Wisdom of the Ages #
Cultures are formed and transmitted by varied means by our ancestors, both immediate and long past. The shared values, customs and beliefs are imbued into our psyches. The inspiration of the known reflects upon the new, while the new resonates with the known. The lessons of the past must be learned in order to avoid repetition so that we learn to identify with our shared inheritance.
Our cultural legacy is dependent on the dynamic relationship of past voices informing our perspectives. If we lose our connection with the accumulated wisdom from the dead voices of the past, we become intellectually impoverished. While youth is energetic, vibrant and exuberant, it needs the deep memories of the past experience of our ancestors to avoid similar pitfalls.
Politicians and leaders lacking cultural memory risk making the mistakes of the past. Yet education appears to be neglecting the humanities, especially history through cuts in budgets and in penalised fee hikes in favour of courses in technology.
Cancel cultures, in Latin called damnatio memoriae, can undermine the basic processes of reason, research and factual truth in favour of entitled opinions. Censuring; dogmatic or ideological cleansing becomes a form of intolerant puritanism by misguided zealots.
Robert Harrison, Professor of Stanford fears cancel culture cancels the principle of whether an idea or assertion is well founded on reason or not. He points to a political culture where: “it is no longer the virtue of my actions which defines our moral core; it’s the indignation of my reactions”. Reflex emotions overpower reason.
We all need to be cultural conservatives; we must conserve the accumulated wisdom of the past at all costs.
Oscar Spengler, author of Decline of the West, 1918 presented a worldview that resonated with post-WWI German culture. His grim view of an inexorable doom for western civilization implied acceptance of fate, but also offered a sense of freedom from the past. His historical idea influenced artists and architects, who used it as a justification for abandoning the historic styles, now no longer valid for the new era.
Spengler recognises 8 Cultures that died out: Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Classical (Greek / Roman), Arabian (Magian), Western (Faustian), Mexican (Aztec / Mayan)
“three things are needed for government: weapons, food and trust. If a ruler can’t hang on to all three, he should give up weapons first and food next. Trust should be guarded to the end: without trust we cannot stand” He also maintained that all power originated in force.
In one of the first Hebrew codes of laws, “Rabbi Shimon ben (son of) Gamliel asserts the three bedrock principles that underpin Western legal systems:
‘The world stands upon three things: upon Truth, Justice and Peace. Without these three elements the world cannot be sustained - and further, like the pillars holding up the ceiling of a house, all three are essential - together: There can be no Truth in the absence of Justice and Peace; no Justice in the absence of Truth and Peace; no Peace in the absence of Truth and Justice.
Justice is essential in any fair minded productive society. Without a just society communities cannot reach their full potential. Without Art we cannot have a culture; without Laws, no society; without Justice, no peace and harmony.
Classical Writers #
Greek Thinkers #
Thucydides warned democracy collapses into “a state of unprecedented lawlessness, when no fear of god or law of man has a restraining influence on authorities.”
Socrates insisted Justice implies superior character and intelligence while injustice means deficiency in both respects. Therefore, just men are superior in character and intelligence and are more effective in action. As injustice implies ignorance, stupidity and badness, It cannot be superior in character and intelligence. A just man is wiser because he acknowledges the principle of limit. Unlimited self-assertion is not a source of strength for any group organized for common purpose, Unlimited desire and claims lead to conflicts. D.R. Bhandari J.N.V. University
Socrates major contribution lay in his disdain for false reasoning. Public discourse should elevate dialectical discussions rather than adversarial debates.
Socrates was considered the wisest man in Athens because he accpeted that he knew nothing.
Plato had already been perceptive enough to see Justice could be used as trickery. In The Republic, the character Thrasymachus argues that justice is the interest of the strong—merely a name for what the powerful or cunning ruler has imposed on the people. The rich and powerful make the laws to preserve their positions from the “little people”. Plato argued that justice is internal to the soul, requiring not laws, but discrimination and virtue.
Plato gives a prominent place to the idea of justice. Plato was highly dissatisfied with the prevailing degenerating conditions in Athens. The Athenian democracy was on the verge of ruin and was ultimately responsible for Socrates’s death. The amateur meddlesomeness and excessive individualism became main targets of Plato’s attack. This attack came in the form of the construction of an ideal society in which justice reigned supreme, since Plato believed justice to be the remedy for curing these evils. After criticizing the conventional theories of justice, Plato gives us his own theory of justice according to which, individually, justice is a ‘human virtue’ that makes a person self-consistent and good; socially, justice is a social consciousness that makes a society internally harmonious and good. “There are three classes of men; lovers of wisdom, lovers of honor, and lovers of gain.”
Epicurus, founded a cult known as Epicureanism; today erroneously conceived of as hedonistic self-indulgent pleasure seeking in luxurious food, wine and gluttony. In its original conception it was just the opposite.
Their guiding principle was the pursuit of pleasure, which they understood not so much as the fulfilment of desire as its rational mastery.
Yet it is a philosophy in which we can see ourselves and our most urgent needs - for a better and more sustainable way of life - reflected from a great distance.
Epicurus taught his followers how to be happy without the gods and how to be happy with less.
“He who understands the limits of life knows how easy it is to procure enough to remove the pain of want and make the whole of life complete and perfect,” he said. “Hence he has no longer any need of things which are not to be won save by labour and conflict.”
Roman contributions to civilisation: #
The Romans made significant contributions to our Western Civilisation.
Rome is sometime called the Eternal city, because it is one of the longest established ruling centres of the world. Rome is known as the divine city due to the myth of Mars seducing a Vestal Virgin giving birth to Romulus and Remus who are abandoned and suckled by a wolf. Remus later is considered the founder of Sienna.
They gave us the institutions of government – the senate, republicanism, the rule of law, Art and Architecture, a diverse multicultural and multi-state empires – virtues such as dignity, humanity, honesty. Their enduring legacy includes Latin, one of the contributors to the English language, the absolute primacy of law to maintain order and harmony.
The Roman Empire existed for almost 2000 years until 1453, When Constantinople fell to the Ottomans.
There were truth-tellers throughout Roman history, but as the centuries wore on, the telling of official lies became a recognized art form.
Cicero, 55 BC, the great advisor to Augustus Caesar advised “…the arrogance of officialdom need to be tempered and controlled,….”
TACITUS 56 - 120 AD - Born In Gaul, Publius Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman historian and politician, regarded as one of the greatest Roman historians, writing in the silver age of Latin Literature.
The purpose of an historian is to:
“Standards of historical research and scholarship should be more than just glorified gossip. We have higher expectations - to commemorate great deeds and to bring to the attention of posterity the damage that evil deeds do and to denounce them”.
Shocking crimes committed on the unscrupulous initiative of few individuals, with the blessing of more, and amid the passive acquiescence of all.
”Misdeeds, once exposed, have no refuge but in audacity”.
A desire to resist oppression is implanted in the nature of man.
Reason and judgment are the qualities of a leader.
When the state is most corrupt, then the laws are most multiplied.
Abuse, if you slight it, will gradually die away; but if you show yourself irritated, you will be thought to have deserved it.
The Emperor Claudius maintained the senate should “transfer to this city all conspicuous merit, wherever found”.
Virgil: “To impose the way of peace you must spare the conquered and subdue the proud.”
Horace lived in volatile times where the rise and fall of fortunes was subject to that of those you serve. Horace had sided with Brutus and Cassius so when Augustus and Antony won the Battle of Actium in the year 34 B.C. he was in great danger. He was extremely fortunate that his poetic skills were valued and found favour with Maecenas, Octavian’s rich and influential ally, who was fostering and patronising a talented literary circle in the emperor’s interests.
In Rome Panegyrists, like Horace, were paid performers, subsidized by those they celebrated.
As spin doctor, for celebrating the emperor and portraying his regime as the beginning of a Golden Age of peace and prosperity, Horace was rewarded with a large country estate called the Sabine farm. While appreciating his good fortune, he recognised the fragility of life and came up with the philosophy of Carpe Diem - of living for the moment. Dead Poet’s Society brings this alive here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E5t3ZzZv8_U
From Horace’s Odes, the Latin saying: ‘Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori’ translates into: “Sweet and decorous (noble, becoming) it is to die for one’s country”.
Horatian Satire chooses targets it cares about to gently mock or send up causing laughter to avoid offending the powers that be. For this reason, his satire needed to be more subtle. Example:
“Why is no one happy anymore? Oh, lucky traders! Moans the soldier, his once young limbs now busted up with combat. While the storm-tossed trader sighs in response, Oh to be at war! Where in one crowded hour, the whole issue is decided, for death or glory.”
Juvenal who lived about 100 years later had already been exiled for criticising authority so his writing is less subtle.
Juvenalian sarcasm tends to be stinging, cutting, bitter acerbic, even savage in its criticism evoking scorn, contempt and even hatred. Juvenal targets the evil or actively harmful aspects of society, and to attack them with serious intent to harm their reputation or power. He often attacks individuals on a personal level, its most common objective is social criticism.
