Friday, December 31, 2010

Tacitus: The Annals

Publius Cornelius Tacitus (55 – 117 AD) was a Roman senator who wrote about the early history of the Roman Empire. He is best known for the "Annals", a series of books focused on the time between the emperors Augustus (14 AD) to Nero (68 AD) and the "Histories" which continues to the death of Domitian (96 AD).  In the Annals, Tacitus describes the domestic and foreign affairs of the Empire.  He reviews the wars in Germany, Armenia and Britain, engineering projects of the Empire and the politics of the times. Tacitus seems to have some longing for the Republic, even though all he knew in his life was rule under an Emperor. The most interesting reading is when Tacitus discusses the personal lives of emperors and the plots and intrigue which occurred behind the scenes.

For the GBWW program I am reading the Annals, which picks up during the reign of Tiberius.  I recently finished watching the BBC TV series "I, Claudius" based on the book by Peter Graves.  The book covered the reigns of Augustus through Claudius, so it was quite revealing and fun to be reading the original source material and comparing it with the BBC program.

Annals focus on Tiberius to Nero
I always find it fascinating to see how politics, politicians and governments have changed over the last 2000 years. Here are a couple of examples from Tacitus:

Loopholes Tiberius wanted to have the slaves of Libo Drussus questioned regarding Libo's supposed "revolutionary schemes".  However, the law clearly says that slaves are not allowed to testify against their masters.  Therefore, Tiberius had Libo's slaves sold to a State-Agent and they were immediately interrogated. 

Greedy Trial Lawyers  In Rome, attorneys (prosecutors) worked for free - the respect and admiration for their oratory skills was payment enough.  This restriction on payment, called the Cincian Law, was changed so that lawyers could start collecting money from the defendant if they won. As you could imagine this resulted in many, many more cases being tried. Prosecutors could gain as much as one-quarter of the defendant's property from their cases. (Can we go back to the old system?)

Talking heads During the reign of Tiberius, Senator Lucius Piso threatened to leave Rome because he was growing tired of paid orators insulting him. Today we call these people pundits. 

Natural disaster relief was common in the Roman Empire.  During several earthquakes taxes were remitted for the province in need, a senate representative would visit and access damage, and aid was sent. 

Marriage tax = the Lex Papia Poppaea: a law from 9 AD, the sponsors were known as Papia and Poppaea.  The law put penalties on people who did not have children (women 20-50; men 25-60) and on people who were not married.  It was designed to promote family values.  People subverted the law by getting married but still having lovers and by "adopting" children.  

Banking Crisis  Usury (loaning money at interest) was common in Rome, however, interest rates above 10% were banned by the "Twelve Tables".  Tiberius decided to cut interest rates in half and gave everyone 18 months to settle their debts before conforming to the new rates.  This decree resulted in an enormous loss of private wealth as lenders tried to get their money back. Eventually there was too little currency in circulation and banks stopped lending money.  The emperor had to release 100 million sesterces to the banks so they would lend money again and allow people to borrow without interest for 3 years.  (Why can't our banks do that!)

Equal representation of aliens  "What was the fall of Sparta and Athens, but this, that mighty as they were in war, they spurned from them as aliens those whom they had conquered?"  With this question, Tiberius explained his reason for wanting representation in the Senate of people who were living in the Roman Empire but were not Roman.  A similar argument is made today for people living in the US, who are not US citizens, but who work in our homes, prepare our food, and fight our wars. 

Tacitus also talks at length about the depravity of Emperor Nero who murdered his mother, brother and wife, not to mention hundreds of others.

Seneca tutoring Nero














Of particular interest is the relationship between Nero and his mentor, Seneca.  Seneca was a brilliant orator, a stoic philosopher and was charged with directing the education of young Nero.  Eventually, with  "special joy", Nero turned on his mentor and Seneca committed suicide.  In trying to make a great philosopher-king, Seneca produced one of Rome's most notorious tyrants.  It may be that sometimes not even the best teacher can help some students.

I found that Tacitus's writing was frank, unembellished and approachable; it reminded me of having a candid conversation with a friend. Even when he was describing the gory details of dozens and dozens of suicides and murders during Nero's reign, it felt very matter-of-fact. During the Annals, Tacitus lists many historical figures (politicians, orators, consuls, quaestors, wives and mistresses, etc) and I sometimes had difficulty keeping track of all the characters.  However the depth and detail of his descriptions helped fill out these individuals and I enjoyed getting to experience these historical events through his words. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: Part 2

The central theme of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM) is debatable, but Pirsig talks a great deal about the concept of "quality".  I do not like using this term since it can be confused with our traditional sense of quality, but we'll use his definition here.

