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Plato’s Tree


The boy followed the old man along the road that wound up from the city. He had to run sometimes for the man was old but he was strong, and the axe the boy carried was heavy. At least they were above the sting of the tear gas that still hung heavy in the streets below. But they were not above the wood smoke that even now partly obscured the Parthenon.

The winter of 2013 in Athens was not the coldest on record, not as cold as it was when I camped out on a boat in the Piraeus harbour so many Christmases ago. But it was cold enough for people to burn things. The city was swept of bits and pieces of scrap cardboard and wood, and now the elderly were breaking up their furniture. In November, the government had jacked up the tax on heating oil 450%.

Along with Greek tables and chairs, the Greek economy was pretty much in ashes. The European Union and the International Monetary Fund were keeping the country from burning to the ground by pouring money on its economy. The price for their beneficence? An austerity regime of tax hikes and draconian cuts to government jobs and services.

In the winter of 2013, so few could afford to buy heating oil, that the government lost revenue on its sales. And the air in Athens turned black with burning wood.

Who knows how it got so bad Credit default swaps hid the real economy. Greece’s trade deficit grew and so did its labour costs. But credit was easy before 2009, so the government borrowed. Banks around the world bought into the toxic derivatives cobbled together by the Americans. When all the bubbles burst, the Greek economy was exposed, vaporizing confidence in its ability to carry on, let alone repay a trillion dollar debt.

Those individuals and companies who could afford to do so, hid their incomes in Switzerland, Lichtenstein or Luxemburg—some $75 billion by the reckoning of Greek journalist Kostas Vaxevanis.

They weren’t the only ones. The OECD reckons the world’s tax havens hide about $6 trillion owed to its governments, mostly by corporations like Apple and Nike. If you have some cash to stash offshore, Canadian banks are there to help. Some $8 billion is owed to Canada, even though successive governments have cut corporate taxes to the lowest in the G7.

Austerity consumes struggling economies. You can’t cut jobs and still expect people to buy things. Where is government to find revenue if people are out of work and corporations are hiding their incomes (or if government itself is cutting their taxes)?

In the winter of 2013, after four years of austerity, unemployment in Greece was nearly 30% and the country’s debt to GDP ratio was still going up. Unemployment among youth was 65%.

Now gangs of young men emblazoned with the swastika-like symbols of the Golden Dawn roar through the streets of Athens on motorcycles menacing immigrants, Jews and anyone else they can scapegoat. They have become more brazen now that 18 of their comrades have been elected to the Greek Parliament—elected in spite of a televised debate in which their spokesman repeatedly slapped his female opponent.

At the sound of a backfire the boy tightened his grip on the axe and thanked the Christ he was not Muslim.

But the old hate, and the new poverty, and the massive job cuts—none of that was the worst. The worst was Elena.

For people with jobs, health care is paid for by their employers and the government. When people lost their jobs, the hospitals treated them anyway. But Greece’s lenders demanded that even this charity cease. From the summer of 2011, Greeks have had to pay out of pocket for medical care.

Elena’s breast cancer had advanced and now it had burst through her skin. With no job and no money, she had been draining her own wound with paper napkins. The doctor she finally found works in an underground network of clinics, unfunded but supplied with “donated” equipment and drugs. If he is discovered treating Elena, he will have to pay for her meds himself.

The old man stopped at the foot of an ancient olive tree, trunk gnarled like the backs of his hands, old branches twisting just above his head. He wrapped his bony fingers into one of the deep creases in the trunk and told the story of Athena’s gift.

In the old days, she and Poseidon vied for the protectorate of the city. Their priests arranged a contest: each would offer a gift and the Athenians would choose.

Poseidon struck his trident on the ground and salt water welled up. The god of the Sea would give safe passage to Athenian ambition for trade, commerce and empire.

Against Poseidon’s gift, Athena offered the olive tree—a gift of wood, oil and food that promised peace, plenty and good governance for thousands of years. The City accepted it and flourished. Indeed, this very olive tree, the old man told the boy, was said to have shaded Plato himself.

