King Solomon is rightly regarded as a wise man.
Bearing testimony to this reputation is his Book of Proverbs, in which he repeatedly stresses the perils of pride (in the sense of hubris, not self-respect), the seventh and the gravest of the deadly sins.
Thus: “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”
This and many other similar adages teach a vital difference between intellect and wisdom. The former is usually part of the latter, but not necessarily the other way around.
Wisdom leavens intellect with a humble recognition of the limits of intellect. It thus acts as a safety valve of the mind, preventing it from too much folly and enabling it to be effective.
One wonders if European politicians ever dip into Scripture. I’m sure they don’t, for otherwise they would never have concocted an idea as unwise as the EU (or, for that matter, as criminal as communism, fascism and Nazism).
The problem goes deeper than just that awful contrivance. It also explains why England has had a much more successful political history than, say, Germany or France.
The English aren’t cleverer than the French or the Germans. But the English are wiser – they do appreciate the difference between wisdom and cleverness.
A widespread belief exists on the continent that a successful state can be built on a brilliant idea springing from the fecund minds of savants. Once that idea has taken shape, they feel, everything else will be a mere technicality.
Alas, the world seldom works that way, and politics never does. Organising and governing the life of a nation is a task with more facets than simple cogitation can ever fathom.
Brilliant men may knock their heads together and devise a perfect system for a perfect world. But no system can really be perfect because the world isn’t.
On the other hand, wise men, who may or may not be dazzlingly brilliant, know that people are fallible because they’re fallen.
Imperfect human nature will thus scupper any perfect political idea. Wise men realise that human agency can’t create heaven on earth. The best we can hope for is preventing hell on earth.
Germany and France, combined or perhaps even singly, might have produced as many or more brilliant statesmen than England. But they never produced as many wise ones – in fact, arguably they’ve hardly produced any.
Their statesmen have an exaggerated faith in both the power of the mind (especially their own) and the goodness of man. They really do take seriously Rousseau’s nonsense about man being perfect to begin with and ready to be tautologically perfected by clever teachers.
The noble sauvage, beautiful in its primordial virtue, is an idea that doesn’t stand up to even the most cursory empirical investigation. Solomon, on the other hand, knew that man has a good side and a bad one, and a wise government is one that encourages the former and discourages the latter.
A great mind has to construct a political picture of the world, one that makes it intelligible. But, if acting on its own power alone, it’ll fail every time. For this picture will paint the world not as it is, but as the brilliant mind wishes it to be.
Hubris takes over: a supremely intelligent man knows he’s cleverer than just about everyone he meets, individually. That leads him to the gross error of thinking that he understands something that mankind has never grasped, collectively.
He’s like a scientist who has so much faith in his hypothesis that he doesn’t care if it’s contradicted by empirical data.
The English political mind is the opposite of that. The English distrust the capacity of any man or small group, no matter how brilliant, to solve all the little problems of the world. No one but the English often use the word ‘clever’ pejoratively; no one else could have come up with the expression ‘too clever by half’.
The edifice of English government traditionally rested on what Burke described as prejudice, which is intuitive knowledge; prescription, which is truth passed on by previous generations; and presumption, which is inference from the common experience of mankind.
Thus the English have never organised their political life on the Damascene experience of any one man or group. It has always reflected a gradual and respectful accumulation of precedents – not only in law, but in every aspect of government.
A dispassionate, analytical look at what had worked over centuries and what hadn’t created the wisest and most stable government the world has ever known.
While seldom as fervently religious as most people on the continent used to be, the English borrowed from Scripture the notion of the sovereignty and intrinsic value of every individual, regardless of his wealth, status or intelligence.
Thus just government, as the English used to understand it, works from the bottom up, from low to high, from small to big. Its core unit is the individual and his immediate extension, his family.
It’s to this unit, and the local government built in its image, that wise governments devolve as much power as realistically possible. Localism, a maximum shortening of the distance between the governed and the government, is the essence of any just English government.
Centralism, the state assuming most power, is a profoundly un-English – and I dare say un-Western – way of running a country. That’s so not because it goes against the grain of some political theory, but because time and again it has been shown to be less effective and more tyrannical .
As the distance between the governed and the government increases, the former have less and less affinity for the latter, and the latter less and less affection for the former. Tectonic faults appear, and an earthquake may soon follow.
Empowering the state at the expense of the individual explains, more than anything else (such as more sophisticated killing technology), why more people were killed in the twentieth century than in all the previous centuries of recorded history combined.
While abandoning the founding tenets of our civilisation, modernity – even, alas, in England – has also discarded its political wisdom. Hence the modern tendency is to replace localism with centralism, which is to say replace the product of millennia’s worth of experience with an idea proved to be catastrophic.
The logical development of centralism is reductio ad absurdum: an urge to centralise political power within a supranational entity, thereby increasing even further the distance separating the government from the governed.
Hence the EU, a deeply flawed idea that lacks even the benefit of originality. For at least the past couple of centuries, clever Europeans have tried, in the words of T.S. Eliot, “to escape from the darkness outside and within by dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will have to be good.”
One such ‘perfect’ system is a supranational government that can dissolve all national identities, and therefore animosities, in a giant state ideally covering the whole world or just Europe to begin with.
Yet any attempt to come up with a United States of Europe will end up producing a Yugoslavia of Europe. Sooner or later individuals will realise they’re no longer sovereign, and even their national government isn’t.
A nationalist reaction is bound to follow, which may be violent and in any case will never be painless. The EU is thus a ship sailing for the rocks, with its skipper shouting “full speed ahead”.
Many clever continentals are capable of understanding this. But they won’t acknowledge it: their intellectual pride won’t let them. One doesn’t discern many Solomons in the European Commission.