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Count no man happy until the end is known

by on May 16, 2016

Why aren’t we happy?

It’s a question that we have undoubtedly asked ourselves at one point or another. Perhaps you have done it while staring up at the ceiling fan late at night, or perhaps while doodling on a cocktail napkin at some out-of-the-way dive bar.

The prevailing notion in the modern Western world is that happiness is a subjective feeling we experience from day to day. Like the stock market, happiness goes up, then down, and nobody really knows where it will land next. We view happiness as something that can be augmented by a pill or a bottle or a romp around in the hay.

But if after sobering up, and shaking all the hay out of your hair, you’re still feeling blue; there might be a reason for that. Today we consider the nature of happiness, and how we, as a culture, might be getting it all wrong.

As always, I’m a firm advocate that an understanding and appreciation for the history and ideas from the classical age (the foundations of much of our intellectual traditions) can provide some much-needed insight. The classics, in this sense, are like spectacles placed upon a perpetually near-sighted man for the first time.

Hallelujah! I can see!

So, where to start?

So Solon walks into a palace…

As Herodotus tells it (in Book I of his The Histories) the Athenian lawgiver, Solon traveled to the ancient kingdom of Lydia and visited with the ruling king, Croesus of Sardis. The king was delighted to have such a renowned philosopher and statesman in his presence.

N.B. Solon is remembered as a lawmaker from the Archaic age of Athens. His laws are often credited with laying the foundation for early Athenian democracy about a century later.

For several days, the king instructed his servants to tour Solon around his palace to demonstrate his enormous power and wealth. Once he felt that his riches had adequately awed Solon, the king asks the Athenain:

Stranger of Athens, we have heard much of thy wisdom and of thy travels through many lands, from love of knowledge and a wish to see the world. I am curious therefore to inquire of thee, whom, of all the men that thou hast seen, thou deemest the most happy?

Croesus already assumes himself to be the happiest man in the world, but wishes to hear his name parroted back to him by such a renowned sage. Rather than name the king as the happiest man, Solon claims that Tellus of Athens is the happiest of all men.

Solon and Croesus, by Gerard van Honthorst

Croesus is shocked, what makes this Tellus guy so special? Why is he the happiest?

Solon replies…

..his country was flourishing in his days, and he himself had sons both beautiful and good, and he lived to see children born to each of them, and these children all grew up; and further because, after a life spent in what our people look upon as comfort, his end was surpassingly glorious.

In a battle between the Athenians and their neighbours near Eleusis, he came to the assistance of his countrymen, routed the foe, and died upon the field most gallantly. The Athenians gave him a public funeral on the spot where he fell, and paid him the highest honours.


Croesus was perplexed by such an answer, but he pushes on regardless. If he weren’t THE happiest man, certainly Solon would name him the second happiest, right?


Solon says that the second happiest of mortals were a pair of strapping young Argives, Cleobis and Bito. These lads were renowed for their strength and athleticism. One day, their mother wished to travel to the temple of Hera to attend a festival, but there were no oxen to pull the cart. The two brothers, who clearly loved their dear old mom, slung the yoke over their own necks and dragged the cart six miles.

They were, in essence, the ideal “good sons” who drove their mother to church on Sundays.

When the brother arrived at the temple, the other citizens witnessed their feat and extolled the boys for their strength and dedication. Later, the mother prayed to the goddess to grant her sons the greatest of gifts a mortal could receive. After the festival, the youths fell asleep in the temple and never awoke. They passed from this earth and were forever remembered by their people as the best of men.

At this point, Croesus is livid with Solon. These dead men are happier than he, a king? Surely, the old codger must have lost his marbles.

Solon explains that while Croesus is very wealthy, the wealthy have only two advantages over the poor- “the means to bear calamity and satisfy their appetites”. However, the rich have no monopoly on the things that the classical Greeks thought constituted a good life: civic

“Plus, riches do tend to create more issues for their possessors. After all, mo money mo problems.”

service, raising a healthy family, being of sound mind and body, and honoring the gods. Plus, riches do tend to create more issues for their possessors. After all, mo money mo problems.