But Poseidon was angry the Athenians had refused him. He harassed their fleets and frustrated their trade for centuries after.

When the old man had finished his tale, he took the axe from the boy and, with a curse on his lips for the Earth Shaker, he delivered the first blow.

© David McLaren, June 2014

A version of this essay appeared in the Forum section of Sunmedia community papers, 14 June 2014. You can follow this blog by clicking on the + sign in the banner along the top of your screen. You can see an annotated list of articles here. Austerity fails. In spite of draconian measures imposed on southern European countries, their debt (in relation to their GDPs) keeps growing.

Austerity Fail In spite of draconian measures imposed on southern European countries, their debt (in relation to their GDPs keeps growing) From the rule of the virtuous to the rule of the rich Achilles on a coin from 4thC BC

Achilles on a coin from 4thC BC

There is a very old idea from ancient Greek culture that goes by the Greek name of timé. It is honour, specifically, in the Homeric view of the world at least, honour that has external measure and great value among men.

But such honour is not infinite. Think: spoils of war. Homer’s Iliad is about timé. It is a snapshot of one incident in the long siege of Troy by a Greek city-state coalition of the willing.

Achilles is the greatest of the Greeks who attack Troy and he gains the lion’s share of spoils—of timé: tripods (for some reason), armour, weapons, gold, Briseis the concubine whom he loves.

Along comes Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces who feels, being leader, he should have more timé than Achilles. So he takes Briseis for himself.

To a man, especially a man like Achilles in a society like that of ancient Greece, this is an irredeemable insult, not the least because it also weakens his kleos.

Kleos seems to be part and parcel of timé. Timé is for show in the here and now, but kleos is forever. Kleos is a word closely related to the Greek verb ‘to hear’ and carries the idea of ‘what people hear about you’. Acclaim is earned only through great deeds which had best end in death if you want your praise sung loud and long. In the ancient oral tradition of the West, you lived on only in the encomiums of storytellers like Homer.

As Homer himself indicates in his first line, the whole of The Iliad is a song about the wrath of Achilles: “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilles and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians.”

Achilles is so angry at the loss of timé, that he refuses to fight. Not the promises of even greater rewards from a regretful Agamemnon; not the threat of annihilation of the Greek expedition; not even smooth-talking Odysseus’ appeal to kleos can move Achilles to fight. Such is the hold on the mind of our ancestors of timé justly won and unjustly lost.

We like to think we have moved beyond such old ways. We like to think that honour comes to those who are the best of us, the most noble. Such honour is limitless and everyone can have any amount of it if they are deemed worthy enough.

But not so when it comes to money. There is a finite amount of that in the world. If I acquire more, it means you will have less, like water from a well. And, like water in a well, money can be drawn out of the rich earth. But, like water from a well, money doesn’t automatically trickle down to those who are most in need of it.

The more money I have, the more I am likely to accumulate, as Thomas Piketty demonstrates in his book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The more money I have, the more likely I will want to proclaim my wealth by buying outsized homes, big cars, memberships in private clubs, and political influence—especially political influence, for influence brings me kleos. Aristo Onassis, 1932

Aristo Onassis, 1932

Money, especially a lot of money, is timé. Think: the Koch Brothers. Think: Bill Gates. Think: Conrad Black who, notwithstanding his various convictions, has managed to hold fast to both timé and kleos. Think Aristotle Socrates Onassis (Aristo for short).

Greece’s 1%, along with others of the world’s 1%, own nearly half of the wealth in the world. They are jealous of their timé and find novel ways of hiding $6 trillion of it lest some undeserving political leader comes along and take it.

For some, the old way of viewing the world hasn’t change much. Nevertheless, societal mores and values do shift over time.

If, for Achilles, timé is his hard-won spoils, timé for Plato is also the essence of an honourable man. As the man so the state, says Plato and although a timocracy (the rule of those who love honour and glory) is worse than an aristocracy (rule by ‘the best’, the lovers of wisdom), it is better than a oligarchy (in which “the lovers of money” take the place of the lovers of virtue—what some now call a plutocracy and what others call a corporatocracy).

