Rethink.

Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

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Property and The Pursuit of Happiness: Xenophon, Cyropaedia 8.2.14-23

With thanks to Jonathan Culp

At times, ancient texts outdo our self-help gurus. Aristotle’s Ethics: “Read this book, be happy!” Plato’s Republic: “Learn justice while building a powerful city!” Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus (Cyropaedia): “Become a great general and near invincible ruler. Get the education Cyrus had today!”

It is true Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus starts with a narrower, more theoretical claim. Xenophon professes interest in whether men can be ruled like herds. He heard there was one Cyrus who was able to do this, even though it seems to many who meditate on politics that men cannot be ruled like animals. There aren’t pages with bullet points and headers proclaiming “Top 10 Tips for Quick Cash.” Rather, an epic story is recounted with a view to decisive conversations and deeds. There’s a lot to think about; things have not been made easy for the consumer.

But still, let’s get real – Xenophon’s world and ours have a lot in common. There’s ambition aplenty nowadays, just as there was then. Rhapsodes and rhetoricians can find their niche on American Idol or Oprah. It does seem that in Xenophon’s world, one could go out into the middle of nowhere and build a city or found an empire. But that’s happening in other parts of the world, including parts of the world bombarded daily by U.S. drones. Nobility and the desire for political greatness never went away. What died was any serious recognition by the academy of these phenomena. That lack of serious recognition carried over into education generally. However, I would caution anyone who thinks they can see what exactly the consequences of this are, or immediately try to pinpoint where we fail to engage more or less noble desires. For some strange reason, that sort of “inquiry” typically brings forth a lot of unhinged ranting.

To get to the theoretical problem, we have to recognize what pulls or pushes us away from the text. That recognition prepares us to be sympathetic to whatever we find as we consider things carefully. What pulls us to the Education of Cyrus is Cyrus himself. We are presented with a historical figure who conquered many nations and founded a great empire. He was a liberator: his conquest of Babylon allowed the Jews to return to Israel. It is said Caesar took Xenophon’s account of Cyrus’ life to heart. Now how much history is actually involved in this account is another question. Xenophon shows us Cyrus dying peacefully. Herodotus has Cyrus being killed in battle and decapitated. Cyrus’ head was then shoved into a bucket of blood so he had his fill of gore.

All of this is to say that the self-help surface of the text matters immensely. Xenophon really wants us to consider Cyrus’ life as worth living, regardless of how preposterous much of it is. In 8.2.14-23, Cyrus has finished his conquests and is ruling peacefully. He has wealth and happiness and his people are ruled as herds are ruled, herds of sheep:

People quote a remark of his to the effect that the duties of a good shepherd and of a good king were very much alike; a good shepherd ought, while deriving benefit from his flocks, to make them happy (so far as sheep can be said to have happiness), and in the same way a king ought to make his people and his cities happy, if he would derive benefits from them. Seeing that he held this theory, it is not at all surprising that he was ambitious to surpass all other men in attention to his friends. (Cyropaedia 8.2.14)

Cyrus, wealthy, happy, in charge, gives leadership training seminars. A shepherd makes his flocks happy and gets goods for himself. That’s exactly how kingship works, right? A king makes his dominion happy in order to get goods from it. You can see something is a bit strange with this logic: don’t people make sacrifices to be involved in politics? Aren’t there some good rulers known for their piety? The end of a political life is not necessarily the happiness of those in charge.

Then again, who said we were talking about politics? People don’t attend leadership seminars because they want to be leaders. They want to get ahead in their lives or careers, they want to provide for themselves and their families. They pursue happiness through the acquisition of private property. “Leadership” helps them enlarge their domain. This is, to say the least, a more private version of an art we associate with public things. Try actually being a political leader in Cyrusland and see the fun. Still, Cyrus can’t help if his subjects think they can be him to a degree, perhaps learn from him. And, as noted before, Xenophon has a self-help surface of sorts.

