Influence by Adroit Adulation

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

If a young man wishes to become politically powerful, Socrates argues, his best plan is to resemble the despot or democracy as much as possible, in order to acquire influence by adroit adulation — but giving the people what they want is not giving them what’s best for them:

If Pericles had been the good statesman his admirers called him, he must of necessity have made the Athenians better men than they were when he first began to govern them. But Socrates contends that the result proved that he failed in this first requisite of a good statesman, inasmuch as he left them more unjust and more ferocious than he received them. “A superintendent of asses,” says Socrates, ” or of horses or oxen, would be thought a very bad one, if the animals did not kick, and start, and bite when they were intrusted to him, but did all this when they quitted his charge.”

And he says such politicians bear the same relation to good statesmen as authors of cookery-books and tavern-keepers to good gymnasts or superintendents of the body. As cooks and tavern-keepers cram the body and bring on repletion and disease, and are nevertheless eulogized by the ignorant, in like manner, says Socrates, are eulogized “the men who, having feasted the Athenians and crammed them with what they desire, are said to have made them a great nation: because it is not perceived that the commonwealth is swollen and hollow, through those men of antiquity; for, without making us just or temperate, they have crammed us with ports, and docks, and fortifications, and revenues, and such trumpery.”

Socrates predicts his own fate:

“I shall be judged,” he says, “as a physician would, if tried before children on the accusation of a cook, who would say, ‘See what evils this man has inflicted upon you, cutting, and burning, and emaciating you, giving you bitter draughts, and forcing you to fast! not like me, who have feasted you with everything that is delightful.’ What could the physician say to all this? If he said the truth, ‘I did all these things for your health,’ would not such judges hoot him down?

I well know that I myself should be treated in a similar manner, if I were brought before a court of justice. For I shall not be able to remind the judges of any pleasures that I have procured for them, which are what they understand by benefits. And if any one should say that I corrupt the youth by unsettling their minds, or libel the older men by bitter speeches, either in private or in public, I shall neither be able to say the truth, namely, ‘I say and do all these things justly, and therefore for your good;’ nor shall I have any other defence; so that I must be content to undergo my fate.”

Cicero over Plato and Socrates

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

Andrew Bisset, writing in 1859, decries the emphasis on Cicero over Plato and Socrates in “modern” education:

Cicero was as inferior to Socrates in real courage as in true philosophy. His idea of the highest type of human nature is what he calls a perfect orator, that is, a man who carries this pursuit, which Plato in the Gorgias proves to be so base and pernicious an employment of the intellectual faculties, to its utmost height. In doing this, instead of enforcing by example and precept, simplicity, compactness, and perspicuity in language by the use of the fewest and most apt and simple words, arranged in their most natural order, he has introduced into language verbosity, complication, confusion, and what is falsely called “fine” writing. And the tendency of modern education being to make pedants, not practical men of business, or great statesmen and great warriors, he is admired and imitated, while the true view of the question, as developed by Socrates and Plato, is unknown or kept out of sight.

Business and Amusements

Monday, March 1st, 2010

Athenians, just before their great city-state’s decline, split their time between business and amusements:

Their business consisted in listening to the adulation of their orators; their amusements, in listening to the adulation of their poets: for Socrates proved, in the same Dialogue in which he showed so fully the destructive influence of orators, that even of that grave and magnificent art, Tragic Poetry, the aim was simply to gratify the spectators; since, while it does not avoid things which are pleasant but bad, it does avoid things disagreeable but useful. Poetry on the stage is then a kind of adulatory rhetoric addressed to a popular assembly composed of men, women, and children.

It is related that Solon, after hearing Thespis in one of his own compositions, asked him if he was not ashamed to utter such falsehoods before so large an audience? And when Thespis replied that there was no harm in saying and doing such things merely for amusement, Solon indignantly exclaimed, striking the ground with his stick: “If once we come to praise and esteem such amusement as this, we shall quickly find the effects of it in our daily transactions!” This applies still more strongly to the subsequent comic writers. The event seemed to confirm the truth of the great Athenian legislator’s opinion.

Listening to their own clever hipsters, the Athenians had little idea where they were headed:

On a certain day in the year 424 before Christ, the comedy called “The Clouds,” which Aristophanes had written against Socrates, was performed at Athens. If a stranger at Athens on that day, after visiting the fortifications, the arsenal, the port, and the docks of the Athenians, and hearing the enumeration of their present revenues and of the projects for their future increase by the conquest of Sicily and other countries, had then gone to the theatre and listened to the witty but false and scurrilous representation given by the satirist of the philosopher — in which the only man of that time who had the courage and the wisdom to tell the Athenians the truth as to their political condition, is held up to public ridicule and obloquy, as the representative of those Sophists whom he lived only to refute — the stranger would hardly have thought that the fabric which was so fair to look upon, combining so much material splendour and so much intellectual activity, was already sapped to its foundations, and in a single century from that time would be nothing but a ruin.

