On the shoulders of giants

Peter Acton


Peter Acton has an MA in classics from Oxford, an MBA from Stanford, where he was a Harkness Fellow and an Arjay Miller Scholar, and a PhD in ancient history from Melbourne University. He was a vice-president of the Boston Consulting Group for 13 years. He is a fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and the Australian Institute of Management, and a member of the Peter McCallum Research Advisory Board and of the Industry Advisory Board of the Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation at Melbourne University. Peter’s book Poiesis: manufacturing in classical Athens was published by Oxford University Press in October 2014. He is founding president of Humanities 21, a group whose objective is to bring academics who work in the humanities closer to the community and especially to business.


Peter Acton’s essay stresses the value of a broad education and perspective in public life. Events and challenges are never unprecedented and we can learn much about the way to deal with them from traditional disciplines like history, literature and philosophy. History teaches how to recognise patterns, motivations and likely outcomes; literature helps us understand how others think and improves our ability to communicate; and philosophy makes us consider some of the most profound questions mankind has been able to conceive as well as helping us to make and recognise logical arguments. Other benefits of a deep familiarity with these disciplines are the respect it commands from others, the ability to make more interesting conversation on a wide range of topics, and never being bored if you have nothing much to do.


We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.

—John of Salisbury



It is one of life’s sad ironies that, unless you aim to be a famous scientist or doctor (and, let’s face it, those are quite rare), being an expert in specific disciplines does not really help you succeed in public life. This is not to say that real world experience is not important—of course it is; and its absence sometimes shows!—but rather, that a broad perspective is more important to success than mastery of any specific field of knowledge. Of course you will need to acquire some professional skills if you are to make a valuable contribution to the public debate; many people believe studying law provides a good grounding for a politician, and everyone should understand basic accounting (which is actually much simpler than universities and business schools want us to believe); actuarial studies have their uses, as do micro-economics and some of the buzzword-laden pretend disciplines like marketing and finance. But to think you can base a successful career in public life on being exceptionally adept in any of these fields is a big mistake. No-one respects you for being especially knowledgeable and, to the extent that those matters inform your daily conversation, you will be considered a crashing bore.

More to the point, this sort of expertise gives you no ability at all to rise above the banality of daily chatter, to see where common perspectives are misguided or limited or to bring wit and insight to debates that so quickly become sterile and unproductive. The world needs people who think differently. The leaders we admire are the men and women who inspire us with their vision of what we can become. They offer us a special insight into the human condition and help us to rise above the petty problems that bedevil us from day to day. Technical expertise might make you good at carrying out other people’s ideas, but true leaders inspire others to carry out their own. To be truly educated in the way a leader needs to be, you must work with truly great ideas. Just as it is important for an aspiring statesman or stateswoman to get some different experiences before entering politics, it is no less important to take advantage of the wonderful fact that those who have gone before us offer marvellous material to work with.

Thinking differently does not mean you need to develop your own answers to every question. This is a challenge beyond even the smartest people; even they are likely to get more things wrong than right if they try to solve every problem from scratch. It is also quite unnecessary because no questions are really new; they have all been confronted before in some form by great minds over many generations. The most powerful ideas come from building on what has gone before. All species pass on their genes and their behaviours but, as far as we can tell, humans are the only ones who can pass on abstract ideas. To try to confront major issues without learning from all the powerful thinking that has already been done is like trying to build an automobile without knowing about the wheel or the internal combustion engine. Your own 140-character diagnostic of the world’s problems is unlikely to be much better—or more memorable—than Kim Kardashian’s unless it is grounded in some real wisdom. The world has spent many millennia accumulating wisdom. It is dumb not to use it.

Let me give you some examples. It has become a commonplace lament that democracy today is broken. This may be true, although different people seem to mean different things when they say this—often simply that democracy is not working according to their personal preferences. To understand how and why democracy may not be working—or whether it was always doomed as Plato believed it was—there are few better starting points than the study of the French Revolution. Read the great thinkers of the French Enlightenment like Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu and Diderot whose ideas led up to it. Explore the stimulating disagreement between Fox and Burke about whether it was good or bad. You’ll not only be better informed than most of today’s political commentators in their comfortable echo chambers; you might actually be in a position to make original suggestions as to what could be done about problems in today’s democratic processes.

We can consider a more specific problem (and I select this example at random to illustrate the larger point). One thing that certainly seems broken, in Australia at least, is the relationship between the citizenry and our various police forces. Putting this in the context of why we have a police force in the first place might make for a more informed assessment of what has gone wrong. In ancient Athens when a breach of the peace occurred, our sources’ descriptions of the event invariably include the words ‘and a crowd came running’. There were two reasons for the crowd to come running: first, in the absence of a police force it was up to the citizen body to maintain or restore the peace; second, Athens had a well-developed legal system and, whatever the problem was, it would probably result in a court case and a need for witnesses. These are the functions that are now delegated to a police force and this delegation is hard to reconcile with, say, the fact that they always seem too busy to investigate straightforward burglaries or to intervene in cases of domestic violence. On the other hand, the helpful bobby on the corner has been replaced by large teams preparing for a traffic light failure in the city centre, or exploiting a chance of imposing fines for what can often seem to be immeasurably trivial motoring offences. A historical understanding of why police forces were established might help us move from outraged bafflement to identifying constructive solutions.

