Simon Blackburn: ‘‘The stresses of the modern world are only just beginning to show’’

The philosopher takes the NS Centenary Questionnaire.

What is the most important invention of the past 100 years?
The computer has to come rather high on the list. I suppose it’s a closely run thing between the computer and the aeroplane, but computers have made such a difference to life.

What is the most important scientific discovery of the past 100 years?
Probably quantum theory. The general theory of relativity was, I think, in 1915. But those two together should take pride of place. It introduced the field of probabilities as a fundamental fact of the world, instead of hard, “billiard ball” atoms. We are still trying to absorb the full meaning of that.

And sporting event?
I’m the wrong person to answer that. Andy Murray winning Wimbledon – how about that?

Which book, film, piece of music or work of art has had the greatest impact on you?
I’m not in the habit of growing lists of stuff, but I think as far as books go, almost certainly A Treatise of Human Nature, first published by David Hume in 1739. That’s the most important philosophical book in my life. Most works since can be seen as footnotes to Hume.

It’s quite difficult to separate out one painting. I keep coming back to small portraits. Leonardo’s portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci has always been very moving. There is also a wonderful Titian of a man called Alessandro [Cardinal] Farnese.

Who is the most influential or significant politician of the past 100 years?
If we are being British, I suppose we would have to say Mrs Thatcher. It’s a pity, but it’s probably true.

And author or playwright?
The playwright I’m not so sure about. Some people might say Harold Pinter but I’m not certain I agree. Perhaps Samuel Beckett. For an author . . . if I’m allowed to include philosophical authors, I would say Ludwig Wittgenstein. He introduced an important voice into the philosophical conversation. He brought pragmatism into the British mainstream, where it had not been before. Pragmatism was thought of as an American aberration.

And artist?
From the past century, one would have to cite Picasso. He changed so many genres of art.

How about someone in business?
I don’t think I know any. Perhaps the guy who invented Google.

And a sportsperson?
Muhammad Ali gave a certain kind of inspiration to a lot of people.

What about a philanthropist?
Are there many left? The funny thing is that some of the great philanthropists were Edwardian robber barons, such as Andrew Carnegie. They spent their lives sucking blood out of the poor, then thought to redeem themselves by giving it all back. In terms of this century, I would name Bill Gates.

What is your favourite speech?
I think the greatest speech of the 20th century is Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”. The rhetorical power is just amazing.

Do you have a favourite quotation?
Lines I find swimming through my head quite often are:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold . . .

It’s one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a lamentation on old age. I do feel old sometimes when I wake up in the morning.

What do you think will be the most significant change to our lives in the next 100 years?
I’m not really sure I envisage any significant change. I would like to see a period of relative stasis, so that people’s obsession with economic progress starts to become less obsessive.

What is your main concern for the future?
We are going to have to learn to do without all the energy that we have been depleting.

What will be the most dramatic development in your own field?
I think Anglo-American philosophy needs to become more practical and Continental philosophy needs to become more analytical. That would be very good for both sides.

What is the most important priority for the future well-being of people and our planet?
A return to an understanding of co-operative existence, away from the relentlessly competitive and individualistic ideologies that animate so much discussion these days.

The stresses of the modern world are only just beginning to show themselves. They include a few winners and all sorts of losers: the decline of the middle classes and of employment – and therefore hopelessness.

Hopelessness breeds war and all kinds of social ills – terrorism and so on.

Artwork by Ellie Foreman-Peck

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, iBroken

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt