Sunday, November 11, 2012
Sunday, September 9, 2012
Plato puts it another way in his Republic, arguing that democracies, where everyone has to be ‘equal’, are especially prone to re-evaluating human qualities: so ‘shame’ becomes silliness, ‘self-control’ becomes cowardice, ‘moderation’ becomes lack of style, ‘insolence’ becomes good breeding, ‘licence’ liberty and ‘extravagance’ generosity. ‘Disability’ now seems to have been redefined as ‘bravery’.
However slippery language is, the slope that its emotional misuse leads us down is far more slippery. How often have the media described innocent people killed by a terrorist bomb as ‘heroic’? Or a horse put down after a race as ‘tragic’? Or the efficient organisation of the London games as ‘world-beating’? Paralympians do not need the bogus accolade of patronising, hyperbolic epithets to make them feel good about themselves any more than Stephen Hawking does (or is it we that need them, to feel good about ourselves?). They are professional athletes. That is their job. Winning will do quite well enough.
Friday, August 31, 2012
Thursday, August 16, 2012
A lesson from St Jerome
The educational bien pensants are up in arms because Michael Gove wants children at primary school to learn their times-tables not in ‘real-life contexts’ but ‘by rote’. The ancients, whose education was thoroughly practical, had no problems with rote at all.
Take St Jerome. In ad 403 he wrote a letter to Laeta, instructing her on how to teach her daughter Paula to read and write. Laeta must get Paula a set of letters, made of boxwood or ivory, and call them by their proper names. Paula must be encouraged to play with them and get used to their shapes and names. Then she must learn their right order — a rhyme may help her to do this — but in order that she can also recognise them by sight, Laeta must constantly disarrange them and ask Paula to identify which is which and put them in the right order.
When it comes to writing, Laeta must guide Paula’s hand as she writes, or draw an outline of the letters for her to copy. Paula must be offered prizes for good spelling, and competition with friends must be encouraged, so that she can see how good spellers are rewarded. Nor must the learning be haphazard, but purposeful, e.g. knowing ‘the names of the prophets or apostles or patriarchs from Adam downwards contained in Matthew and Luke’.
Further, ‘you must not scold her if she is slow to learn, but praise her: that will delight her when she does better than others and annoy her when she does not. Most of all, you must make sure that she does not take against her lessons, in case that dislike continue into later years.’
This was the pattern of good ancient education: plenty of encouragement to end up actually knowing things that were useful. Clearly this is not a pattern approved of by modern educationists. But since for most pupils ‘real-life context’ is buying things, one would have thought that knowing the times-table off by heart was a rather useful means to an end. If pupils are not able to live up to the educationist ideal — and many will not be — at least they have a memory that can be put to good mathematical use. What on earth can be anti-educational or unconstructive about that?
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Monday, August 6, 2012
‘Olympism’ is, according to the 2011 Olympic charter, ‘a philosophy of life which places sport at the service of humankind… exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind… Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.’
The great Greek doctor Galen, who knew a bit about athletes, took a slightly different view. He wrote: ‘All natural blessings are either mental or physical, and there is no other category of blessing. Now it is abundantly clear to everyone that athletes have never even dreamed of mental blessings. To begin with, they are so deficient in reasoning powers that they do not even know whether they have a brain. Always gorging themselves on flesh and blood, they keep their brains soaked in so much filth that they are unable to think accurately and are as mindless as dumb animals… Will they claim the most important blessing of all — health? You will find no one in a more dangerous physical condition… Further, the extreme conditioning of athletes is treacherous and variable, for there is no room for improvement. The only direction they can go is downhill.’
Galen was not alone. The thinker Xenophanes pointed out that, however much the victor at the Games was honoured, ‘the city would not thereby be better governed, nor its granaries filled’. Aristotle thought ‘the athlete’s style of bodily fitness does nothing for the general purposes of civic life… Some exercise is essential, but it must be neither violent nor specialised, as is the case with athletes.’ The Roman emperor Augustus’ confidante Maecenas lamented: ‘The cities should not waste their resources on number and variety of games… ruining the public treasury and private estates thereby.’
Ancient Greeks had no such concept as ‘Olympism’. They just wanted to win at games. So do modern athletes. The consequences that the ancients describe remain (largely) the same. The spectacular hypocrisy of the Olympic charter makes one want to throw up.
Saturday, July 7, 2012
Sunday, June 3, 2012
Sunday, April 22, 2012
Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Sunday, February 12, 2012
With the death of Kim Jong-il and accession of his son Kim Jong-un, these are dodgy days in North Korea. It all goes back to Jong-il’s father Kim Il-sung, who became its first dictator in 1948 and also invented North Korea’s professional army. The first Roman emperor Augustus provides the model for what is happening.
Since Rome had never had an emperor before, the big question became: what happened when the long-lived Augustus died? Augustus was all too aware of the problem and, with no male offspring of his own, could only watch aghast as, one by one, his personal choices dropped off the perch. According to Tacitus, it was all down to his wife Livia. She was determined that her less than enthusiastic son Tiberius by her first husband should succeed, but the ailing Augustus turned at the last minute to a previously unfavoured grandson. Livia stepped in. She summoned Tiberius back from his post in the Balkans, sealed the roads round the palace, posted hopeful messages and then announced Augustus was dead and Tiberius emperor. The grandson was immediately murdered. Job done. The point is this: Il-sung was dictator till 1994. He faced exactly the same question: would the job stay in the family? But at least Jong-il was grown up and knew what was entailed. Jong-un is a dim, untested stripling in a still newish line of descent.
