Sunday, April 22, 2012

21st April 2012

As local councils seize more power from central government, with more to come if e.g. Osborne’s plan to link salaries to location comes good, Labour MPs are already giving up on the Miliband Miracle and deciding to satisfy their control instincts by seeking election as mayors or police commissioners. This is no surprise. Power, on any terms, is in MPs’ DNA, as it was in Julius Caesar’s.

The essayist Plutarch (c. AD 100) provides two telling stories about Caesar that neatly make the point. In 67 BC, while serving in Spain, ‘he was reading some part of the history of Alexander when, after sitting for a long time lost in thought, he burst into tears. His surprised friends asked him the reason. “Don’t you think”, he said, “that I have reason for regret, when I reflect that at my age [33] Alexander [who died age 33] already ruled so many peoples, while I have not enjoyed a single brilliant success - yet?” ’ These were not tears of self-love, however, like those Ken gushed at some actors’ declarations of his indispensability. Rather, they expressed Caesar’s resolve to achieve that ‘brilliant success’.

In the second story, ‘he was crossing the Alps when he came to a small, sparsely inhabited native village, an altogether miserable-looking place. His friends, shrieking with laughter, said “No doubt here too you’d find men ambitious for high office, scrapping to come out on top, and jealous rivalry between the great and good.” Caesar then said to them - and he meant every word: “I would rather be first man here than second in Rome.” ’ Indeed, even in death he was determined to stay on top. His last words to Brutus – not et tu, Brute but Greek kai su, teknon ‘You too, son’ – far from being a cry of despair or disbelief or plea for sympathy, meant ‘And the same to you, kid’.

So if parliament cannot fulfil these MPs’ thirst to crack the whip over us, councils will have to satisfy their strange urges. The difference between them and Caesar, of course, is that Caesar did not intend for one moment to be top man anywhere other than Rome.

31st March 2012

As vicars, traditional or trendy, assert that God is or is not in favour of something, one is reminded that there were cultures for whom divinely inspired scriptures did not exist. Poor old Greeks and Romans! How on earth did they get by?

The 5th C BC thinker Protagoras argued that men must by definition possess a sense of standards, otherwise they could not live in communities at all. In the absence of holy books, tradition played the main role in determining what those standards were, which is why attacks on tradition from radical thinkers like Socrates and Diogenes generated such mistrust. Fables like Aesop’s – which Quintilian, the Roman professor of education, said particularly appealed to ‘country boors and the uneducated’ – popular stories and sayings all reinforced the cultural message.  

Taken together, they depicted a society dominated by inequality, hostility and fear, in which hierarchy came naturally, justice was all about maintaining the social order, and harmony was a utopian dream. Their morality focused on the public and social (not private) sphere (in particular, on mitigating conflict) and the importance of the relationship between the human and the divine (especially in ensuring justice). They opened up a world of materialistic glory and opportunity, where wealth was desirable, education could transform your chances and friendship was important. Stories about gods argued that (bad) Fortune could be overcome – courage was vital - but moral responsibility lay with humans, as individuals, groups and states, states in particular. Respect for family, state and ritual (pietas) was of great significance. The general conclusion was that gods were committed to justice and good faith while, with luck, success bred success. But life was still fragile, harsh and short. The ‘good’ life depended largely on making decisions that would enable you to survive, whatever life threw at you, and even (with luck) thrive. Being good at something was usually the key to success.

All strongly reminiscent, in fact, of the Rev. Giles Fraser on Thought for the Day, though with rather more spiritual depth.

3rd March 2012

Humanists are breast-beating about the wicked influence of Christian practice on civil life. Julius Caesar would have put them straight.

There were no pagan scriptures underpinning creeds, belief in one true god, or moral and ethical standards. Polytheistic religion was simply a system of cult practice: performing ritual - doing the right things, in the right way, at the right time - taking auspices, and interpreting portents. It was performance-indexed piety, designed to help men keep gods onside and understand their will. Further, since worshipping one god did not prevent you worshipping any other, and morality did not come into it, only in very exceptional circumstances did the Roman state intervene in any individual’s choice of deity.

The big, public rituals were run by state-appointed priests. These were not trained professionals. Julius Caesar, a virtual atheist but knowing the political importance of the role, was elected (at vast personal expense) to the top priesthood, pontifex maximus, in 63 BC, spent ten years conquering Gaul, defeated Pompey in a civil war, made himself dictator and was assassinated. He gave no moral or spiritual guidance, laid on no coffee mornings. He just performed the rituals for all to see.