The wealthy can be said to be “fortunate”, but “happiness” must be reserved for those of us who have already shuffled off this mortal coil. How do we meet our end? Does our good fortune last until our dying breaths?

Solon concludes that he cannot tell Croesus if he is happy or not until he knows the manner of his death. Count no man happy until the end is known.

Croesus sends Solon away with much indifference, but he might have done well to listen to him. Soon after, the king’s son is killed in a hunting accident and the king himself is struck blind by the gods for his hubris. Finally, after an ill-advised invasion of the Persian Empire, Cyrus the Great of Persia crushes Croesus’ kingdom, and Croesus finds himself on the business end of a funeral pyre while he is still breathing.

As the flames licked at his feet, Croesus cries out…

Oh Solon! Oh Solon! Oh Solon! Count no man happy until the end is known!



Count no man happy until the end is known

So what to make of all this?

Is it true that a fulfilled life can only be measured once everything is said and done? Many of the classical thinkers certainly thought so. Solon was not arguing that men like Tellus and Biton were happier in death than in life. He was not referring to the great hereafter.

Solon was arguing that a full accounting of happiness can only be known once the life of a citizen is laid out start to finish. Only then can we see if somebody has achieved virtue, self-sufficiency, and all other good things that the ancients believed to be paramount to a “good life”.

So what do you think, dear reader? Can we only be counted happy once the end is known? Or is this a lesson from the ancient world that we might do well to forget?

The Ancient City of Palmyra

by on May 16, 2016

“When are you going to write about Palmyra?” a reader asks me the other day. “If you’re willing to address the Elgin Marbles and political correctness, why not Palmyra?”

Why not, indeed?

First, we would like to thank you readers who send us all manner of encouragements, questions, and, sometimes, angry tirades.

Your editor reads them all, but we can’t respond to every one. Still, we get plenty of ideas, new topics of conversation spring to mind.

Our job here at Classical Wisdom Weekly is to connect the dots between the ancient and modern world, to give context to the curious subject of human history. In short, we try to facilitate the “Great Conversation”.

Today, we are going to try to do just that.

But some of you might still be scratching your heads. ‘What in the heck is a Palmyra? Is it a palm tree?’ I hear you say. If this sounds like you, then allow me refresh your memory.

The name sounds familiar because you undoubtedly heard it late last year on the 24-hour news cycle. Palmyra is an ancient city in the Syrian dessert, about 100 miles north of Damascus, which was snatched up by ISIS in late 2015. The group then destroyed culturally significant temples dating back to the age of the Roman Empire. The ancient amphitheater at Palmyra subsequently became the setting for a number of public beheadings.

It was just about the most horrible story your could have heard on the news, but we won’t spend too much undue time on that insanity. Rather, today we will look at the history of Palmyra; perhaps give you some context on that historically significant city that was defiled.

So…What’s a Palmyra?

An island out of the sandy ocean

Palmyra was, in the words of the historian Edward Gibbon, “… a cultivated spot in the barren desert of Arabia that rose like an island out of the sandy ocean.”

The city’s history goes back as far as 3000 BC, but it remained a minor way station in the desert until about the 1st century AD when the Roman emperor Trajan rerouted part of the Silk Road through Palmyra. The caravan traffic proved a boon to the city and it became a major destination that straddled the empire of Rome and the decaying Parthian Empire.

Ruins of Palmyra

Palmyra enjoyed political autonomy after a visit from Emperor Hadrian in 129 AD. It was a Roman colony, but still maintained its neutrality. For about 150 years the city grew and thrived by taxing the caravans along the Silk Road. This was the time period when most of the classically inspired temples were constructed, the very ones that were destroyed by ISIS last year.

However, while Palmyra enjoyed rapid growth, the Roman Empire was thrown into a state of disarray during the 3rd century AD. Numerous barbarian invasions had created instability within the political epicenter of the Roman Empire. Constant civil wars and chaos ensued. Between 235 and 253, 11 different men sat on the throne of the Empire.

