Sunday, December 19, 2010

18th-25th December 2010

Last week, David Cameron’s enthusiasm for finding out how happy we all are—as if it were any business of his—led us to consider some Greek views of the matter. Romans discussed it with equal enthusiasm.

balnea, vina, Venus corrumpunt corpora nostra;
sed vitam faciunt balnea, vina, Venus
proclaims a neat elegiac epitaph from Rome, expressing a common popular viewpoint—baths, wine and sex may wreck us physically, but they sure make life worth living.

Roman thinkers, however, were as keen as Greeks to discover the happiness that withstood all onslaught. Stoicism, a Greek invention, was one answer. The basic tenet was that divinity was rational and omnipresent, suffused through nature, ‘like honey through a honeycomb’. Nature and reason were thus closely linked. Since reason was god’s greatest gift to man, we were able to understand nature and live in holistic harmony with it. One did that by living and acting virtuously, selecting what was good, making it one’s own and ignoring everything else. Such was the only route to happiness. Wealth, status and so on did not feature in such a scheme.

Seneca (AD 1-65), who wrote an essay ‘On the Happy Life’, is a rich source of practical epigrams on the matter: ‘the happy man uses reason to be free from both fear and desire’; ‘that man is poor, not who has too little, but who longs for more’; ‘that man most enjoys wealth who least needs it’; ‘chance takes away what chance has given’(i.e. trusting to luck is pointless); ‘no wind is fair to a man who does not know for which port he is making’; ‘the wise man cannot suffer injury or loss...because his only possession is virtus, and he can never be separated from that.’ And so on.

Ancients insisted on man’s ability to rationalise his way to happiness. So if Mr Cameron wants to help us to be happy, he should forget about the economy and make sure we are all thinking straight.

To him, then, and the whole Coalition, a rational, virtuous, bath-, drink- and sex-free Christmas.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

11th December 2010

There is no point in Mr Cameron snooping into how happy we are unless he believes government can do something about it. Greek and Romans would have been aghast.

Greeks knew perfectly well what made people happy. Aristotle (384-322 BC) cites success, self-sufficiency, security, material and physical well-being and the capacity to safeguard them; ‘markers’ included good birth, creditable children, wealth, high status and a circle of respectable friends.

But Greek intellectuals knew such happiness was rarely lasting. The lesson was never more perfectly expressed than by Herodotus (490-425 BC) in his story of the meeting between the wise Athenian Solon and Croesus, richest man in the world. When Croesus was offended that he did not feature among Solon’s three happiest people in the world, Solon replied with a long lecture, ending ‘So until a man is dead, keep the word “happy” in reserve. Till then, he is not happy, only lucky ... Look to the end, no matter what you are considering. Often enough the god gives a man a glimpse of happiness and then utterly uproots him.’ And, indeed, Croesus was promptly uprooted.

So it was the philosophical question that interested them: what sort of happiness would survive the most catastrophic shocks? Socrates (469-399 BC) believed that goodness was the key. The cynic Diogenes (4th C BC) went for inner resources which could be nurtured only by severe physical and mental self-discipline. Self-sufficiency, freedom of speech, indifference to hardship and lack of shame were Cynic hallmarks.

For Plato (429-347 BC), the rational part of the psychê, with its commitment to timeless truth and ultimate reality, needed cultivation if one was to be happy. Aristotle was more interested in success than happiness. Success was ‘an activity of the psyche in accordance with excellence’, and by ‘excellence’ he meant excellence in that which differentiated us from animals and made us human—reason and thought. Success, then, required that a man engage in intellectual activity.

Next week, the Romans will pick up the theme.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

4th December 2010

President Saleh of Yemen has refused to hand over the terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki, because it contravenes the Yemeni tradition of hospitality. If the fate of Hannibal is anything to go by, al-Awlaki had better run for it quickish.

In 218 BC the Carthaginian Hannibal had famously led his army and elephants over the Alps to take revenge on the Romans for an earlier defeat. He came within an ace of doing so, but in 202 BC was forced to return to protect Carthage. When the Romans defeated him there, he made peace. But he still longed to get his own back, and in 195 BC, when the Romans got wind of his plans, Hannibal fled east. He tried to do a deal with Antiochus of Syria to lead an attack on Rome, but when that fell through and the Romans demanded Antiochus surrender him, Hannibal fled to king Prusias of Bithynia (N.W. Turkey), whom he served in various ways.

The Romans had no idea where he had disappeared. Years later, according to the historian Nepos, it happened that an embassy from Prusias was in Rome, dining with one Quinctius Flaminius, and one of them let it drop that Hannibal was serving their king. Flaminius immediately informed the senate, who sent him to Prusias, with an armed legation, to demand Prusias hand Hannibal over. No dice, said Prusias; it contravenes our ancient laws of hospitality; however, now I think about it, you could easily, ah, find out for yourselves where he is hiding, in a little fortification I gave him as a reward...

Which was where the Romans found him. The place had exits on all sides, but when a look-out informed Hannibal that men had surrounded it and there was no escape, ‘he realised this was no accident, but that they were after him, and he could cling on no longer. Not wanting to put his life at anyone else’s disposal, he took the phial of poison he always kept with him and, calling up his ancient valour, drained it dry.’

President Saleh, like Prusias, probably knows which side his bread is buttered. One wonders what ‘ancient valour’ the cowering al-Awlaki will have to call upon.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

27th November 2010

No one yet has the remotest idea what the Big Society actually is. Had you asked a Roman, he would have told you: it was the rich spreading their largesse among the poor, as Pliny the Younger did (c. AD 61-112).

In a letter to his friend the great Roman historian Tacitus, Pliny describes a project he has set up which he wants Tacitus to support. He says ‘I was visiting my native town a short time ago when the young son of a fellow-citizen came to pay his respects to me. “Do you go to school?” I asked. “Yes”, he replied. “Where?” “In Milan.” “Why not here?” To this the boy’s father (who had brought him and was standing by) replied: “Because we have no teachers here.” ’

Pliny is shocked and determined to do something about it. He points out to the father the importance of raising children at home (strict upbringing, less expense) and invites him to work out how much it would cost to hire teachers for the town, remembering that they could add in the money they currently spent on travel and lodgings in Milan.

Now comes the offer: Pliny is ready to contribute a third of whatever they decided to collect. He does not want to offer all of it, he says, because he wants the parents themselves involved. He says to the father “People can be careless with other people’s money, but you can be sure they will be careful with their own. If their own is in the pot with mine, they will be sure to appoint a suitable recipient for it”. He urges them to appoint really good candidates so that local towns will send their children to them, instead of the other way round.

