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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A&M: 2002 November

2nd November 2002
Julian Horn-Smith, second-in-command to Sir Chris Gent at the mighty Vodaphone, has been extolling the virtues of being vice-admiral rather than admiral, on the grounds that a major defeat might cost the admiral his job. The ancient Greeks knew all about that argument.

In Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus has good reason to believe that his second-in-command Creon has been plotting his downfall and claims his wealth, power and ability have excited Creon's envy. Faced with this accusation, Creon does a Horn-Smith. Would any man, he argues, merely to increase his authority, choose the fears and sleepless nights that go with kingship? Like any man, he would rather have the substance, not the show of authority; and that he has, because he is a confidant of Oedipus, with all the power but none of the worries. So every man greets him warmly, and he them, since he can make or mar them. He would be foolish to surrender this happy position to take on Oedipus' load of cares, let alone have himself known as a traitor. 'Heard that one before', sniffs Oedipus. 'String him up'.

When the all-powerful Persian king Darius hears that Sardis, his principal city in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), has been captured and burnt by an alliance led by Aristagoras from Miletus, he summons Histiaeus, tyrant of Miletus, for an explanation. Darius had been holding Histiaeus at his court for some time, and Aristagoras was his deputy. Histiaeus hornsmiths away very convincingly: 'Master, is it likely I should do anything, great or small, to harm your interests? I have all I want. What motive could there be for treachery? Is not what is yours, mine too? Do I not have the honour of sharing all your counsels? If Aristagoras is guilty as you say, be sure that it is entirely his own doing. Of course, if you had not been keeping me here in your court, none of this would have happened. So the best thing you can do is to let me return to Miletus, where I shall hand over Aristagoras to you and sort everything out.' The historian Herodotus continues 'The purpose of this was to deceive to Darius, and it worked. The king believed Histiaeus and let him go, telling him to return when he had done what he promised.'

The style of argument deployed by Creon and Histiaeus was classified by Greeks as an argument from 'likelihood'. It depended on successfully constructing yourself as the sort of person who would just not do that sort of thing. Since Horn-Smith has been not doing it for many years now, perhaps Sir Chris can sleep easy after all.

16th November
How delightfully Roman the Tory party seems at the moment! One would hardly know a 'party' exists at all.

Despite Michael Portillo's recent assertion that 'no democratic system has found a way to be without [parties]', the ancient Greeks got on spiffingly without them, as did the Romans. Politics in ancient Rome had nothing to do with adversarial debates between established 'parties' with 'policies' wielding power in a 'House of Commons' on behalf of 'constituents'. The Senate consisted of all those who had served as executive officials (e.g. consul, praetor etc.) and a Roman reached those positions of power and authority by gathering round him the Great and Good who would support his candidature before the People's assemblies. This involved all sorts of alliances, with reciprocal obligations and duties attached, but they were all temporary, and membership of a party never came into it. The Roman was out for himself. Over a career he would build up an extensive personal network of supporters (amici and clientes), and if he was successful, a large part of his political life would consist in nurturing those relationships. Cicero, for example, defended friends at court, spoke for interest-groups (e.g. tax-gatherers), recommended friends for loans, and even represented whole communities (on one occasion, those who felt land-allotments had been unfairly distributed). Senate membership alone did not give him that authority. As for 'policies', in the absence of tax-raising and social services, they hardly existed. Executive officials argued out issues of war and peace, taking them to the Senate if they felt like it (which they usually did).

Partes, as they were called, did exist, but only in times of crisis, when the political world itself had become polarised. Thus when Pompey and Caesar were scrapping for power in the late 50's BC, people talked of two partes in Rome. As for a factio, this was a term of abuse which you directed against political opponents who had banded together for (in your eyes) nefarious purposes. When Pompey, Caesar and Crassus formed a coalition in 59 BC, those outside it saw it as a factio. Indeed, when Caesar crossed the Rubicon and invaded Italy in 49 BC, he claimed it was to free the people from just such a factio, led (surprise, surprise) by his old coalition partner Pompey. As the Tiny Beasts of the Tory party creep about constructing allegiances and to hell with all this 'party' nonsense, the IDS of March suddenly seems all too imminent.

