Montaigne and The Block

MontaigneI do love reading Michel de Montaigne.  And writing about him. In 2014 alone, I wrote ten separate posts about him and his famous book, Essays. But since then, my reading habits moved on to other writers and topics. I hadn’t actually been reading Montaigne in the past few years, but recently while sorting some of my books, I found him again. I started re-reading the Essays last week (and reading his travel journal, included in the Everyman edition – Frame translation, which I had not read previously).

He is such an inspiration at times. Witty, observant, genteel, curious, passionate, learned, and wise. And seemingly prescient, too.

Consider this, from Chapter 27, Book I (M.A. Screech trans):

It is not perhaps without good reason that we attribute to simplemindedness a readiness to believe anything and to ignorance the readiness to be convinced…

Consider when you read this today’s “alternate facts” being spread online, and con artists like Alex Jones, David Avocado Wolfe, the Food Babe and Gwenyth Paltrow who make their living by lying and scamming the gullible. Consider US President Donald Trump, who seems incapable of telling even simple truths, yet managed to fool millions into electing him – who still are fooled by him after his deceptions have been revealed over and over. 

Consider the anti-vaccination, anti-GMO, anti-fluoride, anti-climate change movements. Consider the people who believe in chemtrails, bigfoot, UFO abductions, angels, New Age magic, Niburu and pyramids in the Antarctic. Consider televangelists like Joel Osteen who prey on their flocks and make themselves millionaires off the backs of the weak and hard of thinking.

Consider, too, The Block on our own Collingwood Council falling for all the bizarre, paranoid conspiracy theories about the hospital, Collus-PowerStream, and the share sale. Simple minds, all. Montaigne continues:

…belief is like an impression stamped on our soul; he softer and less resisting the soul, the easier it is to print anything on it… The more empty a soul is and the less furnished with counterweights, the more easily its balance will be swayed under the force of its first convictions.

Substitute soul for mind if you, like me, don’t believe in them. How soft and unresisting the minds of The Block when the administration or Brian feeds them patent nonsense. And they believed, wholeheartedly and unreservedly, in every wild and wacky idea from day one. They still do.

Montaigne really had their number, eh? Pretty remarkable for a guy writing more than 440 years ago and half a world away. But Montaigne had no stomach for fools. Three centuries later Henry David Thoreau warned,

No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion… (Walden, Ch. 1)

Yet The Block have continued blind faith in their paranoid conspiracy theories even without the suggestion of a hint of a shred of proof. Nothing will sway their pure, unquestioning faith in either Brian or the interim CAO. Like Trump’s fanatic fans, they cannot be dissuaded from their beliefs by reason or truth. They are the True Believers, foot soldiers who march into battle never questioning their orders (a la Eric Fromm’s classic work).

Donald Frame translates Montaigne as continuing:

The novelty of things incites us more than their greatness to seek their causes.

By which he means people are easily distracted by baubles, by glitter, by bling, and seldom look beyond to uncover the truth behind the glitter. Again, just like The Block: they never once attempted to verify a single claim, or uncover actual facts about them. Actually, they have consistently done the opposite: avoided or prevented every opportunity for truth and facts to be made public. I’ve written about this before, many times. It’s all part of a deeply embedded culture of secrecy in town hall.

In Chapter 10, Book III, he writes,

Just watch people who have been conditioned to let themselves be enraptured and carried away… They become involved indiscriminately wherever there is a task and obligations…

Well, Collingwood Council watchers get to see The Block enraptured with themselves every meeting, drunk on power and indiscriminately handing out sole-source contracts like party favours. Simply because the administration tells them to. No questions asked, even by those who remain awake at the table.

It is a dangerous and fateful presumption, besides the absurd temerity that it implies, to disdain what we do not comprehend. (Chap. 27, Book I, Frame trans.)

Disdain is a regular affliction among The Block. They did not comprehend the efficient working relationship between our electrical and water utilities, so they disdained – and ended – it. At greater expense to the taxpayers, too. They didn’t understand the airport development, the water pipeline, the hospital redevelopment, the sale of the share of Collus, the new recreational facilities, the code of conduct, the Municipal Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, dividends, conflict of interest, ethics, openness and transparency – so many things they disdained.

