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.