Areopagus Volume LVII

Areopagus Volume LVII

Welcome one and all to the fifty seventh volume of the Areopagus. Two hundred and thirty one years ago today Percy Bysshe Shelley was born, a man who has not unreasonably been called England's greatest ever poet. Had he lived longer — for Shelley, living in self-imposed exile, died in a storm off the Italian coast at the age of just twenty nine — then this accolade might be indisputable. Alas, what he left was more than enough:

Gentleness, Virtue, Wisdom, and Endurance,
These are the seals of that most firm assurance
Which bars the pit over Destruction's strength;
And if, with infirm hand, Eternity,
Mother of many acts and hours, should free
The serpent that would clasp her with his length;
These are the spells by which to reassume
An empire o'er the disentangled doom.

Radical, resolute, indomitable, inspired; through few other voices did Romanticism speak so powerfully, and hardly anywhere else can we find a poet so committed to the human spirit in all its coequal misery and glory than in Percy Shelley, who lived as he wrote and wrote as he thought and felt. Duly roused, then, let us see if the words of his friend and fellow poet John Keats are true:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know

Another volume of the Areopagus begins...

I - Classical Music

Piano Concerto No. 2

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1903)

Performed by Van Cliburn and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra

The legendary Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) was only twenty eight years old when he wrote his Piano Concerto No. 2. A concerto, remember, is a large-scale composition, usually in several movements, which pairs a soloist (violin, cello, piano etc.) with an orchestra, at times playing in unison and at others in competition. It was his first major success and catapulted Rachmaninoff to international acclaim. But this does not tell the full story. Because, though the Piano Concerto No. 2 remains one of Rachmaninoff's most popular works, less well-known is that it was dedicated to a man called Nikolai Dahl.

See, Rachmaninoff was one of those musical prodigies apparently destined for stardom from the moment he first played a piano. He studied with, worked alongside, and knew all the great composers and musicians of the age, and in 1892 Rachmaninoff wrote a one-act opera called Aleko for his final exams at the Moscow Conservatory. Well, it premiered at the Bolshoi and he received full marks, along with the much-vaunted Great Gold Medal. But difficult times followed. Tchaikovsky — Rachmaninoff's hero — died in 1893, and he entered a sustained creative slump. When his highly anticipated First Symphony finally premiered in 1897 it was a catastrophe; the critics and the public slammed him and Rachmaninoff, humiliated, suffered a mental breakdown. The next three years were spent in a state of self-critical depression; penniless, despairing, and drunk, Rachmaninoff was simply unable to write music. His friends arranged a meeting with the legendary novelist Leo Tolstoy, but that only made Rachmaninoff's condition worse. Would this prodigy ever fulfil his potential and find himself again?

Everything changed in 1900, when Rachmaninoff's friends urged him to visit a neurologist and hypnotist called Nikolai Dahl; he was a musician himself and his other clients included the composer Alexander Scriabin. Well, four months of treatment worked and by summer Rachmaninoff's confidence was restored. He started writing music again and his Piano Concerto No. 2 was completed the following year, debuting to universal critical and popular acclaim which never since faded. One wonders if the joy Rachmaninoff felt at being able to compose again and reflections on the melancholy malaise he had been enduring for three years have something to do with the melodic vibrance, emotional depth, and musical magnitude of this piece.

II - Historical Figure

Michel de Montaigne

The Man Who Tried

Perhaps more than anybody else in history, Michel de Montaigne can speak for himself. But these were, by way of context, the facts of his life. Michel Eyquem was born in 1533 in the Dordogne, France, to a rich and recently ennobled family. His father Pierre, the Lord of Montaigne, gave him a thoroughly humanist education; young Michel was raised to speak Latin as his mother tongue, encouraged to spend time in contemplation or reading the classics, and given great freedom to pursue whatever happened to interest him. Lord Montaigne was interested in cultivating his son's character rather than giving him a hard-schooled, bookish education; for example, Pierre had his son woken every morning by a musician who played a different instrument every day. Well, it worked. Michel was a star pupil when he went to the College of Guienn, after which he studied law and at twenty one started what would become a highly successful legal-political career. Michel served as a counsellor for the Parlement (high court) of Bordeaux and afterwards spent three years in the court of King Charles IX.