In C.10 B.III, Montaigne also writes of his father, who was asked to be the mayor of Bordeaux (as was Montaigne himself, many years later),

He had heard it said that we must forget ourselves for our neighbour, and that the individual was not to be considered at all in comparison with the general.

In other words, before his father (and in his turn, Montaigne) took the job, he understood that it entailed elevating the greater good over his own selfish wants and needs. There was no place for a personal agenda in municipal politics. Montaigne said of his father, “…there was never a more kindly and public-spirited soul.”

How very unlike Saunderson’s Block. In our council, personal agendas and private vendettas have dominated the time at the table. The greater good has no place because The Block have no public spirit. They raised our taxes three times in order to pay themselves more each time. They voted Councillor Jeffrey an unlimited expense account to fly around the country pursuing her personal political goals (yes: unlimited expenses, with no oversight or need to justify them).

But what have they done for the rest of the community? For the greater good? Nothing, of course. They ruined the town’s reputation, ruined our relationships with our municipal neighbours and partners, they alienated the hospital, destroyed staff morale, incurred enormous new expenses and hired unnecessary staff, delayed an airport development with hundreds of jobs, and created a rift with the Ministry of Health – all to serve their personal agendas.

The brave public spirit of Mayor Cooper and Councillor Lloyd are no match for the power of the selfishness and the unrelenting nastiness of The Block.

In this chapter, Montaigne also makes a salient point that relates well to all those sole-sourced consultants and lawyers the interim CAO has spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on:

For it is not new for the sages to preach things as they serve, not as they are.

Screech translates sages as “clever men,” but the meaning is the same: these people tell you what you pay them to say and their advice is as valuable as the ink and paper wasted to print it. As the old saw goes, a consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time. And a lawyer is someone who keeps the watch. They’ve been bought to reinforce the administration’s preconceptions, and reinforce the conspiracy theories, nothing more.

There is one quotation in Ch.10 in which The Block align perfectly with Montaigne. It involves his municipal administration:

I am accused of doing nothing when almost everyone else was guilty of doing too much! (trans. Saul Frampton)

The public continues to compare the many, community-minded accomplishments of the last council with the utter lack of them in this term.

I could go on, picking up lines to quote and comment on, but I will stop for now. My point, I think has been made here and in previous posts: authors have been writing about politics, about human behaviour, about morality and ethics and responsibility since writing was first invented. Little good it has done us, in no small part because The Block Don’t Read. And even if they did, their ideology doesn’t allow them to accept anything that contradicts or informs them otherwise. Facts have as little place in their ideology as ethics or the greater good.

But some of you, dear readers, are considering running for council next election (I already know a half dozen who have made this claim). For all our sakes, I encourage you to read about politics, ethics, laws, morality, responsibility and, yes, philosophy. There is always something to be learned by those – unlike The Block – with an open mind.

I hope you will also choose – because it’s always a choice how we act – to put the community first in all your decisions. To break the culture of secrecy and be open, honest, transparent and engage the public. To ask questions, to use reason and to assess all options and get facts before deciding. What a difference that would be from this term.

Collingwood deserves better and you have a chance to be helps us get it back.

The Dude, the Tao and the Dharma

The DudeI suppose it all began with Benjamin Hoff. Hoff was one of the first contemporary writers to attempt to distill Taoism in a lighthearted form for Westerners when he wrote The Tao of Pooh in 1981, a very successful book still in print. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for 49 weeks. A decade later, he followed with The Te of Piglet, less successful (its message somewhat diluted by Hoff’s extraneous political and social commentary) but also still in print.

Not that Hoff was the first Westerner to attempt to explain Asian philosophy and religion. That goes back to Marco Polo. However, it really got a head of steam in the late 19th century when there was a flurry of translations of almost all of the Asian classics, from the Vedas to Zen stories. A lot of these translations are still in print, although newer, better ones are available. And in the 1950s and 60s came a second wave, first as the beatniks, then the hippies adopted some of these beliefs. Sometimes even seriously and sincerely.

But not everyone was Jack Kerouac. Most of these books were serious stuff: the work of scholars and translators determined to open the intellectual doors for Western minds. Similar efforts were undertaken to Anglicize Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Sumerian and other classics. It was an intellectual exercise, which often only confounded the average worker.