In Pirsig's words, what separates a good motorcycle mechanic from a bad one is quality - are they fixing a machine like an automaton or consciously thinking about how all these parts work together?  Quality defines the latter.  The "romantic" mind thinks about the whole motorcycle - the big picture, is aesthetic and subjective.  The "classic" mind focuses on the parts and how they function, and is objective.  The concept of quality seeks to bring these two together.  It provides direction.  Where are you going?  Why are you doing this? 

Reading ZMM did make me think about "quality" in my work and life.  Do I think about how all the parts fit and work together?  Am I looking at the part and the problem?  Pirisig continues listing other examples of quality and also talks about different concepts, such as gumption traps. 

The Great Books of the Western World

A young Pirsig  (i.e. Phadrus) enrolled at the University of Chicago to study philosophy and rhetoric. One of the big men on campus was President Robert Maynard Hutchins who collaborated with Mortimer Adler to develop the GBWW, the series of books that makes up the heart of my current reading program.  As part of his highly controversial reforms, Hutchins had the GBWW taught at  UC, while simultaneously having UC pull out of the Big Ten Conference, dropping its football program and trying to end its fraternities. Into this environment, Pirsig was thrust.  This was a strict "Aristotelian" program where rhetoric was reduced to a methodical art - a science.  Pirsig found this suffocating, since he believed Aristotle had moved away from Plato's dialectic, the true "art" of rhetoric.  Since his professors supported the Aristotelian view, sparks were going to fly. 

I imagine this is a common problem that all college students face.  In the end, Pirsig left UC after showing off to his professor how little the man knew. 

Not everyone had such unfavorable opinions of Hutchins. Carl Sagan said that he was "lucky enough" to have studied under him, "where science was presented as an integral part of the gorgeous tapestry of human knowledge."

In conclusion, I thought ZMM was a complex novel that was rewarding, but it demanded an investment of time and energy.  I am glad to have read it but I would not recommend it for most people.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM) has been called a modern classic by some, and a self-absorbed ego-trip by others.  In any case, it is an interesting book to include on this list since the author casts disparaging comments at the Great Books of the Western World (GBWW) for their slavish devotion to Aristotle.

Robert M. Pirsig (1928-) published ZMM in 1974 after it was rejected by 121 publishers (a world record). Since then it has sold over 4 million copies worldwide and the London Telegraph and BBC radio called ZMM the most widely read philosophy novel ever written. 

The book is two stories, both autobiographical accounts of the author's life separated by about 10 years. One regards a 17-day motorcycle trip that the author makes with his young son, traveling from Minnesota to California. The other concerns Pirsig's earlier adult life, when he was a teacher and a student of philosophy.  The novel oscillates between Pirsig's current motorcycle journey and his reflections of his early life, all the while as he ponders the philosophical concept of "quality".   When referring to his early life, the author calls himself Phaedrus, after the character in the eponymous dialogue written by Plato - a story that plays a major role toward the end of the novel.

Pirsig and his son Chris














To summarize, this book was maddening.  I found myself loving and loathing ZMM, sometimes within the same page.  I admire Prisig for writing a very personal work and I found his philosophical insights thought provoking, although not profound. However, since he decided to publish and profit from his life it is fair for me to be critical.

Prisig describes himself as an unappreciated genius who has to endure living in a world of Philistines.  The author knows and talks about the "truth" but everyone else is too wrapped up in their own worlds to listen to him.  In a moment of unrestrained ego, Pirsig states that he had the opportunity to change the entire focus of 2000 years of Western philosophy but he failed.  Much of this is done in the 3rd person as Pirsig talks about "Phaedrus", trying to understand how such a brilliant and insightful young man (himself) could be brought down by bigoted, narrow-minded professors at Montana State University and at the University of Chicago.

Pirsig seems unfair to his son and it appears he wants to lump him in with everyone else who doesn't understand him.  Not surprisingly, Chris does not completely enjoy riding on the back of a motorcycle for 17 days and this certainly affects his opinion of the entire trip.  Pirsig badgers his son and at times it appears Pirsig is either completely lacking in empathy or he has cleverly disguised his true opinions - I really could not tell. 

Some of the themes Prisig discusses include how technology and life have become separated.  Imagine how different 2010 is from 1970 and he was already saying that. His main issue is the difference between subjective and objective people, whom he calls Romantics and Classicists.  He says these people are both lacking in one thing that would unite them and that is "quality".  What is quality?    It is the central point of Pirsigs thesis, the thing that guides and directs us to being better - and it is talked about on my next post.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

New Testament: Crossroads of Government and Religion

In the Gospel according to Matthew it is revealed that Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, is descended from King David.  This invokes the concept of the hereditary monarchy for Jesus, who is known as "King of the Jews".  Of course there is a clear and important break from this genealogy -  Jesus is not the biological son of Joseph.  Therefore it would appear there is a separation of the worldly, temporal kings from the heavenly kingdom of God. The line of Jewish kings has ended and this is a new age.  Naturally, others might also interpret this as a new line of kings, sanctioned by God.  Many Christian kings in the next two millenniums would assume the latter, but I believe the Bible is telling us that God is separating political power from religious authority. 