Pliny now tells Tacitus what part he hopes the historian will play in this venture. It turns out that it is not money he is after, but recommendations: ‘From amongst the many students who gather round you because they admire your abilities, please keep an eye open for likely teachers we can invite here. But do understand I am leaving the decision to the parents. All I want is to help with the arrange­ments and pay my share. So if you find anyone who has confidence in his ability, do send him along to us—but I make no guarantees.’

If that is not the Big Society, it is hard to think what might be.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

13th November 2010

Poor old Stephen Fry says that he feels sorry for straight men because, unlike gays on Hampstead Heath, women do not actually like sex; it is merely the price they pay for a relationship. What a Silly Willy!

It was an assumption of much ancient Greek literature that sex between the older male and the young boy was the ultimate experience—for the older male. But since the hunt for this nirvana was bound to end in failure, the advice was to forget it. You would just make a complete prat of yourself. Those who fell into the trap—especially elderly males yearning hopelessly after beautiful young boys—were the subject of endless mockery from friends and enemies alike.

As for women, well, that was something completely different. The story was told of Teiresias who, as a young man, was walking in the countryside one day when he saw two snakes copulating. He gave them a stout blow with his stick, and was promptly changed into a woman. Seven years later he was out walking and again saw two snakes copulating. A swift whack with his stick and, lo and behold, he was restored to his former state.

Zeus, suffering the after-pangs of having given birth to Dionysus from his thigh, naturally began to muse on the whole business and wondered whether the male or the female got more pleasure out of sex. So he summoned the only known expert. Teiresias stated that, if there were ten units of pleasure involved in the act, the woman got nine. Zeus’s wife Hera, furious that he had given away woman’s great secret, blinded him. To compensate, Zeus gave him the gift of prophecy.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

6th November 2010

Last week, Livy was invoked to rally the top 15% of earners to a bit of wholesome belt-tightening. Not that Livy had anything against the filthy rich. Far from it. But he did expect them to use their wealth wisely—no showing off, no power-grabbing—and if the state did interfere with it, he expected there to be an acceptable quid pro quo.

According to tradition, Servius Tullius (the sixth king of Rome, 578-534 BC) divided the Roman people up into classes (same word as ours) by property. One of its purposes was to rank your ability to serve in the army. The top classis was the equestres, rich enough to provide a horse for the cavalry (a bit like owning a Ferrari or two); then came those able to provide a full suit of armour and weapons, each subsequent classis providing less and less till the sixth, with nothing to offer except children—proletarii (Latin proles ‘child’).

The second purpose was to divide the people into ‘colleges’ for voting purposes. The top two classes, divided into 88 voting blocks, therefore commanded 88 votes; the whole of the rest of the people, divided into 105 blocks, commanded 105! And the third aim was to determine your tributum, an irregular levy on property, decided annually. The higher your status, the more you paid.

Livy found this last demand baffling. He could not understand why the rich were willing to pay tax as a proportion of their wealth, and therefore much more than anyone else. His explanation was that it was a quid pro quo for the voting system. This gave the elite almost complete control over the decisions on what the state should spend public money. So not one man, one vote, but one (poor) man, one vote, one (rich) man, the equivalent of many votes. ‘No tax without representation’, we say. Livy might emend that to ‘No more-than-anyone-else’s-tax without more representation’.

Which raises the question: does the state offer the seriously rich anything in return for their vast taxes? And if they avoid them, what might encourage them not to?

23rd October 2010

Today’s top 15% of earners have been whingeing away at the belts they will have to tighten to deal with the financial crisis. Ancient historians like Livy would not have been impressed. In the Roman republic, crises were life-or-death ones, and it was those who concentrated on the battle and not its rewards (in the shape of often very lavish booty) who won his admiration.

Livy’s history is full of such, e.g. Cincinnatus who in 458 BC, ‘wiping the sweat and dirt from his face and hands’, answered Rome’s call from his little farm where he had been ploughing, defeated the enemy and returned at once to his three-acre site. Finding his plough and four oxen still waiting for him, he picked up where he had left off.

Perhaps most famous of all was the consul Manius Curius Dentatus (dentatus because, we are told, he was born with teeth). In 290 BC, when the Romans were expanding south and in conflict with the ferocious Samnite hill tribes, he was approached by some Samnites with a massive bribe of gold. They found him seated on a crude bench by his hearth in his farmhouse, roasting turnips, eating from a rough wooden dish. Slightly amazed, they invited him to take the bribe, but he laughed in their faces, calling them ‘ambassadors on a superfluous, not to say incompetent, mission’. He told them to take back their gift, ‘as noxious as it was costly’, and to bear in mind that he could ‘neither be beaten in battle nor corrupted by money’.

Further, when he had thrashed the Samnites and celebrated a triumph, the people wanted to give him a vast chunk of land as a reward. But he refused, and settled for the hand-out that the senate had decreed for the *plebs*, reckoning that ‘no one could be counted a suitable citizen of the republic who could not be satisfied with what everybody else was given’. It all bore out what he had said to the Samnites: that ‘there was no glory in possessing wealth, but only in controlling its possessors’.

Come on, you top 15%. Romans knew what they meant by cuts, and they were not financial ones either. Stop all this ‘moral despair’ tosh. Show what you are made of.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

9th October 2010

So the Bruvvers have chosen the younger Bruvver Ed, and Big Bruvver has chosen to keep his powder dry and leave him to it. So, probably, would any ambitious Roman—for the time being.

Romans philosophers might have recommended getting out of government entirely and become an Epicurean, seeking ataraxia—the absence of physical and mental pain. The key lay in avoiding a desire for anything that might cause anxiety, especially anything that had no limits, like wealth, status or power, because these could never be satisfied.

Alternatively, Roman Stoics would have suggested, in Seneca’s words, that he ‘deal with his own ills, sift himself, see for how many vain things he is a candidate—and vote for none of them. How can you call it enjoyable, when a candidate promises gifts here, does business through an agent there, accepts the kisses of people to whom he will reject even a finger touch when elected ...seeking yearly honours, permanent power, triumphs and riches?’ That would not mean giving up labouring like Hercules for the common good. It would mean seeking and praying for nothing but what it is in one’s own power to do—and that primarily is to make a moral choice, broadly (in ancient terms) doing the right thing for the right reason without having to think about it. Just like his mentor Tony Blair.

But remaining in government and destroying his brother from within—ah! That’s show-biz. This hallowed tradition began with Romulus and Remus and was enthusiastically perpetuated; Roman imperial history is full of sibling rivalry of this sort. The emperor Septimius Severus (died AD 211) wanted both his sons, Caracalla and Geta, to succeed, giving the advice ‘don’t disagree, but enrich the army and ignore everyone else’. Caracalla was not having that. He invited Geta to a conference in their mother Julia’s quarters and had him murdered as he clung to her.