In 1971, Be Here Now, a seminal work by Baba Ram Dass (aka Richard Alpert) presented the ideas of Asian philosophy in a graphically entertaining manner (it’s still in print). It did a remarkably good job of clarifying and distilling a lot of ideas and practices. However, it was still stuffier than Hoff in its presentation of those ideas.

Hoff made it fun, made it easy to read. He disarmed readers by explaining everything in comments and discussions by the lovable A. A. Milne characters, and who can’t love a cuddly teddy bear discussing the meaning of life with a stuffed toy pig? The dialogues went like this:

Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”
“And he has Brain.”
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”
There was a long silence.
“I suppose,” said Pooh, “That that’s why he never understands anything.”

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Marcus Aurelius and The Block

Marcus Aurelius, MeditationsPerhaps the most famous work by any Stoic is the Meditations, written as a series of notes-to-myself by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.  I’ve been reading a lot of Stoic works of late, and this remains my favourite. Although never meant for publication, just as reminders to himself, it’s full of wonderful, inspiring comments. And some seem eerily prescient in our current municipal calamity. For example, Book Two opens with these words:

Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil …

While I don’t know if Mayor Cooper or Councillor Lloyd have ever read the Meditations, I suspect they start each council and standing committee meeting with a silent thought that is remarkably similar to those words, even though they were first written between 170 and 180 CE. Coincidence? Perhaps, but it sure reads to me like an uncannily accurate description of The Block: meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, surly… it has all seven of them nailed (however, we might add somnambulant, feckless, secretive and supercilious just for accuracy…)

Now, I know what you’re going to say: “But Ian, The Block have nothing to do with Marcus Aurelius. Or Stoics. Or philosophers. Or thinking about anything other than themselves. They have nothing to say about reason or philosophy because they don’t reason and they don’t read.” Well, I agree, but that doesn’t mean Marcus Aurelius doesn’t have something to say about them.

You can read the entire work of his – twelve short books – in a somewhat dated translation on the MIT classics site. I recommend you consider buying a more modern version, however. Here, for example, are the lines from the Hays, 2002, translation of that piece:

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.

It’s not just that The Block can’t tell good from evil, however. Those few among them who can recognize the difference choose only what serves their own interest, regardless of whether it is good or bad for the community. Marcus Aurelius continued with a warning to,

…stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable.

Such words of wisdom are wasted on The Block, of course. Those are attributes they have honed to a fine edge within themselves. Hypocrisy is their collective forte.

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Empathy and The Dog Allusion

Coming to empathyEmpathy, writes Martin Rowson, is one of the things that make us human, make us civilized, allows us to interact without tearing one another’s throats out. Without it, we’d have no civilization; we’d be like the beasts of the fields. And we’d have no dogs or gods, either. Empathy is what makes us own pets and be religious.

That’s one of the thought-provoking ideas Rowson tosses around in his book, The Dog Allusion (Vintage Books, London, 2008). The title, as I’m sure you are aware, is a pun on Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion.

Rowson has a lot to say about religion – and not much of it flattering, but generally he’s not as acerbic as Dawkins or Hitchens. Religion, however central to his arguments, is not the book’s sole focus. It isn’t a comprehensive screed against religion or even a paen to atheism; rather it’s a series of essays on various topics into which religion often is cast. The book hasn’t received a lot of attention or garnered many reviews from what I can find, but that may be because most of his readers are likely already on his side of the philosophical fence. It may also be that he meanders. A lot. Still, he offers up a good set of arguments worth pondering, even for the converted.

I am not here to wade into his comments on religion quite yet, however, but rather to comment on his notions about empathy – about which I agree, at least somewhat. I have often felt that the single most important attribute in a politician is empathy. Without it, the political road leads to all sorts of tyrannies and egocentric self-entitlement. Without empathy, politicians raise taxes, utility rates, user fees without consideration of their actual impact. Just like they do here in Collingwood.

Having dealt with numerous politicians in my day (and been among their ranks, municipally, for more than a decade), I sometimes think having intelligence would be a better place to start listing desirable attributes. After all, the first thing every politician should have is the wit to understand the consequences of their actions. Yet so many don’t have it. SO many act as if they were the centre of the universe and their actions have no impact on others. But let’s not talk about The Block right now. That’s just depressing. Let’s talk in general terms, first.