To the Israelites, there appears to be no difference between church and state.  Religious rules were political laws and limitations on cultural freedoms.  This principle is still true today in several Islamic countries and many of the laws in our country are descended from religious codes of conduct. Jesus, however, felt there needed  to be a clear distinction between church and state. Critical questioners of Jesus hoped to trick him into paying a census tax to the Romans, which they believed would make Jesus look weak, inconsistent, and submissive to the Roman occupation of Israel.  Jesus said he would pay the tax stating,
.

"Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s"

In other words, give the state what the state needs, but give God what God needs.  This idea was completely foreign to the Jews (see the books of Samuel and Kings) and creates a powerful precedent as it sets a division between political and religious requirements.  Do what the state wants, but also do what God wants.  It does provoke the question of where our allegiances lie. Can we obey both religious and state laws?  When and how do we acknowledge these rules?  What affect does our conscious play on following either direction?

Much of the Acts of the Apostles covers the journeys of Saul (Paul), the tax collector turned preacher, who travels throughout the Mediterranean sharing the Gospel with Jews and Gentiles. At several points the Jewish religious leaders try to stop his preaching, arrest him, and put him to death.

Paul giving the Gospel to Jews and Gentiles
Eventually Paul is detained and is nearly killed.  However, Paul declares to the authorities that he is a Roman Citizen.  This fact supersedes the religious laws of the land.
.
"This man was seized by the Jews and they were about to kill him, but I came with my troops and rescued him, for I had learned that he is a Roman citizen."
.
"Festus said: 'King Agrippa, and all who are present with us, you see this man! The whole Jewish community has petitioned me about him in Jerusalem and here in Caesarea, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome.'"
.
Paul seeking protection with the Romans
Paul is taken into protective custody and travels to Rome where he continues his preaching.
Paul says, "I had to pay a big price for my citizenship" and he uses this privilege to avoid punishment by the Jewish religious leaders.  The Romans were more interested in following the law than the religious tenets of the Jews.
The protection of a religious minority (the Christain, Paul) by the Romans could be thought of as a primodial form of religious tolerance or freedom of religion, clearly one of the tenets of our own government.  Its inclusion in the Bible suggests that seperation of church and state is not only a good idea, but it can also save your life.

It does however resurface the issue raised in Matthew of what obligations we have toward our religion and toward our government.  Is Paul following his faith by seeking succor with the Roman political system?  At what point will his allegiances shift or is he maintaining a consistent course?  Is Paul  manipulating the political system  to support his own agendas or religious belief?   

Old Testament Kings

When the Israelites fled Egypt the only leader they needed was Moses.  Later they had "judges" who helped guide the Jewish people, although they focused largely on military matters.  At the time, many other nations had kings who ruled over their populations and in the Book of Samuel the people of Israel ask God for a King. God is not happy that they require a temporal leader, but he helps his prophet Samuel choose the man Saul to rule as king.  This proves to be an unfortunate decision for the Israelites, and eventually David (son of Jesse, slayer of Goliath) becomes King. 

King David
David and Goliath












Although David is held up as the gold standard of divine appointments, he had his share of personal problems.  After his death, his heirs continued to rule establishing a hereditary monarchy. The Book of Kings continues this succession and it seems that each king is worse than the last.  A few virtuous notables do exist, such as Solomon, but most were licentious, avaricious monarchs who tolerated pagan worshipping in their kingdom.  Yes, a lot of pagan kings - not a good thing in the Old Testament when God loves to throw his weight around. 

Israel eventually pays a great price for having divinely appointed monarchs and still descending into iniquity.  The 12 tribes of Israel are destroyed by the ancient kingdoms of Assyria and Babylon.  Eventually the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar II enslaves the Jews of Israel the sends them into captivity deep in his own kingdom (around 586 BC).
.
The divine right of kings?
What do we learn from this?  God warned the Israelites that a king would bring iniquity, chaos and debauchery among them.  This much appears to be true. A minority of "good" kings cannot justify the overwhelming number of bad kings. Strangely, even though God rejects the idea of a king, he still selects one for the Israelites (?)  I suppose God is saying that he is willing to give the Israelites the freedom to fail. 

