Book review: Ghosts of Empire
October 4, 2011
I haven’t done a book review on this blog before, largely because I only get round to reading new books years after everyone else. However, the argument put forward in Kwasi Kwarteng’s first book is interesting in the context of ideas and themes I’ve been discussing for some time.
Kwarteng’s book is an overview of the British Empire, told through a series of pen portraits of the nations, characters, intrigue and wars that comprise the Empire’s history. It is a story told with one eye on the present: the book covers Iraq, Kashmir, Burma, the Sudan, and a range of other notorious flashpoints, all of which, the book successfully argues, came about as a result of the capricious nature of the Imperial system itself. This capriciousness was not wrought of incoherent and vicious individuals; rather, the very individualism inherent in the Empire produced often contradictory and conflicting policies depending on who happened to be in charge at the time.
For example, in Sudan, right up until independence the British pursued a very specific Southern Policy intended to ensure that the largely African south of the country remained free from Arab and Islamic influence. This policy entailed restricting Islamic missionary work and promoting Christianity in its place, as well as constraining trade with the north. The two halves of Sudan were never homogeneous, but this policy served to drive home cultural and ethnic distinctions between both halves of the country. At independence the policy was ignored, welding together extremely different cultures into a single state.
Kwarteng attributes this policy incoherence to the individualism of the Empire; to the power of governors to reverse previous policies and to London’s reliance on the ‘man-on-the-spot’. He claims that the Empire had no overriding ideology, the absence of which engendered this incoherence.
I do not think Kwarteng’s analysis necessarily bears out this last point. The individualism of the Empire is clear; the classism inherent in it is also clear – the ruling class was drawn from a small pool of public schools and Oxbridge graduates, mainly of History or the Classics. However, I would like to argue that this very approach can be considered an ideology, that rampant individualism connected with an emphasis on character building does, in itself, constitute an ideological approach to Empire.
In order to understand why this is the case, we must ask why history and the classics were preferred subjects. The science of Government is not necessarily read from history, nor is it always found in the work of the poets of antiquity. Kwarteng seems to think that an understanding of an alien culture (inasmuch as ancient Greece and Rome are alien) was the reason behind the clear preference for these subjects in the ranks of the Imperial Civil Service. That may be the case, but there is an additional factor worthy of consideration, one which Kwarteng makes reference when he jokingly describes the Imperial Civil Service as viewing itself rather like Plato’s philosopher-kings. Kwarteng is looking in slightly the wrong direction in this reference. Rather, he should be considering the role of Aristotle in the education of the men who ran the Empire.
Aristotle’s ethics are very much about the development of character. They describe the virtues that should be cultivated as an aid to both happiness and effective judgement. It is this ‘cultivation’ which is key: this is not a morality that prescribes particular actions in particular situations; instead it is an ethics by which one is intended to govern one’s own development as a person, so one becomes more likely to act with virtue. Cultivation entails avoiding both excess and deficiency of virtue in a sphere of action, but does not say, “Thou shalt do so-and-so when such a thing happens;” rather, a particular action is a combination of one’s cultivation of the self and the circumstances surrounding it. You are not a moral agent at the moment of action – your moral agency occurs in reflection in between actions, when you determine how best to organise your future judgements under the heading of virtue.
A moral individual in this view, therefore, is one who has cultivated virtues and excellences to the point where they can be relied upon to act in a virtuous way. It is from this viewpoint that the insistence on ‘character-building’ within the British educational institutions that supplied the officers of the Empire can be understood: they are intended to provide individuals who can be relied on to act effectively and morally. The paragons of the Victorian age, as Kwarteng points out, were individuals who had cultivated their own character to a high degree of proficiency in martial and moral arts. They could be relied upon precisely because they had gone through an educational system designed to develop individuals virtuous in an Aristotelian sense, to develop the propensity of those individuals to make effective judgements to a high standard. This fostering of judgement covers every sphere of action – it is no coincidence that the word Aristotle uses for virtue, arete, can also be translated as ‘excellence’.
Those who studied Classics – who would as a matter of course hence reflect on their own virtue, and moreover on the effectiveness of their judgement – would be the highest products of this system, a system designed to encourage the development of a cultivated character. This all sounds rather lofty and intellectual, but the development of effective moral judgement must be considered in the context of what actually works, what is effective in achieving the goals of the complex web of virtues and principles of the individual in question. How virtuous can you be when a housemaster has tossed you into an icy lake to ‘build character’? It’s not the act itself that builds virtue, rather reflection upon it afterwards; virtues and excellences designed to work in real-world situations, rather than particular moral tropes.
Kwarteng makes reference to the resentment by the British of intellectuals and ‘effendis’ in the colonies, people described as of ‘weak character’. This must be understood in the context of the Aristotelian pragmatic school of virtue and excellence: there is a range of actions open to you in a situation and your decision upon which to take is decided by the virtues and excellences you have cultivated. Talking about morality without this personal context is, from this point of view, a waste of time. Morality can only be understood with reference to the man-on-the-spot. If he is of bad character, he can be condemned for it.
We can, if we wish to push this further, also understand the Empire’s classism from this perspective. Aristotelian virtues are designed for the Greek aristocracy, and contain virtues which may seem surprising today. A particular example is magnificence – spending one’s wealth temperately, but not miserly and without being gaudy or showy. Rappers and footballers would certainly fall under the ‘excess’ heading for this particular virtue. However, it is clearly a virtue only open to the rich: there is a presumption in Aristotle that only aristocrats are capable of virtue. In this context, the justification for classism becomes clear: surely the virtuous should reign over the non-virtuous? In addition, the ‘natural leaders’ identified amongst colonised populations as surrogates for British rule appear to have been regarded in this context, as having developed the character necessary for governing.
Kwarteng’s book is well-written and fascinating, and for anyone even remotely interested in the British Empire, I urge you to go and buy it. It is especially noteworthy for highlighting the Empire’s individualism, an individualism which, in prizing individual character, laid the seeds of its own downfall. Aristotle’s virtues belong to a different age, and the cultivation of one’s character and judgement is something that should be open to all. Certainly, it is something at which our educational system should aim. I am not confident that it currently does so, given that celebrity can apparently be achieved without cultivation of judgement at all. Kwarteng’s book is in many ways the story of how a clutch of public schools took over a quarter of the world. Imagine the possibilities for Britain if every one of our citizens was free to cultivate their own set of virtues.