Friedrich Nietzsche used dance as a metaphor for suppleness, life affirmation and power, but philosophers aren’t generally renowned for their actual dancing skills. There is, however, one notable exception. The Logical Positivist, AJ Ayer (known to his friends as Freddie), author of Language, Truth, and Logic, really knew how to move. This has been verified by many observers. The philosopher Richard Wollheim mistook him for choreographer and former ballet dancer Frederick Ashton on their first meeting. Ayer, who had taught himself to dance, went on to use his considerable talent on the dance floor to seduce a string of beautiful women. He once confessed that he’d rather have been a tap-dancer than a philosopher, only giving up that ambition when he realised he’d never be able to outdance another Fred – Fred Astaire.
Ayer was an exception among philosophers, but politicians can’t seem to stop dancing these days. Whether jiggling awkwardly with South African children, or robotically strutting her stuff to ABBA’s Dancing Queen at a Tory Party conference, Theresa May made jerky dancing her trademark. Not to be outdone, Michael Gove hit the floor with quirky dancing in an Aberdeen nightclub. More recently the Finnish prime minister, Sanna Marin, was videoed twerking, grinding, and drinking with celebrities at a party. The quality of Marin’s dancing is far higher than anything we’ve yet seen from the Conservatives, but the leaked video of her still caused consternation amongst stuffier Finns. They wanted her to show more decorum. Many women sniffed sexism in the allegations of impropriety and responded with their own dance videos in support of Marin.
Can’t politicians just have a good time without being pilloried? Why shouldn’t they abandon themselves on the dance floor from time to time, or pursue other relatively harmless pleasures, at least within limits? This question surfaced again with Boris Johnson’s hedonistic trips to Slovenia and Greece during a cost-of-living crisis that threatens to push millions in the UK into poverty.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once declared, “I’m not sure why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not to enjoy ourselves.” Other philosophers would disagree. Jeremy Bentham would go much further. He thought that the only thing with intrinsic value was pleasure, and that because of this we should aim to maximise it for the greatest number of people. Whether the pleasure arises from playing pushpin (a mindless pub game) or reading poetry is irrelevant, he thought. One way to maximise pleasure is to make sure that we get enough pleasure ourselves. But we also need to have an eye on the effects of our own pleasure-seeking behaviour on other people. Are our pleasures “fecund”, that is, do they give rise to other people’s pleasures? Or do they perhaps reduce them, or indeed end up causing suffering?
Politicians who pursue their own individual pleasure while leaving others to suffer as a result of their neglect of affairs of state are very unlikely to produce a satisfactory balance of happiness over pain for the general population. Far from it. In fact, such wanton neglect of the responsibilities of office and seeming blindness to the gravity of the situation we find ourselves in just adds to the total suffering, since it makes some of us very angry. It displays disdain. The role responsibilities that supposedly accompany the job of being prime minister include not going off on holiday once, let alone twice, during a major crisis.
The difference between the dancing politicians, ludicrous as they can seem, and Johnson taking foreign holidays in quick succession is that no obvious harm, except perhaps aesthetic, was caused by May, Gove or Sarin shaking their hips. They didn’t do this instead of engaging with politics. It probably even helped them to relieve stress. And they were not dancing for long. Not so with our prime minister and his inopportune hedonism. He has very little time left in the job. He will barely be going back to it. But he’s been notably absent.
Of course, Johnson should be free to enjoy himself from time to time. We can even forgive him his clumsy dancing to Sweet Caroline, which a leaked video reveals to be in the May-Gove league of swaying and shuffling. We can’t all move like AJ Ayer. That video probably gave many viewers pleasure, too. But in politics, as well as in dancing, timing is everything, and being on holiday even once during a crisis is unforgivable.