Opinion

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By David McLaren

There is a very old idea from ancient Greek culture that goes by the Greek name of timé. It is honour, specifically, in the Homeric view of the world at least, honour that has external measure and great value among men.

But such honour is not infinite. Think: spoils of war. Homer's Iliad is about timé. It is a snapshot of one incident in the long siege of Troy by a Greek city-state coalition of the willing.

achilles-featureAchilles is the greatest of the Greeks who attack Troy and he gains the lion's share of spoils—oftimé: tripods (for some reason), armour, weapons, gold, Briseis the concubine whom he loves.

Along comes Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces who feels that, being leader, he should have more timé than Achilles. So he takes Briseis for himself.

To a man, especially a man like Achilles in a society like that of ancient Greece, this is an irredeemable insult, not the least because it also weakens his kleos.

Kleos seems to be part and parcel of timé. Timé is for show in the here and now, but kleos is forever. Kleos is a word closely related to the Greek verb 'to hear' and carries the idea of 'what people hear about you.' Acclaim is earned only through great deeds that had best end in death if you want your praises sung loud and long. In the ancient oral tradition of the West, you lived on only in the encomiums of storytellers like Homer.

As Homer himself indicates in his first line, the whole of The Iliad is a song about the wrath of Achilles: "Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus' son Achilles and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians."

Achilles is so angry at the loss of timé, that he refuses to fight. Not the promises of even greater rewards from a regretful Agamemnon; not the threat of annihilation of the Greek expedition; not even smooth-talking Odysseus' appeal to kleos can move Achilles to fight. Such is the hold on the mind of our ancestors of timé justly won and unjustly lost.

We like to think we have moved beyond such old ways. We like to think that honour comes to those who are the best of us, the most noble. Such honour is limitless and everyone can have any amount of it if they are deemed worthy enough.

But not so when it comes to money. There is a finite amount of that in the world. If I acquire more, it means you will have less, like water from a well. And, like water in a well, money can be drawn out of the rich earth. But, like water from a well, money doesn't automatically trickle down to those who are most in need of it.

The more money I have, the more I am likely to accumulate, as Thomas Piketty demonstrates in his book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The more money I have, the more likely I will want to proclaim my wealth by buying outsized homes, big cars, memberships in private clubs, and political influence - especially political influence, for influence brings me kleos. And, as research shows, the more money I have, the less I want to share it, especially with those who don't have it.

Money, especially a lot of money, is timé. Think: the Koch Brothers. Think: Bill Gates. Think: aristo-onassis-featureConrad Black who, notwithstanding his various convictions, has managed to hold fast to both timé and kleos. Think Aristotle Socrates Onassis (Aristo for short).

Greece's one per cent, along with others of the world's one per cent, own nearly half of the wealth in the world. They are jealous of their timé and find novel ways of hiding $6-trillion of it lest some undeserving political leader comes along and take it.

For some, the old way of viewing the world hasn't change much. Nevertheless, societal mores and values do shift over time.

If, for Achilles, timé is his hard-won spoils, timé for Plato is also the essence of an honourable man. As the man so the state, says Plato and although a timocracy (the rule of those who love honour and glory) is worse than an aristocracy (rule by 'the best', the lovers of wisdom), it is better than a oligarchy (in which "the lovers of money" take the place of the lovers of virtue - what some now call a plutocracy and what others call a corporatocracy).

For the record, Plato doesn't think much of democracy, which he deems as worse than oligarchy and only a little better than tyranny. We, however, believe democracy to be the best sort of government, as long as the best and most noble of us are elected. But that's always been a bit of a crap-shoot.

As with a man without discipline or self-examination, one kind of rule can slip into another. Our ideal governance (democracy that elects virtuous men and women) can slide into a democracy that elects avaricious men and women.

Some say that has already happened, at least in America. Some researchers have found a straight-line correlation between the voting patterns of members of Congress and their campaign donations. Others have found that the opinions of the wealthy are more likely to find their way into policy and legislation than the opinions of other income groups. Indeed, the opinions of lower income earners (and the groups that represent them) don't seem to matter at all.

But Plato wrote about this 2400 years ago in The Republic. It's part of an old story that tells us we're not nearly as smart as we think we are.


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