5th October 2002
Stinker Pinker’s latest book has caused a furore by arguing that nature has a much greater effect than nurture on human behaviour. Or was it the other way round? Not that it matters. It has been argued over for millennia, in slightly different terms but with equally little effect.
Ancient Greeks thought of the problem in terms of nomos (‘custom, convention, law’) or phusis (‘nature’). Were nomoi (plural) part of the natural, immutable order of things, or merely a human imposition whose purpose was to restrain natural instincts? If the former, one could argue that they were necessary for the survival and reasonable functioning of society; if the latter, that they were a destructive force, designed (as Plato’s opponent Callicles argues on one occasion) to keep weaklings in power and constrain the naturally stronger and better. But then Greeks wondered where ‘unwritten law’ fitted into the antithesis, which, as Antigone famously argued, was the gods’ ‘unfailing rules, not of today or yesterday, and no one knows when they first appeared’.
Another way to construct the problem was in terms of fate or free will. Stoic philosophers, for example, reckoning that the divine pneuma, a sort of fiery air, pervaded the whole universe, argued that the divine will must therefore hold sway at all times: this was a deterministic universe. But in that case how could human action be free? In particular, how could one make choices (a crucial part of Stoic doctrine)? Stoics had recourse to analogy to explain how. One example was that man is like a dog attached by a long leash to a wagon travelling remorselessly from A to B. The dog ultimately has no option but to go along with it, but its leash allows it a certain amount of leeway in which to express its free will; in particular, it can struggle against the wagon and be miserable, or follow it and be happy. It is up to the dog.
Ancient Greeks invented argument by antithesis — mind or matter was another favourite — but it is a tool of limited use since its terms define the argument before the argument has ever begun. The nature–nurture antithesis, then, is crippled from the start. But if one must use it, Homer’s view of the matter solves the problem, as he expressed it in relation to another famous antithesis dealing with the same issue: who is responsible for man’s decisions, man or god? Homer’s answer was that they both were, in exactly the same proportion (100 per cent). So with arguing whether nature or nurture is responsible for human behaviour — which is why it is a pointless exercise.
British youth has every right to be angry about the A-level grading fiasco, but their self-pitying sobs — ‘What of the effect on our future careers, income, quality of life and happiness?’ moans one tragic whinger — have not impressed. Is taking a year out really that awful? But then, they have been raised in a victim culture. Even more disgusting has been the chorus of sympathy from adults encouraging them. Seneca has the answer.
In about ad 60, Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius about their mutual acquaintance Liberalis, who had been much downcast at the news of a great fire that had completely wiped out the proud Roman colony of Lugdunum (Lyon) in two days. Seneca starts by observing that fires, like earthquakes, damage but rarely destroy a whole town at one go, as had happened on this occasion. So this event has been, he goes on, a serious test of Liberalis’ usually steadfast will, especially as it was so unexpected, ‘for the unexpected exacts the heaviest toll on us’.
Therefore, Seneca concludes, ‘We must ensure that nothing is unexpected by us. Our minds must look ahead at all times and think about not what usually happens, but what can possibly happen.’ He points out that Fortuna is able to strike in any number of ways; she can turn our own hands against us or produce disasters out of top hats; one is never safe from her, especially at times of greatest hopes and happiness, and when she strikes, it is with terrifying rapidity. Cities, like mountains, casurae stant, ‘stand but to fall’.
The consolation in all this is that reverses often lead to a more prosperous outcome. Seneca quotes a friend of Augustus with such a grudge against Rome that the only reason he felt aggrieved when buildings there burned down was because he knew far better ones would replace them. But at all events the mind must be disciplined to understand and endure a human’s lot: ‘Into such a world have we entered, under such laws do we live.’
Plato pointed out that in democracies the old are always tempted to suck up to the young because they do not want to be thought tyrants. The young could extract some good out of this whole mess if they read their Seneca, took the lessons on board, and then expressed their feelings about those politicians and commentators who fell over themselves to outdo each other in their ever more lurid assessments of the magnitude of the tragedy that had befallen ‘our young people today’ — the patronising creeps.
Lord Archer, now serving four years for perjury, has been shocked to find that jails are full of criminals, living in cells fitted with bars and steel doors. So he is writing a diary to inform the Home Secretary of this appalling state of affairs. What he really cannot understand, however, is why he is there, having to mix with these people. The Romans would have sympathised with his predicament.
Under the Roman empire it became standard practice for the law to discriminate between different classes of people when it came to handing out sentences. Two social classes are commonly referred to, though it is difficult to be precise about who fitted into which category: the honestiores and the humiliores (slaves made a third class).
Take, for example, the Cornelian law on wills: ‘Anyone who knowingly and with wrongful intent forges ...a will is liable under the lex Cornelia testamentaria. Honestiores are to be deported to an island, humiliores are either sent to the mines or are crucified.’ Or take the Cornelian law de sicariis, ‘on murderers’: ‘Capital punishment is usual these days, except for those whose status is too high to sustain the statutory penalty. These are deported to an island, while humiliores are usually either crucified or thrown to beasts.’ For the crime of removing boundary stones, we learn that slaves were condemned to the mines, humiliores to hard labour and honestiores to temporary expulsion with one-third confiscation, or full deportation. The lex Julia de maiestatis, ‘on treason’, laid down that humiliores should be thrown to the beasts or burnt alive, honestiores capitally punished.
The issue here is public degradation. The honestior does not evade punishment, but expulsion, deportation and/or confiscation of goods do not propel him into the popular limelight, let alone humiliate him there. Even if he is sentenced to capital punishment, an execution is a comparatively quick and clean death, in the face of which he could win credit by exhibiting proper stoic fortitude. The humilior, on the other hand, is sent to the mines, crucified, thrown to the beasts or burnt at the stake, the first a slow death-sentence, the last three carried out in public, before mocking crowds in the arena.
Doubtless Lord Archer will soon be proposing revolutionary distinctions of this sort. How proud, but humble, that other prison-reformer and novelist Charles Dickens would be to find himself linked with such distinguished company in working for change.