23rd November
The prime minister has been sounding off about the importance of 'respect', which he does not define but clearly thinks is a vote-winner. In fact, as ancient Greeks saw, 'respect' - aidôs - is the other side of a far less cuddly emotion, 'shame'. Aidôs in Greek is to do with the judgement one makes about one's self- image in front of other people - either positively recognising someone else's status ('respect'), or acknowledging a sense of inhibition at the way one has oneself performed ('shame'). Feeling 'abashed' about oneself before others might cover both usages.

In Homer, aidôs tends to be generated by external sanctions, i.e. by what other people will say about you if you behave in a certain way. When Andromache begs her husband Hector to defend Troy from behind its fortifications, Hector replies that he would feel nothing but aidôsbefore Trojans and their wives if he slunk like a coward from the fighting; besides, he adds, 'my heart forbids me, since I have trained myself to be a good warrior, to take my place in the front line and try to win glory for my father and myself'.

When near the end of the Iliad, however, Hector admits that he has destroyed the army by his stupidity in leading them out to confront Achilles, he says he feels nothing but aidôs before Trojans and their wives in case some second-rater says of him 'Hector trusted in his might and destroyed his people'. He concludes 'better to waste no time but to get to grips [with Achilles myself] and find out to which of us Zeus hands the victory'. Driven by aidôs to perform heroics in battle, Hector is also driven by it to realise that he has made a wrong judgement and then to shoulder the responsibility of trying to put it right.

Aidôs is clearly a powerful force for good, but later Greeks wondered whether the external sanction was enough. What, for example, of the criminal who could always escape detection? Aidôs would have no effect on him. It awaited the fifth-century philosopher Democritus to think of aidôs as a form of internal sanction, rooted in some concept of conscience, when he argued that one should feel aidôs first and foremost not before others but before oneself - the only way to ensure that one's behaviour corresponded with one's ideals.

One can see why respec', man, should appeal to a politician. How they would love a little. They might get some if they occasionally showed some of its other half, shame.

30th November
What a fuss everyone is getting into about the funding of universities! If ministers would only sit back with their Aristotle and Plato and think about results, all would become clear.

Aristotle is very keen on the telos - the goal or end of things - and when he discusses the state, he decides its telos is 'the sharing by households and families in the good life, for the purpose of a complete and self-sufficient life'. This result being of supreme importance, state control over education is required. As he says in his Politics: 'since the whole city has one goal, it is evident that there must also be one and the same education for everyone, and that the superintendence of this should be public and not private...Public matters should be publicly managed.'

So far, so Blairite. What, then, should be the telos of a university education? Here Aristotle becomes very cagey, pointing out that 'there are no generally accepted assumptions about what the young should learn, either for virtue or the best life, nor is it clear whether education ought to be conducted with more concern for the intellect than for the character of the soul...for things useful in life, or those conducive to virtue or directed at exceptional accomplishments'.

Here Plato comes in. In his Seventh Letter, he distinguishes between two sorts of education: 'sun-tan' education, where the student just rolls over occasionally if he can find the time and work up the energy, and real education, where the student is admitted only if he is alerted to what the education entails - 'the nature of the subject as a whole, and all the stages that must be gone through, and how much labour is required' and sees it as 'so wonderful that he must follow it through with all his might'. How does one tell? By results, 'truth flashing on the soul like a flame kindled by a leaping spark'.

From Aristotle, then, any subject can be studied, but the education must be 'the same' for all. So there must be a common standard - all exams set and marked to that standard in all subjects. Only the best being good enough in Blair's Britain, Oxbridge standards apply. From Plato, only those absolutely committed to study should be allowed in. But Blair wants everyone to have the chance. Impasse? No. Let all pay the full price, wherever they go to study - after all, they will all be following an Oxbridge standard course. Then let the results decide. Those who graduate get their money back; those who don't, don't. Good market economics, that. Degrees might be worth something, too.

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