One question is why does God need a temporal ruler (a king) on Earth to direct his people?  Didn't Moses receive his directions from God?  What is the purpose of a King?  Is it to interpret and enforce God's will or to rule over worldly mankind?   It is for wielding political power or to enforce religious decrees? 

Interestingly, many if not most of the kings who initially  received divine approval turned against God and caused great misery for their people.  The message from the Bible would seem to be that while God recognizes the right of man to rule on Earth, vesting this power in one individual is a blueprint for disaster. 

In the Middle Ages, and even into the Age of Enlightenment, people wondered if kings or any other person had a divine right to rule.  Does divine right mean that God has chosen a ruler or that this ruler is blessed? 

The Bible is practically constructed for misinterpretations so how can we know what God really wants?   One man's "faithful" seeems like another man's lunatic, so we certainly cannot trust another person's judgement.  Maybe this is why our government and others wanted a clear separation between religious and political authority.  In addition the Book of Kings provides a vivid example of how absolute power in the hands of one man, no matter how divinely inspired, is almost always a disappointment.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Political thought and the Bible

Year Two of the GBWW series focuses on political thought and government.  Continuing with that theme, the next readings are centered on the development of government in Judeo-Christian society and the earliest records from this tradition come from the Bible.

Our government has been influenced by numerous sources, including the feudal kingdoms of Europe. The kings of the Middle Ages traced their supreme authority back to the Jewish King David, who was selected by God to rule Israel. The idea of a divinely appointed ruler originated here and that belief was carried forward for 2000 years. 
.
Since God chose his own representative to rule man on Earth, the kings of Europe were absolute monarchs over the temporal world.  This principle had great consequences the political destinies of both men and countries, and no doubt contributed the "separation of church and state" which is bed rock principle of our own government.

The four texts of the Bible that GBWW directs us to read for this section include two Old Testament texts (The Books of Samuel and Kings) and two New Testament works (The Gospel of Matthew and Acts of the Apostles).














A tangential comment, the God in the Old and New Testaments seems quite different.  In the Old Testament, God seems more capricious and less tolerant of dissension - more like an ancient Greek or Roman god.  In contrast the New Testament God seeks out the lost sheep (prostitutes, tax collectors, etc) and would rather guide than punish.  For me, reading the New Testament invokes many memories of Sunday school and church services, however, the Old Testament feels much more foreign and unfamiliar.  I am looking forward to reading more of both in the future.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Plutarch: Sparta and Rome - Part II

Scipio Africanus was one of Rome's greatest generals. He defeated Hannibal and the Carthaginians at Zama in 202 BC and thus made Rome the greatest power in the Mediterranean. Two of his well-known grandsons were Tiberius (163-133 BC) and Caius (153-121 BC) Gracchus who went on to become Tribunes of the People of Rome. In this role, each tried unsuccessfully to introduce land reformation and redistribution of wealth similar to that attempted by Cleomones and Agis in Sparta a century earlier.

TIBERIUS GRACCHUS

Following his grandfather's path, Tiberius served in the Roman Legions as a military tribune while fighting in the Third Punic War.  Because of the rapid militarization of Rome during this time, many citizens were giving up their farms to serve in the legions.  In addition, wealthy land-owners were buying up much of the land conquered from campaigns, leaving nothing for the poorer citizens.  Originally 500 acres was the most land one could own, but wealthy individuals were circumventing this using false identities and other tricks. When veterans returned from their military campaigns, they had no land to farm, let alone any other property.  This greatly disturbed Tiberius, who began pushing for land reform and an equal distribution of property for all soldiers. 

Tiberius was later elected a Tribune of the People, to represent their interests in the Senate.  Here he said, "Wild beasts that roam over Italy have their dens, each has a place of repose and refuge. But the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy nothing but the air and light; without house or home they wander about with their wives and children"

The Senate with its wealthy members would not enforce the previous land agreements (i.e. the 500 acre law) so Tiberius by-passed them and went directly to a vote by the Concilium Plebis (the Popular Assembly). The Senate used a procedural trick to prevent this, but Tiberius countered by shutting down the government's daily business to punish the Senate.

This sounds a lot like the political tit-for-tat tactics we see in Washington today. 

Things reached a head in 133 BC when King Attalus III of Pergamum died, leaving his entire fortune (including the whole kingdom of Pergamum) to Rome. Tiberius sought to use the agrarian reformation laws to redistribute the wealth to all the citizens of Rome, but the Senate was absolutely opposed to this.
 

Tiberius pressed the issue on the senators.  A final confrontation in the Senate turned deadly as Tiberius was attacked and bludgeoned to death with chairs and stools by the senators (a civilized lot, huh?) and they threw his corpse into the Tiber river.  Many of his followers suffered a similar fate.  This ceased debate on the topic of property reformation and equal rights until....