In 1568 Michel's father died, at which point he became, himself, the Lord of Montaigne. And three years later Michel de Montaigne abruptly retired from public life and went to live on his estate, with his wife and children, for a private life of seclusion and reflection. This is what he had inscribed upon the shelves in his library:

In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, his birthday, Michael de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure.

This retirement was rocked at times by outside events, not least bouts of plague, intermittent warfare, and even the threat of roaming bandits. In 1581 Montaigne had travelled to Italy in search of a cure for his gallstones, and there learned that he had been elected mayor of Bordeaux. He returned and fulfilled his duties admirably; they re-elected him. But Montaigne was not interested in public life and ardently desired to return to his estates. This he did, and even when offered an important position by King Henry IV, who had known Montaigne for a long time and admired his wisdom, he turned it down. Michel de Montaigne died in 1592 at the age of fifty nine.

Nothing remarkable about all that, you may rightly conclude. But none of this is what makes Montaigne important. Upon the commencement of his early retirement Montaigne did not only devote himself to reading. He also decided to write. What about? Well, Montaigne was not interested in composing history or poetry, and nor did he wish to write about philosophy or politics — at least, not didactically, because he did not want to prove anything true or false. Rather, he chose whatever happened to interest him — the education of children, why we wear clothes, sleep, smells, anger, thumbs, the concepts of moderation or virtue or glory — and simply discussed the subject as honestly and rationally as he could, exploring possible arguments for or against a given conclusion, digressing to relate curious anecdotes, occasionally offering cautious judgments, and revealing facts about his own life and the traits of his personality. Montaigne called these trials — because they were, he said, trials for his intellect — and he wrote 107 all-told, some very lengthy and some only two or three pages long, all of them filled with quotations from his favourite classical poets and writers, especially Plutarch. Montaigne also engraved several of these ancient aphorisms on the rafters in his library; you can still see them today.

What was the French word for trials? Essais — or, as it has been written in English, Essays; Michel de Montaigne invented the essay. These Essais have since become a pillar of literature and philosophy rolled into one, for there had never been anything quite like them before and they have never been matched in their fullness, frankness, insight, and range. What Shakespeare did for drama, Montaigne did for prose. But he did not intend any of this! As Montaigne explained in the introduction to his much-revised and edited essays:

Reader, here is an honest book. It warns you straight away that I only meant for it to be private, for my family, and never once considered your interest or my reputation. I do not have the strength for such a design. I wrote it for my relatives and my friends so that once I am gone (which may be soon) they may find in it again remnants of my personality and thoughts, and remember me in a more complete and life-like way. Had I been seeking public attention, I would have made myself look better and presented myself more carefully. But I want you to see me as I am, in a plain, natural, and ordinary way, free of pretense and artifice. I am the one depicted here. My faults and my very self are exposed for all to see, at least as much as public conventions will let me. Had I lived among those nations, which (they say) still live under the sweet liberty of nature’s primitive laws, I assure you I would easily have painted myself quite fully and quite naked. So, reader, here I am, the subject of my book, and I see no reason why you should spend your free time on so unimportant and pointless a topic. Farewell, then!

I shall let you judge for yourself whether they are unimportant and pointless. Here are some excerpts from Montaigne's solitary trials; I have indicated in italics the essay from which I have drawn the quote, and added my own emphasis in bold where it seemed appropriate. We begin with an observation that much captures his deep thoughtfulness, humility, and sense of humour:

When I play with my cat, who knows if she is not playing with me? ~ Apology for Raymond Sebond

Montaigne's essays are also filled with helpful, directly applicable wisdom:

He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fear. I only judge of myself by actual sensation, not by reasoning: to what end, since I am resolved to bring nothing to it but expectation and patience? Will you know how much I get by this? Observe those who do otherwise, and who rely upon so many diverse persuasions and counsels; how often the imagination presses upon them before any actual bodily pain. ~ On Experience

Here is one of his most important observations. If only more people felt this way...

