Tuesday, August 30, 2011

20th August 2011

Prime Minister Cameron wants to fix the ‘moral collapse’ that caused the recent riots. So do we all, but how?

In a dialogue by Plato, Protagoras told the following mûthos about how man developed respect for others (aidôs) and a sense of justice (dikê). When men were first created, Prometheus gave them the knowledge of skills, so that they could develop language, agriculture, houses and so on. But living in small groups, they were vulnerable to attack from wild animals. So they began to group themselves together into cities. But lacking any of the required social skills, they at once turned to crime and fighting each other. Zeus therefore sent Hermes to instil in every one of them aidôs and dikê. As a result, genuine communities could at last be built.

The point was that aidôs allowed humans to live successfully together because it was an impulse to respect mutually agreed social norms, while dikê, in the name of those norms, enforced that respect among those who decided to ignore them. Personal values and public sanctions, in other words, were integrally connected. But how were they then transferred down the generations? They were just picked up, says Protagoras, from the home, from school, from society as a whole. And here comes the crunch: to ask who taught you them, he said, was as pointless as asking who taught you your native tongue.

Protagoras was right. He thought lecturing people about values was almost a complete waste of time. Socrates too was baffled by the problem, arguing that there were many good people whose children turned out to be wastes of space. Even education made no difference to them: they simply ‘browsed about like sacred cattle, hoping to pick up values automatically’.

The idea that one can ‘fix’ such moral collapse with ‘measures’ is the sort of thing politicians have to say. But they know it is nonsense (especially as the rioters loved every minute of it). The best they can do is to make sure such riots never get going.

27th August 2011

There has been considerable comment on the severity of the punishments handed out to the looters in the recent riots. In Aristotle’s Problems, most of which, admittedly, is not by the great man, a stern justification is mounted.

The problem is posed as follows: ‘Why is it that, if someone steals from a public bath or gymnasium or market-place or anywhere like that, the penalty is death, but if from a private dwelling, it is twice the value of what was stolen?’

In the case of the private house, Aristotle offers three arguments: first, it has walls and locks, and it is possible to set a guard; second, it rests with the owner whom to admit and whom to exclude. But in a public place, there are no such physical safeguards, nor does one have any choice about who is allowed into a bath or gym or not. Aristotle then adds a third: those who steal from public places will care nothing about their public reputation, and therefore be unreformable, while those who steal from private homes may be known to the owner and want to retain their reputation by returning the goods.

In the case of theft from public places, Aristotle again proposes a range of answers. First, and most important, not only does the victim suffer private loss, but the city is discredited, ‘in exactly the same way as responsible public behaviour brings it the greatest honour’ — and here he draws a parallel with the heavy penalties imposed on those who insult legal and other public authorities, but none on those insulting an individual.

He also adds that if one loses property in private, one can bear the misfortune in private; but if in public, there is the prospect of the humiliation the victim will have to bear in addition to the loss. The example Aristotle cites is that of a man whose clothes are stolen at the public baths: ‘it is embarrassing enough to have to walk home in the nude anyway, quite apart from being laughed at, which is worse than any loss’.

This, of course, was a time when self-help and a man’s public reputation, whatever his circumstances, were the order of the day…

Sunday, August 14, 2011

30th July 2011

The EU, cobbled together in Brussels for ideological purposes, is fast turning into a creaking alliance of rather disenchanted member states. Let us see if we can help little Herman Achille Van Rompuy, the EU’s current president, to rally his besieged troops in Brussels with a Periclean speech.

In summer 430 BC Athens [Brussels] was having trouble with Sparta [its interest rate policy] and had just been struck by a murderous plague [collapse of the banks]. Since it was Pericles [van Rompuy] who had insisted on this policy, which would enable it to keep a grip on its empire [the EU member states], Pericles came forward to remind the Athenians [EUcrats in Brussels] that they must not falter. The following is extracted from Thucydides’ account of that speech.

Pericles makes three basic points. First, he is cleverer than all of them. That is why they agreed to his plan in the first place, about which some are now having doubts; and he could not be expected to have foreseen the plague [banking collapse]. So, no U-turns.

Second, they must not listen to the nay-sayers. Their city [Athens-Brussels] has the greatest name among men for its refusal to yield to adversity. It will be remembered for all time that it held the greatest power over any empire. Hatred and resentment have always been the lot of the brilliant: if that must be incurred, incur it in the name of the greatest aims which will bring Athens [Brussels] present glory and future fame to endure in men’s hearts for ever.

Finally, ‘you cannot shirk the burden without abandoning the pursuit of glory. If you lose your empire, there is danger from the hatred towards you that it engendered. So you no longer have the option to abdicate from it. The fact is that the empire you now possess is like a tyranny. It may have been wrong to acquire it, but it is certainly dangerous to let it go.’

And then, van Rompuy will go on, Thucydides commented that, on the death of Pericles, policy was changed, with (as he had foreseen) disastrous consequences. There! EU know it makes sense.

6th August 2011

The closure of El Bulli, the world’s most highly rated restaurant, has been greeted with cries of anguish from the world’s foodies. Lament no more! Romans were in the joke food business long before El Bullshit.

Around ad 65, as Nero was going more and more crackers, the great Roman satirist Petronius produced his Satyrica (a title encompassing both lechery and satire). What survives of it contains an account of a feast put on by one Trimalchio, an ex-slave made very, very good in property and now a multi-millionaire. The absurd Trimalchio naturally regards himself as the coolest man in town, and is especially proud of his cook. For dessert, the cook serves up pastry thrushes stuffed with raisins and nuts, quinces with thorns implanted in them to look like sea-urchins and then a fat goose surrounded by a fish and every type of bird, but in fact made of pork. Trimalchio comments: ‘There can’t be a more valuable man anywhere. If you ask him, he’ll make fish out of tripe, a pigeon out of bacon, a turtle out of ham, a chicken out of a pork-knuckle.’

Similarly, Livy tells of a host who served game out of season and explained that ‘by clever seasoning these various forms of wild game were in fact made out of swine’. The poet Martial mocks one Caecilius who produces a complete meal out of pumpkins, turning them into cakes, lentils, beans, mushrooms, sausages, tuna fish, sprats and sweetmeats. Horace describes a feast in which the host lectured his guests on every course and why it bore no resemblance to anything anyone would expect (guests fled before another disquisition on the quality of the charred blackbirds and rumpless pigeons). The boy emperor Elagabalus was famous for his different coloured meals — all blue, green, or glass-coloured. Sometimes paintings of food were served up; sometimes different courses in different houses miles apart. He enjoyed camel’s heels and cocks’ combs. Peas were served with gold pieces, lentils with onyx and rice with pearls.

It all makes El Bulli look desperately dull. Perhaps it will give the cook some much-needed new ideas.