Making the Whole Nation Averse to Labour

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

The strength of a nation can decline as its wealth rises:

Never, perhaps, was the decline of a nation’s strength coincident with the increase of its wealth (using “wealth” not in its primary sense of “weal” or “wellbeing,” but in its now usual sense of “riches”) more signally exemplified than in the case of Athens. As the power of Athens extended, and brought tribute from her subject States, the Athenians thus obtained the means of living without labour, and of amusing themselves with poets, painters, sculptors, and orators.

The same thing happens, indeed, more or less in the case of every State, as its revenue becomes great. Those who enjoy its revenues become rich, and can afford to devote themselves wholly to amusement. But the result, when those who, in the capacity of sovereign, divide the revenue among them constitute the whole nation, as at Athens, has the effect of making the whole nation averse to labour, and, it would seem, also averse to danger.

To use the illustration of Socrates, they are crammed with ports, and docks, and fortifications, and revenues, till they are in a state of bloated repletion, and are neither so healthy nor so strong as when they had no foreign revenues, and a small town so unfortified that they considered it indefensible against the host of the Persians. The result, according to the testimony of Plato, who had the best means of being well-informed on the matter, was to make the Athenians idlers and cowards.

Idlers, Cowards, and Gossips

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

The poison of the orators worked rapidly on Athenian democracy:

Pericles first introduced the practice of paying the Athenians for attending at the public assemblies, and hearing him harangue. Plato, by the mouth of Socrates in his dialogue the “Gorgias,” thus describes the consequences of this measure: “I hear it said,” says Socrates, “that Pericles made the Athenians idlers, and cowards, and gossips, and covetous; being the first who established the system of wages.” The Athenian sovereign multitude found it far pleasanter to be paid for listening to Pericles than to earn an honest subsistence by any sort of labour; and they also found it very far pleasanter to hire foreign mercenaries to fight their battles than to fight those battles themselves; in fact, without going farther than the evidence of those very orators, the public orations of Demosthenes afford abundant proof that, in his time, the Athenian government had fallen into a condition of hopeless imbecility.

A Gallant and Well-Exercised Militia

Friday, February 26th, 2010

At one point, Athens had a gallant and well-exercised militia:

The Athenian system of military training was never, at its best time, to be compared for excellence to the Spartan. Yet the result at Marathon, and on many other occasions, proved that in its earlier and better days, the Athenian armed force well deserved the description of a “gallant and well-exercised militia.” The fact, too, of such a citizen as Socrates serving repeatedly as a private soldier, proves that then the soldier-citizen system was effectually carried out.

At the siege of Potidaea, Socrates won the prize of valour, but voluntarily yielded it to his pupil Alcibiades. Alcibiades himself confessed that he owed his life to Socrates; and that in a certain action, where he was severely wounded, Socrates alone prevented both his person and his arms from falling into the hands of the enemy. At the battle of Delium, during the Peloponnesian war, where the Athenians were defeated by the Boeotians, Socrates also behaved with the greatest bravery; and it is said that he saved the life of Xenophon, who had fallen from his horse: Strabo says he carried him several furlongs, till he was out of danger. After the battle, as Socrates was retiring with Laches and Alcibiades, he told them that he had just received an admonition not to follow the road that most of their men had taken. They who continued in that road were pursued by the enemy’s cavalry, who, coming up with them, killed many on the spot, and took the others prisoners; while Socrates, who had taken another route, arrived safe at Athens with those who accompanied him.

The division of labour had not then reached that point when philosophers and politicians could sit in whole skins at home, and with a “dastardly spurt of the pen,” or as dastardly a wag of the tongue, send their brethren forth to battles, the dangers of which they did not share.

But if the time for such division of labour had not then actually come, it was fast coming, and was very near at hand. The poison of the orators was rapidly doing its work upon the Athenian democracy; and we have the testimony of Plato for the fatal effect it produced during the course of one generation.

