Sunday, June 3, 2012

2nd June 2012

Culture minister Jeremy Hunt’s special adviser Adam Smith landed the minister in the soup by his too-cosy texts to News Corp about the proposed BSkyB takeover. He resigned, and Labour smells Hunt’s blood. What can Hunt do? The buck stops with him, but Cicero would argue that if Smith had had no criminal intent, but just became over-excited, Hunt is in the clear. The Murena defence shows how.

In 62 bc Cicero was defending Lucius Murena on a bribery charge. He concentrated his fire on the prosecutor Cato’s refusal to compromise his Stoic principles and acknowledge human weakness. Cato is one of those people, Cicero says, who believes ‘that the wise man never allows himself to be influenced by favours and never forgives wrongdoing; that only fools and the weak show mercy; that a real man does not yield to entreaties or prayers; that all sins are equal, and all are serious crimes, so that he who unnecessarily strangles a cock commits no less a crime than he who strangles his father; that the philosopher guesses at nothing, repents of nothing, is never wrong, never changes his mind.’ Most men, Cicero goes on, treat such things as an academic exercise, but Cato has embraced it as the rule for life. So, when a grief-stricken suppliant comes to ask for help, Cato will say you are acting criminally and immorally if you allow yourself to be swayed by compassion. If someone admits he has done wrong and asks for forgiveness, Cato will say it is a crime to forgive a wrong. If you make an assertion, Cato will not let you take it back. ‘But it was only a conjecture.’ Philosophers do not offer conjectures, comes the reply. You make a genuine mistake: no, you did it on purpose. Cicero concludes by calling this all good, debating club stuff, but in fact to make concessions to human failings is a proper philosophical position. Cicero won the case.

By defending his adviser, Hunt would defend himself. Further, if the former Cabinet secretary Lord Butler of Brockwell is right that Hunt committed a technical, not a sacking, offence, he might still wriggle clear.

26th May 2012

So: Angela Merkel proposes a Greek referendum on the euro, David Cameron says the forthcoming election there is the equivalent of a referendum. But as ancient Greeks knew, what is needed at this point is an ostracism.
An ostrakon (pl. ostraka) was a piece of broken pottery. It cost nothing (unlike papyrus) and was widely available. On it, Athenian citizens wrote the name of the individual whom they wanted removed from the political arena in Athens and sent into honourable exile for ten years.
It worked like this. Once a year, Athenian citizens in Assembly were asked if they wanted to hold an ostracism. The reason for it can be understood only in the context of real democracy, i.e. where citizens made all the decisions after listening to the arguments for this or that course of action put forward in the Assembly. If two diametrically opposed courses of action were so evenly supported that deadlock ensued, it made sense to remove one of the speakers. So the purpose of ostracism was essentially administrative, to clear the air. It could always be revoked.
If the Assembly voted for an ostracism, it was staged two months later. This gave plenty of time for Athenians to debate among themselves the pros and cons of getting rid of one or other turbulent politician. On the day of the ostracism, there was no debate in the Assembly on the matter; each citizen simply scratched on an ostrakon the name of his chosen candidate, and as long as 6,000 ostraka were cast, the man with the most votes was given the order of the pot. 
If an ostracism did not automatically improve things, at least it made them, for a time, less confusing. Since Greek politics have always been a nightmarishly tangled Medusa’s hair of spitting snakes attacking their own side as much as the opposition, a pro- vs anti- bailout ostracism might achieve some clarity. But what to do with the losers? Exile might be rather too appealing. So remove them instead from the Greek political scene by sending them off to the European Commission. ‘Irony’ is a Greek word, after all.