I find I am much prouder of the victory I obtain over myself, when, in the very ardor of dispute, I make myself submit to my adversary’s force of reason, than I am pleased with the victory I obtain over him through his weakness. ~ On the Art of Conversation

On the trouble with liars, and the difficulty of finding the truth:

If, like the truth, falsehood had only one face, we should know better where we are, for we should then simply take the opposite of what a liar said to be the truth. But the opposite of truth has a hundred thousand shapes and a limitless field. ~ On Liars

Montaigne had much to say on how young people should be taught; his vision for education has aged incredibly well:

The tutor should make his pupil sift everything, and take nothing into his head on simple authority or trust. Let their opinions be put before him; he will choose between them if he can; if not, he will remain in doubt. Only fools are certain and immovable. For if he embraces the opinions of Xenophon and Plato by his own reasoning, they will no longer be theirs but his. Truth and reason are common to all men, and no more belong to the man that first uttered them than to him who has repeated them. It is no more a matter of Plato's opinion than of mine, when he and I understand things alike. ~ On the Education of Children

Again Montaigne urges admission of our own ignorance and incorrectness:

To change one's opinion and correct oneself, to give up a false opinion at the climax of a heated debate, is a rare, strong, and philosophical virtue. ~ On the Education of Children

Montaigne was not impressed by much, especially those who do not know what they are talking about. Although, as he also admits, bad people often tell the truth! Such was Montaigne; he looked at things from every perspective and rarely settled on a certain view.

Saying is a different thing from doing... A man whose morals are good may have false opinions, and a wicked man may preach truth, even though he believe it not himself. ‘Tis doubtless a fine harmony when doing and saying go together; and I will not deny but that saying, when the actions follow, is not of greater authority and efficacy, as Eudamidas said, hearing a philosopher talk of military affairs: “These things are finely said, but he who speaks them is not to be believed for his ears have never been used to the sound of the trumpet,”... I perceive, methinks, in the writings of the ancients, that he who speaks what he thinks, strikes much more home than he who only feigns. ~ On Anger

Indeed, Montaigne saw stupidity in flatly disbelieving even things which seem improbable, whether folk tales or ghost stories:

Reason has taught me that to condemn anything absolutely as false and impossible is to claim that our own brains have the privilege of knowing the bounds and limits of God's will. ~ On Measuring Truth and Error

And, writing about his dear friend Etienne de la Boetie, who had died several years previously, Montaigne discusses the nature of real friendship:

What we commonly call friends and friendships are usually no more than acquaintances and familiarities, contracted either by chance or for advantage, which have brought them together. In the friendship I speak of our minds have mixed and blended one into the other. If I were pressed to say why I love him, I feel that my only reply could be: 'Because it was he, because it was I.' ~ On Friendship

In response to those who said that the people of Central and South America were savages — remember, Europeans had first landed in the Americas only a few decades previously — Montaigne, as ever, shows himself an enlightened man:

I do not believe, from what I have been told about this people, that there is anything barbarous or savage about them, except that we all call barbarous anything that is contrary to our own habits. ~ On Cannibals

On the nature of victory and strength:

Valour is strength, not of leg or arm, but of the heart and soul. The man who yields no jot to his steadfastness for any threat of imminent death, who, as he yields up his soul, still gazes on the enemy with a firm and disdainful eye, is beaten not by us but by fortune; he is killed but he is not vanquished. The true victory lies in battle rather than in survival; the prize of valour in fighting, not in winning. ~ On Cannibals

Montaigne was a firm believer that how we do anything is how we do everything:

Every action reveals us. That same mind of Caesar's that is apparent in the ordering and direction of the battle of Pharsalia can also be seen in the ordering of his idle and amorous intrigues. ~ On Democritus and Heraclitus

And, throughout his essays, Montaigne refers to his own ignorance and other shortcomings, repeatedly explaining that they have not been written in search of knowledge, but only in order to better understand himself:

I make no doubt but that I often happen to speak of things that are much better and more truly handled by those who are masters of the trade. You have here purely an essay of my natural parts, and not of those acquired: and whoever shall catch me tripping in ignorance, will not in any sort get the better of me; for I should be very unwilling to become responsible to another for my writings, who am not so to myself, nor satisfied with them. Whoever goes in quest of knowledge, let him fish for it where it is to be found; there is nothing I so little profess. These are fancies of my own, by which I do not pretend to discover things but to lay open myself. ~ On Books