For the record, Plato doesn’t think much of democracy, which he deems as worse than oligarchy and only a little better than tyranny. We however believe democracy to be the best sort of government, as long as the best and most noble of us are elected. But that’s always been a bit of a crap-shoot.

As with a man without discipline or self-examination, one kind of rule can slip into another. Our ideal governance (democracy that elects virtuous men and women) can slide into a democracy that elects avaricious men and women.

Hear Socrates explain how a government of honour can degenerate into government by the wealthy in Book VIII of The Republic … Graffiti in Athens by iNO

Graffiti in Athens. ‘System of Fraud’ by iNO

[Adeimantus] And what manner of government do you term oligarchy? [Socrates] A government resting on a valuation of property, in which the rich have power and the poor man is deprived of it. —I understand, he replied. —Ought I not to begin by describing how the change from timocracy to oligarchy arises? —Yes. —Well, I said, no eyes are required in order to see how the one passes into the into the other. —How? —The accumulation of gold in the treasury of private individuals is the ruin of timocracy; they invent illegal modes of expenditure; for what do they or their wives care about the law? —Yes, indeed. —And then one, seeing another grow rich, seeks to rival him, and thus the great mass of the citizens become lovers of money. —Likely enough. —And so they grow richer and richer, and the more they think of making a fortune the less they think of virtue; for when riches and virtue are placed together in the scales of the balance, the one always rises as the other falls. —True. —And in proportion as riches and rich men are honoured in the State, virtue and the virtuous are dishonoured. —Clearly. —And what is honoured is cultivated, and that which has no honour is neglected. —That is obvious. —And so at last, instead of loving contention and glory, men become lovers of trade and money; they honour and look up to the rich man, and make a ruler of him, and dishonour the poor man. —They do so. —They next proceed to make a law which fixes a sum of money as the qualification of citizenship; the sum is higher in one place and lower in another, as the oligarchy is more or less exclusive; and they allow no one whose property falls below the amount fixed to have any share in the government. These changes in the constitution they effect by force of arms, if intimidation has not already done their work. —Very true. —And this, speaking generally, is the way in which oligarchy is established. Since the cuts, graffiti in Greece has flowered into an art form of protest. ‘Access Control’ by iNO.

Since the cuts, graffiti in Greece has flowered into an art form of protest. ‘Access Control’ by iNO.

In the next section Socrates lays out the defects of oligarchy …

—Yes, he said; but what are the characteristics of this form of government, and what are the defects of which we were speaking? —First of all, I said, consider the nature of the qualification. Just think what would happen if pilots were to be chosen according to their property, and a poor man were refused permission to steer, even though he were a better pilot? —You mean that they would shipwreck? —Yes; and is not this true of the government of anything?

—And here is another defect which is quite as bad. —What defect? —The inevitable division: such a State is not one, but two States, the one of poor, the other of rich men; and they are living on the same spot and always conspiring against one another.

—Another discreditable feature is that, for a like reason, they are incapable of carrying on any war. Either they arm the multitude, and then they are more afraid of them than of the enemy; or, if they do not call them out in the hour of battle, they are oligarchs indeed, few to fight as they are few to rule. And at the same time their fondness for money makes them unwilling to pay taxes. —How discreditable!

—A man may sell all that he has, and another may acquire his property; yet after the sale he may dwell in the city of which he is no longer a part, being neither trader, nor artisan, nor horseman, nor hoplite [citizen soldier], but only a poor, helpless creature. —Yes, that is an evil which also first begins in this State. —The evil is certainly not prevented there; for oligarchies have both the extremes of great wealth and utter poverty.

—Well, I said, and in oligarchical States do you not find paupers? —Yes, he said; nearly everybody is a pauper who is not a ruler. —And may we be so bold as to affirm that there are also many criminals to be found in them, rogues who have stings, and whom the authorities are careful to restrain by force? —Certainly, we may be so bold. —The existence of such persons is to be attributed to want of education, ill-training, and an evil constitution of the State? —True. —Such, then, is the form and such are the evils of oligarchy; and there may be many other evils.


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