This is surely, too, what Big Bruvver’s father, the fervent Marxist Ralph, would have wanted. Families are (obviously) oppressive institutions, designed to maintain the values that support the dominance of the ruling class, and no one is now more ruling-class than little Bruvver. Away with him!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

25th September 2010

It is not so much Hawking’s squawkings about God and science that are the problem—though one wished he did not appear to think that either phenomenon told one anything significant about the other—but rather the failure of our education system to engage with the ancient Greeks. Their finest thinkers sorted the matter out 2,500 years ago, long before Christianity ever appeared on the scene.

The first Greek philosophers like Thales (c. 580 BC) were really physicists, trying to describe, organise and explain the universe and all its contents. They gave accounts of natural phenomena like stars, planets, weather, plants, animals and man, and asked questions about whether and how the universe began, what it was made of, why it changed and so on. Thales apparently took the view that water was the first principle, from which everything sprang and to which it returned. For Anaximander, an abstract ‘infinite’ was the origin of all things, and the cosmos a conflicting cycle of ‘coming-to-be’ and ‘perishing’ according to laws of nature. Heraclitus saw the world in terms of constant change, but not conflicting change. Opposition was built into the natural order of things. Anaxagoras was the first to argue that whatever the basic substance was, it was below the level of perception and never changed, merely grouping itself in different ways to form the world as we see it (the beginnings of an ‘atomic’ theory of matter).

What is so striking about all this is the absence of the divine. Greeks acknowledged that gods existed, of course, but were the first to argue that the world did not run on some irrational, divine whim but was logically ordered, systematic and therefore fully explicable in *human* terms. To invoke the supernatural in order to explain the physics was as much a cop-out for them as it would be today if a doctor were to claim that a disease was incurable because it was divinely ordained.

A few weeks ago the Guardian ‘Comment is Free’ website ran a poll on whether inner-city primary schools should be given an introduction to ancient Greek, as Dr Lorna Robinson’s ‘Iris Project’ is now doing. The vote was 80-20% in favour. Academies? Free schools? Just give everyone a taste of ancient Greek.

18th September 2010

Thought-crimes mainly refer to what we all think about those stupid laws and bossy official directives only designed for your benefit, sir. Romans did not face these but rather what George Orwell in 1984 understood by thought-crime: wholly innocent activities interpreted as threats to state security. The historian Tacitus is full of them.

When one of Rome’s best-loved sons, Germanicus, mysteriously died, many suspected the jealous emperor Tiberius was involved. So in AD 28, when a distinguished Roman, Titius Sabinus, started helping out the widow and family, some ambitious public figures saw a chance to prove their loyalty to the emperor by stitching up Sabinus good and proper. One of them, Lucanius Latiaris, started privately sympathising with Sabinus, while attacking the emperor. Sabinus responded in kind, and ‘these exchanges of forbidden confidences seemed to cement a close friendship. So Sabinus now sought out Latiaris’ company and unburdened his sorrows to this apparently trustworthy friend.’

The schemers now had to find a way to publicise this obvious threat. So they hid three senators in the roof of Sabinus’ bedroom. There Latiaris engaged him in their usual conversation, Sabinus unfolded the usual grievances—and they had their man. The reaction in Rome was one of pure terror. ‘People avoided all meetings and conversations, shunned friends and strangers...when Sabinus was led away, there was a stampede, and all roads and public places were immediately evacuated. But then people returned to them, alarmed that they had displayed alarm’. Sabinus was never heard of again.

This, for Tacitus, was symptomatic of the world of the emperors, where, in the satirist Juvenal’s words, ‘men’s throats were slit by a whisper’. As Tacitus brilliantly comments, ‘Rome of old explored the limits of freedom, but we the depths of slavery, robbed even of the exchange of ideas by informers. We would have lost memory itself as well as our tongues, had it been as easy to forget as it was to remain silent.’ Orwell would have understood.

Nowadays it seems to be everybody’s democratic duty to subvert the state. But question an airport security official? Down you go, mate.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

11th September 2010

September 11 2010

Public life for politicians does not seem to get any easier. Have, as a male, a close male companion, and if the tabloids are not after you, the posh papers will attack you for your insensitivity in pointing to your marriage and desire for a family to demonstrate that you are not gay—disgusting! Enter a coalition, and all disagreements will be disasters. In his ‘Rules for Politicians’, the Greek essayist Plutarch (c. AD 46-120) gives sensible advice about all this.

Any decision to enter public life must not be based on ‘an inability to think of anything else to do’; nor must one do it to make money, or with emotional urges to do good or a desire for fame. If that turns out to be the case, the politician will find himself like someone who sails in boats for the fun of it and finds himself swept out to sea, hanging over the side being seasick. Rational conviction that the work is noble and right for you is the one reason for entering politics. For politics is like a well: if you fall in thoughtlessly, you will regret it, but if you descend gently and under control, you will get the best out of it.

Once in, the politician must first get to know the character of his fellow citizens and adapt to it; otherwise, he cannot hope to shape and change them. Since he is living on an open stage, he must also modify his own behaviour: ‘men in public life are responsible for more than their public words and actions: their dinners, beds, marriages, amusements and interests are all objects of curiosity…since people think highly of government and authority, you must be entirely free of eccentricity or aberration.’

Plutarch is especially good on the usefulness of disagreement. It carries conviction among the voters, he argues, when in large policy matters party members should at first disagree and then change their minds. It looks as if they are acting from principle. In small matters, however, they should be genuinely allowed to disagree, because then their agreement in important matters does not look pre-concerted.

So there is something to be gained from controlled party splits. The coalition is surely in prime position to exploit this advantage.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

4th September 2010

Only time will tell whether Tony Blair was wise to publish his memoirs. The first Roman emperor Augustus, who came to power in 31 BC after a bloody civil war, abandoned his.

Its purpose seems to have been to answer his critics, who were accusing him of being a merciless, criminal, cowardly, jumped-up nobody. But in 23 BC he discontinued it. Instead, he concentrated on refining his Res Gestae (‘My Achievements’), which was inscribed on two bronze plaques and placed outside his mausoleum in Rome. In other words, Augustus was interested in posterity’s judgement. He realised that an autobiography which merely refought yesterday’s battles achieved nothing except keeping the muck fresh and re-usable. But a bald statement of what he had actually done—let his enemies, and more importantly posterity, chew on that.

This c. 350-line document is a stupendous list of honours, titles, and achievements (‘I restored these buildings, built these temples, put on these shows, conquered these lands, took these offices’) interspersed with occasional comment emphasising his conservatism (e.g. ‘I did not accept office contrary to our ancestors’ customs’). And Blair?

