The literacy of leaders

In the 360s BC, Plato understood that politics and philosophy each have their own logic. Invited to Sicily by his pupil Dion to talk philosophy with the tyrant of Syracuse Dionysus I, Plato clashed with the latter, and almost died trying to escape back to Athens. He made two further journeys back to Sicily, hoping to awaken in the tyrants of Syracuse (Dionysus II and then Dion) the principles of his political philosophy. It didn’t work. Instead, Plato ended up risking his life again each time.  The myth of the philosopher-king was filing for bankruptcy.

Plato may have set the bar a bit too high for future generations of leaders. Philosopher-kings, keep dreaming, how about literate kings? The record of European literacy of leaders is rather low. The Roman emperors were admittedly literate, but Marcus Aurelius stands out alone in his ability to ground late ancient leadership in philosophical thought. It is remarkable that no premodern European leader reflected on leadership. It was left to thinkers, historians and theologians to build political theories and extract the principles of leadership.

The literacy of political leaders was at its lowest in the medieval period. The Germanic kings which filled the power vacuum left by the Romans didn’t have time for literacy – most couldn’t read or write. We remember the English king Alfred for his role in the translation of parts of the Bible into Old English also because the backdrop is so dire: Charlemagne himself never quite managed to write properly, his biographer Einhard informs us, though he decried the low levels of literacy among his clergy.

The ancient and medieval model of leadership was disconnected from questions of literacy, philosophy and intellectual performance. Other things were required of European political leaders. The enlightened absolutism of the 18th and 19th centuries may have temporarily destabilised the old model, but it never quite managed to make power, knowledge and wisdom collide fruitfully in the person of the European political leader.

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