Sunday, February 12, 2012

7th January 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.

14th January 2012

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....

21st January 2012

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.

28th January 2012

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.

4th February 2012

The Grand Olympic Opening Ceremony will apparently inform us ‘who we are, who we were and who we wish to be’ — just in case we had forgotten — and you will have to pay to sit in a stadium to watch it. Romans did not go in for this sort of claptrap, let alone restrict attendance to officials and a few paying customers. When they celebrated, it was for everyone.
The Roman triumph featured a massive procession through the streets led by the victorious general’s army, with booty, captives and paintings and three-dimensional models of Great Moments on display. There would be street parties, shows and handouts.
For Pompey’s celebration of his conquest of the East in 61 BC, 700 ships were brought into harbour. Captured royalty and generals (324 in number), all in native costume, featured in the march-past, with gold mountains, thrones and statues, and wagons hauling 75,100,000 silver drachmas, more than the total revenue of the whole Roman empire, enough to feed two million people for a year.
Julius Caesar’s triumph over Pompey in 46 BC, after a civil war fought all over the empire, was celebrated in five separate and different performances. Crowds, saddened by depictions of the heroic death of Romans they respected, cheered and laughed at the paintings of the demise and flight of exotic foreigners. One of the placards celebrating a victory in Turkey proclaimed ueni, uidi, uici. Horse races, plays, musical contests, athletic contests and gladiators all featured, with ‘an elephant fight with 20 beasts a side, and a naval battle with 4,000 oarsmen plus a thousand marines on each side’. Handouts to soldiers and people, rent-remission and luxury street dinners capped the fun. Forty elephants carrying lamps accompanied Caesar to the Capitol by torchlight for the final thanksgiving at the temple of Jupiter. People were crushed to death in the crowds.
Now that’s a celebration. Our Grand Olympic Opening Ceremony will have to end by midnight to allow spectators to get home by public transport.

11th February 2012

The world informs us that the ex-Sir-cised knight Fred has been tipped off his horse onto a scapegoat. Wrong again. The Judaic [e]scapegoat ritual provided annual blanket cover for the community by transferring its sins mechanically onto a wilderness-bound goat. It was not a response by the ‘mob’— that’s us — to a one-off crisis. For that, we turn to the Greeks.
Their scapegoat (pharmakos) often referred to those who touched religious sensitivities at times of political crisis. One Andocides, for example, was involved in a sacrilegious scandal in 415 BC that threatened the success of a huge Athenian military expedition to Sicily. The prosecutor said of him ‘in punishing Andocides and ridding yourselves of him, you are cleansing the city, purifying it of pollution, expelling a pharmakos and one who has offended against the gods’.
Kings, whose authority was thought to come from Zeus, were especially open to responsibility for communal disaster. The reasoning seems to have been that, while ordinary men were controlled by law, only divine wrath could restrain kings or a community that decided, in special cases, not to uphold its own principles. ‘Through big men is the city destroyed,’ said the statesman Solon.
This absolved groups like the ancient equivalent of bankers, the corn-dealers, who held sway over a vital area of life. In one court case they were accused of ‘having interests the opposite of other men’s. They make their greatest profits when they hear bad news has struck the city and can sell their corn dear. So they are delighted to see disaster hitting you.’ But they were just being greedy. No religious sensitivities were involved.
Perhaps they are now, if we wish to see Mammon as today’s god of choice. In that case, bankers would doubtless prefer the Judaic tradition, when a goat took the hit, not one of the guilty parties. But just to be on the safe side, the ‘mob’ — that’s us — might suggest the Queen’s honours list nominate annually a People’s Goat (Banking Division).