Further, the private expenses which Augustus lists as ‘having devoted to the state and the people’ run to billions. The Roman legionary earned 900 sestertii (ss) a year. Augustus lists hand-outs to every single Roman of three hundred ss in 44 BC (under Julius Caesar’s will) and four hundred ss in 29, 24 and 11 BC. He bought land for troops in Italy and the provinces to a sum of 860 million ss; and gave another 400 million ss in ‘rewards’ to soldiers later on. He transferred private funds of 320 million ss to the treasury; he paid for grain distribution among the people when treasury funds ran short; built temples; laid on games. But this was what an emperor was supposed to do—serve the people. And Blair? Let us hope, for his sake, the donation to the British Legion’s ‘Battle Back Challenge’ for wounded soldiers is just a start.

One of Augustus’ proudest boasts was to have found Rome brick and left it marble. Blair’s may well be to have found Baghdad concrete and left it rubble.

28th August 2010

Will the Coalition fall apart, as Lib Dems not in government attempt to bring their influence to bear on policies ‘for which they were not elected’? If the Cameron-Clegg relationship is anything like the Roman patronus-cliens relationship, it is unlikely.

All Roman political big shots surrounded themselves with political supporters in the shape of voluntary ‘clients’, but the relationship between the two was not symmetrical. The reason is that, while the cliens offered the patron political support, the patronus in return controlled access to vital resources and services which his cliens was not in a position to get himself—legal, financial, social, military and so on.

The problem was that the resources and services which any cliens might so desperately need at any stage were themselves available in only limited supply. So it was impossible for the *patronus* to do the business for everyone. This may seem to strike at the heart of the system (why should a cliens stay with someone who did not deliver?), but far from being a weakness, it was its great strength, and the source of the patronus’ power. Since resources were limited, and the patronus alone controlled access to them, the only hope the cliens had was to hang in there, fingers crossed. So the satirist Juvenal complains that, for all your services to a patronus, you’ll never get even a dinner out of him, and if you do, it will be toadstools and a rotten apple.
In other words, as the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus (late 1st C BC) shrewdly saw, the relationship was in fact a means of social control—keeping the lower orders in their place. Being in a position of dependency on the great patron himself, clientes spent most of their time grovelling at the master’s table, grovelling all the harder the less they got thrown.

Clegg is in a position of debilitating weakness. The purpose of politics is to hold power. He can achieve that only as cliens to a larger party; and then only if there is a hung parliament. So the Lib Dems have far more to lose than Cameron does. Better the devil you know.

21st August 2010

Universities warn that even those with top A-levels may not get in, such is the pressure on places. But are A-levels the right criteria for university entrance?

In his Metaphysics Aristotle begins by arguing that memory is the means by which humans acquire experience (empeiria). From this they learn that something is the case. But they can then go on to gain epistêmê—‘knowledge’ based on logical reasoning—and technê—the ‘skill’ to produce something with an awareness of the principles underlying the process. Such people know why and how something is the case and thus, he concludes, can draw general conclusions from specific experiences.

But applying this requires phronêsis, ‘practical wisdom’—the capacity for intelligent deliberation about putting one’s ‘knowledge’ and ‘skill’ to the best possible use, including ensuring that morally acceptable ends are achieved by moral means. From such beginnings Aristotle goes on to speculate on fundamental questions of ‘being’, ‘cause’, and ‘gods’.

The first sentence of Aristotle’s Metaphysics makes a famous assertion: ‘All humans instinctively reach out/hunger for knowledge’, though with different degrees of success. Plato makes this hunger the goal of his higher education system which he insists should be restricted purely to those with an unquenchable passion for active engagement in the search for ultimate knowledge. This he brilliantly contrasts with passive learning, espoused by the great majority, for whom being educated is ‘like acquiring a sun-tan’—the entitlement culture to a T.

Oh dear. How elitist. Is the ‘Big Society’ ready for this? It is the last thing A-levels seem designed for. But is it not in all our interests to produce people who are the very best at what they do, whether it is rocket science, media studies or ancient Greek? If universities were to select only those with a burning desire to be, not seem, the best (Aeschylus), the country would save a very great deal of money and could justifiably boast that it offered ‘the best education in the world’. For education is a quid pro quo. Without total commitment from the student, as Plato saw, forget it. But what can one not achieve, with it?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

14th August 2010

Romans were always sensitive to the controllability of any territory that abutted their empire. What on earth would they have made of Afghanistan? Let alone its army?

Rex sociusque et amicus, ‘king, ally and friend’ was the honorific term applied to the ruler of people on the edge of their empire who agreed to come on board. The relationship was a delicate quid pro quo: Rome ensured that their new best friend remained securely in power, as long as he had a grip on his people, remained loyal to Rome and jumped when asked. The push-pull between Rome and the Parthian empire over Armenia offers a good example, both sides keen to have ‘their man’ in charge and make it look as if they were in control—for propaganda purposes if for nothing else—but without actually threatening the peace.

Economics came strongly into it. The point is that Roman soldiers living on the borders needed supplying, and it did not matter much where supplies came from. Further, such exchange helped to cement relationships on both sides. So networks of highly-respected ‘friends’ were in place even across what looks like the natural barrier of the Rhine-Danube. Another advantage was maintaining military strength. There was a good living to be made in the Roman army, and Romans knew the fighting worth of other armies, especially if they were German. But there was no point in playing these games if the stability of such kingdoms could not be relied upon or it had nothing to offer. It was then a matter of cutting losses (Scotland is a good example) or moving in full time.

President Karzai barely controls Kabul, let alone the country. An ‘economy’ hardly exists. And even if the West could bring prosperity to such a poor region, what would that guarantee? As for training up an army in a congenitally unstable region in the hope that it will remain on ‘our’ side when we are gone, Romans would have thought us deranged. Had they wanted a local army, they would have drafted Afghans, Gurhka-style, into the British army and sent them for training far away (as they often did to captives). As it is, we are merely creating mercenaries for hire by anyone who will want them.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

7th August 2010

So we are all going to have to work longer, and everyone is thrilled? The ancients would have thought us barking.

The 7thC BC Greek farmer-poet Hesiod laid down the marker when he lamented that he lived in the age of iron, when men ‘will never cease from toil and misery by day and night’. The reason is that, in the pre-industrial ancient world, there were, effectively, no such things as ‘jobs’. Virtually everyone, bar the rich, lived off the soil. So ‘work’ was not a matter of choice. If you did not work, you died, though an epitaph highlighted the benefits: sweet repose, no fear of starvation, permanent, rent-free accommodation—so never in debt! Popular morality rammed home the point. Aesop contrasted the ant who worked to prepare for the winter with the grasshopper who sang the summer away and paid the price.