Agis III and Louis XVI

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Andrew Bisset argues that the strength of a nation lies in its small farmers, who are both hardy and motivated to fight for their land — unlike the idle rich or the landless poor, who arise as land becomes concentrated, as in later Sparta and pre-Revolutionary France:

The mode in which Lycurgus succeeded in giving to Sparta the strength which it long possessed in an eminent degree, was this: He created in the Spartan citizens “unrivalled habits of obedience, hardihood, self-denial, and military aptitude; complete subjection on the part of each individual to the local public opinion, and preference of .death to the abandonment of Spartan maxims; intense ambition on the part of every one to distinguish himself within the prescribed sphere of duties, with little ambition for anything else.” What Lycurgus did, was to impose a vigorous public discipline, with simple clothing and fare, incumbent alike upon the rich and the poor. This was his special gift to Greece, according to Thucydides, and his great point of contact with democracy, according to Aristotle.

But he took no pains either to restrain the further enrichment of the rich, or to prevent the further impoverishment of the poor; and such neglect is one of the capital defects for which Aristotle censures him. The philosopher also particularly notices the tendency of property at Sparta (from causes which it is unnecessary to specify here, but which, will be found enumerated in Mr. Grote’s History of Greece) to concentrate itself in fewer hands, unopposed by any legal hindrances.

By whatever means the process was effected, we know that in the time of Agis III., about 250 years before Christ, when all the land of Sparta was in a very small number of hands, when the citizens were few in number, and the bulk of them miserably poor, the old discipline and the public mess (as far as the rich were concerned) had degenerated into mere forms. The attempt of Agis to bring back the State to its ancient strength, by again admitting the disfranchised poor citizens, re-dividing the lands, cancelling all debts, and restoring the public mess and military training in all their strictness, though it failed — partly from the want of ability in the sincere enthusiast who undertook it, and his misconception of what Lycurgus had really done, partly from its being made too late — at least proves the state of degradation and decrepitude to which Sparta had then fallen, and indicates some of the chief causes of that decrepitude and degradation.

About two thousand years after Agis had paid with his own life, and the lives of his wife and mother, for the noble and patriotic, but treacherous dream of a regenerated country, the dream of Agis actually became reality, in a nation which was fast perishing under the evils of a government which, like that of Sparta, favoured an exceedingly unequal distribution of property. The French Revolution, amid many crimes, may certainly be said to have regenerated the French nation as Agis proposed to regenerate the Spartan nation, and by means nearly similar to those proposed by him.

It is remarkable, too, that the French king, Louis XVI., a man, like Agis, eminent for his virtues, met with the fate of Agis. As Agis, whose sincerity is attested by the fact that his own property and that of his female relatives, among the largest in the State, were cast in the first sacrifice into the common stock, became the dupe of unprincipled coadjutors, and perished in the vain attempt to realize his scheme by persuasion; so Louis, with probably as sincere a desire to do what was best for the French nation, perished, like Agis, through the intrigues of the unprincipled people about him. But, though the fate of Louis was like that of Agis, the fate of France was very different from that of Sparta.

Justice and Humanity

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

The Spartan system of training cultivated hardihood and patriotism, but it did not cultivate justice and humanity:

On the contrary, in their aggressions on other States, and in their treatment of the races which they had subjected, they practised combinations of injustice, fraud, and atrocity, which, as Mr. Grote has observed, “even yet stand without parallel in the long list of precautions for fortifying unjust dominion.”

And this indicates another leading defect in the Spartan institutions, which was the opposite extreme to the leading defect of the Athenian government. As the ruin of the Athenian government arose, as we shall see, from an excess of talk in the shape of long harangues, instead of dialectical discussion, one great evil in the Spartan government arose from an absence of all public discussion whatever: for the Spartan character was of an eminently unintellectual type; destitute even of the rudiments of letters, rendered savage and fierce by exclusive and overdone bodily discipline, and, if possessing many of the qualities requisite to procure dominion, possessing none of those calculated to render dominion popular or salutary to the subject.

This anti-intellectualism wasn’t just a moral failing:

This intellectual defect of the Spartan character becomes more striking, when we find that it rendered all their excellent bodily training unavailing against inferior bodily training, where the inferiority was compensated by the leadership of a great and commanding mind. For the bodily training at Sparta combined strength and agility with universal aptitude and endurance, and steered clear of that mistake by which Thebes and other cities impaired the effect of their gymnastics — the attempt to create an athletic habit suited for the games, but suited for nothing else. Yet Thebes, by the aid of one great mind leading her councils and commanding her armies, gave Sparta an overthrow from which she never recovered — from which, indeed, the weak part of her system, particularly the accumulation of the land in very few hands, rendered it impossible for her to recover.