Palmyra was left unattended in the East to confront a new threat. Out of the decaying Parthian empire their had come the Sasanian Empire, which invaded the Roman East in 253 AD.

Palmyra likely viewed autonomy under Rome as being preferable to subjugation to the Sassanians. The Palmyrene leader, Odenathus, assembled a defense force and successfully defeated the Sassanians, ending their invasion.

The Romans so admired Odenathus, that they effectively named him ruler of the East.

With the general applause of the Romans, and the consent of Gallienus, the senate conferred the title of Augustus on the brave Palmyrenian (Odenathus); and seemed to intrust him with the government of the East

-Edward Gibbon (History of the Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire)


The Palmyrenian Empire

While Odenathus managed to hold off the Sassanians for several years after, he was killed by a disgruntled relative in about 268 AD. His wife, Queen Zenobia, took the reigns of the Palmyrenian army. Zenobia had grander ambitions for her city.

Zenobia is perhaps the only female whose superior genius broke through the servile indolence imposed on her sex by the climate and manners of Asia. She claimed her descent from the Macedonian king of Egypt, equalled in beauty her ancestor Cleopatra, and far surpassed that princess in chastity and valour.

-Edward Gibbon (History of the Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire)


Ancient sources tell us that Zenobia began creating a Palmyrenian backed political coalition that extended far into Asia-Minor. She garnered the support of many important cities in the Eastern Roman provinces. While the queen was always careful to acknowledge fealty to Rome, it became clear that she was intent on establishing her own empire situated between the Greek and Persian lands.

Queen Zenobia, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

In 270, Zenobia made her boldest move yet. She ordered her armies to occupy Egypt. The Roman legionaries were still preoccupied with barbarian invaders. The idea was that Rome would not have the resources to rebuke such an effort.

Unfortunately for the queen, she made her move right as Aurelian, one of the most formidable Roman Emperors of the 3rd century, took his seat at the head of the Roman table.

Aurelian marched east, hoping to put an end to the budding Palmyrenian Empire. By the time he reached modern-day Syria, Queen Zenobia had been forced to retreat to her hometown. She barricaded herself within Palmyra. Zenobia attempted to escape to the Sasanian Empire, the very nation that her husband had fought against. However, she was captured by Roman cavalry and brought to Emperor Aurelian.

What became of Zenobia is a matter of some debate. The Byzantine chronicler, John Zonaras claims that Zenobia returned to Rome where she was paraded through the streets in gold chains. It is said that she was then permitted to live out the rest of her days in Rome in luxury and leisure.

The Empire of Palmyra lasted from 270 to 273 AD
(Wikimedia Commons)

What we do know is that the city of Palmyra was not so fortunate. After the defeat of their Queen, the leaders of Palmyra attempted to incite a second revolt. Emperor Aurelian caught wind of the plan and returned to Palmyra with haste. He crushed the insurrection.

As punishment, Aurelian ordered the city to be razed. He left only the temples, and a handful of other buildings undamaged. Interestingly, this is the reason why there remain only temples at Palmyra for ISIS to destroy.

Rome diverted trade away from Palmyra in the ensuing years and the city, once again, drifted into obscurity.

No happy endings in history

So there you have it dear reader, an, admittedly brief, story of the history of Palmyra. Perhaps with this historical context fresh in your mind, the atrocities committed at this ancient site have become all the more unbearable.

History rarely has “happy endings”, but this one certainly has had a notable uptick in recent weeks. Palmyra is once again in the news, but this time its not because it is the victim of senseless destruction. Syrian and Russian forces took back the city recently. Last Thursday, the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev conducted a concert in the ruins of Palmyra.

You can read more about that here.

Now, we won’t get into the politics of all that. I’ll allow you to draw your own conclusions. For now, let’s part on happy terms. Enjoy your weekend, and we will speak again soon.