The darker political implications remain. Cyrus lorded over others like they were in herds so he could obtain benefits for himself. Lest we be too cynical, a large degree of happiness and order can be presumed in his empire. Earlier in the book, Xenophon gave glimpses of the leaders Cyrus displaced. To call Cyrus a tyrant or despot does not appreciate how awful what he replaced was. Further, the whole idea that one is benefited by an order that keeps others in herds is linked to friendship, of all things: “Seeing that he held this theory, it is not at all surprising that he was ambitious to surpass all other men in attention to his friends.”

From 8.2.15-23, Xenophon tells a story featuring Cyrus and Croesus. Croesus famously thought he was the happiest of men, before being challenged by Solon and conquered by Cyrus. Croesus tells Cyrus that he should store more gold of his privately, quoting him an amount that he would save if he gave less. Cyrus sends out a messenger to all his friends asking them for money, money he tells Croesus he needs. The friends are to write down how much they can pledge, but those sealed pledges are to be delivered by a man Croesus trusts. Of course the pledges, when opened, are considerably larger than the amount Croesus said Cyrus could save.

The surface teaching is to invest in friends. Cyrus takes his surplus and uses it to buy no less than loyalty. But is that a real teaching for those of us in private life? Cyrus is a ruler, after all. He can have the loyal turn on the disloyal well before imprisonment or any harsher tactics. That he can command loyalty is a product of having control of the administration of justice and warfare as well as giving to others.

But Cyrus does come down to earth. He admits he has an insatiable desire for wealth that he cannot rid himself of. He is like everyone else in this regard (8.2.20). But others merely store their wealth, letting it decay, finding their joy in continually counting or seeing it. What he does differently is use his wealth for “security” and “good fame” (8.2.22). These things, which come about through the loyalty he procures, do not decay or do injury to him. Rather, “good fame”  makes him “lighter of heart;” its benefits seem to continually accrue. Taking Cyrus seriously, we see exactly why American Idol was the direct result of a Constitution that protects private property. Wealth alone is not happiness. It must obtain the things which make life easier and preserve us. Ultimately, those things have less to do with property or our own bodies, more to do with reputation and loyalty. Take it from me – it’s a lot easier to work with people who respect you than with people who hold back on giving any support just because.

What Cyrus has given is a vision of a fulfilling life: “one who can honestly acquire the most and use the most to noble ends, him I count most happy” (8.2.23). Give friends as much as you can, and you will do nobly as well as well for yourself. People will guard your wealth for you. This isn’t necessarily tyrannical, but the dark political implications have not been purged, as you have probably noticed. The deep problem is that “freedom” and “respect for others” are not treated terribly seriously. One has to account for everyone else around himself as “herds.”

We haven’t found tyranny: what we’ve found is that our private notion of happiness is noble in a strange way. Again, this is commendable to a degree. Students that bash Cyrus as some kind of bloodthirsty despot miss this question: What is the best politics can do? Still, what we’ve also found is that “good fame” can accompany some of the most shallow behavior, that nobility can be watered down in any day and age. To find other political goods and see further, one should seriously note the points of contrast with another figure Xenophon presents in detail, Socrates. Cyrus’ continence, which served him well in war, is not in the service of any kind of moderation. For Socrates, one could say wisdom is moderation. Cyrus’ happiness residing in “good fame” completely denies the infamy that can be earned by standing for the truth. To use public things to secure one’s private standing may make everyone happy, but perhaps to the detriment of “everyone.” The funny thing about thoughts well-thought is that they aren’t private. Ultimately, they’re a genuine contribution to humanity. To see the world as property, as private gain, is dehumanizing on a level I can’t quite address, though I live in the midst of it.

