill Bryson
with a dash of Alain de Botton. But Hayden, by
his own admission, isn’t very interested in the
landscape. He hasn’t even taken a notebook
with him. It’s mostly an inventory of damp
campsites and nondescript hotels, where “we
lounged on the bed, ate crisps and chocolate
and watched Strictly Come Dancing. But,
apart from that, it’s all a blank”. Candid throughout about his own sombre
constitution, Hayden is here, rather, on an
inward journey. The physical act of trekking
becomes a challenge in itself, the landscape a
sideshow. He introduces us to other characters
for whom the simple act of perambulation was
an end in itself. The cast includes Bertrand
Russell (“The secret of happiness is to understand
that the world is horrible, horrible,
horrible”), Charles Dickens, who composed A
Christmas Carol in his head in a series of nocturnal
ramblings in the winter of 1843, and
Plato, who came to learn that physical vigour
promotes intellectual vigour, and that the two
promote psychological vigour. The author emerges at the end a happier man
in this affable affair. “I did take pleasure in pitting
myself against these obstacles, day after
day, and overcoming them.” At Land’s End he
surfaces as a naive, everyday Nietzsche – the philosopher who proposed that life was about
accepting strife in order to overcome it. PATRICK WEST
Abolish elections and save democracy, says Patrick West
By David Van Reybrouck, Bodley Head, £9.99
Democracy today is in crisis. Never in modern history has there been more discontent with the democratic system in the West, with voter participation at the ballot box and party membership falling, and mistrust of politicians growing. Cynicism and apathy seem to abound.
Yet the appetite for democracy is stronger than ever, as the emergence of protest groups and counter-mainstream populist movements bear witness. How do we resolve this paradox?
One radical solution, put forward here by Van Reybrouck, is to abolish elections and have democracy by lot. Those who legislate should be chosen at random, he says, as a means to eliminate bickering, factionalism, media distortion and corruption and to erase the distinction between the governed and those who govern.
This is not as outlandish as it first sounds. After all, we still choose juries on this random principle. And democracy by “sortition” was the norm in ancient Athens and Renaissance Venice. Our mental association of “democracy” with “elections” is but a legacy of the American and French revolutions, which borrowed the concept of elections from the papacy, in order to retain landed interests in large nation states. More than 200 years later, elections and political parties still prop up our now tottering “elective aristocracies”, he says.
There are problems, though. Sortition might have worked in small, culturally and racially homogenous ancient city states, but may not be suited to today.
In response, Van Reybrouck argues that when citizens of all capabilities are brought together to make decisions that will affect their lives, they behave rationally and exchange wisdom and expertise.
Having served on a jury this year, I am well inclined to believe that ordinary citizens of all hues are well suited to making responsible, sound decisions. Far from being facetiously contrarian, as it initially presents itself, Against Elections makes a compelling argument indeed.