Further, if you did work for a wage, you would be working for others. That implied you could not stand on your own two feet. You were dependent on someone else, i.e. no longer free. It was as if you were the lowest of the low—a slave. In other words, you were not regarded as a free man, freely and proudly selling your labour: you were in fact selling your person. Better to see yourself as a noble, hard-working, self-sufficient farmer—an image Romans keenly polished—than that.

A Roman word for ‘work’ makes the point with a terrible precision: negotium (cf. negotiate), from nego ‘I deny’ and otium ‘leisure’. Far from being dignified or positive, work was a denial of everything man longed for—leisure to enjoy himself as he chose. That was a privilege reserved only for the wealthy, the most enviable of all consequences of being rich. The Greek for leisure is *scholê/*/, origin of our ‘school’ and ‘scholarship’. Only the well-healed could afford the time off to indulge in such luxuries. By the same token, the man who did not have to work but put himself out of behalf of the community was greatly to be praised. Celebrations of the Great and Good regularly highlight their industria and diligentia—a pleasing paradox.

‘The dignity of labour’: dancing to someone else’s tune. What slave-driver thought up that con-trick?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

31st July 2010

The French may legislate to ban the all-enveloping burka/niqab worn by some Muslim women, but Claudius, Roman emperor AD 41-54, would no more have banned them than he did trouser-wearing Frenchman.

In AD 48, Gallic chieftains who had long-standing treaties with Rome and were of citizen status decided they wanted the right to enter the Roman Senate. Fierce debate ensued. Some Romans opposed it. They argued that there were enough properly bred Romans to fill the Senate, and enough non-Romans had been admitted anyway. The Gauls who came in would be descendants of people traditionally hostile to Rome, who had fought Julius Caesar and earlier still (390 BC) even sacked the city. Let them be citizens, but they must not cheapen Rome’s high office.

Claudius was having none of this and addressed the senate on the matter (The official record of the original speech survives on a bronze tablet put on display at the time in Lyons; Tacitus’ version elaborates on its main points). Claudius argues that he wants men of excellence in the Senate wherever they come from, and reminds his listeners that Romulus welcomed in enemies wholesale the day after defeating them. The fatal weakness of Sparta and Athens, he goes on, was to refuse conquered subjects any citizen rights. As for past battles, he points out, Rome has lost to many tribes who were now fully integrated, and the loyalty of Gallic peoples is now unquestioned. They have assimilated Roman customs and culture and married into Roman families. Let them spend their wealth here rather than keep it to themselves! All ancient institutions, he concludes, change over time. Innovations become the norm, and so will this one.

The Senate approved the speech, and the Gauls were granted the new right. The key point here is that the Gauls were already assimilated to Roman ways: they had given up their breeches (bracae) and were fully togaed up. Under those circumstances, there was no reason not to admit them. In that light, the minister Damien Green was right to reject the French approach. If Muslim women refuse assimilation to our ways, their children and grandchildren who wish to remain here and succeed will pay the price. In the tolerant British way, let our culture and tradition do their silent work.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

24th July 2010

Whatever Nato thinks it might achieve in Afghanistan, it is not at all clear that the Afghans themselves are in favour of it.

In a remarkable speech put in the mouth of the Caledonian leader Calgacus before the battle of Mons Graupius in ad 84, the Roman historian Tacitus articulates with extraordinary precision the feelings that many Afghans must have about the American presence today. For ‘Britons’ reads ‘Afghans’, for ‘Romans’ read ‘Americans’ throughout.

‘When I consider the crisis that drives us to battle, I am convinced that the united front you are showing today will mean the dawn of liberty for the whole of Britain. Everyone to a man is here, together. None has ever tasted slavery. Battle for the brave, for us, is the road to glory; for those cowards, it is the only escape-route they have.

‘Whatever the outcome of earlier battles against Romans, our country has never abandoned hope, because we are here — tucked away in her most secret places, the noblest Britons of them all, our country’s last resort. Our eyes free from the defilement of tyranny, we, the last men on earth, have enjoyed the protection of our isolation and obscurity.

‘But the whole of Britain now lies open to our enemies. The lure of the unknown is always, of course, irresistible, and with these Romans, there is no hope of mercy in submission or compromise — they pillage the world, their blind plundering ravaging the land. Greedy if their enemy is rich, they grind the poor under their heel. East and West alike have failed to glut their maw. Rags or riches, it’s all the same to them — they lust after it, come what may. These liars call their robbery, their butchery, their extortion “government”. They create a waste-land, and call it peace...

‘Do not imagine that the Romans’ bravery in war matches their debauchery in time of peace. Look at them, a motley conglomeration of nations — or can you seriously think that those Gauls and Germans and, to our bitter shame, many Britons too, are bound to Rome by genuine loyalty or affection?’

And so on. Romans knew that they would never win over a province without the people — which meant in the first place the local elites — coming onside. So does Nato. Does it know what it is up against?

17th July 2010

Cold cabbage anyway (people didn’t like Brown? No!), Lord Mandelson’s memoirs read like the work of a robot with a dictaphone. Contrast the letters of the Roman statesman Cicero (106-43 BC).

‘I talk to you’, Cicero said to his chum Atticus, ‘as though I were talking to myself’ and in doing so he reveals the man: cultured, liberal and humane, witty and stylish, nervous, vain and indiscrete, but perhaps most of all, ever dependent for peace of mind on the views of others. ‘Think what I must be suffering’ he tells Atticus, ‘when I am considered mad, if I say what is right about politics, servile, if I say what is expedient, defeated and helpless, if I say nothing.’ As a consequence, he spent most of his time vainly trying to determine the course of action rather by advising others—Pompey, Caesar, the young Octavian—than seizing the initiative himself.

He thought hard about principles. In a letter to Atticus at the start of the civil war between Pompey and Caesar, he says that, to prevent himself breaking down completely, he is asking himself the following questions: Under a tyranny, should one—remain in one’s country? Try to abolish it, even if one thereby ruined the state? Try to help with words, or war? Brave any danger for the sake of liberation? And so on.

And there are constant delicious observations and dry asides. ‘Now that Tyrannio [his librarian] has arranged my books, the house has a soul’; ‘I see Livia has left Dolabella a ninth of her estate if he changes his name. Good question in social ethics: “Should a young noble change his name to benefit from a will?” We shall be able to answer more scientifically when we know what a ninth amounts to.’ On Caesar’s campaign in Britain (54 BC) and the slaves he will bring to market: ‘I don’t imagine one can expect any of them to have had a literary or musical education’.

Mandelson’s laboured memoirs, written with all the flair of an I-speak-your-weight machine, betray a man without doubts or introspection, without the slightest interest in, let alone insight into, other people, inert pieces in a mechanical game of his own construction. Prince of Darkness? Prince of Dimness more like.

