Thursday, July 8, 2010

Thucydides: On Justice and Power and Human Nature — begun 2010.07.08

Well, not sure if I've truly begun it or not, but stumbled across this in Characters Fine (Used) Books on Granville in Vancouver, and have begun flipping through the pages. To be honest, I've not heard of Thucydides — or if I have, I have long since forgotten the context, and only picked this book up because it was where I was looking and it caught my eye — not sure why. (A quick Wiki perusal indicates that Thucydides is interesting.)

Thucydides. On Justice, Power, and Human Nature: The Essence of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. Hackett Publishing Company, Indianopolis/Cambridge. Tr by Paul Woodruff. ISBN 0-87220-168-6.

Anyway, I've been reading bits and pieces from here and there, and the language and ideas I'm finding well presented in this translation.  Well, today's flipping resulted in an amusing little fushigi. In chapter 8 'Aftermath of the Sicilian Expedition [Summary]', I was surprised to see the sub-header Oligarchy in Athens, p.156, and then on page 158 Collapse of the Oligarchy. This caught my eye immediately because I have argued here and there for more than ten years that as a Canadian I am living under an oligarchy, not a democracy, as these terms are properly defined by Aristotle in his Politics.

Thucydides summarizes the natural failure of oligarchies succinctly and elegantly:
Most of the Four Hundred [self appointed oligarchs who were to save Athens from their democratic failures] fell into the private ambition that is fatal to an oligarchy grown out of democracy. For at once each of them claimed not merely to be equal to the others, but to be the top man by far. In a democracy, on the other hand, if a man is defeated in an election he bears it better, because he does not think he has been beaten by his equals (158).
Well, the fushigi is that later tonight I was desultorily flipping through the TV stations and stumbled across Michael Moore's latest movie, "Capitalism: A Love Story." I'd missed the first 30-35 minutes or so of the movie, and came in just before the leaked memo from Citibank, which proudly describes the importance of the rich to look after their own interests. They describe the reality that in America the top 1% of the wealthiest Americans control 95% of America's total wealth. And Citibank describes, with some pride, this system as a  'plutonomy.' Of course that is a rather bemusing Orwellian doublespeak for the old and well established oligarchy, or, simply, government by the rich. Of course the American banking collapse is proof of its oligarchical nature — the people who bankrupted the banks through greed motivated corruption are penalized by receiving buckets of money instead of prison.

Anyway, I was amused to see that the rest of the film confirms that personal ambition, a.k.a. greed, is more stupefying than sex, and that it is leading to the down fall of America as a viable society. And lest you think I'm casting stones from my perch in Canada, I am not, because Canada is following the same path.

Anyway, back to Thucydides. I was completely blown away by how on point his description of the development of the oligarchy in Athens was with what is happening today. And here I feel compelled to slag the MBAs and the virulent expansion of MBA-itis into all aspects of society, and not just business. It is after reading Thucydides or Aristotle or Epictetus that the level of ignorance extant in these so-called educated leaders is made most evident because, when even a smidgeon of history is examined, it is clear that the human social animal does not truly create new social systems but always variations on themes that have been extant for as long as man has created social structures. Flow charts and quarterly results have no long term vision because they do not understand history.

Thucydides — what an interesting find.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Epictetus: Discourses — Continues 2010.07.04

Well, Epictetus is still holding my attention! With the Canada Day holiday on Thursday, I took the Friday off to give myself a long four day weekend. With that break, despite being busy, I managed to find time to return to the verbiage of Epictetus. I have thoroughly enjoyed how delightfully expressed and expressive are his ideas, told in bold, sophisticated and yet somehow simple, prose.

Today, his lesson on the problem of learning/teaching to the person who has achieved social success resonated with me. Perhaps, because it provides a striking contrast, for me, to my having recently taken on the challenge of being a tutor/teacher-for-hire to people ranging in age from 9 to 18, who have yet to have the opportunity to achieve any societal success much beyond having learned to walk, talk, control the bodily functions, and acquire a modicum of language and science skills.

On the other hand, my 'real' work day is fraught with MBA-itis! The well schooled MBAs, epitomizing in our age societal success, are flagellating their employees with their learned ignorance as if flowcharts were effused wisdom.

Anyway, more Epictetus. Today's blog will be of two translations extracted from Book 2 Chapter 14.