He utilized the satirical tools of exaggeration and parody to make his targets appear monstrous or incompetent. While he occasionally utilized humor to make his point, Juvenal’s satire had more in common with the invective of a political pundit than the primarily humor-driven form favored by most modern satirists.
The primary weapons of Juvenalian satire are scorn and ridicule.
It was the Roman codger Juvenal who wrote of the people’s appetite for bread and circuses; we prefer the cheap nourishment of legal theatrics to real hard research for hard reliable evidence. He also coined: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Translated, “who will guard the guards (themselves)?”
Ovid was not as fortunate. He was banished by Augustus. His wrongdoings were, in his own words, carmen et error (“a poem and a mistake”).
Seneca: Born in Cordoba, raised in Rome, he became a learned stoic tutor to the unpredictable Emperor Nero. At the whim of the paranoid tyrant, Nero, who suspected Seneca of plotting to kill him, Seneca, like Socrates was sentenced to commit suicide.
Boethius, probably the last of the great Classical Roman thinkers, who rose to great political heights in the court of King Theodoric at Ravenna, but who then crashed and burned after being implicated (probably wrongly) in a conspiracy against the crown. Jailed and tortured, he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy in prison as he awaited execution in 524 AD.
When Boethius talks about Philosophy, what we would call Enlightenment and the battle of wills between Philosophy and the Muses of Poetry between Reason and Emotion.
He explores the competition between good and evil:
But the greatest cause of my sadness is really this – the fact that in spite of a good helmsman to guide the world (God), evil can still exist and even pass unpunished.
Boethius is confident that goodness is rewarded and evil is always punished.
For this and other reasons based on the fact that by its own nature badness makes men wretched, it is clear that when someone has done an injury, the misery belongs not to the victim but to the perpetrator.
Medieval Thinkers #
John of Salisbury, born 1120, highly educated, secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury, became a controversial figure when he criticized King Henry II’s methods of raising funds for a war against the French. In order to raise an army, Henry disproportionately taxed church property. John was an ardent defender of the church’s traditional liberties, including its exemption from certain taxes.
In Policraticus, The Statesmen’s Book, John discussed his justification for tyrannicide, the nature of law, and the behaviour of a just king.
“nought is so splendid or magnificent that it does not need to be tempered by moderation.”
I try to live a life as of “ultra moderation”
He believed that flattery put the commonwealth at risk because the king would pursue policies advantageous to certain individuals rather than to society as a whole.
“It is necessary to have the garb of pretence in order to be pleasing.”
John scolded members of the court, stating that flattery is always “accompanied by deception, fraud, betrayal, and the infamy of lying.”
All must obey the dictates of justice, as
“all are accordingly bound by the necessity of keeping the law.” Kings are not exempt from law either; John argued “in the teeth of all the world, that kings are bound by this law.”
Therefore, true friendship can only be nurtured by people committed to seeking and adhering to the truth, something immoral people consistently ignore. He emphatically concluded that “those who are vulgar and base flatterers are not admitted among friends, better the chastisement of a friend than the fraudulent kissing up of a flatterer.”
To John of Salisbury, if the abuses of government could not be exposed and debated, then government would quickly collapse into despotism — a message sadly ignored throughout history.
Around 1308, hiding in exile in Northern Italy, Dante wrote the epic The Inferno. While Beowulf intersperses Christian allegory into pagan myth, The Inferno intersperses pagan myth into Christian allegory.
Robert Pogue Harrison, a professor of literature at Stanford University, draws on Dante to explain the dynamic synergy between genius and wisdom.
“Dante in the Middle Ages is in a deeply Christian society, and he becomes the first person to write a Christian epic in the first person singular. That was very radical. That was very new. That opened up a whole new genre for the future. He found his way into the new possibilities of a Christian epic by the systematic study of Virgil, and with Virgil, the epic tradition that came from Greek and Roman sources,”.
The gates to the nine fiery circles of the Inferno declare: Justice built me. It is the biblical justice of “life for a life, an eye for an eye”. At the end three monsters shriek, “turn this intruder into stone, O Medusa”!
Medusa, sexually assaulted by Poseidon, was victim blamed by Athena and turned into a serpent haired gorgon. One direct look at her face turned you into stone. Hercules managed to cut her head off with the aid of a mirror.
Like all great literature, Dante asks the question, but fails to supply answers:
O you of sound minds,
Seek the doctrine that is hidden
Beneath the veil of verses strange.
