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Written by Ronan McLaverty-Head, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The barbs traded between Demosthenes and Aeschines in 4th century BC Athens would not be out of place on cable news today. After their attempt to draw up a treaty between Athens and Philip of Macedon, Demosthenes and Aeschines fell out spectacularly. Demosthenes accused Aeschines of corruption of the highest order—treason (παραπρεσβεία γραφή “false embassy”)—claiming that Aeschines had been bribed by Philip.
Aeschines countered with an ad hominem, claiming that Timarchus, who had backed Demosthenes, was allegedly a male prostitute whose reputation as such invalidated him. Demosthenes replied by accusing Aeschines of a further raft of deceit. Demosthenes tried to prove bribery, but lacked sufficient evidence.
Here we have one of the major problems with accusations of corruption: they are intended to denigrate an opponent. Effectively, they are character assassinations and should often be taken with a pinch of salt. However, the point here is not so much whether Aeschines was in fact corrupt but that Athenian society clearly had a view of something that counted as corruption: bribery.
“As for the question of bribery or no bribery, of course you are agreed that it is a scandalous and abominable offense to accept money for acts injurious to the commonwealth … the man who takes them and is thereby corrupted can no longer be trusted by the state as a judge of sound policy” (Demosthenes, On the False Embassy).
Views on corruption in ancient Rome were similar. In 70 BC, Cicero made his name as a lawyer in a series of speeches in the corruption trial of Gaius Verres, the former governor of Sicily. Cicero’s charges against Verres included embezzlement and extortion.
As is often the case with Cicero, it is sometimes difficult to separate his rhetorical flourishes from the facts, but again, what matters here is that his audience already considered embezzlement and extortion to be practices unbefitting a public official. As Frank H. Cowles says, Verres “stood for the whole corrupt system.”
Concern about corruption went to the very top of Roman society. Emperor Alexander Severus (AD 208 – 235) indicted an imperial official who had received money for peddling influence at court. This practice was known as fumum vendere – “smoke-selling” – and the punishment was grimly appropriate: a fire of wet logs was set around the accused and he suffocated to death.
“Thereupon Alexander ordered him to be indicted, and when all the charges had been proved by witnesses … he issued instructions to bind him to a stake [and] ordered a fire of straw and wet logs to be made and had him suffocated by the smoke, and all the while a herald cried aloud, ‘The seller of smoke is punished by smoke’” (Historia Augusta: Life of Severus Alexander).
Any modern reader of the classics might conclude that the ancient world mostly turned a blind eye to what we would consider to be corruption, given that the subject doesn’t come up all that often. Such a conclusion, however, would be mistaken.
Why is this? First of all, in both the ancient and modern world, corruption is often quite difficult to prosecute. Second, what we might see as corruption may not have been corruption when judged by classical standards. Officials were often unsalaried and the charging of fees was a way of collecting income and managing access to an official’s time.
Similarly, a whole system of patronage—you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours—could be bypassed by those without connections by the exchange of money. “Bribery” was in this sense a social leveler.
Does such a thing count as corruption? Much depends on who benefits. Cicero’s admonition still rings true:
“Let those who are to preside over the state obey two precepts of Plato: one, that they so watch for the well-being of their fellow-citizens that they have reference to it in whatever they do, forgetting their own private interests; the other, that they care for the whole body politic, and not, while they watch over a portion of it, neglect other portions” (Cicero, On Moral Duties).
Ultimately, Demosthenes was right: corruption is “injurious to the commonwealth.” As a recent UN panel concluded, modern high-level corruption in the form of tax evasion and money laundering costs society $500 billion each year: “We’re all being robbed, especially the world’s poor.”
Alas, Cicero’s salus populi is not yet suprema lex.
Written by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
We’ve all been there. Fear, anxiety, depression, existential dread…these are common side effects of the human condition and part of life experience.
No matter where you have found yourself in history or what may be happening in global society, anxiety, depression and other mental and emotional challenges present themselves to us all at some point in our journey through life.