Sixth Reflection: Sappho, “At noontime / When the earth is bright with flaming heat”

At noontime / When the earth is bright with flaming heat
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

At noontime

When the earth is
bright with flaming
heat falling straight down

the cricket sets
up a high-pitched
singing in his wings

Comment:

Some days are not even close to the best. Thing is, a lot of us are striving for consistency, for security. And to strive for consistency and security is just that. There’s a lot of turbulence by definition. Some of it we’re trying to escape, some of it is self-caused.

It’s easy to feel caught in a web of guilt, thinking one has made the wrong decisions. Especially when nature looks like clockwork. Regularly at noon, a fire descends, causing a reciprocal sound from the cricket. A powerful but not fatal heat seems to set the cricket in motion; its noise and flight are one and the same.

Why are we so inconsistent? The cricket’s passion looks caused by a natural occurrence. This timeliness is a divine order: the cricket finds its mood and fate tied to what illumines the earth, no more. It didn’t stop and think about, say, how much Monday sucks.

In this fragment, there’s an imagined beauty and orderliness. An imagined consistency. We’re the ones who feel secure in thinking the cricket is set in motion so simply.The freedom of human beings entails learning to make the right choices. It’s a responsibility where things going awry isn’t always the worst thing. What’s really scary are the circumstances where freedom and responsibility don’t really exist, where necessities and the contrivances of others dictate everything and we aren’t even aware. The cricket, by this reasoning, is completely in a world of its own.

George Romney, “Young Man with a Flute”

George Romney, "Young Man with a Flute" (c. 1760-1770). Viewable at the Dallas Museum of Art

George Romney, “Young Man with a Flute” (c. 1760-1770). Viewable at the Dallas Museum of Art

The cutest and saddest thing happened while I was staring at this. Some little girl was being led by her Dad past this painting. She slowed a bit and attempted to read the caption – got the name “George” said correctly, but struggled with “Romney.” Dad dragged her past and put her in front of another painting, which he proceeded to explain badly on two counts. First, given the girl’s age, his terrible criticism was over her head. Second, his terrible criticism. The girl would have been better off with a coloring book in the parking lot as opposed to being forcefed culture by someone who barely had any.

Anyway. There are a lot of painterly, technical virtues to the above painting. The texture of the wood on the flute and surface; the use of brown generally; the embellishment on the gold; the precision of the cuff; the folds on the coat and the quiet illumination of one side of the painting. I think the curators said this was an early Romney, and I’d guess that showing off a mastery of technique was crucial to getting more patrons.

Is there a theme? I’m not sure. It might be that the kid was accidentally captured a bit insecure, a bit overwhelmed by everything. His pose is more awkward than thoughtful – look at how his hand doesn’t really rest on his chin, how his gaze is that of trying to be relaxed. I’d imagine the boy’s mom said “omg you look so cute this is the best picture ever,” pinched his cheeks, put it in the dining room to be seen every day. But maybe this is a portrait of someone who really could do without the artifice, without the expectations, doing something else entirely.

Coco Rico, “Te Cantare Mis Recuerdos” (I Will Sing You My Memories)

The best art comes from the heart. Coco isn’t shy about saying “this is what I meant” when talking about her work. It’s not because she has an answer no one else has. Rather, just as books belong to their readers, art belongs to its audience, and she’s more than willing to be part of a larger conversation.

That conversation started in her recent exhibition Te Cantare Mis Recuerdos (I Will Sing You My Memories) a peculiar way. Her works are small, iconic windows into life as remembered. Their miniature size made the gallery’s whiteness, brightness, cleanliness loom large. It was a perfectly appropriate accent for recollections ranging from nostalgic to wistful, centered on family, growth, and loss.

I don’t want to say too much about the religious imagery and quiet spirituality attending these works. After all, Coco has said of Supersticion I that it concerns the idea of getting warts in your eyes if you watch a dog poop:

Supersticion I

Coco Rico, “Supersticion I.” Photo credit: Mark Alonzo.