Monday, July 12, 2010

10th July 2010

By sacking Gen. McChrystal for humiliating the Presidential team in a rock magazine, Barack Obama has reasserted the American Founding Fathers’ principle: ‘The President shall be Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy’. Quite right too: the military must be subservient to (civilian) state control.

The Roman republic collapsed in the 1st C BC because this principle was compromised. That the political top-dogs also led the armies raised the danger, while the nominal ultimate authority, the Senate, could be over-ridden by popular assemblies. As Romans expanded their empire, over-worked troops looked to their generals for a fair reward for service, especially at discharge. Generals, obviously, were keen to oblige. The result was that soldiers owed their loyalty to them and not the state. Power-seeking dynasts like Sulla, who started it all in 88 BC, Pompey and Caesar took full advantage and effectively held the republic to ransom in their own interests. The whole system collapsed.
Ancient Greek democrats, by contrast, kept an iron grip on their commanders. Nicias was one of the elected generals at the time of the proposed Athenian expedition to Sicily (415 BC). In Assembly he expressed his distaste for whole idea. But his opponent, the youthful Alcibiades, whipped up enthusiasm with a gung-ho rant. Nicias claimed the cost in manpower and resources would be intolerable, but only encouraged a confident Assembly even more. Half-way through the campaign, Nicias wrote home asking to be relieved of command because of kidney disease. The Assembly refused. It all ended in total catastrophe.
The point is that Nicias knew, if he disobeyed or failed the people in any way, he was dead meat. In the ancient world, only results counted. So it was usually defeat that ended generals’ careers. But even though he claims still to support McChrystal’s strategy, Obama had no option but to sack him after his idiotic and hybristic public attack. Imagine what the Taleban would have made of it, had he not! Besides, after his abysmal handling of the BP affair, it was a chance to show he was ‘tough’. But what would he have done had he not been lucky enough to have a general as flexible and competent as Petraeus at hand to save his bacon?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

3rd July 2010

Taxes, spending cuts, and a few sweeteners—rather how the emperor Vespasian dealt with his financial crisis when he came to came to power in Rome in AD 69, but less inventive.

The earlier emperor Nero had poured gazillions into military campaigns and the construction of a fabulous palace (the ‘Golden House’) for himself. The great fire of Rome in AD 64 burned another vast hole in the accounts. But Vespasian was a man suited to the task ahead. He was of humble origins, simple tastes, hard-working—he rose early—and with a good sense of humour (on his death-bed he observed ‘Good heavens! I do believe I am turning into a god’). It is not clear that Mr Osborne shares these winning characteristics.

Vespasian’s first move was to sell off some imperial estates and nearly double taxes in the provinces. Those were the days... . Then he cut the consultants by making himself censor. This gave him power to get the best deal from juicy revenue-raising options: leasing out public property, selling off the right to collect taxes in the provinces, and letting out contracts for public works.

He knew where to make the pips squeak. He identified provincial governors known for their greed, promoted them to encourage them to become even greedier, and then hit them with charges for extortion. His ‘sponges’, they were called: ‘he put them in to soak, then squeezed them dry later’.

But there were sweeteners too. Vespasian was aware of the needs of the poor. He encouraged people to take over and rebuild ruined houses themselves if the owner did not come forward. When an engineer offered to haul some huge columns up hill mechanically, Vespasian declined, saying ‘I must always ensure the working classes earn enough to buy food’. And he started the Colosseum too.

Perhaps his most striking revenue-raising ploy was to tax urine (used to clean woollens) from the city urinals. When his son Titus complained, Vespasian handed him a coin from the day’s proceeds and said ‘Does this smell bad, son?’ ‘No, father’ said Titus. ‘Strange’ said Vespasian, ‘it comes straight from the urinal!’ He was determined to prevent money just leaking away. One for Mr Osborne next time, perhaps.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

12th June 2010

The newspapers are turning up the heat on government proposals to raise capital gains tax from 18% to 40%. From powerful business factions to starving pensioners, howls of outrage echo across the pages. A success, then, for the coalition: getting the newspapers to do the scare-mongering for you is a very efficient way of gauging public opinion.

The only way the ancients could do this was in secret. The greatest sculptor of the Greek world, Pheidias, needing the reassurance of public approval, hid (we are told) in his studio and listened to the comments. In AD 16, Germanicus, the popular adopted son of the Roman emperor Tiberius, was on campaign in Germany. Wishing to test his troops’ readiness for battle, he dressed himself in an animal-skin and, like Henry V before Agincourt, wandered among his soldiers to ascertain morale. Tacitus reports that he heard nothing but praise for himself and a determination that ‘the treacherous, treaty-breaking enemy must be offered up to vengeance and to glory.’ They were.

But how serious will the CGT outcry become? In Rome, threats to the corn-supply always brought the crowds out. But riots rarely got out of hand. The reason was that the emperor was generally credited with a commitment to improving the lot of the people, in his own interests as much as theirs. In other words, the crowds took it for granted that they had a right to protest, but more as a way of reminding the emperor what his duty was to them rather than fomenting genuine revolution.

So in 23 BC, Augustus responded to a food crisis by buying grain with his own money and distributing it to a quarter of a million people. In AD 19, when there were riots at the excessive rise in the price of grain, Tiberius imposed a maximum price, compensating merchants for it at the same time. In AD 51 a bad harvest created a grain shortage. With only fifteen days’ supply left, Claudius sent for grain in the middle of winter. Luckily, the weather smiled on him.

An intelligent coalition will make the same sort of measured response to the capital gains tax outcry. So there, there, dears. Calm down. We know exactly what is going on. The government is merely testing the waters of public opinion before, as it were, putting its foot in it.

19th June 2010

There is something infinitely depressing about the ways university vice-chancellors talk about their desperate plight in the face of cuts. Not only does none of them seem to have the faintest idea what a university is actually for anyway; they also do not seem to realise the implications of their demands for vast increases in fees.

In the ancient world, education was a service, not a right, provided by individuals, not the state, for a fee. Its purpose in what one might call the ‘higher education’ sector was, for the most part, to serve the children of the elite by providing them with the skills required for a successful elite career, i.e. in law and/or politics. That meant what we now call ‘communications skills’, i.e. rhetoric—the capacity to make a persuasive case.

Since the future of the family was at stake and fees for the best teachers could be very high, parents and pupils took a keen interest in the value for money that they were getting. Rich families regularly threatened to withdraw their children if they were not making the expected progress. Students made a habit of cheating. Palladas reveals that students gave him copper or lead coins instead of silver, while others stayed for eleven months and then, to avoid paying the full 12-month course fee, promptly changed teachers. Other students pleaded poverty, often because they spent tuition fees on drinking, gambling and sex.

