Friday, 28 March 2008

Back in the UK, and mirrors for princes.

I arrived back from Poland on Wednesday night, exhausted but happy to have enjoyed some time in a very cool city - Krakow. I expected somewhere very different to other European cities. In terms of day to day life, security, getting around easily, and the atmosphere in pubs, cafes and restaurants, it is up there with the very best of them. We spent our first evening in a very hip bar off the main market square that felt a lot like the typical student hang-outs in Dublin's city centre. The clientèle certainly reminded me of the crowds that fall out of bars on the Parliament Street end of Temple Bar. I felt bad for arriving without a word of Polish, but nobody minded, and when I apologised in a bar for having to speak in English, the response was, "You can't learn all the languages, and we only have to learn yours".

And now for a totally unrelated train of thought. My work at the moment is returning me to an area that I have not looked at for about two years; the 'Mirrors for Princes' genre. They exist in some form right on into the Renaissance and beyond, but I have really only read about the medieval variations. They're tracts in which a cleric or philosopher advises a prince on how to live and how to rule - one of the most famous being the pseudo-Aristotelian Secretum Secretorum (translated into English from Arabic in the twelfth century), in which Alexander the great benefits from the wisdom of none other than Aristotle himself. The 'Mirror' genre tends to focus on three core areas - first control of the self (that is, the prince), second control of family and household, and thirdly control of the kingdom or state, generally speaking in that order. I've been doing some thinking about this, and wonder whether we have an equivalent literature in the modern world, and what forms it takes. 'Molehill Politics' ( ) in this weeks New York Review of Books focuses on the rather different campaign styles of Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton in the ongoing race for the Democratic nomination in the United States, and wonders whether their actions now can tell us something about how they might govern. Bill Clinton famously suffered from the apparent assumption that ones actions in the home, as it were, reflect or influence a leader's actions in the world. Perhaps, then we continue to divide our advice to rulers into spheres of self control (public image and appearance), household control (personal life) and state control (good governance).

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