CAIUS GRACCHUS

Younger than his brother by nine years, Caius (Gaius) was even more zealous about social reform than his ill-fated brother.  Serving as Tribune of the People, Caius tried to include all Italians as Roman Citizens.  Later he also tried to include all people in Roman colonies and Roman allies.  He also sought cheaper grain for the poor, a more fair judicial system, re-division of the land and free clothing for soldiers serving in Rome's Legions. 

The Senate did not try to use procedural chicanery on Caius like they did with Tiberius, but instead used another Tribune (Lucius Opimius) as a spoiler.  If Caius promised cheap grain, Lucius would promise free grain; Caius would offer low rent land, but Lucius would offer free land. Of course Lucius' promises were untenable and impossible to grant, but this still had the affect of undercutting support for Caius among the masses. Eventually the Senate trumped up some legal charges and passed a measure calling for Caius' arrest. Caius committed suicide rather than defend himself. 

COMPARISONS

Plutarch compares the lives of these two Romans with the two Greeks mentioned in my last post.

All of these men hoped to promote a more equal division of property and wealth among their citizens.  For the Spartans, they thought it would make their city-state stronger and be true to their ancient traditions.  For the Romans, they wanted their soldier-citizens to receive the same privileges as any other free individual.  All were thwarted by the wealthy, elite and well-entrenched castes of their respective societies.

It is remarkable to see how politics has changed so little in the last 2000 years.  Of course people are not being bludgeoned to death in our Capitol, but the same political maneuvering, the same attempts at legal tricks and loopholes are still played out today. 

Plutarch says that it is "difficult to change the government without force or fear".  In these four examples we can see that to be true.  In the end, the lack of reformation in Sparta resulted in it slipping into a state of decandance and avarice from which it never recovered.  Rome grew from an aristocracy to an oligarchy/democracy, but maintained a strong military. Eventually Rome became a tyranny/dictatorship under the Caesars.  It eventually followed the same path as Sparta, growing accustomed to luxury and sloth and tolerant of inequality of wealth.

As Aristotle said in Politics, inequality is the cause of rebellion and the decay of society.  Of course no one is more resistant to equality than the ones who benefit from the difference, and we have seen historically that equality among the classes can be violently opposed by those in power. 

Plutarch: Sparta and Rome

I have previously read and written about Plutarch (46-120 AD),  the ancient Greco-Roman biographer who compared and contrasted the lives of noble Romans and Greeks.  My readings about Plutarch this time concern a pair of Spartan kings (Agis and Cleomones) and a pair of Roman brothers (Caius and Tiberius Gracchus). 

The commonality between these two sets is that both the Spartans (Greeks) and the Romans were trying to attempt major land reforms and redistribution of their country's wealth among the poor.  All four characters would confront intense resistance from the nobles in their societies. Likewise, all would die as a result of their attempts to reform their governments.  In some ways, these stories build off Aristotle's ideas of democracy (equality), but are also a proto-socialist state similiar to that suggested in the Communist Manifesto, which I discussed earlier. 

FIRST to GREECE

In the ancient world, Sparta was one of the world's greatest warrior states in no small part to the laws of Lycurgus (800-730 BC) which I described in a previous blog post.  These laws encouraged austerity, eschewed vice and wealth, and promoted equality among the citizens.
During the Peloponessian War (404 BC), Sparta and her allies defeated Athens leaving Sparta the preeminent power in Greece. The city state of Thebes and the Macedonians (i.e. Alexander the Great) later eclipsed Sparta and by 260 AD Sparta was in decline. The Spartan King Agis IV (264-241 BC) thought that the wealth gathered following Athen's defeat had corrupted Sparta, making her accustomed to luxury and coin, weak and effeminate.

AGIS IV

King Agis IV decided to relign Sparta with the ideals of Lycurgus.  To do this he cancelled all debts and redistributed the land amoung the poor.  This was very popular with the lower classes, but vehemently opposed by the Ephors (Spartan nobles) and his co-monarch Leonidas II.  This was partially because Leonidas grew up in the luxurious court of the Greco-Persian King Seleucus II  and married a Persian.  King Agis had the obstructionist Leonidas exiled, then had all Spartan bonds, debts and securities and had them burned in the market place.  However, called to a military campaign, he was not able to redistribute the land as he hoped before he left.   

Leonidas later returned from exile with mercenaries, captured Agis, and together with the Ephors conducted a mock trial.  Fearing a popular revolt, they quickly had Agis put to death along with his mother and grandmother.  This was the first time a Spartan king had been executed by the Ephors - made all the worse given his noble intentions. 

