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?