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On growing old

The first senior's moment

No man is so old that he does not think himself able to live another year. (Nemo enim est tam senex qui se annum non putet posse vivere)

I was thinking of that line from Cicero this week when I attended a friend’s drop-in post-Christmas party. Most of the many people in attendance were my age or older. Few were under 50. All were active, engaged, alert, conversing and despite the relentless march of time, as alive that evening as they had ever been in their lives. And I suspect most, like me, believe they have many more years, even decades of life ahead of them. We all do, no matter how old we get.

And Canadians have good reason for that optimism, given our high standard of living, our clean air, water, our access to good, healthy food, our civil society, and our excellent publicly-funded health care service. In Canada old age in reasonable health and mental acuity is available for most of us, not just the rich.

As a generation, we are, I think, changing the conversation about aging; changing the social and cultural context around growing old and the inevitable death we all face. It’s in part because the Boomer generation has reached the threshold where death is not some distant possibility and we recognize that. It’s here. Nearby. We read the obituaries of contemporary friends and pop icons almost daily.

But because we have approached our lives more actively and energetically than many previous generations, we bring our optimism to aging. And for many a more pragmatic, accepting approach to death.

I just finished reading two translations of Cicero’s book Cato Maior de Senectute – variously translated as On Aging, On Growing Old or as Philip Freeman gives us, How to Grow Old, written in 44 BCE when Cicero was 62. I recommend it to everyone for its clear, practical approach to old age and dying.

It’s not really a manual, as Freeman’s title suggests (and his, I believe, is the best translation), rather it was written as a series of conversations between an older man and two younger men. Cicero puts his own thoughts and reflections on age into the mouth of the late Cato the Elder (Marcus Porcius Cato) to “give my essay greater weight” as Cicero himself wrote. You can read a Loeb Classic translation from 1923 here.
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The subtle art of Mark Manson

Life, sometimes...I have a healthy skepticism towards anything labelled a “self-help” book – especially those that aim at making your life happier or more fulfilled through some fad, superstition or pseudoscience. I am, as you know from this blog, cynical towards the unending volume of New Age woo hoo, fads and pseudoscience that pollutes bookstore shelves and the internet.

I’m more of the “life’s a bitch and then you die” outlook kind-of-person than someone in search of a happy-platitude guru. I don’t post pictures of kittens, puppies or angels on my Facebook timeline. I’ve never been into that cosmic happiness-bucket list self-esteem-boosting selfie thing. Even in the Sixties when Timothy Leary was leading the charge for better living through chemistry, I was skeptical about claims of instant gratification available through the all-of all-the-answers-to-be-found-within-my-(book/religion/teaching/drug/politics) outlets for mass gratification.

Or mass gullibility. But people want answers to the meaning of life, and in our culture they want them quickly. Sometimes it’s easier to just take what you’re fed than work them out the hard way. Take the red pill and I’ll give you all the answers you need to know. Religion has been handing the red pills out for our entire history. Self-help or self-improvement books have been close behind, with us ever since the dawn of writing.

“Self help” books are really oxymorons: they’re someone else telling you what to do. They’re author help, not self help, like the old paper Arthur Murray dance steps on the floor which you carefully step across without the music. Life lessons on how to live, love, shop, drive, code, wash your dog, plant your garden. Often these books are little more than sales pitches for more of the same; for subscriptions, or additional products. Snake oil wrapped in cotton candy.

But some run deeper. Some are lessons in philosophy and politics drawn from personal experience and deep thought. Some aren’t as much step-by-step lessons as invitations to think about the options and consequences. True, not many today, because thinking is too hard for the selfie generation and interrupts their obsessed gazing at their smartphones, but now and then a book pops up in the self-help section that makes me look twice. Such is the case of Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (HarperCollins, 2016).

After all, isn’t that just what you feel like sometimes? Not giving a f*ck. I know I sure do. Especially after an hour on Facebook or watching Collingwood Council drag us into municipal despair.*

I had to buy a copy with a title like that. But what really sold me was the chapter titled “You Are Not Special.” Yep, I need to read that one.

I’m tired of the ‘I’m special, you’re special, we’re all exceptional’ folderol, the awards for losing instead of winning, the deflection of constructive criticism in case it dents a bubble of precious self esteem and the claptrap about indigo children. No, you’re not special. Neither am I. Indigo children are just spoiled kids with loopy parents. We’re all just one out of seven billion. There weren’t angels attending your birth, the gods don’t favour you and unicorns don’t follow when you commute to work. Get over it.