George Long translation (slightly edited):
Epictetus Book 2 Chapter 14 
To Naso
... Every art, when it is taught, causes labour to him who is unacquainted with it and is unskilled in it, and indeed the things which proceed from the arts immediately show their use in the purpose for which they were made.
May it not, then, in philosophy also not be sufficient to wish to be wise and good, and that there is also a necessity to learn certain things?
"With what then must we begin?" 
If you will enter on the discussion, I will tell you that you must first understand names. 
"So," you say "I do not now understand names?" 
You do not understand them.
"How, then, do I use them?" 
Just as the illiterate use written language, as cattle use appearances: for use is one thing, understanding is another. But if you think that you understand them, produce whatever word you please, and let us try whether we understand it.
But it is a disagreeable thing for a man to be confuted who is now old and, it may be, has now served his three campaigns.
I too know this: for now you are come to me as if you were in want of nothing: and what could you even imagine to be wanting to you? You are rich, you have children, and a wife, perhaps and many slaves: Caesar knows you, in Rome you have many friends, you render their dues to all, you know how to requite him who does you a favour, and to repay in the same kind him who does a wrong. What do you lack? If, then, I shall show you that you lack the things most necessary and the chief things for happiness, and that hitherto you have looked after everything rather than what you ought, and, to crown all, that you neither know what God is nor what man is, nor what is good nor what is bad; and as to what I have said about your ignorance of other matters, that may perhaps be endured, but if I say that you know nothing about yourself, how is it possible that you should endure me and bear the proof and stay here? It is not possible; but you immediately go off in bad humour. And yet what harm have I done you? unless the mirror also injures the ugly man because it shows him to himself such as he is; unless the physician also is supposed to insult the sick man, when he says to him, "Man, do you think that you ail nothing? But you have a fever: go without food to-day; drink water." And no one says, "What an insult!" But if you say to a man, "Your desires are inflamed, your aversions are low, your intentions are inconsistent, your pursuits are not comfortable to nature, your opinions are rash and false," the man immediately goes away and says, "he has insulted me."

Thomas Wentworth Higginson translation, (slightly edited):
Book II Chapter XIV
Concerning Naso
There was once a certain Roman who came to see Epictetus with his son. He heard one lesson.
Every art seems tedious, when it is delivered to a person ignorant and unskilful in it. The things performed by the common arts, quickly manifest the use for which they were made; and most of them have something attractive and agreeable.
So here we take it to be the work of one who studies philosophy, to bring his will into harmony with events; so that none of the things which happen may happen against our inclination, nor those which do not happen be desired by us. Hence they, who have settled this point, have it in their power never to be disappointed in what they seek, nor to incur what they shun; but to lead their own lives without sorrow, fear, or perturbation; and in society to preserve all the natural or acquired relations of son, father, brother, citizen, husband, wife, neighbor, fellow-traveller, ruler, or subject. Something like this is what we take to be the work of a philosopher. It remains to inquire, how it is to be effected. Now we see that a carpenter becomes a carpenter by learning certain things; and a pilot, by learning certain things, becomes a pilot. Probably then it is not sufficient, in the case of philosophy, merely to be willing to be wise and good; but it is moreover necessary that certain things should be learned. What these things are, is the question.
“Whence, then, are we to begin?” the Roman asked.
If you will give me leave, I will tell you. It is necessary, in the first place, that you should understand words.
“So then! I do not understand them now?”
No. You do not.
“How is it, then, that I use them?”
Just as the illiterate use the words of the learned; and as brutes use the phenomena of nature. For use is one thing, and understanding another. But if you think you understand them, bring whatever words you please, and let us see whether we understand them or not.
“Well; but it is a grievous thing for a man to be confuted who has grown old; and has perhaps served through his three campaigns to a senatorship.”
I know it very well. For you now come to me, as if you wanted nothing. And how can it enter into your imagination, that there should be anything in which you are deficient? You are rich; and perhaps have a wife and children, and a great number of domestics. C├Žsar takes notice of you: you have many friends at Rome: you render to all their dues: you know how to requite a favor, and revenge an injury. In what are you deficient? Suppose then, I should prove to you, that you are deficient in what is most necessary and important to happiness; and that hitherto you have taken care of everything, rather than your duty; and, to complete all, that you understand not what God or man, or good or evil, means? That you are ignorant of all the rest, perhaps, you may bear to be told; but if I prove to you that you are ignorant even of yourself, how will you bear with me, and how will you have patience to stay and be convinced? Not at all. You will immediately be offended, and go away. And yet what injury have I done you; unless a looking-glass injures a person not handsome, when it shows him to himself, such as he is? Or unless a physician can be thought to affront his patient, when he says to him: “Do you think, sir, that you are not ill? You have a fever. Eat no meat to-day, and drink water.” Nobody cries out here, “What an intolerable affront!” But, if you say to any one: You exhibit feverishness in your desires, and low habits in what you shun; your aims are contradictory, your pursuits not conformable to nature, your opinions rash, and mistaken; he presently goes away, and complains that he is affronted.

I like both, but prefer the second one over the first one. I have put up here both translations because I find the nuances between them, which is a natural part/problem with all translations, to be interesting. And I have omitted here Epictetus's references to the need to be in all ways the embodiment of God's attributes on earth if one is to be happy.