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 psychĂȘ, 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.