Prime Movers: From Pericles to Gandhi – twelve great political thinkers and what’s wrong with each of them by Ferdinand Mount

On the back cover of Ferdinand Mount’s book stand the names of the great political thinkers he has written about, listed like the members of a cricket team: Pericles, Jesus, Rousseau, Smith, Burke, Jefferson, Bentham, Wollstonecraft, Mazzini, Marx, Gandhi, Iqbal.

What a pair of openers, but they bat right down the order. Muhammad Iqbal, the twelfth man, is almost certainly the least familiar figure to western readers. Born in the northern Punjab, he lived from 1877 to 1938, went to Trinity College, Cambridge, studied also in Heidelberg and Munich, became (in Mount’s words) “the greatest poet to write in Urdu after Ghalib, and one of the greatest to write in Persian since Hafiz”, and is today “revered as the man who invented the idea of Pakistan, and who gave hope to Muslims everywhere”.

Mount begins his account of Iqbal with a bravura account of the collapse of Muslim power at the end of the First World War:

“For us in the West, the implosion of the Russian, the Austro-Hungarian and the German Empires within a year of each other was such a relentless, all-consuming spectacle that we had little attention left to spare for the fourth collapse. Yet today, a hundred years later, it is the fallout from the end of the Ottoman Empire that haunts us.”

There follows a tremendous exposition of Iqbal’s thought, liberally illustrated with his poetry: “What Iqbal worships is Muslim power and what he mourns is its loss.”

This wonderful poet, so eloquent and learned, his language “sweetly lyrical, caustic, sulphurous and soaring”, becomes an admirer of the Wahhabi, “the hard men of the Arabian desert”. His early translators and reviewers saw what had happened. E.M.Forster, writing in the Athenaeum in December 1920, noted, correctly, that Iqbal has been inspired by Nietzsche, and went on:

“He tries to find, in that rather shaky ideal of the Superman, a guide through the intricacies of conduct. His couplets urge us to be hard and live dangerously, tigers, not sheep; we are to beware of those sheep who, fearing our claws, come forward with the doctrine of vegetarianism…we are to shun culture. And though love is indeed good, it has nothing to do with Mercy.”

Iqbal, as Mount says, has “thrown his enormous prestige behind a terrifying idea”. He is “a forerunner of the frightful rhetoric and practice of Islamic terrorists today”.

Each of these 12 essays, average length 30 pages, acts as an enlargement of its subject. Mount has an ability not to be over-impressed by greatness, but at the same time to delight in it – an unusual combination of qualities.

He is impertinent and admiring, amused and reverent, fierce and gentle, all within the same essay. He stretches out a long arm, picks up some other thought from a distant time or culture, and places it next to the person he is writing about, to the benefit of both. He never tries to say everything, a sure recipe for being dull.

And he does not take refuge in paraphrase. He quotes extensively from the people he is writing about, so they can speak directly to us. As Mount says,

“All too often the devoted disciple, and even the supposedly impartial historian of ideas…succumbs to what I call ‘the fatal blandishing’. He or she smoothes out the wrinkles, ignores or underplays the contradictions, homogenises the message. I call this a ‘blandishing’ not merely in the usual sense of smooth flattery, but to describe a process of making bland.”

Mount does not pretend to be impartial. In his opinion, “You often cannot help noticing the sheer unpleasantness of Pericles”, an imperialist who led Athens into a disastrous war, emboldened – as self-proclaimed democrats often are – by his sense of moral superiority, which meant he refused to reach reasonable accommodations with his city’s rivals, but set out to crush them.

The good side of Pericles – lauded, Mount remarks, by Boris Johnson “in a mixture of hero worship and self-worship” – receives somewhat cursory treatment, and yields to an account of why the credit for Athenian democracy belongs in other hands.

Edmund Burke gets more sympathetic treatment, as a persistent defender of the underdog, and of just causes which have not yet become fashionable. Mount quotes from the second, less often cited speech in which Burke with magnificent contempt defied his constituents, who were intent on deselecting him because of his support for the American rebels, because he had ignored their opinions on many other subjects too, and because he had not even visited them for the last four years:

“Gentlemen, I live at an hundred miles distance from Bristol; and at the end of a session I come to my own house, fatigued in body and mind, to a little repose, and to a very little attention to my family and my private concerns. A visit to Bristol is always a sort of canvas; else it will do more harm than good. To pass from the toils of a session to the toils of a canvas is the furthest thing in the world from repose. I could hardly serve you as I have done, and court you too… I did not obey your instructions. No. I conformed to the instructions of truth and nature, and maintained your interest, against your opinions, with a constancy that became me.”

Will any modern MP, reproached for defying his or her constituents’ opinions about Europe, issue such a trenchant defence? Not surprisingly, the Bristolians got rid of Burke.

These 12 essays need not be read together; are so rich that they are best read separately, each serving as an introduction, or reintroduction, to the thinker under discussion. For Mount is not proposing here some grand theory. He follows Isaiah Berlin in maintaining that no such theory exists. Principles conflict with each other – a point accepted by Burke in his quieter moments. So here are Mount’s final words:

“Politics may sometimes be about brotherhood, or equality or free enterprise or national identity, but it is always about the reconciliation of principles that do not fit together. The zealot will denounce every compromise or trade-off as a sell-out. Yet trading off is no betrayal; it is itself a principle and an overarching one. I’d go further. The trade-off is not just a grubby necessity; it is the noblest part of the politician’s vocation.”

Theresa May is incapable of putting the point so eloquently, but this is what she is just now trying to do.