Culture

Plato or Aristotle? Harry Styles’ Brexit dilemma

The One Direction star's nascent grounding in classical philosophy may have helped determine his Remainer outlook

BY Henry Williams | hen_wills   /  19 May 2017

Harry Styles was being too modest when he told the Sunday Times of his opposition to Brexit, “I’m not educated enough on the subject to really go toe-to-toe with someone… (but) I think what it symbolises is the opposite of the world I would like to be in.”

As a student of Socrates it is certainly becoming that Styles understands the true sign of wisdom is to admit you know nothing. But while he might have passed on sixth form for pop stardom, Styles’ intellectual curiosity and the great minds he’s met on his way, means that he is much better equipped to handle these bigger questions than he realises. 

In fact, Styles’ nascent grounding in philosophy and Platonism may even have helped determine his Remainer outlook.

Famously, Styles was introduced to classical political theory by Alain de Botton, the philosopher who is making an endearing habit of finding the inherent beauty in today’s bright young things.

A few years back the pair got into deep discussion about all things Ancient Greek, “We talk Plato, Aristotle, love and beauty,” de Botton gushed. Straight afterwards Harry shared his revision notes on Socrates to his 30 million Twitter followers, to the delight of classics teachers across the globe:

 

What is clear though is that Styles’ relationship with philosophy is strictly Platonic (much to philosophy’s chagrin one imagines).

While his Dialogues, painstakingly preserved for us through the Dark Ages when so much classical literature was lost, underpin so much of Western thought, it is fair to say that Plato, is not to everyone’s taste. Or as Rolling Stone magazine so memorably put it after the Brexit vote, “Plato, at least when it came to politics, was kind of a jerk“.

Looking at The Republic, it becomes clear that Plato’s view on democracy is about as permissive as Jean-Claude Juncker’s. Having witnessed the dying embers of Athenian democracy, Plato was of the opinion that people were far too wayward to be entrusted with a say in how they are run.

His lament amidst the ruins of the Peloponnesian War was that: “excess of liberty, whether it lies in state or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery.” This led him to the conclusion that the ideal Republic was a benign dictatorship ruled by philosopher kings. These would be on hand to temper the worst excesses of the masses, a concept one imagines the convenors of the Treaty of Rome, amidst the ashes of the Second World War wholeheartedly agreed.

With five presidents at the last count, today’s European Union also clearly does a good line in philosopher kings, perhaps suggesting why the can count on Harry Styles’ support. But if Harry could delve a little further into the back catalogue of ancient philosophy and compare Plato with his later successor Aristotle, perhaps his view would change. 

While he was not entirely egalitarian (he did have a paid gig tutoring the young prince Alexander the Great to consider), Aristotle was definitely on the side of the wisdom of crowds than the dispassionate technocrat when it came to politics.

Aristotle, like his putative crowds, realised that elites tended to serve their own interests rather than the masses, and their utopian schemes could quickly become, “deviant and unjust”. He certainly was not in favour of mob rule, but if it came to that against tyranny Aristotle was with the crowd all the way.  

This came to Aristotle’s central point that “man is a political animal”, owing to the human race’s habit of ordering ourselves into societies. The vast turnout for the Brexit vote would seem to confirm this. Passions were raised and everyone from Harry Styles to low-information voters had their say. When it came to political animals versus philosopher kings, the Brits were on the side of the masses.

So Harry shouldn’t be so modest, a Platonic/Aristotelian dynamic is being played out for better or worse across the globe right now and he is well placed to witness it and to comment. In fact looking at his post-One Direction career he should take the maxim displayed to all supplicants as they wound up the daunting hillside to the Oracle at Delphi: “Know thyself”.    

Having come out from under the wings of his fellow bandmates and being closely managed by Simon Cowell, Harry Styles is going solo and has never looked better for it. His first solo single was described as having shades of Bowie (admittedly on Twitter) and shot to number one, his acting career is about to kick off this summer, and he still has millions of adoring fans around the globe.

As the Sunday Times noted, Styles is experimenting with “being master of his own Universe,” and he is thriving. Now he has a bit more time in his hands maybe it’s time to dig out the classics and see that Brexit Britain can too.

Henry Williams is a freelance writer based in London.