The Invention of Freedom

by on April 29, 2016

It has long been the prerogative of the ‘young’ to consider that phrases such as “there has never been a time when freedom has been under greater threat” as something particularly apposite to the prevailing geopolitical climate. However, for those of us who annually accrue more grey hairs that new CDs (or, indeed, who think CDs can still be used in a contemporary analogy), we tend to be able to take a step back, pause, reflect, and realise that, as messed up as things may seem on any given day, history is one long litany of the trials and tribulations, of the ebbs and flows of the freedom of mankind.

Unfortunately, as self-satisfying as such reflections may be, they are, alas, wrong!

Not wrong in the sense that the young people are right. God forbid, no! Wrong in the sense that history is not an ever-oscillating shuffle-board of liberty; indeed, we can almost identify a moment at which (in the Classical, European tradition) ‘freedom’ was created!


The distinction between ‘free’ and ‘enslaved’ is as old as any record we have (be it European, Egyptian, Hebrew, Mesopotamian or Chinese), and the desire to be free/exempt from the demands of a centralised/unrepresentative government is similarly ancient, however, and despite the fanciful feats of Moses, the concept of political freedom in terms of a personal liberty under a law recognised by the state, took some time to develop.

N.B. Though women had differing roles and levels of importance in the various societies of antiquity, it is fair to say, broadly speaking, that they were not politically enfranchised – though they may have enjoyed some protection under the law, their freedom was usually dependent on that of their husband/father. Thus, for the purposes of this article, it shall be assumed we are talking about free, adult males unless specifically stated otherwise.

Unsurprisingly, Near Eastern areas with systems of absolute monarchy, especially ones which claimed their power was divinely derived, did not create optimum conditions in which to germinate new and radical ideas about personal liberty.

Conversely, the environment of the Greek city-states (poleis), though far from being a free-for-all, utopian love-in, was more conducive to such progressive thought. Indeed, the high ideals of Athens’ Golden Age (the fifth century BC), was very likely influenced by her political system rather than, as some contest, what produced it.

Though the key factor was not merely, or at least not necessarily, democracy (an Athenian experiment often derided by other poleis), but living in a small-ish, locally governed community which didn’t take its authority from any supernatural source and, crucially, which had a vested interest in ensuring the well-being of the wider society.

The Language of Freedom

The practical evolution of Greek freedom runs in parallel to its evolution in the Greek language. Whilst words like eleutheros and liber appear in the most ancient sources, it is not until the Greeks began to fear for their liberty vis-à-vis Persia (particularly with the war of 480/479BC) that the abstract noun eleutheria came into the vocabulary.

This was a clear signal that the Greeks had managed to identify a freedom that was not bound simply by this or that right in front of the courts, or by the right to vote in the assembly, own property, move freely etc. but an inalienable right to be free from foreign tyranny. Indeed, eleutheria seemed, initially at least, to be intrinsically tied to the idea of being a tyrant-free zone.

The fifth century BC was a particularly interesting period in this respect, as the Athenians took it upon themselves to become the champion of Greek freedom against the barbarian oppressors, forming the Delian League in 478BC. The irony being that Athens, after forming this coalition of Greek states, soon started to play

“…history is not an ever-oscillating shuffle-board of liberty; indeed, we can almost identify a moment at which (in the Classical, European tradition) ‘freedom’ was created! “

fast and loose with the freedoms of the very countrymen whom they had vowed to protect. Indeed, this was a key propaganda tool used by fellow-Greeks, Sparta, during the Peloponnesian War (431-404BC), who railed against the polis tyrannos of Athens – only, all too predictably, to themselves become oppressive to the Greek states which fell under their ‘protection’.

As the years passed, the Athenians began to blur the lines between demokratia and eleutheria and, by the end of the fifth century BC, if freedom wasn’t quite synonymous with democracy, it was, for most, incompatible with other forms of rule such as oligarchy.

The fourth century BC proved a veritable smorgasbord of neo-con style freedom speading/defending with various Greek states taking an active role in attempting to ensure the liberty of their neighbours. However, all this was done in the shadow of the Perians who remained a constant threat to ‘Greek freedom’ until Alexander the Great finally ‘liberated’ Hellas from its Eastern oppressors, albeit only after Greece had been assimilated into the Macedonian Empire.