I suppose if one excerpt really summarises what Montaigne stood for it would be this. Above the entrance to the Temple of Apollo in Ancient Greece, which housed the Delphic Oracle, it was written: Know Thyself. That might also have been his personal motto:

‘Tis an absolute and, as it were, a divine perfection, for a man to know how loyally to enjoy his being. We seek other conditions, by reason we do not understand the use of our own; and go out of ourselves, because we know not how there to reside. ‘Tis to much purpose to go upon stilts, for, when upon stilts, we must yet walk with our legs; and when seated upon the most elevated throne in the world, we are but seated upon our bottom. ~ Of Experience

Montaigne, so open about his intention to write for nobody other than himself, and shamelessly disinterested in writing about anything else, has somehow captivated us for more than four centuries. What saved his essays from self-indulgence and narcissism? Perhaps Montaigne's natural doubt about all things — his personal motto was Que sçay-je? or What do I know? — including himself, is what has rendered them among the profoundest insights into human nature there has ever been; entertaining, edifying, challenging, amusing, moving, surprising, and abundant in wisdom.

You will often hear Montaigne described as a philosopher, but perhaps this does him — and philosophers — an injustice. In some sense he was a philosopher, insomuch as he embodied the spirit of doubt and skepticism which, whether in Socrates or in the scientific method, has been vital to all serious learning and wisdom, and which as explored by Montaigne was foundational for the Enlightenment. To me, however, Michel de Montaigne cannot truly be described as anything other than... Michel de Montaigne.

III - Painting

Et in Arcadia Ego

Nicolas Poussin (1630s)

What you see here is perhaps the very height of 17th century Neoclassicism in painting. This was a movement which, though contemporaneous with the Baroque, diverged from its drama and action in favour of a more peaceful, static, idyllic style of art. Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, both of them Frenchmen who moved to and worked in Rome, were its chief proponents. What we see here is, indeed, a highly classical scene: three shepherds and a shepherdess in Arcadia. This was (and is) a real place in Greece, which in ancient times was famed for its supreme natural beauty — the rugged mountains and fertile fields — and the simple, edenic life of its inhabitants. As such Arcadia became more than a real place: it was the literary and mythological embodiment of rustic paradise.

Such is the setting for Poussin's scene, then. But what are the shepherds looking at? A tomb, upon which are inscribed the words: Et in Arcadia Ego — "Even in Arcadia, I am." This is a memento mori, a reminder of death and the finite nature of mortality, in direct contrast with the idealised surroundings. Whether Poussin intended this to be sombre, or something closer to nostalgiac, or even a commentary on the idea that these shepherds, living in perfect peace and happiness, have no real notion of death, is open to debate.

But Poussin's style isn't only Classical (sometimes also called Neoclassical) because of his themes. Notice how the facial features and bodies of Poussin's figures mimic the poses and forms of Ancient Greek and Roman statues. That, combined with his preference for stillness over movement, line over colour (notice that the colours here are, though important and wonderfully balanced, fairly mellow and certainly not overwhelming) and reflection over drama (his lighting is incredibly soft and diffused, without strong shadows) are other crucial elements of this more formal, subdued, intellectual style. Poussin, though inspired by Raphael to pursue simplicity and harmony, was, unlike Raphael, interested in landscapes. He worked hard to make them beautiful and, if he could, emotionally evocative. The result of all this — of Poussin's Classical style — is a sort of calm, ordered, and even somewhat cerebral lyricism; his works are often, and I think rightly, described as poetic.

I have included here another painting on the same subject, made little more than a decade before Poussin's, by the Italian artist Guercino. This version is far more in keeping with the dominant Baroque style of the day, what with its intense lighting, darker colours, and much more dramatic composition, not to mention the presence of an actual skull on the tomb. You can see the difference between this sort of thing and Poussin's more restrained Classical style. As is often the case, such dramatic Baroque art is more immediately gripping. But, upon inspection, Poussin's more restrained, classicising version perhaps turns out be more fruitful. One can contemplate it longer, whether drinking in the bucolic beauty of his vision of Arcadia, or perhaps studying the faces of these simple and happy shepherds confronted by this mysterious inscription...

