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

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

27th March 2010

Steven Byers looks more like one of the sellers as he touts himself round the House of Commons like a ‘taxi for hire’. Romans knew all about this sort of thing.The Latin for ‘electioneering’ was ambitio, and its cognate ambitus meant ‘bribery’. Since vote-winning was an honourable pastime, bribery did not automatically mean corruption. It meant doing favours by offering gifts for something in return, which could (at a pinch) be seen to be in the public interest. Such a culture was at the heart of all relationships, social, political, legal and business, in the Roman world. The general public too played the game, getting to the head of the queue by greasing palms. The emperor Caracalla (AD 198-217) offered sound advice to officials here: do not take ‘everything, nor every time, nor from every one’.For the great and good, this could be done on a huge scale. When Caesar and Pompey, for example, took steps in 59 BC to ensure that Cleopatra’s father Ptolemy XII became king of Egypt, they picked up a cool £50 million. Provincial governors, appointed from those who had served their year of office, found it easy to make a fortune in the service of Rome, even an honest one like Cicero. But as wits said, a governor had, in fact, to make three fortunes: one to recoup election expenses from climbing the greasy pole in Rome; one to bribe the jury on charges of provincial mismanagement; and one to live off thereafter.But where Byers went badly wrong was to suggest he had far more influence than he did. Romans had a word for this: ‘selling smoke’. When Severus Alexander (Roman emperor AD 222-235) heard that Verconius Turinus was making vast sums by claiming he had Severus’ ear, he set up a hoax petitioner to expose him. Verconius was tied to a stake in the forum, and a fire of straw and wet logs was constructed around him. There he was suffocated to death by the smoke, while the herald cried ‘He who sold smoke is punished by smoke’.Cicero once thundered ‘There is nothing by which those in charge of public affairs can more easily endear themselves to the masses than by incorruptible abstemiousness.’ It is a message which some of our MPs seem congenitally incapable of comprehending.caveat emptor – or Byers beware.

20th February 2010

The public fury against MPs generated by everything from Iraq to the expenses scandal seems to leave our MPs baffled. Ancient Athenians would not have been.
There was no respite for those who engaged in democratic politics in 5th -4th C Athens. Since Athenians meeting in Assembly were the government of Athens, they had no compunction in taking action against those whom they had appointed to serve them when, rightly or wrongly, they felt they had been let down in some way or other. Miltiades, the victor against the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC, later led an expedition against the island of Paros without informing the Assembly of his intentions. When it ended in disaster, the crime was compounded. Not only had he abused his powers by acting off his own bat, he was also guilty of gross incompetence. The result was that his political enemies in Athens, of which he had many, were handed a golden opportunity to get their own back. He was prosecuted by one such rival, who sought the death penalty. The Assembly eventually decided to fine him the gigantic sum of fifty talents, possibly because he was dying anyway of gangrene in a wound suffered in the attack.
This incident was typical. The Assembly did not take failure or incompetence lightly, while wealthy aristocrats were quick to seize any chance of getting at a rival (sometimes as much for self-protection as to do him down). Further, those who, as private citizens, simply wielded influence in the Assembly, even if they did not hold any office, could also be disciplined, with exile or even execution, if the courses of action they proposed turned out badly.
The importance placed on civic responsibility may be one reason for the severity of the Athenian Assembly. Another may be the fact that ‘good intentions’ did not play well as an excuse for failure. No one, after all, intends to fail. In other words, it was a world in which, by and large, only results counted. A tearful Alastair Campbell, emoting abjectly over his master’s sincerity, would have been howled down.
Yet none of this prevented Athenians eager for power fighting their way up the democratic ladder. Our self-pitying, molly-coddled MPs, for whom political failure simply means loss of job, can thank their lucky stars that they do not serve in a real democracy.

6th February 2010

Tony Blair claimed with almost evangelical fervour that it was ‘right’ to side with America in deciding to attack Iraq and went on ‘I had to take this decision as Prime Minister. It was a huge responsibility.’ Aristotle would have had some questions to ask about this.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) raises a major problem in asking how one should lead the good life, and argues that it could be lived only in the context of a community, and most importantly a community in which one played an active political part. He then goes on to discuss the various types of community available in terms of their political constitution, and comes to the conclusion that, in theory at least, absolute kingship would be the best answer, as against an oligarchy (which was the equivalent of the aristocracy) or democracy (rule by the many).

His argument for absolute kingship is based on the assumption that a man could emerge so superior to everyone else in moral, political and philosophical virtue that no one else’s virtue could be comparable. But he sees two insuperable problems. First, he would have to be of such superhuman excellence that he would have to be nothing less than a god—a person ‘not easy to find’, he says drily. Second, qua god, he would automatically be above the law. But since that would mean that citizens could not engage in political activity, i.e. law-making, they could not lead the good life. So absolute monarchy is not the answer; and a monarch ruled by the law is not really a monarch at all, but rather a sort of executive officer.

His solution (though he does not lay down specifics) is a case-by-case, uneasy compromise between oligarchic features, e.g. election to office, property qualifications and punishment for not attending legislative assemblies and juries, and democratic, the reverse (selection by lot, payment for civic duties, etc.).

Since it is out of a jumble of such features that our constitution, such as it is, is made up (including a monarchic element too), Aristotle would wonder how Mr Blair could say that he had taken upon himself alone a decision to lead the country into war anyway, let alone one which most authorities consider illegal. There would surely be only one conclusion he could reach: such a man, not only of incomparable virtue but far above everyday human law, must have been a divinity.

16th January 2010

The failed Hoon-Hewitt coup against the Prime Minister offers a clear Roman lesson—if you strike, you strike early and you strike hard.