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The bucket list, kicked

Kick the bucketNowadays the “bucket list” concept has become a wildly popular cultural meme, thanks to the movie of the same name. Subsequent marketing of the idea to millennials has proven a successful means to derive them of their income, with which they seem eager to part.

I don’t like the concept. The list, I mean, not necessarily the plucking of the millennial chickens who willingly hand over their financial feathers. They get what they deserve.

Bucketlist.org has, at the time of this writing, more than 5.317 million “dreams” for you to pursue. Contributed by more than 450,000 people. And your individual dream? Part of the Borg’s list. Pretty hard to think of something original that the previous 450,000 folks didn’t already add to the list.

Just search “bucket list” on Google and you’ll turn up close to 52 million hits, and a huge number of them are selling something, from New Age codswallop to travel to high-tech gadgets and everything in-between. Nowadays, “your” bucket list is everyone’s bucket list and has become part of a slick campaign aimed at your wallet. At every corner there’s some entrepreneur eager to play Virgil to your hollow life’s Dante, for a price.

A bucket list is, we learned from the film, the wish list of things you want to accomplish before you kick the metaphorical bucket  – i.e. die – as a means to give your previously pathetic life some substance. That notion quickly morphed into a commercial selling point, and it seems I encounter it every day in some new form, usually on social media. It’s up there with posts about puppies, angels, magic crystals, and nasty troll posts about liberals.

The movie is about two seniors undergoing an end-of-life crisis trying to figure out the Meaning of It All. They resolve to avoid dwelling on their inevitable end by taking very expensive trips around the world (Jack Nicholson plays a billionaire…). It’s a cute, moving film. It’s fiction, but also a great marketing idea. We are all susceptible to Hollywood, after all. And, of course, we all have billionaire friends who will buy the tickets, right?

Okay, I get it: we all want life to make sense, and to have meaning that makes the 9-5 grind worthwhile. But even if our lives are meaningless, we don’t want to die, either. We want to be able to say something we did made the journey worth the effort. But is this the way? Is life simply a series of boxes we check off? A list that keeps growing with more and more items to check? Your self esteem will suffer if you don’t check this off. And this. And this. And this…

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A cunning plan

Mike PenceI see Donald Trump’s plan to utterly eviscerate the Republican Party is working very well. Just look who he picked as his running mate: possibly the only white man more bigoted, vile, close-minded, racist and misogynistic than the passel of presidential candidates Trump bested earlier.* Brilliant.

You couldn’t do more than that to alienate the remaining American intelligensia, the moderates, the women, the Latinos, the blacks, the Jews, the Muslims, the gays… now pretty much every social, racial, educational and cultural group has an opportunity to be offended by Trump and his potential Veep all at once.

Now, although pretty much everyone with an IQ over 60 has long since left the party, the remainder are gathering together in Cleveland. Imagine a whole mob of America’s most illiterate, racist, gun-toting, fanatically religious wingnuts stuffed into a stadium where they can feed off each other’s ignorance and hatred.

I expect once it’s packed, Trump will have it sealed, pumped with liquid nitrogen and everyone inside frozen. It will then become a museum of American bigotry. What other choices does he have?

Trump has managed to squeeze out support from two of the top GOP weasels – Mitch Connell and Paul Ryan, whose allegiance to the NRA rises far above anything they feel for the American people or state. Tepid support, true, but if these two sellouts say yea, then you know the NRA is saying yea, too. After all, puppets only dance to the pull of the strings.

Along the way he managed to remove the spine from presidential hopefuls Rick Perry and Ben Carson and get them to stand up and in Soviet-show-trial style, endorse him at the convention. A masterpiece of showmanship that even Stalin couldn’t have bettered. Genius.

All Trump needs now is uber-oleaginous Ted Cruz to endorse him, and his trap has sprung. Get Cruz and all the rest of the top sleaze to Cleveland and zzzzzzap! They’ll all be frozen in ice for all time. And good riddance, too.

Sadly, both of the former Bush presidents will be sitting out this event. One suspects George W wanted to attend, but is still trying to figure out how to work his GPS…
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Rules for The Block, different rules for us

Application formEver apply to sit on a town board or committee? If so, you’ll be familiar with the form to the right. It’s the town’s application form. Click on it to see or download the full form. Everyone who wants to sit on a town board of committee must complete and sign it.

