Where Leo Strauss grew up

Back in July, I went to a conference on ‘Reading Between The Lines: Leo Strauss and the History of Early Modern Philosophy’, in Marburg, Germany. After the conference finished, some of us took a trip to Kirchhain, the little town where Leo Strauss was born and grew up. Many thanks to Thomas Meyer (Munich), who organised the trip to Kirchhain and is writing a biography of Strauss that sounds like it’s going to be a must-read.

I’ve previously posted a picture of Strauss aged 12, and I’ll post a couple more pictures at some point, but here are some pictures of Strauss-related buildings in Kirchhain:

The house where Strauss was born

The house where Strauss was born

The house where Strauss grew up

The house where Strauss grew up

The school where Strauss went

The school where Strauss went

The synagogue where Strauss and his family went

The synagogue where Strauss and his family went

Some of the buildings that the Strauss family owned (for businesses including furniture-making, I think)

Some of the buildings that the Strauss family owned (for businesses including furniture-making, I think)

























How to present a BBC documentary

If you want to present a BBC documentary, you need to (1) use excessive, random hand movements, or (2) emphasise your R’s in a rrrreally irrritating way.

Here are some examples.


(1) Excessive, random hand movements

— Michael Mosley, The Genius of Invention — 

Watch the first 45 seconds of this clip to see how Michael puts his excessive hand movements in nearly all of the wrong places. By contrast, the excessive hand movements of his co-presenters, Cassie Newland and Mark Miodownik, are in the right places. No future for them as TV presenters, I’m afraid.

— Simon Sebag Montefiore, Rome: A History of The Eternal City — 

Watch 41.18 to 41.25 of this clip, where Simon gesticulates excessively at nearly every word in the sentence, before putting his exhausted hand in his pocket for the only word in the sentence that actually needed any emphasis.

At 53.40 of the same clip, Simon is holding a book, which appears to overload his brain, causing hand-mouth coordination to go totally haywire. Again, Simon’s hand is too tired to gesticulate by the end of the sentence.

The hand-waving approach to TV documentaries is brilliant parodied by David Mitchell here.


(2) Emphasising your R’s in a rrrreally irrrritating way

— Evan Davies, Dragon’s Den — 

In the last few series of Dragons’ Den, Evan has changed ‘dragons’ to ‘dRRRagons’. I can’t find a clip of the actual programme online, but you can hear him say ‘dRRRagons’ on this clip, at 12 seconds, and even more irrrritatingly at 23 seconds. But revealingly, he forgets to do it at 26 seconds – and I’m pretty sure that is how he used to say the word, in the good old days.

Sorry if I’ve now spoiled the programme for you!

— Jim Al-Khalili, Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity — 

At 3.35 of this clip, hear Jim Al-Khalili say that Michael Faraday “was surrounded by the gRRReat and the good, and he was about to listen to one of the gRRReatest scientific minds of the age” (3.35).

(I have a sudden urge to eat a bowl of Frosties.)

— Howard Goodall —

The king of R-rolling is Howard Goodall, who really doesn’t need to do it: unlike most TV presenters he has a sufficiently dynamic voice that he doesn’t need such gimmicks. He barely does it in his most recent series, The Story of Music, but you can hear it from time to time in his earlier series, as at 20.47 and 20.52 of this clip. Twice in five seconds … surely a touch rrrridiculous?


Please add more examples in the Comments, below. I’m particularly interested to know if there are any TV presenters who do both of these things at the same time.

I don’t want to sound churlish: TV presenters need to do a bit of this kind of thing. Watch Michael Ashcroft presenting Heroes of the Skies and you will see a nice impression of a block of wood.

And it’s not just TV presenters who need to do a bit of this. I pepped up my lecturing style after I saw a video of myself lecturing several years ago – standing still behind a lectern, looking and sounding boring.

Politicians, too. I’m pretty sure I remember Iain Duncan Smith being given body-language training about a year into his leadership of the Conservative party, in a failed attempt to make him seem more charismatic; but he wasn’t very good at it, and I remember one interview where he droned on while his hands did a bizarre tango. He’s got the hang of it now: excessive hand movements, but in the right places (e.g. at 30 seconds onwards of this interview).

When saying “I’m responsible” is an evasion of responsibility

We often complain that not many people take responsibility any more, but  sometimes saying that you take responsibility may actually allow you to evade responsibility.

One example came after Chelsea football club’s surprising 2-1 home defeat to Basel in the men’s Champions’ League tournament last night. After the match, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said:

When we lose I don’t speak about the players or individuals, I speak about my responsibility. I am responsible.

