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Posts Tagged ‘poverty’

One thing Greece certainly isn’t short of, besides sunshine and beaches, is mythological and historical referents. On Friday, Larry Elliott in the Grauniad offered us Sisyphus – “Alex Tsipras has also angered the gods”, and so has to keep pushing the boulder of reform proposals up the hill again and again.* This morning brings Brian M. Lucey’s hilarious parody of the whole “cultural mine that keeps on yielding” thing, presented through the myth of Tantalus:

He was condemned to stand in a lake of water with a grapevine over his head. If he stooped to drink the water receded, if he stretched to eat the grapes drew back. If Greece tries to cut its way from a depression the debt burden worsens, if it seeks aid the aid is yanked out of reach.

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One aspect of classical culture that some of its admirers may prefer to gloss over was its contempt for the poor. They were seen to lack the leisure that was essential for the development of true virtue, to be incapable of serving the community in any useful manner, and to have no choice but to labour in occupations and under conditions that degraded their weak claim to full human status still further. Little wonder that polities where the masses had any influence or access to power, however limited or illusory, were regarded with suspicion; the poor lacked the education to rule themselves properly or control their base appetites, so how could they possibly rule others? Antiquity gave us the concept of ‘aristocracy’, the rule of the best men, as a justification for the continuing exclusion of the masses from meaningful participation, and presented the alleged incapacity of ordinary men as moral inadequacy on their part.

When I say that ‘some’ of the admirers of antiquity might feel uncomfortable about this set of assumptions, this is because I suspect that by no means all of them would. This was certainly the case well into the twentieth century, when ancient tropes about the ignorant, amoral, appetite-driven plebs (and their bread and circuses) were invoked time and again in the face of the rising power of the masses. It’s also echoed – albeit, in the extant reports, without any explicit references to ancient precedents – in the pronouncements of the Chairman of the Independent Schools Association, Richard Walden. (more…)

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