The pressures even on good teachers were severe. Libanius, who seems to have made a decent career out of teaching, laments his inability to discipline pupils: ‘we know from experience that it is not without danger to ourselves that we chastise’. Further, he has to account to everyone—students, parents, even grandparents—and if he is not able to make ‘gods out of stones’, he will be the one to blame. He feels like ‘Sisyphus in Homer, who battles with a rock’ that he is trying to push up hill, only for it to roll back down, again and again.

What was a private service for the few has now become, thanks to the welfare state, a public ‘right’ for the many. If that public ‘right’ is now withdrawn because the state can no longer afford it—and that is what vast fee rises promise—those who pay for it will treat it very differently. V-Cs should be careful what they pray for.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

5th June 2010

Experience may count for nothing. Look at Gordon Brown—‘capable of being emperor—had he never been emperor’ indeed, as Tacitus said of Galba, emperor for seven months in AD 68-9. But there is something to be said for having been round the block a few times—even once—and the parachuting of Danny Alexander (five years ago, press officer for the Cairngorms National Park) from the Scottish office into the Treasury on David Laws’ resignation must raise questions.

In order for a Roman to reach the top job—consul—he had to jump through a number of hoops.Cursus honorum, ‘the running/race for high office’, was the name given to this four-stage career path. At each stage, candidates were elected by citizen vote; held office for one year; were paid no salary; and could not hold office in successive years. But they automatically became members of the senatus (cf. senex, ‘old man’), Rome’s main legislative body.

The four stages were usually as follows, the typical minimum age for each office in brackets: (i) quaestor (30), with primarily financial responsibilities, usually in a province; (ii) aedilis (37), with responsibility for the fabric of Rome (street-cleaning, fire-watch etc.), its water-supplies, public order, markets and corn-supply; (iii) praetor (40), with a legal brief, overseeing the criminal courts and civil cases involving citizens and foreigners; and finally (iv) consul (42), of which there were two. They acted as supreme heads of state, with powers of veto over each other’s actions, supreme military, civil and judicial authority, and the right to levy taxes and troops; they also represented the people on big religious occasions.

Lesser positions also counted on the path. The tribuni plebis, ‘tribunes of the plebs’ held crucial rights of veto over senatorial proposals detrimental to the people’s interests, while tribuni militum supervised camps and general welfare and discipline among the troops.

The big four office-holders were known as magistratus (Latin magis, ‘greater’), a term implying someone on top of his profession (cf. magister, ‘teacher’). Had Cameron and Clegg been tested by this sort of career path, electors might have had more confidence in them. As it is, the real power, even more than usual, will lie with those who go round the block all the time—the Civil Service.

Monday, May 31, 2010

29th May 2010

A ‘bonfire of laws’! How agreeable! But European law is sacred; government will make the final decision, whatever we say; and it cannot be sensibly done without a far more demanding operation.

The Lex Aquilia (after its proposer Aquilius, c. 287 BC) dealt with unlawful killing, and one section is devoted to ‘four-footed beasts of the class of cattle’. So which animals – apart from cows and bulls – are those? The Roman jurist Gaius (c. AD 160) attempted to answer. Sheep, goats, horses, mules and asses were indeed ‘classes of cattle’, he decided. Pigs? Yes, just. But not dogs, much less bears, lions and panthers. Elephants and camels? Wild they may be, he mused, but they were used as draught animals. So, on balance, yes.

This is, in fact, an extract from an amazing work, the Roman legal Digest ordered by the emperor Justinian and published in AD 533. It was condensed from the two thousand legal volumes written between the 1stC BC and the 3rdC AD by thirty-nine Roman jurists, including Gaius; compiled in three years by sixteen legal experts from all over the Roman world; and published in fifty volumes. The result was the definitive account of the whole of Roman private law. Further, Justinian realised that students would need a dumbed-down version to guide them through the big one. He therefore commissioned a digested Digest, the four-volume Institutes.

Practical people, the Romans. But a vital feature of the Digest is that, as Justinian said in his sonorous introduction, ‘in these books the law previously in force is briefly stated, as well as that which had fallen into disuse but has now been brought to light by the imperial authority’. And that is the point. Romans knew of the law’s tendency to lose itself in its own thickets. Even the famous XII Tables were originally X. Julius Caesar wanted to shrink the statute book, but was assassinated. The historian Tacitus wondered, since there were so many laws, why society was so corrupt; or was it that the more corrupt the society, the more laws were needed?

So before we make a bonfire, we need first to establish what is available for burning and what the implications are. Only a Digest will allow us to do that intelligently.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

15th May 2010

Paul Johnson recently wrote about the use of Athenian-style ostracism to send bores of one’s choice into exile. The device would better serve a hung parliament.

The point about Athenian ostracism is that it was not a random way of exiling anyone that any Athenian felt like, at any time. Had that been the case, Athens would have been emptied very quickly. It was purely political. Just once a year, the question was put to the sovereign decision-making assembly (all Athenian male citizens over 18) whether they wanted an ostracism. To judge from the very few that actually took place, it seems mostly to have been triggered when the assembly felt that its very existence was threatened (e.g. by advocates of tyranny) or its ability to reach important conclusion hampered by strong, rival factions. It was not, in other words, a judicial but an administrative act. The person so ostracised lost no property or rights; he was just asked not to come back for ten years.

But then the system failed. When the Athenians were discussing the invasion of Sicily (415 BC), there were deep divisions between the pro faction (youthful Alcibiades) and the anti (cagey Nicias). One Hyperbolus therefore proposed an ostracism, expecting (according to the historian Plutarch) that he would be a match for the one left standing. But Alcibiades and Nicias joined forces, and Hyperbolus was ostracised! It was never deployed again.

The relevance of the device to a hung parliament is obvious. The point of elections is to allow us our only chance to say who should govern us. It is clear that on this occasion, however, we do not want one party to do so. But we did not thereby give the major parties the right to engage in horse-trading: it is our right to choose our government, not theirs. So we should have the right, in a hung parliament, to vote immediately on which of the parties (from the three with the most seats) should not be permitted to help form the parliamentary majority. This ostracism would, for the life of the parliament, metaphorically exile from power whichever party we chose, and compel the others to get on with it. The people will have spoken.

Monday, May 3, 2010

1st May 2010

After failing to lay a glove on David Cameron in his pre-election interview, the professional personality Jeremy Paxman is said to have called him a ‘smooth bastard’, an admission of failure if ever there was one.

Paxman’s problem is that, being merely an interviewer, he is master of none of the technical problems on which he was challenging the Tory leader. It is a subject on which Socrates was eloquent. A principle that lies at the heart of Socratic thinking is that the precision with which one can describe the technical knowledge required in the practical business of e.g. pottery or carpentry should be applicable to talking about moral conduct too. So, we know precisely what goes into a good shoe and how it is made: what precisely goes into a good man, and how is he made?

