Sunday, May 22, 2011

21st May 2011

Most universities have decided to pitch their fees at the maximum allowable of £9,000 a year. One hopes this is one part of a Cunning Plan to ensure that Plato’s vision of a real education is realised.
Plato was once invited by groupies to come to Sicily and try to turn the tyrant Dionysius into his ideal Ruler King. Plato gave it a go, but it did not quite work out first time round. Some years later, Plato was assured Dionysius was coming on very well in philosophy, and was persuaded to try again. When he arrived, he found Dionysius full of hopelessly garbled ideas but persevered and put him to the ultimate test: he outlined to Dionysius everything that would be required of him and the effort it would entail, if he were genuinely serious about his academic interests. That way, said Plato, you find out whether a pupil has the ‘divine spark’ in him or not, and it also absolves the teacher of responsibility if the pupil cannot meet the demands.
But Dionysius turned out, as Plato suspected he would, to be the sort of pupil interested in philosophy only as a form of sun-tan, supplying a superficial, overall veneer—a wonderful image—well fitted to those who liked soft living and were incapable of hard work. Plato wryly comments that Dionysius went on to write a book about the subject.
So if the huge fees that universities plan were to be combined with brochures that explained exactly what a real university education would entail rather than expounding on the number of nightclubs available, it could have the wholly beneficial consequence of making the young think very hard indeed about the value of going there or not, and ensuring that only those who seriously wanted to learn would apply. If that turned out to be the case, numbers would plummet to a level at which the very best of the bunch, rich or poor, could be educated free, and standards would rocket. Valueless institutions and courses would close, but if one wants an educational elite—and why spend state money on anything else?—there is no conceivable reason why they should survive. After all, any fool can get a sun-tan.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

14th May 2011

If Romans had had such a concept as a ‘right to life’, their jurists would have dealt with the question whether it should be possible to lose it. Given that the salus (safety/security/well-being) of the people should be the ultimate law (Cicero), one can guess what their answer would be. But whatever one’s view of bin Laden’s tragic passing, al-Qa’eda’s preference for settling disputes with the bomb and gun throws up a juicy prospect: there is a vacancy for a new mastermind.

The collapse of the Roman republic in the 1st century BC was down to dynasts such as Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Caesar using the might of soldiers loyal to them, and not the state, to impose their own will on the Senate. As Cicero lamented to Brutus, ‘We are made a mockery by the whims of soldiers and arrogance of their generals. Everyone demands as much political power as the army at his back can deliver. Reason, moderation, law, tradition, duty count for nothing.’ Vicious civil war was the disastrous consequence.

But the emergence of a ‘constitutional’ imperial system under Rome’s first emperor Augustus did not affect this very basic Roman instinct. When Nero committed suicide in AD 68, there was no obvious successor. Four generals promptly fought it out for supremacy, each briefly declared emperor in turn, until Vespasian settled the matter. During the 3rd century AD, increasing pressure on Rome’s borders from Germans in the north and Persians in the east made professional soldier emperors the fashion. In the hundred years before Constantine (312), there were more than 60 emperors, or people declared emperor; in 238 alone there were technically six. And this was Rome!

If that is anything to go by, and bin Laden, as well as being a figure-head, really was as central to the organisation as the Americans claim, it may be that we should put serious behind-the-scenes efforts into encouraging the Egyptian al-Zawahiri and the Americo-Yemeni al-Awlaki to blow each other to bits for the top job — but only on the very purest of ideological grounds, of course.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

7th May 2011

Romans would have been disgusted by the death of bin Laden. They expected better of their enemies, even if mass murderers, than to be supinely dispatched, cowering behind his wife, without a fight or heroic gesture.

Mithradates, king of Pontus in Asia Minor (northern Turkey), plotted against Rome for nearly 30 years. In 89 BC he launched his first assault against the Romans there, engineering the slaughter of 80,000 Roman residents on one night of the ‘Asiatic Vespers’. He was finally betrayed by his son in 63 BC while planning an assault on Italy. Having inoculated himself against poison, he ordered a slave to run him through, commenting that he had not guarded against the most treacherous of all poisons — domestic treachery. Rome’s Pompey hailed him as the greatest king of his day. Hannibal, too, tracked down to Pontus (northern Turkey) after a chance remark, took poison, ‘not wanting to put his life at anyone else’s disposal’. He became a key, and not unadmired, figure in Rome’s historical memory.

Those who were taken alive after battle were paraded in the general’s triumph. Even this was a back-handed mark of respect: no honourable Roman would celebrate the defeat of a non-entity. The Briton Caratacus held his head up before the emperor Claudius, pointing out that if he had surrendered without a fight, there would have been no glory for Claudius, and if he were to be executed, the memory of the great triumph would soon fade. He was spared.

That said, the ancient world also knew all about the mysterious grip that some could still exert in death. The crazed emperor Nero, very popular out East for his artistic and sporting performances there, killed himself in despair in AD 68. But many believed he was still alive. Sightings were reported in the East. A hotch-potch of poems constructed him as a champion against Roman tyranny, a hero of popular culture who had not really died but was waiting to return to ‘save’ his people.

Who would bet against bin Laden being turned into a similar sort of Elvis figure by his infatuated adherents?