Everyone, that is, except the people The Block appoint to the committees and boards they want to control. One set of rules for The Block, another for the rest of us. How very accountable and transparent.

In June, The Block illegally (not to mention unethically and immorally) “fired” the democratically appointed members of the Collus PowerStream board and replaced them with their own selection of tame staff, ones they could cow into submission. I wrote about this naked power grab earlier.

(I say illegally because there is no mechanism in the town’s Procedural Bylaw to remove appointees, and it clearly states their term is concurrent with the term of council. So to me, it seems they have broken the law. But laws don’t apply to The Block, do they? They’re above such petty considerations. Besides, you’d have to be a lawyer to really understand what they say, anyway…)

The town’s policy has (as long as I’ve lived here and for the entire three terms I served on council) is that all appointees must fill in the form and go through the selection process. Except, it seems, when you’re a Block toady. Then you just get parachuted into the position and screw the public input. We don’t need no steenkin’ rules… laws are for losers.

But wait. It gets more interesting…

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The definition of evil

EvilI try to choose my words carefully. Words have power, words can create emotions, words linger and stick with us. Words matter. Words can be tools of great precision and effect. So when I hear or read them being abused, misused or simply inappropriately chosen, my hackles rise. I want to make corrections. I want to insert my idea of the better choice into the sentence. My Facebook followers know how I react (and react too often…) to misplaced apostrophes, misspellings and improper verb tense.

It’s the aging editor in me, I suppose, plus my passionate love of writing and of language. I grant that my skills in writing and editing are rustier than in my halcyon days, but my inner editor still raises its head from time to time, demanding recognition. So I try as best I can these days to choose my own words in part to avoid hearing that shrill voice.

I don’t, for example, swear casually very often. Not from some prurient reaction to “bad” words, but simply that swearing has potent emotional impact and if you use it casually, it loses its power. People cannot recognize whether you’re angry or happy if you toss frequent invective into your everyday word salad. Swear only when you want to express very strong emotion and it’s very effective. Swear constantly and you simply show bad language skills.

I also don’t use the word evil casually. Far too many people use it when they mean inconvenient, annoying, abrasive or controversial. Sometimes it’s something accidental or unintentional they label evil. That’s just hyperbole, part of the social media trend use superlatives to grab attention.

I’ve heard it used in relation to natural disasters like tornadoes and floods, but while the results may be tragic and appalling, weather is neutral; neither good nor bad. I want a more precise use of the word.

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The Purple Thread

EpictetusRoman men wore togas for formal occasions. The basic toga – toga alba or toga pura – was a simple garment of plain white wool. It was undyed and unadorned. White was the colour required by Roman sumptuary law for citizens’ togas. This basic toga was also the garment draped on a boy when he went through his ceremony to manhood – called the toga virilis during that ceremony.

A dark brown or grey toga pulla or toga sordida was reserved for periods of mourning. A fancier, bleached toga was worn by candidates for political office – the toga candida. Candida means pure white and is the etymological source of our word, candidate. The pure white was symbolic of the candidate’s purity and honesty. I can hear you chuckle at that notion, especially after the last local municipal election.

In order to stand out in this sea of dull white, officials such as magistrates, aediles, consuls, senators and priests could wear the toga praetexta: a white toga with a purple border, usually 2-3 inches wide (5-7.5cm); the width reflected the wearer’s position. That purple band marked the wearers as important; made them visible in the teeming crowd of Roman citizens.

Over the years of the empire, the rules and types of togas changed, and what was once the defining garment of the Roman citizen – by law only Roman citizens were allowed to wear them – became a showpiece.

Likewise the Roman tunic – the garment for day-to-day wear – was usually undyed white, but for officials, it carried a stripe of purple to indicate their rank. The wider the stripe, the more important the wearer. Senators had the wide laticlavus, roughly two inches (5cm) wide; equestrians (equites) had two narrow red-purple angusticlavia on their shoulders.

Tunics might also be dyed, but dyes were expensive, so the average Roman didn’t use them. And only white tunics had the stripes, otherwise they might not be noticed.

It is that little purple band that stands out, that defines the wearer; not the rest of the garment.