In one dialogue he subjects the working of the Athenian Assembly to this style of analysis. When it dealt with technical matters, he says, the Assembly summoned technicians: building problems required builders, shipbuilding shipwrights, and so on; ‘and if anyone whom they do not regard as an expert tries to give them advice, they will have nothing to do with him, but will shout him down until he either gives up of his own accord or is dragged away by officials.’ But, Socrates goes on, when it is a matter of general policy, anyone can give his opinion, ‘carpenter, smith, cobbler, merchant or ship-owner, rich or poor, noble or low-born, and no one objects’. But what do they know to make them experts in this area?

Whither, then, Paxman? The fact is that his particular brand of bluster can no longer match the expertise of the party briefing machines. There are two possible solutions. Either Paxman yields place to a master of the technicalities to probe e.g. the economics of any proposals; or he goes into full Socratic overdrive, asking how one can tell what is good or bad in a policy, and how the interviewee can demonstrate that his policies in any area are good. Who knows, Paxman might even reach the agreeable Socratic conclusion that he was wiser than the interviewee to this extent that, unlike the interviewee, he knew he knew nothing. But somehow one doubts a professional personality could ever make such an admission.

Monday, April 26, 2010

24th April 2010

In the election there is one stupendous problem towering over all parties’ ambitions—debt. They all pretend it can be solved painlessly, but know they cannot tell the truth about it. Romans would have known where to start.

Romans made a point of emphasising that Senate and People stood together. Not for nothing was the famous SPQR logo Senatus PopulusQue Romanus highlighted on coins, documents, monuments and the standards of Roman legions. It reflected the popular ideology that the interests of the one were co-terminous with those of the other.

The result was that in the assemblies where the big issues were debated in front of the People (though not voted on; that was a separate procedure), the speakers had no ideological clubs with which to belabour one another. This was the People’s forum, and however grand or wealthy a politician was, he had no option but to proclaim himself to be on the People’s side. As Cicero points out, the assembly is a stage on which you must prove that you are the ‘statesman who is reliable, truthful and honest’. So however much of a toff a senator might actually be, the only question he faced was: how could he persuade the People that he and not his opponent was their true, eternal friend?

Amid all the other rhetorical devices, two stand out. One is that you alone are the man who understands the nexus of reciprocal obligations that binds People and Senate together; that, in return for the trust they have reposed in you, the People can be confident you will serve them without fear or favour.

The other is invidia—the capacity to raise in your audience a concentrated fury at the evils that your opponent has visited, and will continue to visit, on People and Senate if his proposals are accepted. Here there were no holds barred. When Gaius Memmius in 111 BC determined to expose dodgy senatorial deals with the African king Jugurtha, he laid into senators with volcanic ferocity, branding them blood-stained criminals, plunderers, extortionists and tyrants, wrecking their own authority and reducing the People to slavery. Sounds good to me.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

17th April 2010

Manifesto pledges, arguments, debates: but do any of them discuss the real issue at hand—what makes for good government? Socrates had strong views on the subject.

In his dialogue Gorgias, Plato puts Socrates head-to-head with Callicles, who proclaims the gospel that might is right, and that by effective use of rhetoric a politician can rise above the common herd and get whatever he wants. Socrates was talking in the context of a radical, direct democracy, where all decisions about the running of Athens were taken by male citizens over 18 meeting in Assembly; and he demolishes Callicles’ position by pointing out that he will achieve his ends only by sucking up to the people so that they give in to him. But, Socrates wants to know, is that what leaders of the people are actually for? He now uses analogies from everyday life (e.g. doctors are there to use their knowledge to make you healthy) to get a reluctant Callicles to agree that the job of the leader was to use his knowledge to ensure that citizens made decisions based not on self-interest but on a strong sense of justice, guided by self-discipline. In other words, it is only if leaders make citizens better people morally that citizens stand any chance of making the just, moral decisions that will best serve the state and therefore themselves, resulting inevitably in self-fulfilment and happiness for all.

Socrates does not deny that leaders do have other responsibilities, e.g. state security (‘ships, fortifications, dockyards and so on and so forth’, as he puts it). But that is only the technical aspect of a state’s duties to its citizens. Pandering to the people’s whims, however, which is what Callicles seemed to have in mind, was a recipe for disaster.

In our elective oligarchy, we do not make decisions; our MPs do. So what values do we wish to see in our MPs? Socratic ones, like an orderly, disciplined mind and strong sense of right and wrong? Or just a willingness to do what their leader tells them? What responsibility does our MP have to us? ‘To make a difference’ is the stock answer: but to whom and in what respect, Socrates would ask. If ‘to make constituents fulfilled, happy and contented’, how would they do that? By sucking up to them?

Somehow one cannot see party leaders or MPs debating these rather basic questions. For Socrates, it certainly was not the economy, stupid.

Friday, April 9, 2010

10th April 2010

David Cameron wants us all to be part of a ‘Big Society’. What this means is using the state to galvanise families, individuals, charities and communities to come together to solve social problems themselves. But what will motivate people so to do?

Ancient Athenian citizens (male, of Athenian parentage and over 18) felt highly motivated to solve the problems they faced because in their radical, direct democracy, they met in Assembly every eight days to make all the decisions, executive and legislative, that parliament makes on our behalf today. Their commitment to this style of rule is demonstrated by the speed with which they rallied to restore the democracy on the two occasions on which it was (briefly) replaced by an oligarchy. Further, it was felt to be an enormous success. The maritime empire they ran poured wealth into the city and made it, as Pericles boasted, ‘the education of Greece’. Athens was the place to be, and the people rightly took immense pride in what they, personally, had achieved. The gods were clearly smiling on their efforts.

Romans developed a similar sense of achievement. They, too, had a direct hand in government, voting to pass every proposal that the Senate came up with. Their citizen army, hardened by two cataclysmic engagements with the Carthaginians on sea and then on land in the 3^rd C BC, was almost invincible. It was responsible for growing a vast empire whose tribute provided Romans with virtually anything they wanted, making Rome and the great cities they built like Alexandria and Constantinople the envy of the world. What it was to be a Roman! They had faced dangerous challenges and successfully overcome them. Pride mingled with patriotism and the conviction that the gods were on their side.

Since most people do not feel like this about Britain, let alone government, any more, what will motivate them to charitable activity is the feeling that they really can make a difference, by their own unhindered efforts, to a cause they value. The idea that a government-driven, bureaucratically-controlled initiative can create the circumstances in which such activity can flourish is a contradiction in terms. If Cameron really wants society to change, it is government that is going to have to change first. Do not hold your breath.

Peter Jones