Skip to main content

British politics

The Victorians were right to cultivate the soul

Rishi Sunak’s alumni profile from Stanford Business School lists his interests as “Star Wars, sports and the history of Coca-Cola”, says James Marriott in The Times, and this Christmas the PM tells us he will be watching Love Actually. Nothing wrong with any of that. But compare it to William Gladstone, that “pre-eminent Victorian”, whose turbulent psychology was fed by a vast and eclectic mix of literature, ideas and poetry. He wrote books on theology and Homer. “He chopped down trees. He collected china.” He spent part of his first year as chancellor studying a book about pistols called On the Application of Machining to the Manufacture of Rotating Chambered-Breech Fire Arms and their Peculiarities. “Nobody knows why.”

The important contrast is not between two men but between “two eras and two attitudes”. In our age of rigorous “self-optimisation”, everybody’s abs must be toned in the gym and their “bowels cleansed with smoothies of exotic concoction”. Any inner turbulence is to be “smoothed away” with meditation, therapy, or the “digital sedatives of Netflix and TikTok”. The Victorians, by contrast, believed in the cultivation of the soul – “with poetry, with enthusiasms, with knowledge pursued for its own sake”. Their aspiration to imbibe “the best that has been thought and said” has been worn away by “modern suspicions of snobbery and prejudice”. But confronted with a prime minister who describes Coca-Cola as one of his cultural interests, “you may begin to wonder whether there might be something to be said for such snobbery”.