Supersticion I reminded me of the Masonic imagery on a dollar bill. Something about it is elegant, creepy, fundamental – and yet it focuses on what might be considered silly and childlike. A bit more adolescent is Supersticion III. Yeah, it is inspired by the idea of not cutting a baby’s hair before it ages one year. But it also seems to speak about changing our appearance to fit the time. You can’t really see it below, but some of the hairlike threads are words. It’s like we cut our own thoughts depending on the phases of the moon, all while the clock ticks:

Supersticion III

Coco Rico, “Supersticion III.” Photo credit: Mark Alonzo.

Two works about her mother really hit home, no pun intended. Vestida Por Mi Ama (Getting dressed by Mom) reminded me of my own experiences. Mom wanted to sew everything I wore. I get the feeling that for Coco, every attendance at a school dance felt weighted with the traditions of one’s homeland, the sweat and blood of one’s Mother. Too much to wear, but a beautiful machine:

Coco Rico, "Vestida Por Mi Ama"

Coco Rico, “Vestida Por Mi Ama.” Photo credit: Mark Alonzo.

Finally, a thought on what it means to be a parent, La Independencia De Mi Ama:

Coco Rico, "La Independencia De Mi Ama"

Coco Rico, “La Independencia De Mi Ama.” Photo credit: Mark Alonzo.

The feather and branch are stark; one creates something which has to be let go. All that’s left is debris of a sort, but it is quietly beautiful. Someone else’s potential is your sacrifice; what that means is your imagination.

Sneering at Tourists at the Vatican

Fashionable
is all we are.

Slathered in scent,
covered with cosmetic,
concealed through outfits,
we’re an old bird
with pretty plumage.

At “The School of Athens,”
much gawking and cackling.
Up and down and a train
of figures unknown.
Not one of the many sees
the triangular composition
holding the painting together.

A.E. Stallings, “The Companions of Odysseus in Hades”

The Companions of Odysseus in Hades (from Poetry)
A.E. Stallings

After Seferis

Since we still had a little
Of the rusk left, what fools
To eat, against the rules,
The Sun’s slow-moving cattle,

Each ox huge as a tank —
A wall you’d have to siege
For forty years to reach
A star, a hero’s rank.

We starved on the back of the earth,
But when we’d stuffed ourselves,
We tumbled to these delves,
Numbskulls, fed up with dearth.

Comment:

It is difficult to pinpoint the nature of even one of the injustices our society features. Inequality is a problem, but it doesn’t always concern wealth. Do we really allow people to have dignity, or give them proper opportunities to earn respect? It feels like we’re always looking to tear down others because of spite, neglect, or the very security of our own standing.

It’s like we’d throw someone onto the high seas and then tell them to prove themselves by rowing back. But some of this problem exists within manliness/nobility/heroism itself. Even with a reputation for heroic deeds, even with the knowledge we are capable of more, we get desperate. You can’t eat a reputation. When left with virtually nothing, “a little of the rusk,” you not only respond to the lack of necessities, but the injustice of the situation. The same thing that marked you as a “better” human turns against you.

It gets worse. As someone who has been honored, who has conquered, you understand the “rules.” You know all about how powerful pride is, how sensitive it makes the most powerful. At one stroke you throw away all your experience established: the preparation, striving, victory as well as the determination, confidence, honors. To destroy one of the “slow-moving cattle” is no less than the war against Troy.

Are the companions heroes? Strictly speaking, not in Homer. But in this poem, very much so. They don’t speak of justice, but of “rules” and “dearth.” Like heroes, having or not-having is the end, and discipline and strength are the means. And yet what they obviously want is justice. They’re fools for killing the Sun’s cattle, but not wrong. They would be completely in the right if the rusk were used up. Justice is always messy. If I told you about all the crap I’m going through, it’s a he-said/she-said type game, except without a “she.” To be completely in the right is impossible. But the injustice is demonstrable though, just as it is above. One claim of right matters more than another.

