Sunday, November 20, 2011

5th November 2011

The title of Boris’s forthcoming book on the people of London claims that it is ‘the city that made the world’. Whoa back, steady on, now. Surely Boris means Rome, centre of a vast ancient empire, not to mention the worldwide Catholic Church?

When the poet Martial described the opening of the Colosseum in ad 80, he observed the vast throng gathered in it and wondered if there was any race so remote, so barbarous that it was not represented — Thracians, Sarmatians (from the Danube), Britons, Arabs, Sygambrians (a German people), Ethiopians, ‘their voices a babel, yet one, when they call you, emperor, true father of the fatherland’. The emperor indeed had the whole wide world in his hands, and the peoples of the world knew it. So did the animals from all over the empire on display for their pleasure — bears, rhinos, lions, tigers, elephants.

The city used the world’s materials — Aswan granite, Numidian and Phrygian marble — and the poor enjoyed its produce: bread baked with wheat from North Africa, fish from Gibraltar, utensils of copper mined in Spain, wine from France. Wives of the rich, seated on Indian ebony or teak inlaid with African ivory, adorned themselves in silks from China, diamonds and pearls from India and cosmetics from southern Arabia.

It was not just Romans like Ovid who claimed that ‘the world and the city of Rome occupy the same space’. The Gallic poet Rutilius said that Rome offered the vanquished a share in their justice, thus ‘making a city out of what was once the world’. The Greek Aristides argued that all you had to do was to look at the city to understand how the world was ruled by it; indeed, you could visit the whole world simply by visiting Rome. Rome not merely made the world (cosmotrophos was sometimes applied to it, ‘nurturer of the cosmos’); it was the world.

A final, glorious conceit: roads out of Rome marked only the distance from the city, not to anywhere. All that counted was how near or far you were from it. Not even Boris would dare to do that for London. Would he?

12th November 2011

It seems most odd to become so agitated about the (very few) filthy rich when the (large numbers) of very poor should be the centre of the welfare state’s concerns. But if one wants to fleece the rich, a quid pro quo always helps, as the ancient Greeks knew.

Every year in Athens, the richest 300 citizens could be instructed to carry out a leitourgia, lit. ‘work for the people’, i.e. a personal obligation in service of the state (origin of our ‘liturgy’). The wealth in property that qualified a man for such a duty was 3-4 talents (18-24,000 drachmas). This duty could involve anything from equipping a trireme for a year to underwriting dramatic productions. These did not come cheap. A working man’s wage was 1 dr. a day. One of the cheapest liturgies was staging a choral show at 300 dr.; putting on a stage production could cost 3,000 dr.; and running a trireme for a year 5,000 dr. and more.

The rich, however, are a hard-headed lot, and Athenians were no different. What if old X down the road had more money than Y, but Y was landed with the leitourgia? Y could choose to challenge X to an antidosis, an exchange of property. If X agreed, Y would carry it out; if not, X would carry it out (if, that is, he lost the court-case he would bring, disputing Y’s claim).

But there was a competing, even more powerful, emotion involved: desire for public acclaim, with all the kudos and political benefit that brought. Greek literature is full of examples of the rich citing the number of leitourgiai they had carried out, and at what expense, to demonstrate the fine service they had done for the community.

If the adult male citizen population was 60,000, the top 300 would account for one 1 in 200. Today’s taxpayers number 30 million. The top 300 would equal 1 in 100,000 — about right for the really stinking rich? And what endless hilarity the antidoseis (pl.) would provide! But, as an ancient orator said, ‘The greatest leitourgia that one can perform for the city is to live, day by day, a life of orderly self-restraint’. Or fund Classics for All...

19th November 2011

The French justified Greece’s entry into the EU by claiming that they ‘could not say no to the country of Plato’. You bet they couldn’t.

In the Republic, Plato outlined his utopia. This was not a practical construct, but a vision of an imaginary, ideal community whose purpose was to act as a model for how things might be. He did this by sketching a picture of the educational and moral underpinning that went into making a good human and extrapolating from that an institutional programme that would create the good state.

The consequence was twofold. First, Plato had to show up the deficiencies of existing constitutions, to demonstrate there was no future in them. Democracy in particular, the system under which Plato lived in Athens, came in for special contempt. The EU could not agree more.

Second, Plato assumed it was worth any price to impose his vision of the perfect state, because it represented the best that humans on earth could ever achieve. But the noble vision of ‘goodness’ at its heart was ultimately tyrannical, because it denied freedom. Moral purity was to be imposed by Plato’s indoctrinated Guardians.

The EU too had a noble political vision — Europe at peace — but put economic progress at its heart. The result was the imposition by indoctrinated EU Guardians of a regulatory/financial tyranny invented by economists and controlling all the main economic levers. Such a system, as many pointed out at the time, could not work, as we are now discovering to our multi-trillion euro cost. Thanks a lot.

Yet, locked in its own make-believe shadow-world, the EU still clings to its own hype and is currently trying to solve the economic catastrophe of its own making by putting in power in countries that it has destroyed the very people who created that catastrophe in the first place — EU economists! Plato would be laughing his himation off. His famous allegory of men locked into the shadow-world of an underground cave, dogmatically refusing to open their eyes to the real world above, could not have been more exquisitely realised.