History is not just a collection of facts about the past, informative though some of them can be. It is a chronicle of how our species emerged from primitive internecine competition for resources and learned to live together. It has not been a smooth journey and it is not over yet. History tells of the adventures, vicissitudes, horrors and disasters that we have made for ourselves along the way. It is not strictly true to say that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it; events seldom repeat themselves exactly, but we can learn to recognise the principles and patterns that have shaped our past. Understanding how things have gone wrong—the underlying dynamics of wars, genocides, revolutions and other man-made disasters—at least improves our chances of avoiding or preventing the same mistakes in future. Greater familiarity with the history of the Middle East would surely have made us more circumspect about joining the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Beyond this, history helps us to see things in perspective. No-one who has studied some of the terrible things our ancestors did to each other can fail to recognise the fragility of our common humanity and the need to work to preserve it; surely this could usefully play a more important role in our discussions on how to manage the world’s refugees.

Great literature reinforces this powerful form of empathy. Read Homer’s account of how Achilles sulked at the way his boss treated him and was only shaken back into action by the untimely killing of his best friend Patroclus. Go and see King Lear’s anguish at the greed and ingratitude of his daughters and his agony at realising that one of them had truly loved him, but that he had misunderstood her. Laugh at the bumbling antics of Don Quixote; tremble at the mental torments of the murderer Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and punishment. Feel the haunting emptiness of TS Eliot’s The love song of J Alfred Prufrock, or the despair in the debtors prison in Dickens’ Little Dorrit or the dungeons of Hugo’s Les Misérables, and I defy you to treat your fellow beings with anything but respect. And respecting others is the first step to teaching them to respect you.

Leading well is hard. It means acting with calm conviction and purpose rather than reacting fearfully to the next event that upsets your original plan. You need a clear and considered view on what life is all about. It might not be too much to suggest that anyone aspiring to leadership should have wrestled personally with the greatest question that has ever confronted mankind: why do we exist? This means moving beyond the comfortable tautologies of religion—and, no less importantly, the smug and juvenile name-calling of the modern atheist movement—and applying one’s own mind to the terrifying uncertainty posed by the very fact of our presence on earth. You may not resolve it—in fact I bet you won’t—but your views on the kind of life we should be leading will be much richer and more inspiring to others when you have tried. Lucretius, St Anselm and Nietzsche would be good places to start. If that seems daunting you could try Jim Holt’s new book, Why does the world exist?, which summarises the main arguments, ancient and modern, in a very readable way and encourages the sort of intellectual humility that great leaders have always shown and that is sadly lacking in most of today’s discussions on this most important subject of all. Recognising that, whatever your beliefs or your achievements, you scarcely matter in the great scheme of things, gives you the calmness and perspective that people look for in a leader.

One of the most valuable benefits of studying the great writers and thinkers of the past is that they knew how to express themselves well. How often do we hear vigorous arguments in which both parties appear to be talking about different subjects and neither side appears to be responding to the other one’s points? How often do we listen to lengthy and emotion-laden diatribes consisting of a confused list of propositions that manage to be repetitive, contradictory and irrelevant all at the same time? In contrast, how refreshing it is to hear someone make a case in which their point is simple and clear and evidently supported by all the arguments they bring to bear! And how rare! A great leader needs to know how make a case cogently and powerfully, to know what constitutes evidence and what is special pleading, to rely not on appeals to the emotions (useful though they can sometimes be) but on the integrated and carefully articulated logic of a well-thought-out position. Study the greats that have gone before you and clear argumentation will become second nature. You will also find it much easier to tell when you are being taken for a ride and when someone is deliberately confusing the issue.

This is more important now than ever, when the old certainties are disappearing and we are constantly buffeted by a bewildering array of media with no way of knowing what we can trust. Serious media outlets used to aspire to be seen as ‘newspapers of record’ that met high journalistic standards and provided the facts in a balanced way. Now it is hard to tell whether seemingly reputable media outlets are any more objective than an anonymous personal blog. No one was very surprised when the Huffington Post of 23 May 2012 reported a US survey’s conclusion that watchers of Fox News were ‘significantly’ less informed about current affairs than people who watched no news at all. The left of politics also has its one-eyed reporting platforms. The world needs people who can bring perspective and balance and it is desperately seeking leaders who can provide them in a way we can all understand.

Aspiring leaders owe it to their followers to be lively and interesting. No-one will die in a ditch for a bore. Nor will they follow you with any conviction if they have to be bullied or cajoled into doing what you want, rather than wanting to do it because they enjoy your company, your ideas and your conversation. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all looked forward to meetings because we knew people there were going to say interesting things? A great leader is a person people want to have around. Everyone likes to be around people who can talk with knowledge and passion about the great events, people and ideas that have gone before us.

You also need to have fun yourself. Public life is tough and you need forms of relaxation that are admirable (or at least not disgraceful) and absorbing; that will make you a happier, more relaxed—maybe even a better—person. Perhaps the most compelling reason for studying the world’s greatest thinkers and writers is that you owe it to yourself not to miss out. I confess I came late in life to Dante, Milton and Goethe. Like so many others I was deterred by the thought that reading them would be hard work and not worth the effort. I could not have been more wrong. They were not writing for an audience of elitist intellectuals; in fact if they had been aiming only to impress their clever friends they would never have achieved their status in the human pantheon. They appealed to all levels within their society. The first people to listen to Homer’s songs and most of the original audiences of Shakespeare’s plays could neither read nor write. What the great writers have to say is timeless and moving, irrespective of the status, intellect or personal interests of their audience. The greats are ‘great’ because they are great! Make the most of them and they will make the most of you.