Only a hero would be obtuse enough to think that the claim of might established right, that their heroism means nothing compared to a god. Through might, through victory, they reason they became stars. Like the light of stars, they “starved on the back of the earth.” It wasn’t good enough to be a star, it wasn’t good enough to be a hero. This is not hubris. This is that life can be hell for anyone. To actually want what you need brings you crashing down to earth and then some. “We tumbled to these delves, / Numbskulls, fed up with dearth.” Again, only a hero would bet on consistently outsmarting necessity, as if this alone was the foundation of the good life.

5 random facts about me, because Tumblr

With thanks to moogernaut & phroggee for tagging me

  1. I really, really hate horror movies. If you’re planning on making me faint, just hint we’re watching one. It isn’t even the movie itself. I’m nervous no matter what, so I just start imagining everything under the sun and then some.
  2. Niagara Falls is incredible. I am still blown away by how much a ton of falling water can impress.
  3. Bars are still weird for me. So I was at two biker bars recently, and I felt out of place. I might have gotten a conversation about tattoos and graphic novels going, but the bartender had to go back to work. At another bar which journalists frequent, my friend hurriedly got me out of there because he could see the contempt I had for every idiot with a Tag Heuer watch.
  4. Other than news and sports, I don’t think I’ve watched any TV in months. This is not snobbery on my part, not at all. I just feel I need to be reading or writing, and I’m pushing myself to do that maybe a bit too much.
  5. I still need to finish “The Fault in Our Stars.”

On the Etruscan Pair of shields with head of Acheloos, on view at the Dallas Museum of Art

Art discussed in this post:

Pair of shields with head of Acheloos. Bronze. Etruscan, 6th c. BC. Lent by the Republic of Italy to the DMA: 135.2012.5-6

You can view the art here: Pair of shields with head of Acheloos

These shields were found in Etruscan tombs. On the one hand, it makes sense that a river god like Acheloos would be invoked in the tomb. As water gives life in this world, it can symbolize whatever life one could have after death. But water also speaks to malleability, change, and terror. Death’s finality is a weird, terrible thing that maybe only a god can truly see.

On that note, I wondered about the story of Hercules and Acheloos, which the curators used to introduce these shields. They fought over a woman; Acheloos, as the river, changed his shape to become a bull. His horn was broken off by Hercules and he was beaten. In order to get it back, he gave Hercules another “magic horn” (the curators’ words). Hercules took that other horn, gave it away, and it became the cornucopia.

I really don’t like that last part, that the magic horn became the cornucopia. That detail, for me, wrecks the story. What I asked myself while looking at these shields: did the story of the fighting inspire piety for Acheloos? It probably did. There should be some connection between the river god, death, and the trading of horns.

My speculation: Heracles should die contesting a river god about to impale him. That he survives means he has temporarily put off perishing and death’s sting. The “magic horn,” then, is knowledge of a sort and a trap. But it also links Acheloos and Hercules. To be an immortal beaten by a mortal is to know death. Acheloos has our pain in some sense. In another sense, he doesn’t, because we don’t understand our own pain. We just broke a horn off once and then mindlessly accepted another horn. Acheloos is present at the tomb because he is sympathetic. That he looks like he might charge on one shield – he won’t, it’s a tomb, after all – speaks to our failure and his.

On a Bell Krater and Oinochoe from the Spina necropolis, seen at the Dallas Museum of Art

Art discussed in this post, on loan to the Dallas Museum of Art:

Red Figure Bell Krater, featuring Theseus and Sinis.
Greek: Attic, 5th c. BC. From the Spina necropolis; attributed to the Sini Ferrara painter. On loan to the DMA from the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Ferrara, inv. 3066.

Red Figure Oinochoe, featuring Polynices offering a necklace to Eriphyle.
Greek: Attic, 435-430 BC. From the Spina necropolis; attributed to the Shuvalov painter. On loan to the DMA from the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Ferrara, inv. 2509.