This freedom as a largely unoppressed quasi client-kingdom became the norm for the Greeks over the following centuries; the struggle as to whom they should call master was finally ended in 196BC by Flamininus, the Roman general in charge of Greek affairs at the time, when he dramatically announced at the Isthmian Games (a festival only slightly less important than the Olympics) that Greece was now a free state – though Roman legions would stay in the country for another few years and Greece never again had the military or political clout to consider themselves truly independent of Rome.

The Philosophy of Freedom

On a philosophical level, freedom certainly had its complexities – not least in terms of slavery. Though abolitionism was never seriously on the cards, many theories were put forward to condemn or justify it (Aristotle’s thoughts on the subject in his Politics make particularly uncomfortable reading).

On a more practical level, there were those (notably Aristotle and Aristippus) who took on a distinctly libertarian slant, claiming that freedom from the state and freedom to behave as one pleased were intrinsic to being truly free. However, Plato seemed contemptuous of such ideas, highlighting their potential excesses in The Republic.

Paying subscribers can read the Classical Wisdom Weekly edition of Politics here.

Another popular philosophical expression of eleutheria was the ability to be free from worldly trappings and internal passions. Though the Cynics had much to say on the issue and on happiness in general, it was the Stoics and Epicureans who believed in freedom as humanity’s principle raison d’être.

In the Roman Republic, libertas is a key and overarching principle, but only one amongst the ruling elite. This mostly focused on restricting freedom at the highest level i.e. keeping it out of the hands of a single individual. The failure to do this resulted, during the imperial age, to a de facto regression to the pre-classical idea of freedom i.e. security before the law, but an almost complete lack of political rights.

A Christian Salvation?

One salvation in these oppressive times of the emperors came in the guise of Christianity. Christianity didn’t care about background, education, influence or even if one were free or enslaved; all who prostrated themselves before god were equally free (or, if you’re so inclined, equally enslaved). Christ could liberate from social status, from sin, and even from death.

However, this emancipation and enfranchisement was all, self-explicitly, ethereal and would not look after the here and now: “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).

“Accordingly, Christians did not oppose slavery as an institution, but in accepting slaves into their community they anticipated the universal brotherhood of the free expected in another world”

(Kurt Raaflaub).


Whether politically, philosophically or religiously, the ancient world cannot be said to have given us an evenly mixed-bag when it comes to the freedoms of and restrictions upon the average person. Even if we hold fifth century Athens up as an champion to such causes, we still have to face the reality that, not only were women a negligible force, but society only functioned because of a vast underclass of slaves.

That said, there are signs, here and there, of the green shoots of liberty: justice before the law, the right to vote, freedom from tyrants, freedom from invasion, ideas on what it takes to be free and at peace within one’s own body and mind, and the freedom to dictate the destiny of one’s soul.

What seems to be the clearest take-away from these early forays into the world of the free is

“…there are signs, here and there, of the green shoots of liberty: justice before the law, the right to vote, freedom from tyrants, freedom from invasion, ideas on what it takes to be free and at peace within one’s own body and mind.”

that freedom is a process, one that still is barely existent in many dark corners of the world and one which may not yet have been perfected anywhere.

Coming full-circle to those who believe their freedom is in imminent danger of disappearing… well, though such ideas may be laughed at by some, perhaps there are worse things to be preoccupied with maintaining. On which note, I’ll leave you not with my own thoughts, but with those of a couple of men who knew a thing or two about the struggle to achieve freedom, its power over the human race, and the constant fight necessary to maintain it:

Liberty, when it begins to take root, is a plant of rapid growth
(George Washington).


Those who expect to reap the blessing of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.
(Thomas Paine).

An end in itself

by on March 14, 2016

That knowledge was intrinsically desirable was something of a given in the minds of the classical thinkers. Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, scolds his fellow Athenians who turn their back on knowledge…

Are you not ashamed that you spend your time acquiring as much money as possible and similarly with reputation and honor, and yet care so little for truth, wisdom and the perfection of your soul?