When, for example, the despotic madman Caligula was cut down, the idea was that the republic would be restored. But as the senate endlessly debated the matter, the army moved in. Claudius (nephew of the previous emperor Tiberius) was hauled out from behind a curtain where he had hidden himself—a soldier spotted his feet—and taken to the barracks of the Praetorian Guard (the emperor’s bodyguard). There he promised each of the soldiers a hefty bribe and was duly proclaimed emperor. Result? No change. For the senate, read our dithering Cabinet.

But if that spinelessness is bad enough, what about Gordon Brown? In AD 65 a wide range of conspirators including senators and Praetorian Guards set out to assassinate Nero, putting up the popular young aristocrat Piso to replace him. It turned into a shambles. A slave of one of the conspirators sensed what was going on, and saw fame and fortune in telling the emperor. Nero immediately roped in the suspects. They broke down and tried to save their skins by naming names. When Nero realised the extent of the putsch, he put the whole city on alert, and the blood began to flow. Piso was urged to rally the army and people against Nero and at least die heroically in the attempt. No chance. He committed suicide, larding his will with repulsive flattery of the emperor in order to save his family.

In other words, ‘strike early, strike hard’ applies to the intended victim too. Domitian, for example, took instant action against suspects during his reign (including twelve ex-consuls), so successfully that he was able to remark ‘no one believes in a conspiracy against the emperor until it has succeeded.’

And what does Brown do? Far from sacking the conspirators, he keeps them on. Even worse, he appeases them! Where is that great clunking fist, Romans would have wanted to know? The only intelligible conclusion is that he is so loathed, so isolated, so feeble, that he has no one else to turn to. And this is the man the Cabinet could not bring themselves to remove! What a pathetic bunch they all are. Well, if they can’t put themselves out of their misery, we shall just have to.

9th January 2010

Tough decisions! Yes! That’s Gordon for you! The problem is thinking of one: national debt? global warming? school standards? Not a peep. But Athenian male citizens over 18 meeting in Assembly never had any problems about taking them, contrarian and painful as they were.

Two examples stand out. Around 483 bc, the lead mines at Laurium in Attica (Athens’s hinterland) yielded a fabulous strike of silver. The Assembly usually decided to divide it up among the citizens and make hay. But the statesman Themistocles came up with a less immediately agreeable proposal: it should be used to build a war fleet to take on Aegina, a neighbouring Greek island (‘the eyesore of Athens’), and win dominance of the sea. The Assembly saw the long-term advantages and agreed. In the event, it enabled the Athenians to repel the Persian invaders at Salamis two years later and subsequently build an empire that made them fabulously rich.

Fifty years later, war broke out between Athens and Sparta (the Peloponnesian War). Athens’s invincibility at sea, however, was matched by Sparta’s on land, and the great Athenian statesman Pericles knew that Attica could not be defended. So he proposed to the Assembly that the whole population of Attica abandon its farms and livelihood and take refuge within the security of Athens’s walls. The distress and resentment were intense — ‘it was like going into exile’ — but they did it, even though they then had to watch the invading Spartans ravage their ancestral homes, shrines and lands.

Athenians could make tough decisions like this because they were the government, with only one end in view: the national interest. They were used to making proposals, arguing, taking responsibility and living with the consequences.

But in our system, while the government’s job may be to govern, its ultimate purpose is to stay in power. Consequently, if there is a national interest to serve that will make it unpopular, it does not want to know — though there is one tough decision (just one) that Mr Brown could take that would prove a real vote-winner. And possibly win his party the next election. But that would take real courage.

2nd January 2010

The Chilcot enquiry into the Iraq war raises the old question of what constitutes a ‘just’ war. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are the authorities here, but they have their eyes on their predecessors.

The Chilcot enquiry into the Iraq war raises the old question of what constitutes a ‘just’ war. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are the authorities here, but they have their eyes on their predecessors.

Ancient Greeks had little to say about the concept but, contrary to received opinion, they were not (for the most part) committed warmongers. Just over one third of the Iliad is taken up with battle scenes (about 300 encounters), but Ares the war god is the most hated divinity of all, and when a duel between Menelaus (husband of Helen) and Paris, her seducer, is proposed to settle the issue once and for all, the troops on both sides are delighted, remove their arms and settle down to watch. The historian Herodotus, saying no one is so foolish as to choose war over peace, pinpoints the dreadful personal price: fathers burying their sons. Plato states the obvious that ‘the greatest good is neither war nor civil war (God forbid we should ever need to resort to either) but peace and goodwill among men’; while Aristotle points out that ‘no one chooses to be at war, or provokes war, for the sake of being at war... we make war to live in peace’.

That said, Aristotle does come up with the interesting argument that no war can be said to be just unless it is fought ‘against men who, though intended by nature to be governed, will not submit’. This comes close to the doctrine still prevailing in the West, that the only form of just governance is elective oligarchy (aka ‘democracy’), which we must impose on all those who disagree.

Cicero defines a just war as follows. Its aim must be that ‘we may live in peace, unharmed’. A demand for satisfaction must be submitted, or warning given and declaration made; and only legally enlisted soldiers can fight. War for glory and empire must be fought less bitterly than one for survival, and those who surrender must be treated mercifully. So too must the vanquished, as long as they have not acted barbarically. Finally, all promises must be kept.

Cicero’s view is controlled entirely by self-interest, as it would be for an imperialistic state like Rome. But it raises the question of the meaning of a ‘just war’. ‘Just’ in whose eyes? And justiciable too? Or does it mean simply ‘justifiable’? Or ‘ultimately justified’?