IV - Architecture

Kharraqan Towers

These towers were built in 1068 and 1093 in the mountain valleys of northwestern Iran. They are both mausoleums (or mausolea); that is to say, tombs, in this case for the Saljuq rulers who had recently swept down from Central Asia and overwhelmed the Abbasid Caliphate. Islamic architecture has a long and rich heritage of mausolea, unmatched by any other architectural tradition in the world — think of India's famous Taj Mahal, which was built as a mausoleum by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

That mighty tradition, culminating in the Taj Mahal, began with tomb-towers like these, the Kharraqan Towers. They are both more than forty feet (or thirteen meters) tall and have a striking octagonal superstructure made from bricks. Each of the eight facades, divided by monumental "engaged columns" acting as buttresses (engaged here meaning they are connected to the wall rather than standing separately), is overlaid with a decorative brickwork panel. Above these panels are bands of Kufic calligraphy — a typical feature of Islamic architecture — relating verses from the Quran, along with inscriptions which reveal the architects who built the towers: Muhammad ibn Makki al-Zanjani and Abu'l-Ma'ali ibn Makki al-Zanjani, who may have been father and son or perhaps brothers. The interior of the eastern, older tower was once decorated with extensive murals depicting scenes of heavenly repose alongside abstract patterns; little remains, though paintings of mosque lamps and peacocks sitting in pomegranate trees have survived. They also originally had double domes, but in both cases the outer domes have long since collapsed.

In choosing to share the Kharraqan Towers with you this week I have perhaps indulged myself somewhat, for I find there to be a wholly unique beauty in bricks. Perhaps it has something to do with their simplicity. Yes, the brick: rudimentary, humble, ancient, honest — noble. We have been building this way since the beginning of time, using the plainest of worldly materials to do so: earth, soil, sand, mud, or clay. A block of this substance — the substance of life, mind you; for it is from the soil that all life flows — shaped and baked, in the sun or a kiln, and combined with hundreds or thousands of other such blocks, each of them minutely different in shape, texture, and hue. This last detail is important, because unlike a wall of concrete or large blocks of stone, or of glass or some sort of plastic cladding, a wall of bricks — by virtue of the substance from which they are made, and because of their huge number — is a thing of almost infinite variety. We do not consciously notice this, no more than we notice how the canopy of a tree is similarly multitudinous, but the effect is powerful. Rather than a large, uniform, featureless surface we have something much more natural, and in accordance with the world around us — look at the sky or the earth, the forest or the rivers, the flowers or the rocks; they are defined by endless, subtle variation.

And though clay and mud be simple materials, they are also rich — rich in colour, and a colour which, like its texture, is immensely varied. Think of the warm and deep red of certain bricks, like rust or the rays of a setting sun or autumn leaves, and of the honeyed hue of other bricks, somehow golder than gold and more ancient than the desert. The interplay of light and shadow, too, between one brick and another, enriches this architectural tapestry yet further.

Bricks do not have the might of masonry, of limestone or granite, nor the massiveness of steel and the luster of glass or gold, nor the glory of marble or fineness of stucco. And yet, though there are things brick cannot do, certain aesthetic qualities to which it cannot aspire to, what it does do nothing else can. And so the beauty of the Kharraqan Towers, notwithstanding their ingenious octagonal form, lies in their masterful use of bricks. The decorative work in particular is simply glorious; notice that each of the eight facades, on both towers, has a different pattern — and the buttresses, too! A corncupia of ornamental delight; one can readily imagine the craftsmen taking great pleasure in designing and laying out these patterns.

But there is nothing fancy here, nothing that we might be tempted to call obnoxious or luxurious. Rather, arranged in delightful geometric patterns, these decorative panels are somehow alive with movement, flowing like a watercourse, as our eyes chase the channels of brickwork along their winding, interlocking paths. Such use of elaborate, abstract ornamentation is another prevalent feature of Islamic architecture. And taken together it is an impressive optical illusion which, from a distance, makes the two towers shimmer like a mirage. Muhammad ibn Makki al-Zanjani and Abu'l-Ma'ali ibn Makki al-Zanjani were inspired architects. Such inventiveness, such variation, such a wealth of colour, texture, pattern, and detail played out across the eight panels with mathematical precision which feel like a sort of cosmography in their constant changefulness, as accentuated by the structure of the building itself... and all with the humble and lowly brick!