–Socrates (Plato’s The Apology)


Aristotle, similarly, holds the position that knowledge was desirable in and of itself, and refers to wisdom as “our finest element” within his Ethics

We must not listen to those who advise us to ‘think human thoughts since we are human or mortal thoughts since we are mortal’ but must put on immortality as much as possible and strain every nerve to live according to our finest element (wisdom), for while it is small in bulk, its power and honour surpasses all else.

– Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, Book X)


Cicero, the famous Roman orator, held up reason as the cornerstone of all virtuous laws…

For there is but one essential justice which cements society, and one law which establishes this justice. This law is reason, which is the true rule of all commandments and prohibitions. Whoever neglects this law, whether written or unwritten, is necessarily unjust and wicked.

–Cicero (De Legibus, Book I )


That the ancients held wisdom in such high regard is made all the more significant by the fact that their institutions of higher learning were dramatically different from our modern schools.

Plato’s Academy, often considered the first “university” of the Western world, was more of a meeting of the minds, a place for ancient thinkers to gather, rather than a structured institution with a codified curriculum. The Elatic, Milesian, Epicurean, and Stoic schools of philosophy followed a similar tradition of passing on their teachings through informal gatherings that attracted hungry minds from across the ancient world.


Aristotle’s Lyceum, notably, begins to come closer to our modern university system. Aristotle held regular classes and even kept lecture notes. But here, again, the goal was acquiring knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Securing a B.S. or gaining marketable skills for the workplace was not a consideration for the earliest students of the classical age.

The universities have failed you

Flash forward a few thousand years. A modern student might be forced to admit that attending university is a reaction to societal or parental expectations. “Getting an education” has become the primary goal. Learning to learn might be a happy correlation, but it is no longer the principal aim that it once was.

New Yorker Cartoon Poster Print by Ariel Molvig at the Condé Nast Collection

Such a state of affairs is, in your editor’s humble opinion, a true shame and one of the ultimate failings of the modern education system. The reason is that I still hold the opinion, originally put forth by the ancients, that a virtuous life is intimately connected to wisdom and understanding.

The idea that a “good life” could only be truly found through a cultivation of wisdom was the belief of the ancient philosophers. The philosopher, the lover of wisdom, was therefore a seeker of what Plato referred to as “The Good” or Aristotle’s eudemonia, “ultimate human flourishing.”

Or as Socrates put it…

There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.

–Socrates (quoted in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers)


But here, again, we see that the idea that virtue is in anyway related to knowledge, has become absent in the university. This idea is best expressed By Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle, philosophy professors from the University of North Texas, who wrote in the New York Times just last January…

“The scientist’s privileged role was to provide the morally neutral knowledge needed to achieve our goals, whether good or evil. This put an end to any notion that there was something uplifting about knowledge. The purification made it no longer sensible to speak of nature, including human nature, in terms of purposes and functions.”

-When Philosophy Lost Its Way (New York Times, January 11th, 2016)


Ignorance is optional

A sad state of affairs to say the least!

Our students are racking up mountains of debt, devoting their lives to pursuing an “education” and we have no guarantee that they are learning a thing or becoming better people in the process.

What to do?

Joel Bowman, fortunately, has an answer for us.

Thankfully, we live in an age where ignorance is largely optional. And true learning needn’t beggar you.

If you wish to gain extensive access to coursework from top universities and not pay a cent, there’s a way to do just that. M.I.T. famously offers over 650 online courses…for free.

So whether you wish to enlighten yourself in the field of biology, or nuclear engineering or architecture or linguistics, there’s a way to do just that…

Similarly, there are thousands of brain-busting, mind-bending books and courses on offer at sites like Open Culture, Khan Academy, and Project Gutenberg.


Thanks Joel, couldn’t agree more. Although, I would add the caveat that if ignorance is optional, then so is baseness. I think our ancient friends would agree.

So do yourself a favor, dear reader, never let your education get in the way of learning. The classics are a great place to start. Or, you could keep reading Classical Wisdom Weekly.

