Sunday, February 12, 2012

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.

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