V - Rhetoric


This might just be the most controversial and most annoying rhetorical device of all — and yet one of the most effective. It does have a more technical definition, but enallage almost always, and in its simplest form, refers to an intentional grammatical mistake. This works for a very simple reason: it stands out. Rules, when followed, by their very nature, accustom us to regularity of form. And so, when it comes to writing, we are therefore required to stand out in a way that accords with those rules — combining words in particularly interesting or beautiful ways, perhaps using them with maximum clarity to let the idea or thought itself stand out. But... what if we just broke the rules? We have been conditioned in such a way that whenever grammatical rules are broken it is like nails on a blackboard; we are almost forced to notice. So why not do that on purpose?

Such was obviously Steve Jobs' thinking when he came up with Apple's slogan for a now famous advertising campaign in the late 1990s.

This is grammatically incorrect. It "should" be differently rather than different: the former is an adverb, thus applying to and according with think, whereas the latter is an adjective, which should be used to in accordance with a noun rather than a verb. Of course, Apple's campaign is now the stuff of legend and perhaps, by using enallage, they were practicing what they preached.

Other examples from the world of advertising — as I have written before, rhetoric is everywhere — include "Simples", as spoken by the Russian meerkat and mascot of Compare the Market, the famous "Got Milk?", and Subway's "Eat Fresh." There are also plenty of classical and literary examples of enallage, not least in Shakespeare, here from King Lear:

Bid them farewell, Cordelia, though unkind;
Thou losest here, a better where to find.

And not to forget the Thunderbirds, of course!

So, should you wish to think of a slogan or motto which stands out, enallage might be what you're looking for.

VI - Writing

Miller's Commandments

As with any such "advice", even from so eminent a source as the great American novelist Henry Miller (of Tropic of Cancer fame) we must remember that tastes and preferences always differ, and that there really is nothing — or, at least, very little — on which anybody agrees regarding what makes writing good or bad, and how to actually do it. As I have said before, if we all shared the same opinions and wrote in the same way then the world would be an altogether boring place. But here, in the belief that you shall find something of use — be that to apply yourself or react against — are Henry Miller's self-proclaimed 11 Commandments of Writing:

  1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2. Start no more new books.
  3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  5. When you can’t create you can work.
  6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
  9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

To these he added what was perhaps a much more revealing set of subsidiary notes; reminders for himself of what to do each day, should he ever forget (as we all do!) what does and does not work for him:


If groggy, type notes and allocate, as stimulus.
If in fine fettle, write.
Work of section in hand, following plan of section scrupulously. No intrusions, no diversions. Write to finish one section at a time, for good and all.
See friends. Read in cafés.
Explore unfamiliar sections — on foot if wet, on bicycle if dry.
Write, if in mood, but only on Minor program.
Paint if empty or tired.
Make Notes. Make Charts, Plans. Make corrections of MS.
Note: Allow sufficient time during daylight to make an occasional visit to museums or an occasional sketch or an occasional bike ride. Sketch in cafés and trains and streets. Cut the movies! Library for references once a week.

VII - The Seventh Plinth

Last week I asked you:

Imagine that there is a food shortage on an island and that the price of corn is very high. A merchant arrives from the mainland with a large stock of corn. He is aware that many more cargo ships are on their way and will arrive very soon. Should he tell the islanders this fact? Or should he say nothing and sell his stock at the highest price he can?

