Unreasonable principles and principled pragmatism

At the charity bookstall on the way to the park on Saturday I picked up a copy of Tom Stoppard’s┬áTelevision Plays and have read Professional Foul, which I still remember seeing on the BBC when it was broadcast in 1977 (there’s a clip on YouTube). In Stoppard’s characteristically brilliant way, it combines wit, sharp political comment and insight into people’s weaknesses, in the setting of a group of lefty British academics attending a conference in Communist Prague. There is an important football match taking place, and one of the academics is in contact with a dissident.

Of course, in the late 1970s the fall of the Communist regimes seemed a dream so distant as to be delusional. Like many children of my time, I’d had occasional nightmares about the Cold War resulting in nuclear attacks – a nightmare of being the only person left in a devastated landscape of ash. Being set in its time, the play might have felt like a period piece.

But in fact, its ruminations about the nature of the collective organisation of society stand the test of time. (Its acidly funny critique of academic jealousy is timeless, too.) The most appealing thing about Stoppard’s world view is its reasonableness. As this dialogue puts it:

McKENDRICK: “The mistake most people make is, they think a moral principle is indefinitely extendible, that it holds good for any situation. ….. There’s a point, the catastrophe point, where your progress along one line of behaviour jumps you into the opposite line; the principle reverses itself at the point where a rational man would abandon it.”

CHETWYN: “Then it’s not a principle.”

McKENDRICK: “There aren’t any principles in your sense. There are only a lot of principled people trying to behave as if there were.”

The Television Plays, 1965-84 (Play Series)

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