Purple was the colour of position and royalty in the ancient world. The purple Tyrian dye came from murex snails found in the eastern Mediterranean and was very costly. Ten thousand snails were required to dye just one toga! Pure purple – the toga purpura – was generally reserved for the gods, but the emperor could wear the toga trabea: purple with a bit of white. Emperors were, after all, divine. The bit of white, I suppose, showed his human part. A little humility among all that divinity.

There was also the toga picta – an embroidered, purple toga (often with elaborate gold trim and embroidery) worn by emperors and by victorious generals in their triumph. There were other types, too – the toga trabea, toga palmata, and other, but let’s not digress.

The purpose of this post is not to discourse on the nature of Roman sartorial splendor. I merely set the stage for a comment in the next part: on the words of Epictetus, whom I have been reading of late.
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Stoic or Epicurean?

Epicurus
Let no one delay the study of philosophy while young nor weary of it when old. For no one is either too young or too old for the health of the soul. He who says either that the time for philosophy has not yet come or that it has passed is like someone who says that the time for happiness has not yet come or that it has passed. Epicurus: Letter to Menoeceus

I’ve been listening to the History of Rome podcasts of late and was pondering on some of the comments about the emperor Marcus Aurelius. He was, before listening, one of my top three choices for best ruler of the empire. What better role model than the philosopher-king? Now, I’m not so sure that he managed both the empire and his own position as well as I had assumed. But that’s neither here nor there. What caught my attention was the narrator’s comments on the philosophical life of his times.

Marcus Aurelius was, of course, the unwitting author of the now-famous, inspirational work Meditations, a collection of aphorisms based on his own Stoic view of life I’m sure most of you have read (and if not, scurry over to your local bookstore and get a copy now).

I say unwitting because, as Wikipedia reminds us, he wrote the book (or rather books, because there are 12 separate parts which are now labelled chapters) for his own edification and guidance, not as a manual for others.  It was never intended for publication. It is fortuitous that after his death, the work was copied and shared and eventually handed down to us, despite the emperor’s misgivings.

Aurelius’ work was, as far as I can recall, my first significant introduction to ancient philosophy (Greek, Roman and earlier). Since then, I’ve dabbled in others, but didn’t start reading them in any comprehensive way until recently. Which is a shame, really, since they have so much to offer. For years, I knew more about Eastern philosophy than Western. Now I’m trying to redress that situation.

To fill in the gaps in my mostly autodidactic education, I have been reading a lot of ancient Western philosophy these past couple of years, mostly Plato, Aristotle and a smattering of later Romans. I just added a few titles to the reading list only this past month: Epictetus and Diogenes the Cynic, with Epicurus on the way. I suppose once I’ve finished with Rome, it’ll be time to turn to philosophy podcasts. I certainly need help interpreting what I’ve been reading.

What has always fascinated me is that many people in the days of the Roman empire followed and embraced philosophy actively, as deeply as many people follow religion today. True, it was mostly the upper class and elites who had both the education and the leisure time to study something so abstract. But philosophy wasn’t merely an academic pursuit: it had deep roots in their daily lives. It was practical.

Perhaps it’s in large part because Egyptian, Greek, then later Roman, pagan religions offered little in the way of moral guidance, and even less in answering those Great Questions that have haunted humankind since we first started to write. You know, the why-are-we-here, what’s-the-meaning-of-life, why-is-there-evil, what-happens-when-we-die sort of question. The questions that keep you awake at night, and wake you up at 3 a.m. to run around in your brain like little, frantic mice.

Or at least they keep me awake… maybe you already have them figured out.

Continue reading “Stoic or Epicurean?”

Spotting incompetence

Eight signsFurther to my earlier post, I wanted to provide some tips on how to spot incompetence in an employee or, especially, in managers and executives. I understand that incompetence may be a subjective view. What some view as incompetence others may see as cautionary, conservative or even adequate. But here’s what others have identified as incompetent or dysfunctional behaviour or personality traits in managers and leaders.

Incompetence is not black-and-white. It comes in many shades. And incompetence doesn’t (always) mean stupid: intelligent people may get promoted above their competence level, according to the Peter Principle, discussed in my previous post. They may be inexperienced, or weak, but only initially.

To be incompetent, a manager need not have all the characteristics in any list: even one may hamper his or her ability to perform effectively. A combination may freeze the operation into total stasis or may send it off in wrong directions. Or it may limp along. It depends on the situation.