Greek philosopher Epicurus (341 – 270BC) recognized the suffering within himself and his fellow men and women. He established the Epicurean school of philosophy that promoted the Art of Simple Living.
Epicureanism went on to become one of the most influential philosophies in ancient times. It is known mostly for the Forty Principle Doctrines – a guide for how to live the happiest possible life.
However, if reading through 40 doctrines seems too overwhelming, or you’re just short on time, the Tetrapharmakos a.k.a ‘The Four-Part Remedy’ is a great place for any budding Epicureanist or happiness seeker to start!
In the Hellenistic period, the gods were all-seeing, all-powerful entities that made puppets of mankind. It was widely believed that if one angered the gods, it would result in torture and punishment during life and after death.
Epicurus, in contrast, did not believe that humans could do anything to anger the gods. He argued that they were too mighty to be troubled by the actions of mortal men. Instead, Epicurus believed the gods to be role models for humanity and argued that one should try to reach their level of happiness and self-empowerment.
Epicurus’ idea was that good should be done for the good itself, not because of the threat of punishment. He saw guilt as an obstacle to true happiness.
If one wishes to achieve a calm and serene mind, then actions that incur guilt should be avoided at all costs.
For Epicurus, the gods exist not to be feared, but emulated.
Death. There is nothing more final. It has long been argued that the burden of humanity is to live with the knowledge that we will one day succumb to death. The end of our lives is one of the biggest anxieties for us all, and for many, this fear can limit one’s ability to live a full and happy life.
Epicurus did not believe in an afterlife. But whether you believe in an afterlife or not, his advice about death is useful:
“Death means nothing to us…when we exist death is not yet present, and when death is present, we do not exist.”
Good point, Epicurus! Whatever you believe in, death brings to us a different state of consciousness. There is no way of knowing how we will perceive death, as no one has come back to tell us what happens.
For those who are worried about missing out on future events after death, the Epicureans say that’s the same as worrying about all the events you missed out on before you were born.
At the end of the day, all we can do is live a full life in the present. Everything else is beyond our control.
The Epicureans consider humans to have very basic needs, and say it is our desires that cause us the greatest suffering.
To survive and do well, all a human needs is food, shelter and interpersonal relationships, all of which are relatively easy to get. Simple foods that give nutrition and energy are much easier to come by than a Michelin star meal.
It is our desire for more that causes needless anxiety. This is especially relevant to today’s consumerist society, constantly bombarded with advertisements that tell us we are nothing without the finest house or the newest gadgets.
After much observation of nature, the Epicureans concluded the following about pain and suffering:
- Pain and suffering are either brief or enduring
- Pain and suffering are either mild or chronic
- Pain that is both chronic and enduring is the rarest kind
So, terrible things may not be a walk in the park, but they may not be as bad as you may think, or at least last as long as you fear. The Epicurean logic is that if your pain is terrible then it won’t last for very long, and if it does last long it will be mild or you will grow accustomed to it.
This is perhaps one of the most controversial doctrines of the Tetrapharmakos. But it does have a point: we live in a world that has limits. All humans, animals and conditions have a limit, and the same can be said for the nature of suffering. It is a better use of energy to understand it than it is to worry about it, because at the end of the day, suffering cannot be avoided. Many things occur that are outside of our control. However, if one understands the nature of suffering, one may better avoid unnecessary pain, or at the very least, be able to accept when pain and suffer unexpectedly arise.
‘’You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength’’ ~ Marcus Aurelius
“Frightened of change? But what can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you take a hot bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming it? Can any vital process take place without something being changed?Can’t you see? It’s just the same with you—and just as vital to nature.” ~ Meditations, Book VII.18
“Consider the lives led once by others, long ago, the lives to be led by others after you, the lives led even now, in foreign lands. How many people don’t even know your name. How many will soon have forgotten it. How many offer you praise now—and tomorrow, perhaps, contempt.” ~ Meditations, Book IX.30
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters’’ ~ Epictetus