This question was taken from a treatise by the Roman writer and statesman Cicero called On Duties. Your responses are in the following section; for now I thought it might be of interest to share Cicero's own answer to this "ethical test case", as he called it. What I have shared here is only a truncated version of Cicero's full treatment — which, typically of him, is very long; Montaigne was highly critical of Cicero for this reason! You can read the full thing online, or better yet procure a copy of Cicero's work. In any case, here's what he had to say:

In deciding cases of this kind Diogenes of Babylonia, a great and highly esteemed Stoic, consistently holds one view; his pupil Antipater, a most profound scholar, holds another. According to Antipater all the facts should be disclosed, that the buyer may not be uninformed of any detail that the seller knows; according to Diogenes the seller should declare any defects in his wares, in so far as such a course is prescribed by the common law of the land; but for the rest, since he has goods to sell, he may try to sell them to the best possible advantage, provided he is guilty of no misrepresentation.
In this whole discussion, you see, no one says "However wrong morally this or that may be, still, since it is expedient, I will do it"; but the one side asserts that a given act is expedient, without being morally wrong, while the other insists that the act should not be done, because it is morally wrong.
I think, then, that it was the duty of that grain dealer not to keep back the facts from the Rhodians. The fact is that merely holding one's peace about a thing does not constitute concealment, but concealment consists in trying for your own profit to keep others from finding out something that you know, when it is for their interest to know it. And who fails to discern what manner of concealment that is and what sort of person would be guilty of it? At all events he would be no candid or sincere or straightforward or upright or honest man, but rather one who is shifty, sly, artful, shrewd, underhand, cunning, one grown old in fraud and subtlety. Is it not inexpedient to subject oneself to all these terms of reproach and many more besides?
But for all cases we have one rule, with which I desire you to be perfectly familiar: that which seems expedient must not be morally wrong; or, if it is morally wrong, it must not seem expedient. What follows? Work out your own ideas and sift your thoughts so as to see what conception and idea of a good man they contain. Pray, tell me, does it coincide with the character of your good man to lie for his own profit, to slander, to overreach, to deceive? Nay, verily; anything but that!
Is there, then, any object of such value or any advantage so worth the winning that, to gain it, one should sacrifice the name of a "good man" and the lustre of his reputation? What is there that your so-called expediency can bring to you that will compensate for what it can take away, if it steals from you the name of a "good man" and causes you to lose your sense of honour and justice? For what difference does it make whether a man is actually transformed into a beast or whether, keeping the outward appearance of a man, he has the savage nature of a beast within

Question of the Week

And now, having seen what Cicero said, it's time for your answers...

Maarten H

This is a question of business ethics, and I want to follow business ethicist Joseph Heath on this topic. He argues business ethics should be seen as an adversarial ethic. An adversarial ethic allows specific immoral behaviour in specific contexts. In the context of law, lawyers are allowed to lie and should not disclose incriminating information about their clients. In the context of business, merchants are allowed to act selfishly and purely profit-driven. Is that the case in this situation as well? No!
Selfish and profit-driven behaviour is acceptable in business because it leads to a socially desirable outcome. The 'invisible hand' leads the efficient distribution of goods and resources - food and money. This only holds true under conditions of 'perfect competition'. These circumstances include a large number of buyers and sellers and 'perfect information' (all consumers and producers know all prices of products).
These conditions are not met, at all. And that is why I conclude that the profit-driven, selfish behaviour of selling at a maximum price is not acceptable. In this example, the context of the free market does not exist, and everyday morality should guide the merchant's actions. In that case, the merchant should help the starving people and sell the stock at no more than cost-price.
I hope this brings some insight and I encourage everyone to study business ethics as it is such an important part of modern political debate.

Tom W

Anyway, having given you a suggestion I should probably contribute myself: what should the merchant do? My view is that this is a political question. Are the islanders part of the same state as the mainlanders? Do they and the mainlanders think of themselves as the same people (perhaps a better way of putting the question where the ancient world is concerned)? If so, it seems to me the merchant should take pains to avoid taking advantage of his cutomers, over and above his short-term interest. Is that obligation a matter of duty or interest? Who can say? It depends on how likely he is to return to the island on another trip, and to what extent the people on the island can cause trouble for him back on the mainland. But the obligation (of either duty ir interest) exists if he's selling to fellow [X]s. If that sense of identity does not exist, I think the merchant can be considered free to exercise his judgement as to what is in his interest. Who knows, his country might be at war with them next year; he can hardly cash in his goodwill then!