CLEOMENES

After Agis's death, Leonidas II assumed the monarchy and forced Agis's wife to marry his son, Cleomenes (263-219 BC).  Cleomenes greatly admired Agis and his attempt restore Sparta to its former glory. Even more ironic, when Clemones became king of Sparta in 235 he would attempt the exact same reforms that Agis did!  Cleomones waged war throughout the Peloponese, fighting in Corinth, Argos, Megalopolis and Manitea and nearly succeeded in uniting the entire peninsula.  With his growing military honors he returned to Sparta and had the treacherous Ephors executed. 


Cleomones gave all his land to the state, and was followed in example by his family and friends, then by all the other citizens.  An equal division of land was given to each individual, and the state population was increased by granting citizenship to non-citizens.  Cleomones then instituted military reforms, including the introduction of the Macedonian sarissa (pike) and restoring social and military discipline. 
Unfortunately these reforms may not have come soon enough for Sparta.  Bad luck, bad timing and a massive Macedonian army lead to Cleomones defeat at the battle of Sellasia (222 BC) and he was forced into exile and death in Alexandria, Egypt.



Next...ROME and the comparison with Tiberius and Caius Gracchus!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Aristotle: Politics - What is democracy?

We often hold our democratic form of government as the most successful and fairest form of administration, the natural evolutionary endpoint of hundreds of years of failed states.

Democracy has its roots in the Greek world, (dêmos) "people" and κράτος (Kratos) "power", so it is quite appropriate to read Aristotle's thoughts as he compares democracy with other forms of government.  A true democracy, as Aristotle states, gives each citizen an equal voice in the government.  But, as Aristotle quotes Homer, "it is not good to have a rule of many". Even a relative contemporary, Winston Churchill, acknowledged that, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time"

The first problem with democracy is that it can be very difficult to reach a consensus.  In addition, many opinions will come from inferior minds lacking experience, knowledge or ability to contribute effectively.  In a true democracy, everyone participates in government so citizens "elected" to office must be chosen at random.  What would this be like today?  First off, anyone could be a senator, a judge or even president!  The multitude of people in the US, many without college or high school degrees and no political experience, could ascend to positions of great power.  It would be a true democracy, but also chaotic, capricious and probably destructive.    Democracies are also very susceptible to demagogues, popular leaders who appeal to the masses.  They often play toward common feelings of inequality against the wealthy, the educated and other notable classes of society.  Demagogues have been a threat to many governments (think Hitler, Mussolini) and have been shown to be a destabilizing factor even recently.  Concluding, Aristotle lists many failed democracies throughout the Mediterranean including: Thebes, Megara, Rhodes, Syracuse and others.  It seems that even the inventors of democracy did not think it was perfect. 

Essentially, democracy is a monarchy of the multitudes.  It marginalizes the rights of the few (wealthy, highly educated, noblity, etc) for the benefit of the many (poor, less well-educated, no birth right).  In contrast, an Oligarchy is rule by the few over the many.  Aristotle points out that this can be favorable since only a few individuals will be truly "virtuous", educated and experienced enough to run the government.  Of course this can disenfranchise the multitudes who would have had power in a democracy.

In the US we have a combination of both an Oligarchy and a Democracy.  Everyone has a vote and everyone has the potential to hold office.  In reality, it is largely the elite of society who hold political positions.  Many politicians represent corporate interests, come from wealthy well-educated families and political dynasties.  I'm not saying this is a bad thing;  Aristotle would agree that "notables" should run the government rather than less qualified individuals.  However, by the strict definition, we do not live in a pure democracy.

The universal and chief cause of revolution is inequality, says Aristotle.  A democracy is not truly equal, since wealthy property owners are stripped of their superior position.  Similarly an oligarchy, like our government, is not equal to the majority.  Aristotle says that an oligarchy can mitigate this disparity by treating the majority well. 


Ultimately, Aristotle says, the chief aim of any government is the preservation of that government.  That seems short-sighted and self-serving but it is manifestly true. Everyone involved in the government (e.g. "elected officials") will do everything possible to preserve the status quo.  This reminds me of what Karl Marx said when he decribed police as "heavily-armed thugs" whose purpose was to protect the rights of the ruling class.  Police are essentially agents defending the government from dissention and supporting its policies and values. Aristotle also goes on to say that the size of the military should be large enough to support the policy of the state "commensurate with the scale of her interests".  This would include maintaining the status quo.

The last few books of "Politics" regard the education and employment of the youth.  Aristotle states that, "All paid employments absorb and degrade the mind", by which he means we should all be self-employed.  I can agree that working for someone is essentially degrading since we work largely for a paycheck.  In contrast, being self-employed frees us from payday and grants us a unique self-interest in our work. 