Romans never publicly questioned the validity of this religious system, based as it was on unchanging, constantly repeated, traditional rituals, linking past with present and future, for ever. That is what made it a religion, and them Roman. Almost every aspect of institutional life had some ritual protocol wrapped round it. Caesar may not have believed a word of it, but he was not so thick as to underestimate its human and political importance.

Romans would see the C of E serving precisely the same vital function for us, though in quite different, and to them baffling, terms. That is why Julius Caesar’s example is so telling. Christianity has a ritual part to play in many aspects of civil life as a human communal force, creating cohesion, lending gravity to proceedings, recalling the way things have ‘always’ been done, making us what we are. Humanists, live up to your name.

18th February 2012

While it is obviously the case that every university wants to teach bright students, it is statistically probable that Oxbridge fails to pick up a number of students who are bright, but poor. It must be a huge relief to them that a government is to appoint an expert in ‘fair access’, Professor Les Ebdon, of the University of Bedfordshire.
‘Expert’ has the same (Latin) root as our ‘experience’, the basic meaning of which is ‘try out’, and thus ‘have experience of’. Our ‘empirical’ likewise comes from the Greek empeiros, ‘practised in, skilful’. Expertise in any matter was a subject of great interest to the ancients because (as Socrates argued), while it obviously applied to technical matters, like temple-construction and ship-building, it was not so clear that there was such a thing as expertise when it came to e.g. goodness or politics. He famously pointed out that any non-expert spouting away on technical matters in the Athenian assembly would be shouted down, but when it came to making good judgements on policy, anyone could have a say – ‘carpenter, smith or cobbler, merchant or ship owner, rich or poor, high born or low born, and no one objects’. Socrates thought the reason was that technical matters could be taught, but things like ‘goodness’ could not. So if one wanted to be ‘good’, it was not clear at all to whom one would go for solid instruction. Even fathers could not teach their own sons: look, he said, at Pericles’ children, who had all the technical know-how in riding, music, athletics and so on, but were in other respects no credit at all to their illustrious father.
So presumably Professor Ebdon can define what ‘fair access’ means and how it can be ensured. Likewise, he must know what it is that Oxbridge has to do to attract poor but outstanding students. Clearly, the University of Bedfordshire must be stuffed to the gunwales with them as a result of the Professor’s expertise. Otherwise, why appoint him? Of course, if Oxbridge does succeed, it will at once be accused of ‘creaming off the poorest’ – but not by Professor Ebdon!

P.S. ‘Expert’, obviously, does not derive from Latin expers, ‘completely ignorant’.

7th April 2012

Any appeal to the electorate that the coalition may once have had seems to be fading fast. If the decision to put VAT on a hot pasty turns out to have been the turning point, the Gang of Four who run the Cabinet have only themselves to blame for not paying enough attention to Plutarch, the great Greek essayist (ad 46–120), whose ‘Tips on Statecraft’ would have kept them straight.

Entering public life not for gain but out of honourable conviction, Plutarch argued, the politician must make it his first task to understand the character of the citizens with whom he was dealing. So he had to start by working with the grain of public opinion in order to win a good reputation and public confidence. Here lifestyle was an important ingredient of a politician’s appeal: ‘It is not just their words and deeds that will be held to account by the public, but also their dinners [got that, Mr Cameron?], affairs, marriage, pleasures and interests.’

That confidence won, said Plutarch, the politician stood a chance of bringing about the changes he thought necessary, but he must also bear in mind that it was always the big picture that counted. Here Plutarch quoted the monarch Jason of Thessaly: ‘Those who wish to do right overall must be ready to do wrong in unimportant matters.’ No, said Plutarch: that was the act of a tyrant. Rather, one should say: ‘Win the favour of people by giving way in small things in order to stand your ground on the big issues.’ If not, he said, you will get a reputation for unbending, unfeeling intransigence which accustoms people to opposing you. Show flexibility, he advised, ‘as we do with errant behaviour in the young, so that we do not lose our authority by constantly banging on and can be firm on matters where it really counts’.

And so Her Majesty’s government solemnly legislates on hot and cold pasties. Only politicians with no comprehension of the British character could possibly consider tinkering with such small, inexpensive, everyday pleasures. If the Gang of Four wants to lose the people — and the big arguments — this is the way to do it.

14th April 2012

The principle of the Royal Mail is far older than our youthful version, which was founded in 1516 by Henry VIII’s ‘Master of the Posts’ and made publicly available in 1635. When Xerxes, king of the Persians, realised the extent of the disaster he had suffered at the battle of Salamis (481 bc), Herodotus tells us that the Persian equivalent, the angareion, was put into operation to take the news back home. Nothing human is faster, he said, and ‘neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds’ [rather, ‘course, race’] — words running along the frieze that fronts New York’s General Post Office (1914).