Which is where the military comes in. Like Il-sung, Augustus developed Rome’s first, professional, career-based army and put himself at the head of it, determined that there would be no more private armies of the sort that destroyed the Republic. So Rome became, effectively, a military dictatorship. But that still left the question: would the army remain loyal to the man who took over on Augustus’ death? In fact Balkan and Rhine armies both mutinied, looking for better terms of service. No doubt the North Korean Army and its generals are equally keen to make a persuasive point to Jong-un’s team in a poverty-stricken country.
Tiberius likened being emperor to a man holding a wolf by the ears. Doubtless Jong-un would see the point.
Sir Paul Ruddock has revealed that he received his knighthood for none but philanthropic reasons. Every ancient would have cheered him to the roof and wondered why bankers like Sir Paul do not front up more about their beneficence.
Those who go round a classical site or museum will find themselves regularly bumping into inscriptions on statue bases, with or without statue, publicly proclaiming the benefits which the person so celebrated has bestowed on the town. Such a mark of honour was, as Aristotle said, ‘what we assign to the gods as their due and is desired by the eminent and awarded as their prize’.
Greeks and Romans alike were quite open in admitting that ‘honour’ was their motive for giving. Some even stated the precise conditions: ‘My gift is to be inscribed on three marble stones, one by my house, one in the temple, and one in the gymnasium,’ said a Greek from Gytheion. More generous donors, like the Libyan Flavius Lappianus, would even pay for the monument to be set up themselves, ‘being content with the honour alone’, as he said.
An added bonus was to be remembered down the generations. The Greeks even had a saying for it: ‘Man likens himself to a god in doing good.’ The Christian writer Tertullian pointed out to those who mocked the idea of eternal life that they themselves tried as far as they could to provide a kind of resurrection of the dead! But Christians too were not averse to thinking of charity in such terms, and being applauded in heaven as euergetai (the technical Greek term for benefactor).
So Sir Paul’s proposal that citations for honours should go into detail about what honorands have done to deserve it is to be applauded, even more so if the person so honoured is a (dread word) banker. Let those who make untold millions from financial transactions not be afraid to make clear how they have used it for the benefit of all and win the honour and gratitude that such generosity deserves. Think Carnegie, Getty, Mellon, Rockefeller, Rowntree, Gates....
The reason why shadow chancellor Balls is such a liability is that he is incapable of understanding how other people feel. That may not matter in relation to the opposition — they do not care how he feels either — but it does, for what one would have thought were fairly obvious reasons, when he is dealing with us. Aristotle (384–311 bc) explains why.
In his brilliant Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle devotes considerable space to a discussion of the emotions and the way in which they may be manipulated to one’s advantage. He is especially interested in anger and its opposite, praotês, which means ‘calm, mildness, patience, tractability, good temper’. ‘We are angry with those speakers who belittle us,’ he points out, ‘but calm toward those speakers who treat us as the speakers would treat themselves; since no one would ever disregard or belittle himself.’ We also appreciate a little humility, he goes on, ‘for such speakers appear to be agreeing that they are inferior, and an inferior person would never belittle another.’
Aristotle illustrates the point charmingly from Homer’s Odyssey, when dogs rush out to attack Odysseus, but he cunningly sits down and (apparently) defuses their anger. Again, we stay calm before those we respect but also those we fear; presumably Aristotle is thinking of someone who would fight back if we got angry, though politicians can do nothing about us throwing things at the telly when they are on. All these, Aristotle concludes, should be borne in mind by someone who wishes to win an audience over.
This is the very last thing that Balls seems to understand. When he solemnly tells us that he has been enthusiastically cheering on the coalition cuts from the moment they were announced, and no policy has ever been dearer to him, you really do wonder what he takes us for. Aristotle goes on ‘there is disrespect in denying what is obvious, and disrespect and contempt amount to shamelessness. We show no respect to those for whom we feel contempt’.
Which is precisely how Balls feel towards us. The feeling, he can be assured, is mutual.
So: So: capitalism bad, ‘responsible’ capitalism good. But is ‘responsibility’ the real issue? What is irresponsible about taking bonuses written into your contract? For people in that world, there should be more at stake.
Cicero’s de officiis (On Duties) — so influential that it was the first Latin text set in print (1465) — was composed at great speed (it shows) in the last months of 44 BC. This, with his other major tracts on ethical theory and government written at this time, was his response to the situation in which he found the Roman state: heading for tyranny in the grip of the new generation of politicians like Caesar and Marc Antony, who had jettisoned patriotic republican values in favour of self-aggrandisement by whatever means, however destructive.
De officiis laid down the markers for the redefinition of political values that Cicero thought was the only remedy for Rome in its plight at the time. First, the gloria that every upper-class Roman yearned for should be granted not just for military or similar triumphs, but only when greatness of spirit was integrally connected with justice, at the service of enlightened social awareness. That would generate among the public the goodwill, trust and admiration that was the source of true gloria for such a man.
But given that not everyone was cut out for a life of gloria, Cicero continued, all could still aspire to honestas: in Latin, the integrity that won the respect of the community. The key to this, Cicero argued, should be the identification of one’s personal interests with the state’s. In other words, the honestas of the individual should be judged by the extent to which his actions were utile for the republic.
Cicero’s vision of self-serving plutocrats, contemptuous of public concerns, maps neatly onto our world. So forget prissy ‘responsible’ capitalism. Raise the rhetorical temperature. Do these people want real gloria, or not? If they do, make clear they can earn it only with an ‘honourable’, ‘principled’, ‘public-spirited’ capitalism that is directed at serving the state’s interests.