Ostracism in the Ancient World

by on March 11, 2016

By Van Bryan

In The Politics, Aristotle tells us that ostracism was originally instituted as a means to allow the common people to check the power of the political players who had grown too powerful too fast and were abusing their position.
It was a way to give claws to the hare when he was going up against a lion.

…democratic states have instituted ostracism; equality is above all things their aim, and therefore they ostracise and banish from the city for a time those who seem to predominate too much through their wealth, or the number of their friends, or through any other political influence.

–Aristotle (The Politics, Book III)


The procedure was rather simple. Plutarch tells us, in his Life of Aristides, that an ostracism vote was held once a year. The citizens were given the opportunity to write the name of any political figure on a shard of pottery. Should any one name get 6000 votes, then that man was banished from Athens for ten years.

An ostracism vote with “Aristides” written on it

It is worth noting, however, that after the ten years, the man was welcomed back with open arms and all of his citizenship rights were renewed. Also, during the ten years, a man could still profit from whatever properties he owned back in Athens.

Now the sentence of ostracism was not a chastisement of base practices, nay, it was speciously called a humbling and docking of oppressive prestige and power; but it was really a merciful exorcism of the spirit of jealous hate, which thus vented its malignant desire to injure, not in some irreparable evil, but in a mere change of residence for ten years.

–Plutarch (Life of Aristides)


This is why we can’t have nice things

While ostracism was intended as a check on the power of the political elite, Aristotle seems to suggest that it was used as a tool of retribution, a means for jealous men to do away with their political rivals. Aristotle writes that ostracism “has not been fairly applied in states; for, instead of looking to the public good, they have used ostracism for factious purposes.”

And there might be some truth to that. Some rather impressive figures from classical Athens fell victim to ostracism. Among them was Themistocles, the general most credited with saving Athens from the Persian army of Xerxes in 480 BC, and Thucydides, the author of the celebrated History of the Peloponnesian War.

“You embezzled public money? Embroiled in another sex scandal?

Well, see ya in a decade…”

So just like most political tools intended for the public good, ostracism might have been hijacked and manipulated by self-serving politicians.

You see, this is why we can’t have nice things.

Even with that possibility, I’m still rather fond of the idea of bringing back ostracism in 21st century politics. At the very least it might give the crooks and the phonies something to sweat about.

The next time a congressman is caught with his trousers around his ankles, or a senator’s account balance seems to be a bit more flushed then it should be, we wouldn’t have to worry about them finding their way to that revolving door.

Instead, we pack their bags for them and hand them a one-way ticket out of town. We don’t care where you go, but you can’t stay here.

But now here’s the real question. Who would take them?

The Lefties and the Oligarchs

by on March 1, 2016

Are there warring factions in any political society? We wonder.

Is that where all our problems stem from?

This particular election cycle has dredged up one narrative that has caught my attention. A particular senator believes the system is rigged, no surprise there, and that the wealthy elites are dooming the majority of Americans to a life of poverty and hopelessness. There is a two-tiered society where the wealthy have more than they need, and the many barely have enough to get by.

Hmmmmm…Now where have I heard this number?

The lefties and the oligarchs

The idea that the few, wealthy oligarchs are constantly at odds with the disadvantaged masses is nothing new. In fact, if we were to read Aristotle’s The Politics, we might see that it’s been going on for millennia.

Besides, civil conflict and struggle arise between the common people and the prosperous. The result is that the side that happens to beat the opposition does not establish a system that all can share in fairly, but grabs the top place in a political system as a prize of victory. –Aristotle (The Politics, Book IV, Chapter 11)


It’s worth noting that the Aristotle, like all of us, was a product of his time. His understanding of a political society, as a result, is slightly skewed from our own.

For starters, there were not countries as we understand them today. Rather there were insulated city-states (polis) that acted as autonomous nations, independent of any larger governing body.

The Politics, by Aristotle
Classical Wisdom Weekly edition

Additionally, Aristotle constructed his idea on political justice with the assumption that there were those in a society who were, inherently, unequal (women and slaves).

