Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Date: 7th March 2012

Athenian Citizenship

We regard wealth as being something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it. Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well: even those who are generally occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics – this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all…. 

… each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility. 

Pericles, as quoted by Thucydides in The History of the Peloponnesian Wars

The Athenian notion of citizenship – obviously idealised by Pericles – is tremendously appealing. Notice that – unlike Rousseau – he does not treat financial inequality as a complete block to active citizenship. However he sees wealth as a public responsibility, not as a private luxury. Citizenship requires, not absolute equality, but freedom from dependence and the ability of citizens to see themselves with public, as well as private, responsibilities.

Machiavelli on Fair Weather Friends

I say that nobles should be considered chiefly in two ways: either they conduct themselves in such a way that they commit themselves completely to your cause or they do not. Those who commit themselves and are not greedy should be honoured and loved; those who do not commit themselves can be analysed in two ways. They act in this manner out of fear and lack of courage, in which case you should make use of them, especially those who are wise advisers, since in prosperous times they will gain you honour and in adverse times you need not fear them. But when, cunningly and influenced by ambition, they refrain from committing themselves to you, this is a sign that they think more of themselves than of you; and the prince should be wary of such men and fear them as if they were open enemies, because they will always, in adverse times, help to bring about his downfall.

Nicolo Machiavelli from The Prince

Machiavelli’s account of fair weather friends is of course true. We all know that popularity will wane and that, when times get tough, many who declare themselves friends will look to their own interests first. Perhaps the most subtle and challenging of fair weather friend will declare their loyalty privately while also explaining that they must avoid any undue public displays of loyalty ‘for your own sake’ and in order to win you support from your enemies. Such friends are effectively working as ‘double-agents’.

Christ tells us to love our enemies – but He also says we should be ‘as innocent as doves and as wise as serpents’. So any naivety about the motives of other humans – friends or enemies – is not appropriate. We must exercise responsibility to ourselves and to our affairs and watch for any threats. In particular, watch out for people who keep expressing their loyalty too often – and only in private. Few talk about loyalty unless they are considering an act of disloyalty.

The Disappearance of the Labour Party

The Labour Party made the inevitable compromise with the new society it had done so much to create: it ceased to exist.

Michael Young from The Rise of the Meritocracy

Michael Young was one of the central figures of the Labour Party after World War II and one of the greatest social innovators ever. His satire on the post-war settlement (The Rise of the Meritocracy was published in 1958) predicts much that has happened since. In his wicked satire the meritocrats are those who rule us – because they are bred, trained and prepared for that duty. But this is not a cold duty – for they of course must get the best treatment in order to ensure that they can put their full energy into looking after the rest of us. The rest of us – who are less meritorious – must await the benefits that flow from their wisdom (while of course working hard to take care of our meritocratic rulers).

Perhaps what Young did not expect was that people might miss the satire; today many now use the term ‘meritocracy’ to describe the kind of world that they want to live in.

It is perhaps an open question whether Young was right or wrong about the Labour Party. In some sense it clearly still exists – but who does it now represent?

What does ‘God’ mean?

The rav asked a disciple who had entered his room: “Moshe, what do we mean when we say ‘God’?” The disciple was silent. The rav asked him a second and third time. Then he said: “Why are you silent?”

“Because I do not know.”

“Do you think I know?” said the rav. “But I must say it, for it is so, and therefore I must say it: He is definately there, and except for him nothing is definitely there – and this is He.”

Martin Buber from The Tales of the Hasidim

Wittgenstein – following Kant – provoked a great deal of philosophical musings on the nature of theological language. He seemed to suggest, not that it was false, but that somehow its meaning could not be treated as equivalent to everyday talk of tables, teachers or tragedies.

It can be seen that Hasidic thinkers had already covered the same ground. However they were more aware that truth itself is one of those categories that is hard to pin down. I may be confidently using a term like ‘table’ and you may assuredly understand me. But we can be less sure about the real and ultimate truth of our assertions. Often the price certainty of certainty is a kind of emptiness.

The Rabbi understood the truth of God’s existence without being confident he understood the meaning of the term God – this is as it should be when our language tries to grasp that which is by its nature greater than us. The price of meaningfulness is certainty.

From Caring Comes Courage

…the most important term of Taoism: Tz’u, which can be translated “caring” or “compassion” and which is based upon the character for heart.

In the sixty-seventh chapter of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu named it as his “first treasure,” and then wrote, “from caring comes courage.”

We might add that from it also comes wisdom. It’s rather significant, we think, that those who have no compassion have no wisdom. Knowledge, yes; cleverness, maybe; wisdom, no. A clever mind is not a heart. Knowledge doesn’t really care. Wisdom does. We also consider it significant that cor, the Latin word for “heart,” is the basis for the word courage.

 Benjamin Hoff from the Tao of Pooh

Philosophers also use the word ‘will’. Wisdom encompasses the moral understanding which is the business of understanding what we should do – what is right. And what is at the heart of the will if it is not love – or for Hoff – caring. I must care about something if I am going to stand up for something and that love or care is not produced by factual knowledge or intricate reasoning – it is a matter of the heart.

Designing with Constraints

Good design is the art of progressively adapting oneself to increasingly high levels of constraint  – until only one solution is possible – the best.

The Benign Dictatorship of Democracy

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood; it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided that they think of nothing but their rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labours, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and sub-divides their inheritances; what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living.

Alexis de Tocqueville from Democracy in America

de Tocqueville’s critique of the growing power of central government in America in the nineteenth-century can be amplified many times in the twentieth-century, but with some new twists. For, of course democracies, are not interested in everybody’s interests to the same degree. Political leaders need votes – and some votes are more equal than other votes. For instance, in the United Kingdom successful political parties must capture the swing votes – so the interests of swing voters matter more than those of anyone else. This distorts political judgement and is particularly damaging to the interests of the poorest.

An even more fearful risk is that, when times are tough, central government will stop being benign. It may find that some people – perhaps Jews, perhaps disabled people, perhaps immigrants – can usefully be blamed for problems that central government can’t solve, perhaps even blamed for the very problems that central government itself caused.

Democracy is the only acceptable political form for citizens, but the current democratic system is failing both to treat us as citizens and our leaders seem to be losing the necessary self-discipline to ensure that hunt for power is not carried on at the expense of justice.

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