Peter Hughes

The philospher and broadcaster talks statues, philosophy and inspiration.
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Peter Hughes, what first attracted you to statue debate?

I was drawn into writing the book on the history of statue destruction out of a preoccupation with the present and the future rather than the past. As a philosopher and a psychologist, I’m interested in destructive behaviours, how we misread them, especially when we are the ones under scrutiny, and how these patterns keep recurring on an individual and collective level. One of my interests is the degree to which we are despotic by nature or, to put it in Steven Pinker’s terms, why we find it so difficult to turn to our better angels for guidance. So, starting in Ancient Egypt, I traced statue destruction across 3,500 years looking for patterns that might tell us how we become divided and, more importantly, where our current divisions might be taking us. I was drawn to clear parallels between the tyrannical behaviour of men like Nero, Henry VIII, Robespierre, Mao, Stalin and Saddam Hussein and the current tide of illiberal intolerance. The roots of this drift into tyranny are sunk deep into our nature, which is why the trajectory of utopian psychology, with its necessary lack of nuance, is towards terror.

Can you tell us a little more about how you research? Has the process changed over the years?

I wrote the book during the pandemic so my research used online archives, journals etc. However, the bulk of the work was extensive reading of a wide variety of books from philosophy, psychology and the historical periods I was writing about.

The common phrase is that history is written by the victors. Do you think this is true?

Yes – until the vanquished become the victors, replace old statues with new ones and repeat the tyranny they opposed. Such outcomes are not inevitable as the improbable emergence of pluralistic, open societies demonstrates.

Are there any historians or thinkers who helped shaped your career? Similarly, can you recommend three history books which budding historians should read?

I’m principally a philosopher and a psychologist, so I’ll name Nietzsche, Freud and the Stoics as influences. As for three history books, it’s an ever-shifting list but I’d go for Simon Schama’s Citizens, David Olusoga’s Black and British and Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium. I’d also add Georges Lefebvre’s The Great Fear for his extraordinary account of how fear sweeps through villages, towns and cities like a plague.  

If you could meet any figure from history, who would it be and why? Also, if you could witness any event throughout history, what would it be?

I’d meet Robespierre in the moments before his execution so we could discuss the relative merits of de Sade and Rousseau. As for a historical event, I’d witness the raiding of the ancestral home of Confucius in Qufu, China, in 1966. I’d follow the mob as they desecrated graves, hung bodies from trees and dragged the statue of Confucius through the streets, a dunce’s cap on his head, before casting it onto a fire. If I could, I’d bring along anyone who believes essentialising identity and collectivising guilt is the gateway to a better future.

If you could add any period or subject to the curriculum, what would it be?

I’d add modules on the psychology and evolutionary roots of collective punishment – it’s an impulse as old as our species and one we ignore at our peril.

If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, either as a student or when you first started out as a writer, what would it be?

That serenity is amplified in proportion to the degree we reduce our expectations.

Can you tell us a little bit about the project you are currently working on?

I’m working on a number of projects mainly exploring the speed at which people turn against each other, the surprisingly small number of people it takes to create widespread polarisation and how quickly instability then spreads. It’s about emotional contagion and what, if anything, can be done to stop individuals and entire societies from breaking apart, even when the situation seems hopeless.

Peter Hughes is the author of A History of Love & Hate in 21 Statues.