For these reasons we must approach The Politics cautiously, humbly. Not all of Aristotle’s ideas will gel with our own modern sensibilities, but there is enough meat there that we would be foolish to abandon our pursuits all together.

So, where were we?

Aristotle portrayed the never-ending battle between the haves and have-nots in terms of oligarchs vs. democrats (those who would benefit from a direct democracy).

You can imagine the oligarchs and democrats in terms of classical society, farmers and laborers vs. well-educated aristocrats. However, we could just as easily recast this fight in the 21st century. Picture young lefties fresh out of their liberal arts college picketing outside some prestigious Wall Street hedge fund where the traders wear Brooks Brothers suits and winter in the Hamptons.

Like I’ve said before, history can sometimes be so unoriginal.

All disagreements stem from inequality…

The combatants, Aristotle says, disagree on the true meaning of justice. All political conflict, he writes, springs from competing definitions of equality and all the bickering that follows is essentially a philosophical disagreement that plays out in the forms of campaign promises and, in the words of our CEO, “political claptrap”.

For everywhere conflicts arise because of inequality, whenever unequals do not receive their proportionate amounts. –Aristotle (The Politics, Book V, Chapter 1)


The disadvantaged masses believe justice to be numerical equality. The oligarchs see equality in terms of proportions; those who contribute more deserve to have more.

The consequence of such an altercation is that each party will vie for political control. The masses, should they achieve success, will be

“You can imagine the oligarchs and democrats in terms of classical society, farmers and laborers vs. well-educated aristocrats. However, we could just as easily recast this fight in the 21st century. “

swept in to office and proceed with a massive redistribution of wealth. The oligarchs, should they have control, will tighten the purse strings; make sure they hold on to as much as they can.

Aristotle, to his credit, does not seem to have a dog in this fight. He does his part as a, mostly, impartial observer. He comes to the conclusion that both sides have their merits.

But here’s the kicker- they’re both wrong.

What’s good for me is good for you… well, at least it’s good for me.

The problem stems from the confusion that what appears just to us, represents, unequivocally, true Justice. What seems good to us must therefore be Good.

What’s good for me is good for you, and even if it’s not good for you, at least it’s good for me.

Redistributing wealth might seem like justice to the poor, but this leads to conflict between the citizens. True justice, since it is a virtue, would never lead to such strife. The only justification then seems to be that such actions appeared to be just to those in power.

Aristotle, author of The Politics

But let’s be clear, Aristotle isn’t painting the oligarchs as the poor rich kid on the playground who is bullied because his parents can afford expensive cars and designer shoes.

Should the oligarchs hold control, Aristotle says, they will “confiscate and plunder the possession of the masses.” The justification, again, is that this appears just to those in power.

When you get right down to it, Artie seems to be saying that both parties are aiming in the right direction, but neither one have hit the mark.

The fight for the soul of political justice

In order to really grasp why any of this matters, we must first understand what Aristotle believed to be the goal and ultimate end of a political society.

The Aristotelian state was the vehicle through which a citizen would achieve a self-sufficient

“When you get right down to it, Artie seems to be saying that both parties are aiming in the right direction, but neither one have hit the mark.”

life that was “happy and fine”. The currency in such a state was justice, true justice, which would lead to the larger goal- a happy and virtuous life for the citizens.

The conflict between the oligarchs and the democrats, therefore, is significant because they are both fighting for the soul of political justice, an integral part of achieving the ultimate function of the political state.

The political good is justice, and justice is the common benefit. Everyone thinks justice is some sort of equality, and hence to some extent they all agree with the philosophical discussion in which we have determined these ethical questions. They say that what is just is relative to the people involved and that it must be equality for equals. –Aristotle (The Politics, Book III, Chapter 11)


So the battle rages on, each party pursuing their own idea of justice while never really coming across true justice.

You may be wondering, what’s a philosopher to do? Pick a side and batten down the hatches? Abandon all hope and go along with the claptrap?


Maybe not…