Similarly, Aristotle elaborates that learning for the sake of others is menial, servile and reflects an illiberal character.  We are responsible for our own education and we should ensure that we are learning for our sake and not to be used as a tool.

Finally, as an aside, Aristotle says that the ideal state should be entirely visible at a glance. This seems practical to the city-states of ancient Greece (Athens, Thebes, Sparta, etc) but he probably did not imagine a state as large as the USA. However, if we consider that all politics are local, then the governing of a large country is merely a matter of organization and scale.



Aristotle: Politics - Why do we have a government?

Last year I did a brief introdution of Aristotle and I read a portion of his work "Politics" which I discussed. This time my assignment was to read all eight "books" of Aristotle's Politics. 

Aristotle famously says, "Man is by nature a political animal", and perhaps nothing (sadly) is more important to the advancement of civilization than politics.  It is the foundation of government, society, culture and our welfare.  Therefore a critical examination of the mechanics of politics is required for the development of any successful state.

Aristotle asks many questions such as: What are the elements of a successful government?  Why are there different types of government? What is the best government? 

Why do we need government?  Aristotle says that within a "state" man is perfected, the best of all animals.  However when he is removed from law and justice he becomes the worst.  I suppose many would agree with that assessment, including Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) who said that without government man would be in a "war of all against all" and thus have lives that were "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short".

Who should rule?  Aristotle says that some individuals are made to rule, just like some are naturally slaves and others masters.   Just like the mind rules over the appetites, so should the superior rule over the inferior.  At first I dismissed this idea as anachronistic and undemocratic, but now I am wondering if Aristotle is correct.  Do we want bad leaders?  Of course not, but what qualifies someone as good or bad? Education?  Experience?  Intelligence?  Birth?  It is worthy of further thought. 

Who is a citizen in our government?  What an apropos question as the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and the status of illegal aliens in the US is currently in the news.  Aristotle suggests that a citizen is someone who can participate in the government, specifically in the judicial system.  A virtuous citizen is one who can both obey and lead. 

What is the best government?  Aristotle compares different governments weighing their pros and cons. 

Governments can be divided into how many people rule over the state.  This can be one (royalty/tyranny), a few (aristocracy/oligarchy = governement of the best), or the many (democracy/constitutional government).

Having a smaller ruling party results in a more efficient government which does not require a consensus for its action.  It is also possible to have the best (most virtuous) rulers who are highly educated and skilled.  Conversely, having a small number of people in charge means they are more likely to express bad judgement than a larger number would.   Smaller governments also disenfranchise a great number of people. 

The worst form of government is a tyranny where one man rules without restraint.  According to Aristotle, a democracy is not too far behind. So what does Aristotle think is the best form of government?  He wryly says it is the one that is administered by the best.

Aristotle does make it clear though that inequality is the root cause of rebellion and that a strong middle class is essential.

"Thus it is manifest that the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and that those states are likely be be well-administered, in which the middle class is large, and stronger if possible that both the other classes...for where some possess much, and the others nothing, there may arise an extreme democracy, or a pure oligarchy; or a tyranny may grow out of either extreme" 

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Reading Plan: Year Two

In the GBWW program, year one was a general introduction into great works of literature and philosophical thought. The next nine years have more direction, which each year orientated to a specific theme.

Year two is focused on literature concerning the development of political theory and government. From the reading list below I can see that I will be returning to some authors and books that I read selections from last year, such as Aristotle, Plutarch and Shakespeare as well as more Bible reading.  I am particularly looking forward to reading the political philosophy of Hobbes, Rousseau and Kant who I know have been very influential.

Aristotle: Politics
Plutarch: The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans
Old Testament: Samuel, Kings
New Testament: Matthew, Acts
Tacitus: The Annals
Aquinas: Summa Theologica
Machiavelli: The Prince
Hobbes: Leviathan
Shakespeare: King Henry IV
Montesquieu: The Spirit of Laws
Rousseau: The Social Contract
Locke: Concerning Civil Government
Kant: The Science of Right
J.S. Mill: Representative Government, On Liberty
The Federalist (selected readings)
Hegel: The Philosophy of Right
J.S. Mill: On Liberty

Here is the rub.  Over the next nine years I will read select readings from specific works, but in some cases I do not finish the entire piece.  For example, it was suggested by GBWW that I only read 50 pages of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire . When will I finish the rest?  (another 1750 pages!).  Do I want to spend two months reading that and slow my progress on other books?  Will I get diminishing returns by reading the entire work?

My tentative plan to is finish year two of the GBWW program ahead of schedule and return to Decline and Fall as well as reading Marx's Das Kapital (and perhaps some others).  Of course plans only survive as long as they don't meet reality.   