In a society so eminently unintellectual as that of Sparta, it may be pronounced impossible for a firstrate general to be produced. It may be true that great generals are born, not made: but their genius requires an atmosphere somewhat intellectual for its development; and we hear nothing of great generals (if such there are) born among savages. The Spartan training did, indeed, include the cunning as well as the hardihood and ferocity of the savage. But the strategy of a great general must soar somewhat beyond the cunning of an ordinary savage, or even of a Spartan. Indeed, two of the greatest generals the world has yet seen, the one in ancient, the other in modern times, were philosophers as well as generals and statesmen. The first gained the battle of Leuctra, the second the battle of Leuthen, both acting on the same strategical principle.

The principle upon which Epaminondas acted at Leuctra and Mantinea, and Frederick at Rosbach and Leuthen, consisted in bringing a superiority of numbers to bear upon a particular point, and by defeating that part, and driving it in upon the rest, throwing into confusion and defeating the whole. The way in which Epaminondas explained this principle to the Thebans, who stood somewhat in awe of the acknowledged military superiority of the Spartans, was this: having taken an adder of the largest size, he showed it to them; and then, in their presence having shattered the head of the animal, he said, ” You see that the rest of the body is useless, the head being gone. So is it with the head of our enemies; if we break to pieces the Spartan part, the rest of the body, consisting of their allies, will be


Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Andrew Bisset explains how the Greeks maintained their strength:

The Greeks in their early and healthy state paid the greatest possible attention to the cultivation of bodily strength and activity by instituting public contests in running, leaping, wrestling, boxing, and throwing the quoit. And it is not unworthy of note that the prize was made of small value that the combatants might be animated by the love of distinction not of sordid gain.

Wait, quoits?

On its website, the United States Quoiting Association explains that poorer citizens in ancient Greece, who could not afford to buy a real discus, made their own by bending horseshoes — which in those days weighed as much as 4 pounds each. The practice was adopted by the Roman army and spread across mainland Europe to Britain.

The aim of the sport remained as a competition to see who could throw the object the furthest, until at some later, undocumented point in history, perhaps around a few centuries A.D., the idea of using a wooden stake or metal pin driven into the ground, to use specifically as a target to throw at, totally redefined the pastime from a game of distance to a game of accuracy.

Three Great Lessons

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Back when the Persians were a force to be reckoned with, they raised their young men to learn three great lessons:

While the Persians were in their healthy and vigorous state, the three great lessons the youth were taught, from five to twenty years of age, were to ride, to shoot with the bow, and to speak truth.

Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Cooper agreed; one of his compilations of gun columns is called, To Ride, Shoot Straight, and Speak the Truth.

Hardihood, Force of Character, and Patriotism

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

The strength of a nation stems from the strength of its people and their patriotism, Andrew Bisset explains:

The fundamental element of a nation’s strength is the physical hardihood of its people, combined with that force and energy of character which are the consequences of such hardihood, and the patriotism, or love of and pride in country, which is the consequence of some degree of good government. Accordingly, all nations which have been at any time strong have encouraged the use of manly and athletic exercises; the neglect of which has a most pernicious effect, not only on the bodily strength, but on the bodily and mental health and courage of the community.

For a coward — a man incapable of defending himself — as a celebrated writer has observed, wants one of the most essential parts of the character of a man, being as much mutilated and deformed in his mind as a man who is deprived of some of his limbs, or has lost the use of them, is in his body. And to prevent that sort of mental mutilation, deformity, and wretchedness which cowardice necessarily involves in it, from spreading through the great body of the people, deserves the most serious attention of the government; in the same manner as it would deserve its most serious attention to prevent a deadly pestilential disease from spreading itself among them.

Bisset is writing in Britain in 1859. Attitudes have changed.

The Strength of Nations

Saturday, February 20th, 2010

The Wealth of Nations is not necessarily The Strength of Nations:

Since the publication, in 1776, of Adam Smith’s immortal work on the “Wealth of Nations,” the wealth of nations has, in this country at least, engaged so much attention, that but little has been left for another quality of nations — their Strength; without which their wealth, with all its advantages, may be of little use, since it may be destroyed at any time with fearful rapidity. There appears to be a time in the history of all powerful nations at which, while their wealth goes on increasing, their strength begins to decline, till — to use the words of Bacon — it comes to “that, that not the hundredth poll will be fit for a helmet; and so there will be great population and little strength.”

And it is also well to bear in mind another remark of Bacon in the same Essay: “Neither is money the sinews of war (as it is trivially said) where the sinews of men’s arms in base and effeminate people are failing; for Solon said well to Croesus (when in ostentation he showed him his gold): ‘Sir, if any other comes that hath better iron than you, he will be master of all this gold.’” As soon as this current has fairly set in, unless its course can be arrested — which is a difficult if not an impossible operation — the decay of that nation has commenced, and will continue, till the time arrives when its strength is inadequate for its defence, and its wealth becomes the prey of an invader.