Dante feels the secret is less important than looking for it. Andre Gide: “Don’t trust those who know the truth; trust those who are searching for the truth”.
Dante claimed his poem is an allegory about free choice; how we are rewarded or punished by Justice. We are free to think and choose for ourselves:
You yourself, make yourself ignorant/gross/stupid.
Niccolò Bernardo Machiavelli (1469–1527).
Machiavellian is an adjective derived from Machiavelli, the family name of the Florentine diplomat, historian, and political philosopher. His most famous work The Prince (Il Principe), written in 1513 while in exile from Florence.
Machiavelli was an unjustly maligned figure with valuable political insights that resonate as strongly today as they did in his time.
Machiavelli, who favored the Borgias, was dismissed, imprisoned and tortured by the Medici from 1512 to 1514, where and when he wrote his manual – The Prince. Rather than advocating the machinations of politics, I believe he was simply recording his observations from cruel experience – perhaps even satirizing it. By 1519, Machiavelli was back in favor and consulted by the Medici on their constitution. He died in 1527, shortly after the Medici were expelled from Florence.
The Prince endeavours to dissociate political action from common morality, There is cogent evidence that rather than endorse pragmatism, his cynical advice for the powerful, is a subtlety advocating the idea of popular sovereignty, because the people know best who oppresses them.
The Prince sets out to establish how power is wielded in a principality and what qualities are required of its leader. It concludes that different circumstances will require different qualities. Is he trying to curry favor with the Medici by purporting to “reveal how princes could learn to master Fortune.” Machiavelli observes:
If someone is behaving cautiously and patiently and the times and circumstances are such that the approach works, he’ll be successful. But if times and circumstances change, everything goes wrong for him, because he hasn’t changed his approach to match. You won’t find anyone shrewd enough to adapt his character like this, in part because you can’t alter your natural bias and in part because, if a person has always been successful with a particular approach, he won’t easily be persuaded to drop it. So when the time comes for the cautious man to act impulsively, he can’t, and he comes unstuck.
The relation between character and circumstance is also crucial in the debate that made The Prince notorious. At the beginning of chapter 15, Machiavelli remarks:
If you always want to play the good man in a world where most people are not good, you’ll end up badly. Hence, if a ruler wants to survive, he’ll have to learn to stop being good, at least when the occasion demands.
Hereditary monarchies, where people have long been used to the ruler’s family…all a monarch need do is avoid upsetting the order established by his predecessors, is to trim policies to circumstances when there is trouble, and, assuming he is of average ability, he will keep his kingdom for life.
At the height of the defeats that brought down most Italian states with the imposition of foreign occupation for more than three centuries, Niccolo Machiavelli urged virtuous men to defy fate and stand up against the adversity of the times, to prefer action and daring to caution. The more tragic the situation, the more it necessitates action and the refusal to “give up” (The Prince, Chapters XXV and XXVI). The Art of Teaching People What to Fear by PATRICK BOUCHERON Translated by WILLARD WOOD - NEW YORK TIMES
Machiavelli outlined the two extremes: Pragmatists or Idealists.
Realpoliticians. (realpolitik: political realism or practical politics, especially policy based on power rather than on ideals.) Machiavellian philosophy is that the ideal is seldom attainable so the compromise is that as you work toward the ideal, you may use questionable means. They believe in expediency; the ends justify the means. They may play dirty politics as long as the end result could be considered worthy. They are not interested in the process; only in outcomes. Pragmatist believe that “righteous ends justify violent means.”
Machiavelli maintained that unscrupulousness in Politics was necessary because men are “ungrateful, fickle, false, cowards, covetous” and
Pragmatists agree that mankind is essentially bad. Some advice from Machiavelli to rulers:
“The promise given was a necessity of the past; the word broken is a necessity of the present.” “He should appear to be compassionate, faithful to his word, guileless, and devout. And indeed he should be so. But his disposition should be such that, if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how."
Machiavellian is characterized by subtle or unscrupulous cunning, deception, expediency, or dishonesty: Machiavellian tactics in order to get ahead - to win at all costs.
Machiavellian logic – expediency - the end justifies the means; pragmatism can result in hypocrisy, heresy and apostacy.
A key writer in the transmission of Florentine thought (Machiavelli, principally) into the English political tradition was James Harrington in the 17th century, who lamented that ordinary people can be “deceived by a false image of the good” and manipulated to “desire their own ruin”.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” ― Theodore Parker – 1810