Not the best picture, but the Oinochoe is at the extreme left. You can see Eriphyle reclining and some of Polynices. The Krater is central, and Theseus bending the tree, about to execute the naked robber, is pretty clear.

Theseus, about to kill one of the robbers famed for plaguing a road, will earn his initial fame as a hero. This robber, Sinis, either threw unsuspecting victims into the air with a bent pine or tore them in two. Theseus appears a well-dressed man, almost a gentleman. He wears a sun hat and a diadem; the robber is naked. The inscription only calls Theseus kalos, though: noble or beautiful, not a gentleman (also known as kalos kai agathos, noble and good).

Justice might be the outstanding question. Apollo or some kind of established, noble figure crowned with a laurel watches the execution. Even though I didn’t see the other side of the Krater fully (it is turned to the wall), I was told it was two men talking, and I glimpsed that one of them was dressed more like Apollo. I suspect there’s no justice here, just reputation and civilization. Apollo, god of music, gives us stories without which we are frightfully naked. Those stories hide a certain darkness. The expression on Sinis’ face is pained, terrified, human.

What’s on the Krater may make narrative sense and have narrative depth. On the Oinochoe, which pours wine, we could be dealing with one half of a story. Three figures are presented. Polynices, who robbed of his kingship of Thebes by his brother Eteocles, tries to conquer the city with the assistance of six other leaders. He is offering a necklace to a reclining Eriphyle. He does bribe her into goading her husband to war with Thebes, even though she knows her husband will die. And there’s a servant holding an (the?) Oinochoe and a Kylix, a drinking cup. As these objects were found in a tomb, part of a funeral banquet before burial, one wonders several things. First, whether there is a Kylix meant to go with the Oinochoe, giving another story to go along with this one. Second, while the servant holding these objects foreshadows the death of Polynices, Eriphyle’s husband, and Eriphyle herself, it also connects with the burial of whoever was rich enough to have these objects at their funeral. Who on earth wants to be buried with such a morbid, awful story? Polynices is vengeful, unpatriotic, and totally justified in his cause. Eriphyle is greedy, reckless, and hateful. The servant depicted is female, and maybe the two women can tell us about the potential complementary Kylix. A matching Kylix perhaps features Antigone and Ismene, sisters of the feuding brothers. Both would be mourning. One because of crazy, Polynices-like claims about family and the identification of death with justice. The other in mourning simply.

Fifth Reflection: Sappho, “I confess / I love that which caresses me”

I confess / I love that which caresses me
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

I confess

I love that
which caresses
me. I believe

Love has his
share in the
Sun’s brilliance
and virtue.

Comment:

There’s that love which “hard to get” works so well at manipulating. It’s a pious, noble, virtuous love, where objects are kept at a distance and we are reproached for approaching. You don’t become a god by forcibly taking over a temple. Nor do you become a hero by stealing Batman’s costume. And, most of all, you don’t become beloved by forcing your attentions on someone. In each case, what we worship, admire, or adore changes us through the distance it sets. Gods make us reverent and obedient. Heroes embolden us in our everyday lives. And would-be lovers become different things to win the beloved.

I tend to think the heart of Plato is understanding that this noble sort of love is a special case of something more fundamental, namely eros. We should love that which caresses us, not just stays away from us. And that caressing should produce good things for us, just as the Sun does. (Obviously, I am not talking about creepers or stalkers being lovers here.) Its brilliance allows us to see and enjoy the day. And its virtue – is this excellence? or something else? – may be its steadfastness. No changes necessary to it, whereas a beloved must change in some way to accept a lover.

Which brings up this question. Why is this a confession? Why does the speaker believe that Love has only a share in the Sun? We feel guilty in having a love that is good for us and to us; we don’t see the whole of love in being loved well. We want to feel like we’ve learned to love or discovered love. Not the worst feeling, but maybe not always the best.

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