Sean E

The merchant should sell the corn at a fair (10% margin) price and also communicate the upcoming arrival of several ships with more corn and supplies. While this may cost the merchant short term higher profit; longer term the trust built with the islanders will be repaid in full.

Jane L

If the merchant is greedy and the short term advantage is what matters to him (and it would have been a him) he will sell his corn at the highest price he can and make a big profit. Then sail away smirking at his luck in getting there first.
If, however, he gives thought to the long term consequences, he will call a meeting of those in charge of the island, tell them that he knows there are more ships on the way, but he prepared to sell the grain at the usual price.
He will then explain that he is not a profiteer but wishes to trade justly and only make modest profit.
He will add that the ships which follow him, although stocked with much grain, are owned by those where big profits are paramount. He, however, has the greater good of the islanders as his prime motive and would therefore like to make a trade agreement with the islanders whereby he is guaranteed to be the first ship in the harbour to fill the grain stores in the future.
He explains that he must make a profit to ensure that he can continue to maintain his ship and buy from the farmers but will always charge a fair price.
Assuming that he wisely follows the second path (and is truthful) he has the glow of virtuous behaviour knowing that he hasn’t screwed the islanders and the security of knowing that his future business is assured.

Rik J

My underlining assumption is the merchant is shrewd and looking to maximize their profit over time. Plans to return one day and continue doing business.
Therefore, the wisest course in my mind is to announce the incoming shipments and then set the bar for the price. Other merchants will need to match price as the famine recedes.
This is done so that reputation is established as the merchant will be seen as the bearer of good news and of honesty so that all further shipments, regardless of commodity will benefit from this goodwill. This will forever be a welcome port, and profits will be steady.

Famze Z

A simplistic answer possibly, however from my experience I have come to believe in the power of honesty in business for personal reasons. My own quality of life is impacted by my decisions in my professional life. My relationships with my spouse, family, community and business are enhanced and richer when I have a clear conscience. When my industry has forced shady dealing, usually from a superior, these relationships all suffer accordingly. Let me first describe what I think is the difference between right and advantageous. Right has to do with what is universally considered to be moral. There's a lot of arguments there, but let me stay in track. And advantageous has to do with what is yields the highest payoff. From the situation described. I would say from first look, it is obviously advantageous for the trader to sell his goods at the highest possible price so as to gain maximum payoff. However, in terms of whether it is right or not, because morality is determined by some universal public opinion, and the public would not like the fact that they could have paid less, so, in the court of public opinion, it would be deemed morally wrong. However, let me also prove to you that it could be right too. It would be correct to say that the place in the scenerio runs a capitalist society, a market system where prices are determined by the invisible hand if demand and supply. In a capitalist system, the actors are expected to act for their own good, in fact, it could be said that they are required to be selfish because it is in their collective selfishness that the equilibrium is attained. Hence, it could be said that working for the good of the system, the trader did what was advantageous for him, and in doing so, in a capitalist society, he did what was right. All in all, my point would be right is dependent on who you ask.

And for this week's question, taking our cue from Michel de Montaigne's love of his library:

What is your favourite book — and why? It could be fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose.

Email me your answers and I'll share them in next week's newsletter.

Writing online has changed my life; perhaps it can change yours, too. What follows is a brief message from Write of Passage – for the past year they have been sponsoring me as a Writer-in-Residence so I can focus on my work and share it with as many people as possible.

You’ve spent years honing a unique perspective, whether you realize it or not. Your experience is valuable. Ideas that feel obvious to you would amaze others if you started writing online. Maybe you have…

  • Years of hard-won wisdom at work, but it’s trapped in your head.
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And that's all

As we began must we also end, with Shelley:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory!

So concludes Prometheus Unbound, Shelley's take on the Greek myth of Prometheus and perhaps his masterpiece. Here we find all that he stood for and lived by: human freedom, even in the face of impossible odds, proclaimed and perservering against whatever Fate places in its path, however Powerful its adversary. A noble sentiment, and one which applies not only in the context of mythology; it is an invocation to remember every day what we truly are, and not to hide from or deny that immense power of intellect and spirit which resides in each and every one of us, if only we are willing to see it.


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