May 17: stop playing with those matches, nero

After a certain age it is very difficult to change habits. They have become ingrained. You see it when you try teaching people languages. They have been doing something wrong for years and they need to do violence to themselves to snap out of it. The business of trying to change the thought processes of the young, or at least challenge them, has an fascinating and mostly unsuccesful history. Alexander the Great was tutored by Aristotle with particular lessons on Homer’s Illiad, so much so that Alexander slept with a copy under his pillow. We don’t know if the lessons concerned warcraft or statecraft or whether his later life of frenzied invasion and conquering was influenced by the renowned philosopher-tutor. Dionysius of Syracuse, infamous for his tyrannical cruelty, had Plato as an advisor. But there again when you read Plato’s Republic he would have all the poets locked up, so perhaps the influence did work here. Seneca was tutor to Nero. This was probably not a wild success. If I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times, Nero, stop playing with those matches. Montaigne had some mentorship of Henri IV of France. Here maybe a score to the tutors. Did Voltaire’s presence at the court of Frederick the Great help encourage the Enlightenment strains in the Prussian ruler? Or was it just window dressing? Because mostly, when push comes to shove, the man or boy in power will go their own merry way. The preservation of wealth and power is not always an ethical process and a blind eye and a blind ear are de rigeur for the apprentice ruler. The job of the teacher is to bring whiffs of the real world of the lives of others into the hermetically sealed universe of the rich and powerful. And today’s rich and powerful are closeted off from the experiences of the rest almost as much as Dionysius of Syracuse. Like so many other services, the cleaning or the laundry, the education of the privileged offspring is outsourced to the tutor, the ghost-writer, the secretary. The little masters of the universe are learning what they need to learn; that with a credit card you get others to do stuff.

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