Don’t assign a trait or character to someone for simple human failings, mistakes or one-off situations. People make mistakes and even managers can learn from their mistakes. At least the best do. Only when they repeat the problem should you consider it as incompetence or sign of dysfunction.

So look through these qualities and see if they fit anyone you know, anyone you work with. It’s a bit like birdwatching. Make a checklist of these warning signs and check them off as you see them in practice.

Continue reading “Spotting incompetence”

Peter, Parkinson and Adams

Parkinson's Law coverC. Northcote Parkinson, Lawrence J. Peter, and Scott Adams are for me the ‘holy trinity’ of philosophers of modern bureaucracy, within both the public service and the corporate structure. As philosophers, they are all keen observers and witty commentators on the human condition, with emphasis on the nature of organizations, leadership and management.

Not always in the lofty or strategically-focused terms of, say, Sun Tzu or Machiavelli; all three are more prosaic and more cynical. And funnier – an adjective seldom used with either classical writer.

These three pundits are, of course, well-known today: every CEO, corporate leader and ambitious manager worth their salt knows and has read their work. All are required reading in many business courses and workshops. Even dedicated, effective elected government officials and elected representatives have read them (Stop that guffawing, you local residents…)

Parkinson’s Law, first formulated in a magazine article in 1955, is that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Which might explain why putting together a shared services agreement between Collus Powerstream and the town has taken more than a year to do what most people could do in an afternoon over a beer.

Dilbert and Parkinson's Law

Parkinson also created the idea of the “coefficient of inefficiency,” a parameter to describe how committees become increasingly less efficient as their size grows until they become completely and utterly inefficient.

Parkinson’s theory was based on quantity: the greater the size of the organization the lower its efficiency, pointing to trends based on English history. I, however, tend to measure quality over quantity in such situations. Five bobbleheads are, for example, more inefficient in a committee than, say, 50 independent-thinking geniuses. While the latter might accomplish something useful given enough time, the former merely bloviate.

Another contribution was Parkinson’s Law of Triviality which states that “members of an organisation give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.” Or as Parkinson phrased it, “The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved.” His example was a committee debating the development of an expensive, complex nuclear plant: it spent more time debating the construction of its bicycle shed than any major component.

Anyone who has followed council budget discussions recognizes this law in practice: significantly more time is spent on small amounts than on the big ticket items. Except of course this term, when staff told council what to think during the budget discussions, and refused to answer questions. The Bobbleheads accepted this process, thus quickening the timeline by skirting the messy business of democracy, and frank, open discussion.

Continue reading “Peter, Parkinson and Adams”

De Officiis: Cicero on Political Obligations

Cicero: On Obligations

No phase of life, whether public or private, whether in business or in the home, whether one is working on what concerns oneself alone or dealing with another, can be without its moral duty; on the discharge of such duties depends all that is morally right, and on their neglect all that is morally wrong in life.

Cicero wrote that in 44 BCE in his last work in his last year of life: De Officiis, or in English: On Obligations. The translation from Book 1.4 above comes from the Perseus Project (the 1913 Miller/Loeb translation). In the 2000 edition (Oxford University Press, reprinted 2008, and recently added to my library), translator P.G. Walsh renders that piece thus:

There is no aspect of life public or private, civic or domestic, which can be without its obligation, whether in our individual concerns or in our relations with our neighbour. Honourable behaviour lies entirely in the performance of such obligations, and likewise base conduct lies in neglecting them.

The main theme of Marcus Tullius Cicero’s book is stated here, at the beginning: we are all bound by obligations to one another, and if we are honourable people, then we must act on, and never forget, those obligations. Of course, he has a lot more to say, but that’s the gist of it.

The 62-year-old Cicero watched as Rome was taken over by the followers of the recently assassinated Julius Caesar (whom he criticized). He watched how the republic was subverted to the rule of the autocrats and tyrants (whom he also openly criticized). The result of his speaking out was his being named an enemy of the state. Marc Anthony ordered Cicero’s execution and had his severed head and hands displayed in the forum. Such is the way tyrants deal with dissent.

Cicero’s world and life have parallels in today’s politics: his words still have meaning and relevamce today. One need only look at today’s Republican candidates’ struggle for supremacy, or locally to see what has happened to our own council, to understand those parallels.*

Continue reading “De Officiis: Cicero on Political Obligations”