Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Greeks had a word for Bush: IDIOT!

The great British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in his Wisdom of the West that Western civilization was and is essentially Greek -so great was that blossoming in the fifth century BC. Of the several factors supporting that thesis, none is more important than a discernable secular, populist trend absent from the older civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Russell supports that thesis by pointing out "...an astonishing stream of masterpieces which have set the standard for Western civilization."

Admittedly this is a bit of a tautology. Any civilization could merely define a standard conforming to those of its own creation. Nevermind, Russell remains one of the profound intellects of the 20th century, having partnered with Whitehead in the Principia Mathmatica, and, later, opposing nuclear proliferation, war, and the Viet Nam war in particular.
Russell believed the Greeks were the first civilization to evince philosophical or scientific curiosity. Eastern civilizations of the period, by contrast, were ruled by "divine" Kings, military aristocracies, and powerful priesthoods -guardians of elaborate polytheistic systems. The Pharaoh Akhenaten was a notable exception -remembered for having replaced many gods with one "Sun" god. The effort did not succeed.

Though each Greek city-state developed and nurtured its own culture, all were unmistakably Greek. As such, they were surprisingly secular even if Socrates himself would fall victim to the "religious right". Russell observes that religion "...was not conducive to the exercise of intellectual activity." He leaves it to the reader to conclude that it was because of this that neither Egypt nor Babylonia developed science or philosophy.

It is at this point that Russell makes the study of philosophy an ingredient essential to an understanding of politics:

A man who took no interest in politics was frowned upon, and was called an idiot, which is Greek for "...given over to private interests."

-Bertrand Russell, Wisdom of the West

The term private interests could be construed to mean hobbies. It is more likely, however, that it is descriptive of burgeoning business enterprises. After all, the city-states must surely have been great importers and traders. As such, it is easy to see certain tensions between the affairs of state and the affairs of enterprise. By the time of Henry VIII, Sir Thomas More's definition of government as "a conspiracy of rich men procuring their own commodities under the name and title of a commonwealth" would presage both fascism and Stalinesque communism. In both, the "State" and business would bury the hatchet and work in concert against the interests of everyone else -as Bush and his cabal do today.

It is the Greek use of the word idiot that resonates so truly today, a time when multi-national corporations dominate the media, when Jack Abramoff and similar ilk broker the corporate takeover of the state, when the people themselves are shunned, when George W. Bush exports death and destruction for the benefit of corporate sponsors.

Idiots, indeed!



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