This observation is typical of Herodotus, who loved to inform his countrymen of the wonders he had heard about. He likened the Persian angareion to a relay race: horses and riders posted along the route, a fresh pair for every day of travel, each handing the message on to the next. The soldier-essayist Xenophon, writing c.390 bc, implied that a later king, Cyrus, re-set the staging posts by first checking the maximum distance a horse and rider could travel in a day without breaking down.

The Romans knew a good thing when they saw one and spread the system across the empire. Eventually, there were changing stations for horses every 8 to 12 miles, and overnight rest-houses every 20 to 30 (about 5,000 stations in all, each with at least 40 horses, as well as pack animals and oxen). By the 4th century ad the system covered over 53,000 miles of roads. It provided priority transport for all urgent military and government needs: mail, personnel, imperial freight, the military (e.g. weapons, payment for troops, sick soldiers), etc. But there was no personal mail delivery. Long distance letters could be delivered only by friends going that way. Local deliveries were made by slaves, who waited to take back the reply.

In 2016, we shall celebrate 500 years of the Royal Mail, and probably literally too, because only the royal family will be able to afford it. They’ve got the horses, you see?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

17th March 2012

Nick Clegg’s idea of taxing tycoons sounds very ‘modernising’, but tycoons need a pro quo for their quids, sorry, quae, as the Roman historian Livy knew.

For Romans, there was no such thing as a tax on income. Bar money raised from e.g. harbour dues, sales and inheritance taxes, the Senate got its money from the proceeds of empire. So Romans did not pay tax: they got others to pay it for them. (Come on, Ed. It’s a winner.)

Before the Romans gained an empire, however, the Senate taxed to pay for the army. This system divided citizens into seven classes (whence our ‘class’) by wealth. The top group, the equites, were the richest men in society. They were liable for the most tax. Then came five numbered classes, from first classis to fifth. Finally, there was an unnumbered group, the proletarii, with no wealth at all, only children (Latin proles, ‘child’). Regular censuses took place to determine your classis, with severe punishment for evasion.

This system baffled Livy: why were the rich willing to pay tax as a proportion of their wealth and therefore vastly more than anyone else? He found the answer in the same classis-based voting system for passing Senate legislation. This was collegiate, and the wealthiest two classes commanded 98 of the votes, while all the rest put together — the vast majority of the citizens — had only 95!

In other words, the return for the rich was effectively total control over the conduct of affairs on which the state spent their money. ‘No taxation without representation’, we say. Livy might emend that to ‘No more than anyone else’s taxation without more representation’. What’s unfair in principle about that, Nick? It’s proportional, isn’t it? Especially since, in your ‘fair’ system, 650 MPs out of 46 million voters actually make all the decisions! Further, they are not even rich — all, in fact, as poor as church mice, as they endlessly bleat.

Here’s the deal, then: tycoons, pay the full whack of tax that the state imposes, and have another vote or 12. Do not pay it, and no votes for you, just like prisoners.

10th March 2012

Though our ‘democracies’ are designed to prevent any popular involvement, there are times when the situation becomes so critical that only the people have the authority to make the final decision. Modern Greeks face that situation now, as Athenians did in 431BC.
Athens’ fleet ruled the sea, the army of its deadly rival Sparta ruled the land. When war broke out, Athens’ influential leader, Pericles — whose only power, in a real democracy, was that of persuasion — argued that they should not take on the Spartans by land, but abandon their farms and seek refuge within the long walls of Athens. These ran from the city all the way down to the harbour at Piraeus, providing total protection. People, he argued, were far more important than property; by maintaining their grip on the sea and the revenues from their maritime empire, they would win through.
The citizen body agreed to this complete transformation of their normal existence. The contemporary historian Thucydides commented: ‘this total upheaval was not easy for them, especially as they had just rebuilt their homes after the Persian invasion. Demoralised, they took it hard, abandoning their homes and their ancestral shrines, facing a change to their whole way of life, tantamount for every man to nothing less than exile from his own world.’ But that was what the Athenians had agreed, as a citizen body, of their own free will, to do, and do it they did. It got even worse when the Spartans invaded, and a plague hit. But while Pericles lived, they stuck it out.
The ancient Athenians were capable of seeing what had to be done, however painful. Modern Greeks, too, now face a climactic moment: the long walls of the drachma, or the ruthless despotism of the euro? But the vain, starstruck politicians who, lying their way to the top table, got them into the mess in the first place, will not be bearing the grim burden of either decision. It is the common people who will do that. If they are not allowed, as a people, to vote on that one decision, and show they can stick to it, they will have no peace for a very long time. It would be the ultimate test for the inventors of real democracy.