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Year One - A review

On January 9th, 2009 I started reading GBWW following the Year One schedule.  It took 19 months rather than 12 to finish the first year, but I'm still pleased to have completed everything.  Admittedly, writing a thoughtful blog entry about each book seems to double the effort.   

From my list, I think I enjoyed reading Hamlet the most. However the Communist Manifesto and Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire were the most stimulating.

Here is the list of GBWW that were finished this year:
Plato: Apology, Crito, The Republic
Sophocles: Oedipus the King and Antigone
Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, Politics
Plutarch: The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans
Old Testament: Book of Job
St. Augustine: The Confessions
Montaigne: The Essays
Shakespeare: Hamlet
Locke: Concerning Civil Government
Swift: Gulliver's Travels
Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
The Declaration of Independence
The Constitution of the United States
The Federalist
Marx-Engles: Manifesto of the Communist Party

Communism in America

I found the Communist Manifesto to be quite thought provoking and it also made me eager to read Das Kapital to learn more about Marx's economic theories. I agree that many workers today are still exploited as "wage laborers", including ones with PhDs and MDs. Certainly the problem has been greatly rectified since 1848, but I thought it would be worth seeing what Communist ideas Marx had that have been implemented in America.

What Marx wanted to see:

1. Progressive income tax. We have this in America, however some people do not think it is nearly "progessive" enough for the super rich. We also tax inhertances, which retards the growth of a wealthy ruling classs. 

2. Free education. We have publicly supported schools for K-12 and state sponsored universities. However a free college education is unrealistic, even in "socialist" Europe.

3. A national bank. We have this and the Federal Reserve regulates the short-term interest rate which means there is quite a bit of governmental control over our economy (especially lending).

4. Labor unions. We did cultivate many of these over the last 150 years. Although they are not nearly as powerful as in years past, they still retain their influence and protect workers rights.

5.  Public Ownership of Business.  The goverments currently owns many "companies" such as the post office, mortgage companies (Freddie Mac, Fanny Mae) and we own 60% of General Motors following our bailout of that company.

Marx saw history as a grand and natural transition from old ideas to new ones. It was a mix of Hegel's inevetable march of time and a twist of social Darwinism. The final outcome would be a great class struggle with Communism emerging dominant. He probably did not predict that we would instead incorportate many of his ideas in our capitalist governments.

Marx and Engels: The Communist Manifesto

"The theory of the Communists can be summed up in the single sentence: abolition of private property." Not the property of peasants but "the kind of property which exploits wage labor and which cannot increase except upon condition of begetting a new supply of wage labor for fresh exploitation."

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels believed that there has been a long historical struggle between the working class of "wage laborers" (the proletariat) and the ruling class who control capital (the bourgeoisie). In other words, most of us are working for someone for money and the people paying us control how much compensation we receive for our labor. This "callous cash payment" has "converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers".

What is wrong with being a wage laborer? One problem is that the wage laborer is not fairly compensated. For example, in an 8-hour work day we pay for ourselves in only 5 hours and the rest of the wage-labor we generate goes to the bourgeoisie. Worse yet, many wage laborers only earn enough money to survive and reproduce, but never enough to elevate themselves out of their position. This just perpetuates the cycle of dependency on the bourgeoisie. If a laborer tries to ask for more money the bourgeoisie will find cheaper labor elsewhere, since wage earners are just a "commodity".

The proletariat "is set upon by the other portions of the bourgeoisie - the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker" (think “Cash Now” or “Check & Go” money-lending stores today). The bourgeoisie do train and educate the proletariat, but only to help the bourgeoisie compete with other bourgeoisie, foreign and domestic. However, the Manifesto suggests that the preliterate should be using this knowledge against the bourgeoisie who keep them suppressed.

How are communists different those other working parties? They support all national struggles and they represent the movement as a whole. This is in contrast with nationalist worker parties. The Communists want all workers to unite.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Karl Marx

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a radical political figure who advocated the abolition of private property and the overthrow of the ruling elite. Marx called his idea of goverment Communism, as as we know today it had a profound influence on the events of the following century. Born in Germany, Marx was not a stellar university student although he had a keen interest in philosophy. During his early life he developed a great sympathy for the alienation of the working classes of Europe which was occurring during the Industrial Revolution.

Marx wrote many publications supporting his beliefs, but the two most well-known are The Communist Manifesto (1848), which outlined his thoughts and called for a worker's revolution, and Das Kapital (1867) which explains the deficits in the capital mode of production which lead to class struggle. 

The publication of his ideas were not popular with most governments and Marx was forced to leave Germany and later France before finally settling in London.  He lived in almost total poverty with his wife and children helped only by the financial support of his close friend and intellectual counterpart, Friedrich Engels.