It’s costless for Mourinho to say this. He knows that whether or not he says things like this, he’ll get sacked if the results aren’t good enough, even if it’s his players’ fault. Think about petulant teenage-impressionist Gerard Houllier, blaming his players before he got sacked as France coach and after he got sacked as Liverpool coach. It made no difference and he would have been better off going out graciously.

Moreover, by saying what he said, Mourinho can avoid saying why Chelsea lost and thus who, if anyone, was responsible. Was it his team selection? The quality of players available? The formation? The referee? Did particular players mess up? Bad luck? His comment that “I am responsible” amounts to saying “I am sackable but I’m not going to say who was culpable”.

I am responsible, ergo I evade responsibility.

Mourinho is of course quite right to say what he did: from his comments on the video at this link, it sounds as if he did think that one or more players didn’t play well, but that he is trying to shield them in public. Fine – that is his job and, usually, the right thing to do.

My complaint, in fact, is as much about the BBC’s reporting of this story as Mourinho’s comments. The BBC’s actual headline is “Jose Mourinho takes blame for Chelsea defeat to Basel”. A more accurate headline would have been “Jose Mourinho avoids saying who was to blame for Chelsea defeat to Basel”.

Or how about this one: “Journalist falls for Jose Mourinho’s comment that he was responsible for Chelsea defeat to Basel”. Not as punchy, but more accurate.


UPDATE (21 September 2013): in response to my criticisms, clearly, Mourinho has clarified his position, noting that his players are taking time to adapt to his style, and criticising Juan Mata for not showing enough adaptability.

So, my basic points still stand: we can evade responsibility by pretending to take responsibility, and we shouldn’t always take statements about responsibility at face value. But I was too harsh about Mourinho: he has actually been laudably clear about the situation, in suggesting that Chelsea’s form is in part a natural response to a change of style, and that at least one player isn’t changing fast enough.

Teachers who inspired me as an undergraduate, part 4: Mark Goldie

This is my fourth and final post about teachers who inspired me as an undergraduate.

Mark Goldie taught me just once, for a supervision on Hobbes, but had a lasting impact – not because he inspired me to study Hobbes (my love for Hobbes came later) but because of how he taught me. If I remember rightly, the supervision itself lasted 90 minutes rather than an hour, and Goldie pushed me hard on my understanding of Hobbes. But what had most effect on me was his astonishingly detailed and constructively critical comments on my essay. He read the essay with great care, and then wrote pencil numbers in the margins and typed out a comment for each number.

Mark Goldie, with the first six volumes of his feedback to students

Mark Goldie, with the first six volumes of his feedback to students.

This was the only time in four years of my undergraduate education that anyone commented in detail both on the substance of my argument and also on how I wrote the essay itself. I clearly took Goldie’s comments seriously: my notes contain responses in four different pens, implying that I probably read through his comments four times.

You can see Goldie’s feedback below. Some comments are very blunt, and he has since told me that he wouldn’t have done this unless he thought I would respond appropriately. And of course, the comments were also explained in the one-on-one supervision process.











When I started teaching, I used Goldie’s approach for feedback. Alas, I have sometimes given blunter feedback, and have not been as sensitive as Goldie to how different students would respond. I’m still learning about teaching!

Goldie didn’t entirely stop my quirky, bizarre essays: that got kicked out of me in Oxford by Adam Swift, Mark Philp, Clive Payne and Anthony Heath (the last of whom told me to remove all adjectives from my writing!). But Goldie started me on the right track. My undergraduate teaching wasn’t nearly as good as what our students get at KCL – Cambridge basically taught me to teach myself, which is not a bad education I suppose – but Goldie was a shining exception to the norm. Thank you Mark Goldie!

You can read the other three posts in this series here (Stefan Collini), here (Stuart Corbridge) and here (Quentin Skinner).

Rejection letter for Machiavelli’s Discourses

Read a spoof rejection letter for Machiavelli’s Discourses at Paul Sagar’s supremely funny blog ‘Rejection Letters of the Philosophers’.

I’ve previously posted a link on my blog to Sagar’s spoof rejection letter for Hobbes’s Leviathan. Also very funny indeed is his spoof rejection letter for A.J. Ayer’s Oxford entrance application!

Leo Strauss, aged 12

Here’s a newly discovered picture of Leo Strauss aged 12, dressed in Japanese naval costume, celebrating the Kaiser’s 1912 visit to Kirchhain, where Strauss grew up.

The translation, courtesy of Dietrich Schotte of Marburg University, is:

‘School of Kirchhain

Callisthenics and Japanese dexterity exercises

for the Kaiser’s birthday, 1912.’

In the coming weeks, I’ll post more pictures relating to the young Strauss, taken from my visit to Kirchhain, after a Strauss conference in Marburg.

Strauss aged 12, closeup Strauss aged 12